What is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation is when a child rejects their parent, apparently for no reason, and in most cases occurs after or during a relationship break-down.

In a recent article in the Daily Telegraph, Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive of the Children & Family Court Advisory & Support Service (CAFCASS) warned against the dangers of parental alienation. Mr. Douglas went on to say that “divorced parents who brainwash their children against ex-partners, are guilty of abuse”.

Parental alienation is, unfortunately, quite a common occurrence after a separation. It is only comparatively recently that the term has gained momentum in the United Kingdom, unlike in North America, where the Courts are well acquainted with the term. Brazil & Mexico have even recognised parental alienation as a criminal offence.

Why does parental alienation occur?

When a parent tries to “alienate” a child from his or her other parent, the ultimate goal may be for the child to reject their other parent. A parent trying to alienate a child in this way will often display behaviour such as:

  • Making inappropriate comments about the other parent.
  • Reducing/stopping contact for no reason with the other parent and their family.
  • Making a child pick sides between parents.
  • Making false allegations of abuse.
  • Asking unnecessary questions about the other parent.
  • Not involving the other parent in health/school issues.
  • Making the child feel guilty about wanting to have contact with the other parent.

Analysing the impact that this has upon a child, Dr. Amy Baker, psychologist and author of ‘Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties that Bind’, states “severe parental alienation can poison a child’s mind towards a previously much loved parent in an alarmingly short period of time”.

The effect of parental alienation on children can be alarming. “Whilst in the short term children who reject their parent may appear to function reasonably well in their day to day lives, the medium and long term effects can be significant and distressing”. (Waldrone & Joanis, 1996).

“Depression, substance abuse, damage, low self esteem and enduring relationship issues with lack of trust, divorce and alienation from their own children have been found in adults who experience parental alienation as a child” (Baker, 2005, 2007).

What can a parent do to prevent/stop parental alienation?

  • Try to speak positively about the other parent and the child’s forthcoming contact with them.
  • Continue to promote contact between the child and the family of the other parent.
  • Explain the importance of a child having contact with both parents.
  • Avoid demanding every detail of contact with the other parent.
  • Seek counselling/mediation to help deal with any hostile feelings towards the other parent, so that they do not affect the child’s behaviour towards that other parent.

What can you do if you are the alienated parent?

If false or serious allegations are made against a parent, it is essential that legal advice is sought as soon as possible, from a specialist family law advisor. If matters become contested in such cases, the Court will often hear evidence from both parties and, on the balance of probabilities, decide if there is any truth behind those allegations.

Where false allegations have been made, and no findings have been made against a parent, the Courts will expect contact with them to be reinstated. In cases of parental alienation, the alienating parent may allege that the child does not wish to see the other parent.

Where it is recognised that a child has been manipulated, the Court will place that child’s welfare above their wishes and feelings. In extreme cases of parental alienation, Judges can order that a child lives with the alienated parent if they feel that the parental alienation has been exceptionally harmful.

Promoting contact arrangements

It is important that contact with the non-resident parent is kept and consistently promoted. This ideally should be done as amicably as possible. Where this is not possible, a mutual friend or family member may be able to assist in facilitating contact arrangements.

However, if this is not possible, voluntary Mediation or as a last resort, a Child Arrangements Order can be applied for.

On 1st March 2016, a report by One Plus One titled ‘Child outcomes after parental separation: Variations by contact and Court involvement’ found that “children of separated parents showed the worst outcomes. However, among children of separated parents, the results suggest that more contact with the non-resident parent was associated with better outcomes for children at age 11”.

If you feel that your child is being subjected to parental alienation, it is advisable to seek independent legal advice as soon as possible. Seeking legal advice in this way may result in parental alienation being identified early on, limiting any damage that may occur between a child and their parent.