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WHAT IS PARENTAL ALIENATION?

View profile for Katie Buswell
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Parental alienation occurs where one parent (whether deliberately or otherwise) turns a child(ren) against the other parent. 

Children’s reactions and feelings to separating parents are hugely influenced by the adult behaviour to which they are exposed and some parents, following separation, are just incapable of containing their hostility towards the other parent. 

It should be said from the outset that there can be other reasons why a child may say that they do not want to spend time with the other parent:-

  1. Justified rejection: in circumstances where a child is fearful after being harmed by a parent, witnessing domestic abuse or other harmful parenting such as substance misuse.
  2. Post separation rejection: a common temporary reaction to the changing family unit.
  3. Harmful conflict: if a child(ren) is being exposed to parental conflict and disagreement and withdraws from seeing one parent as a result. 

Parental alienation is regarded as a form of psychological abuse and its effects on a child can be utterly devastating.  The harm caused to children by alienating them from the other parent *“…is absolute and catastrophic for the psyche of the young child’s mind as they are coerced into alienating their once loved mother or father…”.  [*Richard Hogan, Psychotherapist].

The degree of parental alienation varies greatly of course, with some being low-level. It does as a general rule, stem from a parent being consumed by hurt or anger at the breakdown of the relationship and blind to the damage thwarting a child’s relationship with the other parent can cause.  Children are sadly all too frequently used in a parent’s own angry agenda; with some parents ultimate goal being the destruction of the other parent’s relationship with the child.

What are examples of parental alienation?

As said, this can vary hugely from:-

LOW LEVEL

  • Parent not being mindful of how they speak about the other parent to other adults when child is in earshot.
  • Deprecating comments to child about the other parent.
  • Failing to promote or encourage child’s contact if they appear reluctant to go.
  • Making a child feel guilty about seeing the other parent (“I’m sad.  I’m going to be all on my own”).
  • In some circumstances, a parent can feel concerned and overprotective of a child when they are in the other parent’s care. They may stop them seeing them as a result of their fears but these concerns are in fact not justified and are instead as a result of that parent’s own personal issues.

INCREASING LEVELS OF ALIENTATION

  • Actively discouraging child from contact with the other parent.
  • Withholding child from contact.
  • Deliberately talking negatively about the other parent and exposing the child to adult conversations.
  • Deliberately leaving text messages or correspondence (eg legal documents or disagreements) out where the children can access and read it.

EXTREME CASES

  • Coercing a child into making false allegations against the other parent such physical or sexual abuse claims.    

There are varying levels of parental alienation but if the ultimate outcome of it (whether over short or long term) is the destruction of a child’s relationship with the other parent, then the impact on the child(ren) can be lifelong and significant as they grow such as to their success at school, their development and their own future relationships. 

What to do if you expect parental alienation?

It is becoming more widely recognised and understood within the UK legal system.  There is a new specific guidance available to CAFCASS Officers (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) who are responsible to reporting to the Court on suspected parental alienation. 

If you suspect you are being alienated from your child’s life, time is important. It can be a lengthy process for CAFCASS Officers in identifying it and ascertaining a child’s true wishes and feelings.  To elicit true feelings can take time for them to build up a trusting relationship with the child and to observe their actions, not just what they are saying. 

In applications to the Court when there is low level parental alienation, or it is spotted early enough, educating both parents through parenting courses can help.  It can identify the patterns in their own behaviour and educate them on the true extent of the harm their behaviour could cause to their child. The Court will order the attendance of both parties on these courses. However, where a parent’s behaviour is more destructive and the child’s views are already entrenched as a result, the Courts are taking this form of abuse seriously. They can appoint CAFCASS Officers, a Social Worker or appoint a guardian to work with the child. A family therapist can be brought in to work with the child and parents (see earlier examples where a parent themselves do not realise the extent of what they are doing).  The Court can order a hearing called a Finding of Fact Hearing where decisions are made as to whether the Court accepts there has been parental alienation.  The Court’s aim is to restore a direct relationship between the child and the rejected parent as soon as possible.  As a last resort where parental alienation is accepted to be occurring by the Court and one parent is failing to change their behaviour, the Court will look to order a switch of residence of the child from the one parent to the other. 

If you suspect parental alienation is occurring or you require assistance in relation to any other matrimonial legal issues, please feel free to contact a member of our Family Law Department on (01242) 574244 and we will be happy to meet with you and discuss your situation. 

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