Parental alienation is a term often used by clients who are experiencing difficulties in the time and communication they are having with their children. Everyone appreciates that the breakdown of the family unit is a painful time, not least for children. They inevitably go through a whole range of emotions which may initially include hostility towards the parent they are no longer living with. This shouldn’t be confused with parental alienation.
An allegation of parental alienation is very serious. The Family Court view it as a form of child abuse and although it is a commonly used term, even amongst professionals in the field of family law, there isn’t a great understanding of what it involves and how it manifests itself. So, what does it mean?
- Parental alienation – this is the process, defined as a set of strategies one parent uses to turn the child against the other parent. It is basically psychological manipulation by saying and doing things, both consciously and unconsciously, that lead the child to look unfavourably on one parent.
Behaviours can include: a parent constantly badmouthing or belittling the other; limiting contact with the other parent; forbidding discussion about the other parent; and creating the impression that the other parent dislikes or does not love the child.
- Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) – this is the resulting response in the child who rejects or resists spending time with one parent post-separation. It is worth noting that not every child exposed to alienation will develop PAS, some children are more resilient to any manipulation and will not reject the other parent. However, for those children who are more vulnerable to parental alienation it often results in long-term or even lifelong estrangement from a parent and other family members which has been shown to result in increased lifetime risks of both mental and physical illness.
Put very simply, parental alienation is when one parent attempts to exclude the other from the life of their child. Ironically, when it happens, it inevitably results in the rejected parent believing they have no option but to take court action to force a change. But that can make the parental alienation worse.
It can be difficult for the Family Court to ascertain whether parental alienation is taking place. That’s particularly so in cases where the resident parent is unconsciously manipulating the child to reject the other parent and the child is adamant that they want nothing to do with them. There will also be occasions when allegations of parental alienation are completely unfounded but, of course, they cannot be disregarded and a prompt, well considered investigation by the court needs to take place.
The Family Court’s priority will always be the safeguarding of the child and, once the court is content that there are no welfare issues arising from contact, the next priority is to ensure that children are able to maintain relationships with both parents. However, this is easier said than done if a child is being alienated and the court process has its limitations.
In reality, it may be in the child’s interests for the authority of the Family Court to be used to work towards restoring the relationship with the alienated parent but, even if parental alienation is established, the court are aware of how difficult rectifying the damage done can be. There is also little or no training on the subject and cases of true parental alienation are still being treated as child arrangement disputes by professionals. In practice they go well beyond such disputes and are complex matters requiring expertise and experience which just isn’t available at present when an application of this nature is made.
At present, parental alienation seems to be recognised but not yet fully addressed, procedurally or remedially (see this article ). This is concerning given that, for those cases where parental alienation truly exists, the effect on the child, if left unaddressed, could be lifelong. Alienating a child from a parent risks serious emotional harm and future mental ill health in adulthood. Given these high stakes and the great strides being made in general in the field of mental health, it highlights the need to tackle a recognised cause of potential mental health illness emanating from abusive family relationships head on.
The Cafcass has developed the Child Impact Assessment Framework (CIAF). It provides guides and tools that Family Court Advisers can use to help them assess the impact of different case factors including parental alienation on the children they work with.
At Sharp Family Law we work with Family & Couple Therapists to help clients create and execute effective parenting arrangements. For further information on Parenting Alienation please contact us. Below are resources on Parental Alienation:
- Divorce Poison Updated Edition: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing by Richard Warshak
- Breaking the Ties that Bind: Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome by Amy J.L. Baker
- Divorce Casualties, Understanding Parent Alienation second edition by Douglas Darnell