What is alienating behaviour?
"Parental alienation" was historically 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. In a recent case, Re C ("parental alienation"; instruction of expert)  EWHC 345 (Fam), Sir Andrew McFarlane P, the President of the Family Division noted that "the identification of ‘alienating behaviour’ should be the court’s focus, rather than any quest to determine whether the label ‘parental alienation’ can be applied."
Practically, alienating behaviour is when the child aligns with one parent due to negative attitude/behaviour of that parent against the other "target" parent, thereby undermining the child's relationship with the target paren. For example, when a parent refuses to the child having contact with the target parent without any rational reason.
The child's hostility against the target parent is not based on real experience but may be based on misperceptions, fictitious scenarios, and distorted thinking. The word "unjustified" is key – there can be situations (e.g. where there has been a history of domestic abuse) where a child's hostility towards one parent may be understandable.
Am I being alienated or am I alienating my child from the other parent?
It is important to recognise that there is no such thing as "parental alienation syndrome" or something which can be diagnosed when a child appears to reject one parent.
It is often easy for a parent to assert that the other is alienating their child from them. However, family matters are in reality much more complex. Often, both parents can play a role in the behaviour and attitudes which cause the child to refuse to spend time with one parent. New partners can also play a role and it is important for parents to be self aware and reflective before immediately casting blame on the other parent.
On the other hand,, if one parent constantly demeans or dismisses the other, or even fails to convey positive information (such as the other parent actively taking an interest in something the child is doing or asking to partake in more activities with the child), depending on the child's age, that can constitute alienating behaviour, even if the parent didn't intend their actions to be alienating.
How can I identify alienating behaviour?
Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) have published guidance and analytical tools setting out typical behaviour exhibited by a child "who has experienced alienating behaviour" including the following examples:-
- The child’s opinion of a parent is unjustifiably one sided, all good or all bad; idealises one parent and devalues the other.
- Vilification of rejected parent; can amount to a campaign against them.
- Trivial, false, weak and/or irrational reasons to justify dislike or hatred.
- Reactions and perceptions are unjustified or disproportionate to parent’s behaviours.
- Talks openly and without prompting about the rejected parent’s perceived shortcomings.
- 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.
- Extends dislike / hatred to extended family of rejected parent (rejection by association).
- No guilt or ambivalence regarding their attitudes towards the rejected parent.
- Speech about rejected parent appears scripted, it has an artificial quality; no conviction; uses adult language; has a rehearsed quality.
- Claims to be fearful but is aggressive, confrontational, even belligerent.
What is the effect of alienating behaviour?
Alienating behaviour can have a detrimental impact on the child's emotional and behavioural development and can have long lasting effects. The child may suffer from significant psychological difficulties and may experience poor conflict resolution with peers and becoming aggressive or extremely anxious.
As Parker J summarised in Re H  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 and what is the role of the Courts?
The issue of alienating behaviour by one or both parents can take a long time to resolve and the best solution may often depend on factors such as the capacity of the parent engaging in the behaviour to change.
Case law suggests that historically the courts have tended to act slowly, frequently with the result 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)  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."
There are a number of options available to the court. It can:
- consider the direct evidence of the parents;
- invite Cafcass to prepare a report;
- appoint a Guardian to directly represent the child; and
- appoint an expert to work with the child and 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 parent engaging in alienating behaviour if he or she does not comply with an order 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 the child's living arrangements 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.
The court must balance the risk of harm to the child of remaining with the alienating parent against the risk of being separated from then and the guidance from the Court of Appeal notes that there must be a focus on acting robustly, to prevent delay allowing the situation to become embedded.
Often the reasons for a child's reluctance will need to be delicately explored as to whether it is justified, in order to act quickly where necessary, but without pushing the child further from the parent they are reluctant to see.
In Re D Children  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.
What experts are used in court proceedings concerning these sort of cases?
A number of psychologists are willing to act as experts to identify the issues impacting the child, speak to the parents and the child as part of this process, and report to the court as to whether, in their view, there is a risk of alienation. Recently, concern has been raised as to the lack of regulation of some psychologists, particularly where the professional in question is not registered with the Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC). Recent case law makes clear that while the court has discretion to appoint individuals who were not members of the British Psychological Society or registered with the HCPC, the court should determine that the person has relevant psychological knowledge or training and must be clear as to the expert's qualification and experience. Whether a person is capable of assisting the court by providing expert evidence is a question of fact and whether an expert is "qualified to give expert evidence" will be a matter for the court in each individual case.
Cases where there may be alienating behaviour can be difficult for a number of reasons – primarily in ascertaining whether there has been alienation at all. Frequently, one parent will accuse the other of having alienated a child, whereas the other parent will claim that any rejection by the child is due to the actions of the parent claiming alienation. It can be difficult for a court to ascertain family dynamics – both when the parents were together and since their separation.
If there has been alienation, there is a further difficulty, in that the more time that passes, the more likely it is that the child may reject the alienated parent completely – the longer the case goes on without resolution, the harder it will be to restore a positive relationship.
It is important for parents to seek advice as early as possible so that there can be appropriate intervention at an early stage.