In many instances of separation and divorce, where children are involved, parental alienation is a factor amongst parents. In this resource, we take a look at what parental alienation is, how it can affect the children involved and how it can be identified.

Why do children resist spending time with a parent?

There can be a number of causes as to why a child becomes resistant to spending time with a parent/carer once a separation has taken place, but the most common, is as a result of parental alienation.  Professionals involved with children’s welfare have been aware of this for some time, especially within family law proceedings, and it is now coming to the fore.  The complexity of parental alienation makes it hard for the courts to make decisions at times, and so a combination of detailed assessment and balanced decision-making are utilized in these instances, as the impact of such decisions can be life-changing for both the parent and child involved.

What is the definition of parental alienation?

The definition of parental alienation is generally recognised as when a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.  Other risk factors, such as domestic abuse, for example, must be ruled out before establishing it as a reason as to why a child may resist spending time with a parent after the parents have separated. Internationally, parental alienation is recognised as a form of child abuse.

What are the typical behaviours in parental alienation?

Alienating behaviours can be varied and, in turn, have a varying impact on the child involved.

Both men and women can demonstrate such behaviours such as:

Badmouthing or putting down the other parent,

The limiting of contact,

Refusing to discuss the other parent with the child,

Not allowing the child to keep images of the other parent,

Forcing the child to choose between the parents,

Limiting contact with extended family members, including grandparents, siblings, aunties and uncles.

Whilst these behaviours can come from one parent only, they often result from a combination of behaviours and attitudes. These can come from both parents and ultimately lead to a child resisting spending time with the other person.

Other behaviours, such as isolating, corrupting, spurning etc., can cause a child to feel that the other parent is dangerous or untrustworthy and as a result, children can adapt their own behaviours to the parent that is alienating the other to meet their own attachment needs (Baker, 2010).  Despite this, most alienated children will still have strongly held views of their own along with the views that they have been coached to have. It is often the case that the parent who is trying to destroy the other parent’s relationship with the child is trying to strengthen their relationship with the child. This is achieved by the behaviours above creating distance between the child and other parent. The child will not realise that they have been coached to feel a certain way towards their alienated parent, and this becomes their idea due to the manipulation of the parent. Where it seems that the children have been coached, the courts can work towards rehabilitation and re-establishing the relationship between the child and the alienated parent.

Is there a long-term impact of parental alienation on the child

The short answer is yes, of course it can. It can significantly impact the child’s mental health and well-being now and, going forward, not only their view of themselves but also their behaviour, how they view others and their future relationships. Many parents who are causing parental alienation do not even consider how damaging it is to the child and that, in fact, it could impact their relationships in adulthood.

As well as not wanting to have a relationship or a limited relationship with the alienated parent, the child can also suffer from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, disruption at school, not sleeping, anger issues, not trusting of people, feeling hatred towards themself, loneliness and isolation and low self-esteem. This list does not cover the total amount of items a child can be left with after their parent has been alienated, the full list is much more extensive. There has been a lot of research into the long-term effects of parental alienation.

Can parental alienation be prevented?

As divorce and separation experts we completely understand the difficulties separating or divorcing couples are facing and how these are impacting on the family as a whole. It is important for you both to limit what the child can hear I.E., when one parent is fed up with the other, it is important for the child to not hear this as it puts that parent’s thoughts onto the child. Both parents must work together to reduce the impact of the separation on the child.

If you feel your child is being alienated from you, you must not react and remain calm. The potential first step could be that you keep a diary of the behaviours you are noticing from your child/the other parent and how you feel this is impacting your relationship with the child. If your ex-partner is not sticking to an informal arrangement you have agreed to, then you should also make a note of this and what reason has been given.

There are a range of methods and services to help support with parental alienation:

– Having an informal meeting with your ex-partner to have a civilised conversation about the items you have noticed

– Seek the support of a therapist – they may be able to offer methods of communication for you to use when you speak with your ex-partner and also your child. The therapist may also recommend inviting your ex-partner and, in some instances, your child.

– Invite your ex-partner to family mediation whereby a family mediator would be able to facilitate the discussions between both parents and help to reach a mutual agreement. The family mediator will always look out for the best interests of the child, especially when there seems to be a risk of abuse or the parent is disclosing behaviours which would be deemed abuse. The first step would be for you to attend a MIAM. To read more please read the section How family mediation can help.

– Seek the support of a solicitor

– Seek the support of the family courts

How the Courts Tackle Parental Alienation

Under the Children’s Act 1989, the courts have a duty to ensure that the child’s welfare is paramount in any decisions concerning their lives. If there is no evidence that the child is at risk of being in danger with the alienated parent, then they will see no reason why the child cannot have a meaningful relationship with both parents.

If an application is made to the family courts, they will usually involve CAFCASS (Child and Family Court Advisory Support Service – read more about them here). CAFCASS will usually gather all of the facts of the case and ensure that the child’s interests are at the centre of all decisions, much like that of the family court itself. They can independently advise the parents/court what is best for the child taking into account their physical and mental wellbeing and their own thoughts and feelings.

Where it is deemed the best decision, and the court is aware that the child is likely to suffer from significant emotional damage, the family court can authorise the removal of a child into the care of the alienated parent to prevent any further damage to their relationship.

How CAFCASS can help

The CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service) Child Impact Assessment Framework helps to identify the children at risk of parental alienation as well as how they are experiencing and feeling towards parental separation.  By helping the courts to understand the impact that it has had on the child and the behaviours of the adults, helps to identify what the child needs to recover. The recovery of the child requires, where possible, the support of both parents.

Parents may work with a Family Court Advisor (FCA) who will be assigned to the case. They will get to know your case and make recommendations as to the best way forward, whether that is via therapy to support the behaviour of the alienating parent. They will also be involved with the courts to recommend the best outcome for the child. CAFCASS now has guidelines that its staff must follow when dealing with cases of parental alienation. This is known as the high-conflict pathway. This is usually when a child is removed from the alienating parent and placed with the alienated parent.

Where alienating behaviours have been identified, a judgement is made as to whether it is safe and in the best interest of the child to have contact with either one or both of the parents.  Risk factors, assessments, diversity issues and the vulnerability of the child are all taken into consideration whereupon a judge will make the final decision as to the contact the child will have with each parent.

CAFCASS also have a twelve-week programme for positive parenting to support the alienating parent with their behaviour towards the child and the alienated parent. Other experts can be brought in at this stage and this can include mental health support, psychologists and therapists. Unfortunately, the alienating parent cannot be forced to attend this programme nor order that further services be utilised. It is only the courts who can make an order for a course to be attended or a child to be removed.

We hope you have enjoyed this resource and that it has been beneficial to you. Just a gentle reminder that all of the content on this website, including resources, blogs, articles and content on web pages, is prohibited from being used or copied in any public domain unless stated otherwise. Access Mediation Services is also not responsible for the accuracy of these resources nor responsible for how people use the information we provide in this information.

We hope you have enjoyed this resource and that it has been beneficial to you. Just a gentle reminder that all of the content on this website including resources, blogs, articles and content on web pages, is prohibited from being used or copied in any public domain unless stated otherwise. Access Mediation Services is also not responsible for the accuracy of these resources nor responsible for how people use the information we provide in this information.

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