An explainer on Parental Alienation

Posted on 15 June 2021

Following divorce, some parents who do not have the relationship they had hoped for with their child can believe that the child has been alienated against them. It may be that the child is simply reluctant to see a parent due to adjusting to a new family life, however there are circumstances where something more problematic is taking place.

What is Parental alienation?

Parental alienation is the term used to describe the impact of when one parent causes a child to reject and avoid spending time with, and perhaps even fear, the other parent. Practically, it is when the child aligns with one parent and without any rational reason refuses contact with the target parent. The child's hostility is not based on real experience but may be based on misperceptions, fictitious scenarios, and distorted thinking. Therefore parental alienation is distinct from any form of justified estrangement (for example on the grounds of domestic abuse).

Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) have published guidance and analytical tools setting out typical behaviours of children who are subject to parental alienation and suggests that typical behaviour exhibited by a child "who has experienced alienating behaviour" includes the following examples:-

"

  1. The child’s opinion of a parent is unjustifiably one sided, all good or all bad; idealises one parent and devalues the other.
  2. Vilification of rejected parent; can amount to a campaign against them.
  3. Trivial, false, weak and/or irrational reasons to justify dislike or hatred.
  4. Reactions and perceptions are unjustified or disproportionate to parent’s behaviours.
  5. Talks openly and without prompting about the rejected parent’s perceived shortcomings.
  6. Revises history to eliminate or diminish the positive memories of the previously beneficial experiences with the rejected parent. May report events that they could not possibly remember.
  7. Extends dislike / hatred to extended family of rejected parent (rejection by association).
  8. No guilt or ambivalence regarding their attitudes towards the rejected parent.
  9. Speech about rejected parent appears scripted, it has an artificial quality; no conviction; uses adult language; has a rehearsed quality.
  10. Claims to be fearful but is aggressive, confrontational, even belligerent."

What is the effect of Parental alienation?

Parental alienation can have a detrimental impact on the child's emotional and behavioural development and can have long lasting effects. The child may suffer from huge psychological problems such as having poor conflict resolution with peers and becoming aggressive or extremely anxious.

As Parker J summarised in Re H [2014] EWCA Civ 733 – at 40 -

"I regard parental manipulation of children, of which I distressingly see an enormous amount, as exceptionally harmful. It distorts the relationship of the child not only with the parent but with the outside world.

How can it be addressed?

Parental alienation can take a long time to resolve and the best solution may often depend on factors such as the capacity of the alienating parent to change.

Case law suggests that historically the courts have frequently acted very slowly, such that the parent without care of the child gives up due to lack of resources, or the situation becomes so ingrained that there is little that can be done. However more recently, the Court of Appeal has provided some helpful guidance.

In Re S (Parental alienation Cult) [2020] EWCA Civ 568 the Court of Appeal set out the suggested approach of the Court at 10 and 13, stating –

The court's first inclination will be to reason with parents and seek to persuade them to take the right course for their child's sake, and it will only make orders when it is better than not to do so…Inaction will probably reinforce the position of the stronger party at the expense of the weaker party and the bar will be raised for the next attempt at intervention.  Above all, the obligation on the court is to keep the child's medium to long term welfare at the forefront of its mind…. In making its overall welfare decision the court must therefore be alert to early signs of alienation.  What will amount to effective action will be a matter of judgement, but it is emphatically not necessary to wait for serious, worse still irreparable, harm to be done before appropriate action is taken. 

Ultimately, the court must balance the risk of harm to the child of remaining with the alienating parent and not having a relationship with the other parent, or removing the child to preserve the relationship with both parents.

In some circumstances, court mandated therapy may be appropriate and in others, the Court may be required to take more drastic action, to safeguard the long term welfare of the child, against the alienating parent if he or she does not follow through on an agreement to facilitate contact with the other parent.

One of the potential consequences of an alienating parent's failure to make change can be a transfer of residence to the alienated parent. This might be on a temporary basis, alongside intensive therapeutic work with the family, or ultimately on a longer term or even permanent basis.

In Re D Children [2010] EWCA 496 Civ, the court upheld an order for the children to live with their paternal grandparents, in circumstances where the mother developed an "obsession" that there should not be any contact between her children and the paternal family causing immense emotional harm to the children.

It is important, however, to distinguish at the outset those cases where there is parental alienation and those where any estrangement may be justified. Often the reasons for a child's reluctance will need to be delicately explored, in order to act quickly where necessary, but without pushing the child further from the parent they are reluctant to see.

Parental alienation can have a potentially devastating effect on families and children therefore it is essential to take advice at an early stage before the position becomes too entrenched.

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