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Parental alienation

by Teelan & Silwal

2 December 2020

One parent turning the children against the other

Cases of intractable contact disputes – a serious and lengthy disagreement, where there is either an unjustifiable denial of contact, usually by the resident parent (the person with whom the child lives), or where no contact is taking place because the child refuses or resists contact – can often involve parental alienation.

Parental alienation is now recognised as a mental health issue by the World Health Organisation, which talks about a child’s “unjustified rejection” of a parent (or care-giver) and how serious cases can be considered emotional abuse.

There is currently no clear definition of parental alienation as we are yet to understand its full extent, but Cafcass recognises it as, “when a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent”. Parental alienation is also under the scrutiny of The Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-2021, which is currently making its way through Parliament, acknowledging the growing problem.

Parental alienation is not always a conscious action and can be purely down to the inability of couples to separate the wellbeing of the child from the conflict between themselves. Obviously, the best thing for the child (unless there is actual risk of harm) is to continue a good relationship with both parents. A child refusing to see their father who has left the family home, for example, should still be expected to spend time with their father, as a prolonged break will just make things worse, particularly if the mother is demonstrating alienating behaviour.

It is natural that a child may feel rejected or conflicted, of course, but allowing them to dictate the time they spend with a parent, when they may be confused about the matter, is not always in their best interests. Parents should take children’s feelings into account, particularly if they are older, however, the parents must ensure that the children’s needs – which includes a strong relationship with both parents – are met.

An alienated child will often form an “anxious attachment” to the alienating parent in order to satisfy their need for security and will do what they can in order to keep that parent happy, further weakening their link to the other parent.

Although parental alienation can be exhibited by one parent, it is often a combination of child and adult behaviours, with both parents playing a role (two-way implacable hostility), leading to the child rejecting one or other parent; hence it is complex. A child exhibiting negativity towards the alienated parent may affect that parent’s behaviour, thereby confirming the child’s fears or thoughts. Proving (or disproving) alienation, of course, is half the battle, and a matter that needs to be considered by a suitably qualified psychologist or psychiatrist.

Examples of behaviours that lead to alienation are:

  • Constantly belittling or badmouthing the other parent;
  • Devaluing the other parent’s role;
  • Limiting contact;
  • Refusing to talk about the other parent;
  • Saying things to make child think the other parent does not like or love them (“s/he left us”);
  • Leading the child to believe the other parent is dangerous or untrustworthy;
  • Fostering the child’s negative feelings about a parent who has left rather than promoting the relationship.

Reasons for parental alienation can range from what can be described as the feeling of hatred of a former partner to actually believing that separating the child from the other parent is what is in the child’s best interests: the parent may believe that the child is better off not having a relationship with the other parent because the other parent treated them so badly. It can be difficult for parents to distinguish between their ex-partner’s behaviour towards them and that towards the child. The important thing in these cases is early intervention.

Cross-allegations of domestic abuse and parental alienation are very common: one parent wants to protect the child from the other for valid reasons and does so by stopping contact, thus leaving themselves open to an allegation of alienation. On the other hand, a false accusation of abuse could be used to prevent a child seeing the other parent out of spite for the other parent, or desperation on the part of the alienating parent. The unfortunate consequence is a gap in contact while the Court works out what is going on, leaving the alienating parent free to manipulate further. This kind of manipulation can in itself be emotional abuse.

Sometimes an abuser may allege parental alienation to gloss over the fact of their abuse towards a child, and Cafcass (and indeed the Court) has to weigh up whether it is serious and/or likely enough to warrant further damaging the parent-child relationship by curtailing it, whilst taking into account the particular child involved and their particular vulnerabilities and resilience. It is for this reason that early intervention and fact finding is of paramount importance.

Short and long term effects on the child

Short term:
  • Increase in separation anxiety and reluctance to attend contact in younger children;
  • Insecurity leading to attachment issues;
  • Behavioural problems;
  • Problems at school affecting educational progress and social development;
  • Loss of attachment to alienated parent and wider family.
Long term:
  • Psychosocial problems;
  • Depression and anxiety;
  • Low self-esteem/self-hate;
  • Lack of trust and abandonment issues;
  • Feelings of guilt and anger;
  • Inability to form or sustain healthy relationships;
  • Alcohol and substance abuse, addictions;
  • Crime.

There is a lot of research into the psychological impact and judges have to put their trust in Cafcass and any other experts involved when deciding on the best outcome for the child: “contact should not be stopped unless it is the last resort of the judge” and until “the judge has grappled with all the alternatives that were open to him” (Re P (Children) [2008] EWCA Civ 1431).

Options available to the court:
  • Enforcement of contact orders;
  • Supervised contact and monitoring;
  • Professional support;
  • Therapeutic support; and, ultimately, if all else fails,
  • Transfer of residence.

The Court seems to have 2 main approaches to alienation cases: either to try to make the children spend time with the non-resident parent (whether direct or indirect) or to use therapeutic intervention to address the issue with all parties, but, in extreme cases, sometimes there really is just nothing that can be done if intervention is left too late (which it can be for many reasons, including the length of the Court process).

Please seek urgent legal advice if you believe you are being falsely accused of parental alienation or feel that your former partner is alienating you from your children: this is a very serious situation that requires speedy and careful management.

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