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:
- Parental estrangement – when a child’s rejection of a parent is for a good reason, for example, abusive behaviour (towards the child, parent or another family member), neglect or abandonment.
- Transitory adjustment problem – many children can experience transitory problems which may take the form of excessive worrying, sadness, anger, oppositional behaviour, impaired social relationship and compromised school performance.
- Affinity/alignment – is where a child does not hold negative views about a parent but prefers spending time with one of their parents over time with the other.
- Attachment – age or gender appropriate reactions for resisting time with a parent for attachment reasons, including separation anxiety.
- Loyalty conflict – this can occur when a child tries to maintain a positive relationship with both parents, even though there is high conflict between them. Often, the higher the conflict the more intense the feelings of loyalty conflict a child experiences, i.e. missing parent A when in parent B’s care – and vice versa.
- Harmful conflict – when parents actively disagree and have difficulty putting their child’s needs first it can become harmful for the child.
- Parental alienation – considered in this blog.
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.
Typical behaviours of an alienating parent
Both men and woman can display alienating behaviours which can include, but are not limited to the following:
- Intermittent, intentional words or actions aimed at undermining the child’s relationship with the other parent;
- Unfounded concerns for the child when in the other parents care;
- Degrading comments about the other parent;
- Badmouthing or belittling the other parent;
- Asking intrusive questions of the child about the other parent or their time in their care;
- Not giving a child the ability to see the other parent – limiting contact;
- Forbidding discussion about the other parent;
- Creating the impression that the other parent does not like/love the child;
- Causing fear to a child – allegations of abuse/unfounded concerns;
- Exaggerating stories to the children;
- Involving the child in adult matters;
- Deliberate actions to hurt the other parent and destroy their relationship with the child, rarely showing empathy, self-control or insight and taking on an obsessive quality.
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).
Parental alienation – issues and the impact on children
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:
- Lack of empathy;
- Hatred and/or animosity towards a parent;
- Being distant towards a parent;
- The child idealising the alienating parent and degrading the other;
- Automatically taking the side of the alienating parent and jumping to conclusions in respect of the other parent;
- High degree of rudeness and disrespect towards the alienated parent;
- Repeating words used by the alienating parent;
- Perhaps even holding strong views of the alienated parent of their own and not just those of the alienating parent;
- Feeling that the alienated parent is dangerous or unworthy;
- Absurd rationalisations for the deprecation of the alienated parent; and
- Unjustified opinions of the child in relation to the circumstances.
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.
The court’s approach
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 to 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.
What to do if you believe a child is suffering from parental alienation
- Seek specialist legal advice as soon as you believe this is happening because parental alienation requires fast intervention before long-term harm is done;
- The status quo of the living arrangement can impact the decisions made by court which is a further reason why delay can be harmful;
- Identify the problem early and work to ensure that your own behaviour does not compound the problem;
- Explore all process options to try to rebuild relationships without court intervention, if possible;
- Invite the alienating parent to enter family therapy together with the child; and
- Get expert help from social workers or other child care professionals and ask them to recommend methods that would help.
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.