Parental alienation has been recognised by many in the family law courts for some time and is increasingly used alongside implacable hostility or adverse influence to describe important aspects of very difficult cases. These are not terms generally used to describe just difficult or awkward parents, they describe a parent who goes out of their way directly and often then indirectly (topping up) to sabotage or minimise the chances of children having a meaningful relationship with the other parent. These alienating parents simply put their dislike for the other parent above the needs and emotional welfare of their children.
A common mistake of parents entering the family court system is to tell the court their child is suffering from parental alienation when it is far too early to determine such a diagnosis in the courts view and it may be seen as an expected initial reluctance and reaction of the children to the difficult circumstances of separation or divorce. This can be unhelpful to the parent’s case if they make accusations of parental alienation when the court may just see it as a normal early reaction to the situation. It is suggested that it is far better to take advice from an experienced and knowledgeable advisor on whether allegations of parental alienation are evidence based and how to appropriately bring it before the court if there is evidence to support such an assertion.
To determine whether a child’s rejection of a parent is reasonable or unreasonable (adversely influenced) in individual circumstances it can be helpful to look at the situation prior to rejection, was it a normal loving relationship between the child and parent; if there was a prior better relationship has the rejected parent’s behaviour deteriorated; would the reasons the child gives to support their rejection of a parent be sufficient to rupture the relationship without an adverse contribution from the other parent.
A child aligning with one parent against the other is unhealthy and emotionally damaging to that child in the short-term and particularly in the long-term. Healthy thinking parent’s help children adjust to changes and promote their relationship with the other parent. When parents claim their children are taking a lead role and their wishes and feelings should determine if parenting time goes ahead or the level of that parenting time with the other parent, these parents are abdicating responsibility by not helping or indeed undermining their children through these difficult transitions in their lives.
Overt parental alienation may show itself by a parent refusing to communicate with the other parent; making patronising or unpleasant remarks about the other parent to the child (bad-mouthing) or in the child’s presence; frustrating contact; not passing on telephone messages or gifts; false allegations of violence, neglect and sex abuse; offering alternatives to a child scheduled to see the other parent; not allowing or sabotaging telephone contact; moving to another country or part of this jurisdiction; saying the children are too ill to travel when they are well and of course breaching court orders.
Indirect parental alienation may be scowling whenever the other parents name is mentioned or when they telephone to speak to the children; ignoring the children when they speak about the other parent; making it obvious to the children by one’s demeanour that the other parent is not nice or welcome.
The courts response to these parents’ negative behaviours is often slow and ineffective. Parents whose relationship with their children is undermined to a point where their children are saying they do not want to see him or her are usually dependent on whether a particular judge or CAFCASS Officer understands the situation and is willing to spend a considerable amount of time and resources challenging the alienating parents behaviour.
Courts can respond by ordering the children spend more time with the parent affected or appointing a children’s guardian or enforcing contact or ordering a psychological/psychiatric assessment or family therapy or changing residence or suspending a residence order of an offending parent or applying conditions to a residence order which if not met can change the residence of the children. However, these can take many months and perhaps years in some cases to implement even if the court is willing to take such measures.
For parents who may be at risk of parental alienation it is suggested they inform themselves and with this information they may be able to assist their children to inoculate themselves against parental alienation attempts from a parent. For those parents who may already have a relationship shattered by parental alienation then it is very difficult and an appalling situation which needs careful planning and assistance if there is to be any real chance of a successful recovery from this nightmare scenario.
There is a way back into an alienated child’s life by a parent who has been rejected but it will generally need the help of the court, professionals and perhaps an expert witness. Enlisting this help either by showing a judge the options available in an appropriate manner or persuading an unconvinced court of the necessity of taking robust steps is not always easy but it is necessary. Otherwise the family law courts can often give up on a case without having taken all the steps needed and available to re-establish the relationship. It’s never a good strategy to solely rely on the court to sort matters out, always try to learn about your situation and give the judge viable options without lecturing, as yours is only one of many cases that will cross most judges busy desks each week.
A couple of books we recommend for all parents who might be in a difficult situation as described or at risk of one developing are ‘Divorce Poison’ and ‘Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome’. Essential reading for many separated or divorced parents.