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Parental Alienation Awareness Day was created to raise global awareness of this issue. There is no clear data as to the extent or scale of this problem, but those of us who work in family law are aware of it and recognise the impact is can have on children, parents and society.
Cases in which parental alienation features are often complex and need a nuanced and holistic approach because they require a finely balanced assessment and decision-making as the impact of any decision can be life-changing for the child and the parents.
There is no definition of parental alienation but it can be described as a behaviour or psychological manipulation by a parent, or a trusted adult, whether conscious or unconscious, which creates alienation in the relationship between a child and the alienated parent.
Parental alienation can result in a child being resistant or hostile towards one parent, without apparent justification. It is important to remember however, that there are multiple reasons as to why a child might be resistant to contact and a thorough investigation is therefore needed in each case to understand what underpins any resistance.
Reasons why a child maybe resistant to contact can include:
Research shows that whilst many children can manage the divorce or separation of their parents relatively well, some children will suffer badly because of high conflict and animosity of their parents leading to problems with contact arrangements, which can manifest in some of the above issues.
In this blog I am only going to look at the issue of parental alienation, but I will revisit the other issues that can arise for children when their parents divorce/separate in future blog posts.
Both men and woman can display alienating behaviours which can include, but are not limited to the following:
While alienation can be caused by one parent, it is often a combination of child and adult behaviours and attitudes, with both parents playing a role, that lead to the child rejecting or resisting spending time with the alienated parent. Therefore, it is not necessary for each of the above behaviours to be present to cause parental alienation.
The types of alienating behaviours summarised above can present themselves on a spectrum and the impact they have varies depending on the child (factors such as a child’s resilience and vulnerability impacting their responses to these types of behaviour).
Where parental alienation is present it can have a profound impact on the child. Alienation is a form of emotional abuse and can negatively impact a child’s development and likely affect their future meaningful and positive relationships.
A child maybe experiencing parental alienation if some or all of the below symptoms are present:
It can be extremely difficult for a child to reconnect with a parent if alienation has occurred. In certain cases, the symptoms can be internal and cultivate into a more serious mental condition, such as depression or anxiety, and lead to long-term emotional harm as a direct result of the manipulation. In these cases, a child may grow up without having a relationship with the alienated parent.
When dealing with parental alienation the courts must be careful in deciphering where the resistance is coming from before making a decision because, as set out above, there can be many reasons that can cause a child to be resistant to contact.
A further difficulty for judges is evaluating the wishes and feelings of a child where parental alienation is present, and judges need to assess what weight to give to the view of the child in these cases. Case law makes clear however that when parental alienation is present, a child’s views need to be heard but are not determinative.
The case of M v M (Child Access),  2 All E.R. 81 established a ‘duty’ amongst parents to ‘support the other’. In this case it was found that alienation removes the child’s right to have or to not have contact with a parent and conflicts with a parent’s duty to support the other parent.
The case of RH (Parental Alienation),  EWHC 2723 (Fam) (03 October 2019) involved a child who had, up until the year before the case, been having regular and good contact with the father and the father’s family. After an inappropriate message was sent from the father to the mother the child then started acting differently towards the father. The only explanation was that the mother told the child of the father’s email which, in turn, manipulated the child to the point that the child saw his father as a ‘pain and complication’ in his life. By sharing the email with the child, the mother had ruined ‘the child’s ability to form any and all sorts of relationships with the father and created an unhealthy environment in which the child’s views were twisted’. The judge in this case formed the view that the mother had in fact alienated the child and she did not support the father (see the case of M v M (Child Access)  above). The reality was that if the child was to continue living with the mother he would not have a meaningful relationship with the father. The court took a bold step and decided that the child should move from the mother’s care to the alienated father’s care as ‘any trauma or stress’ of the move would likely be of ‘short duration’.
Where a child is being alienated, it may be in their interests for the court to make orders that will help restore the relationship with the alienated parent, although the court is aware of how difficult this can be.
The court, in making a decision, must ensure that both the child and adults are kept safe and ensure that the child is able to maintain relationships with both parents where this is safe and, in the child’s, best interests.
In certain cases, where parental alienation has been present, particularly over a protracted period, it can make it hard to force contact upon a child where the alienation is deep-rooted. Where this is the case the court is mindful of making orders that cannot be enforced and so early intervention is absolutely key.
Going forward there is a need for a greater understanding of the extent and impact of parental alienation and for the development of court directed therapy interventions as the most serious cases are unlikely to be resolved through counselling alone.
Kate Elliott is Head of Family Law Partners’ Horsham office, where the team advises clients in Horsham, Billingshurst, Godalming, Cranleigh, Guildford, Crawley and surrounding areas.
If you would like to discuss any of the issues arising from this blog please contact us for a confidential consultation.