What Is Parental Alienation?

mariam-abu-hussein
Mariam Abu HusseinLegal Assessment Specialist @ Lawhive
Updated on 3rd January 2024

Parental alienation isn't your everyday phrase. Likely, most people have never even heard of it. However, for some parents, particularly those who are divorcing or separated, the feeling of parental alienation isn't uncommon.

parental-alienation

In this article, we will look at what parental alienation is, when and why it happens, and what can be done about it.

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation is when a child starts rejecting a parent they used to have a good relationship with because of psychological manipulation from the other parent.

This manipulation can cause the child to act out, showing fear, disrespect, or even hostility towards the alienated parent. These negative feelings might also extend to other family members, too.

In cases of parental alienation, the child's feelings towards the alienated parent are disproportionate to anything they've done.

It can happen in any family, but it's often talked about in the context of divorce or separations, especially when legal proceedings are thrown into the mix.

Examples of parental alienation

Parental alienation can come about through lots of different types of behaviour. Here are a few examples.

Negative comments

If one parent is constantly saying bad things about the other, these negative can influence a child's perception of them and cause strain in the relationship. Essentially, negative comments plant seeds of discord that grow into barriers between the child and the alienated parent.

Example

Sarah and Jack are divorced and share custody of their 10-year-old daughter, Emma.

One day, Emma mentions a fun weekend she had with Jack. Instead of acknowledging Emma's positive experience, Sarah responds with negative comments about Jack saying "He's always so irresponsible." These comments are unwarranted and paint a negative image of Jack without any valid reason.

Over time, Emma internalises these negative remarks and starts to view her dad through the lens of Sarah's bitterness. Slowly, a gap forms between Emma and Jack and she starts to show hostility towards her father, all stemming from Sarah's persistent negative comments.

Encouraging disrespect or defiance towards the other parent

In this situation, parental alienation takes the form of manipulating the child's perception to foster disrespect and defiance towards the alienated parents.

Example

Mark and Lisa are divorced and share custody of their teenage son, Alex. Mark downplays Lisa's authority, saying, "You don't have to listen to your mum; she doesn't understand you." He may even undermine Lisa's decisions, suggesting that she's not worthy of respect.

Over time, these subtle cues start influencing Alex's behaviour. He begins questioning Lisa's authority, disregarding rules set by her, and displaying disrespectful behaviour. Mark's encouragement of defiance creates a rift between Lisa and Alex, damaging the positive relationship they once had.

Blaming the other parent

Blaming the other parent for personal emotions can negatively impact how a child sees them, burdening them with the weight of the parent's emotional struggles and presenting a skewed view of the alienated parent.

Example

Tom and Emily went through a challenging divorce. Emily begins subtly blaming Tom for her feelings during interactions with their 8-year-old daughter, Mia.

In conversations, Emily says things like, "Your dad ruined our family" or "I'm so sad because of him." Instead of taking responsibility for her own emotions, Emily places the blame on Tom. Over time, Mia absorbs these messages and starts associating her father with the source of her mother's distress. She internalises resentment towards him and believes that he is solely responsible for the family's breakdown.

Being unable to separate the child's needs from their own

In this situation, parental alienation happens because one parent inadvertently places their child in a position where they feel responsible for the parent's emotional well-being.

Example

Alex and Jamie have been divorced for a couple of years and share custody of 12-year-old Lily. Whenever Lily spends time with Alex, Jamie becomes emotionally distressed and starts projecting their feelings onto Lily. For instance, if Jamie is feeling lonely or upset, they might say to Lily, "Your dad is making me sad by taking you away. I don't know how I'll cope without you."

This emotional burden makes Lily feel responsible for Jamie's happiness. As a result, Lily starts feeling torn between her parents' emotional needs and her desire for a healthy relationship with both.

Manipulating a child into unquestioning loyalty

Sarah and Mike went through a contentious divorce. Mike starts manipulating their 9-year-old son, Jake, by consistently portraying himself as the victim and painting Sarah as the villain in their story.

He might say things like, "Your mum doesn't care about us; she's always putting herself first," or "You should only trust me; I'm the only one who truly loves you." He subtly discourages any positive feelings Jake might have towards Sarah.

Over time, Jake starts unquestionably aligning with MIke's perspective, feeling a strong sense of loyalty to him while distancing himself emotionally from Sarah.

Creating a false belief that the other parent is dangerous or untrustworthy

In some cases, parental alienation can take the form of deliberately distorting the child's perception of the other parent, creating a false belief that the other parent is dangerous or untrustworthy.

Example

Lisa and David are in the middle of a contentious divorce. In response to this, Lisa limits their 14-year-old daughter, Chloe's, contact with David and tells her exaggerated or false stories about him, painting him as a threat.

Over time, Chlose becomes emotionally isolated from David, viewing him with suspicion and fear.

Parental alienation often shows itself as one child not wanting to spend time with one parent for no clear reason. But it's important to note that kids can be moody and fickle. They may act in any of the ways shown above as a normal response to growing up and dealing with a divorce, rather than anything to do with parental alienation.

That being said, knowing about parental alienation and what it looks like can help catch it early. If you're unsure, talking to a family lawyer for advice might help. They can guide you on whether the child is facing alienating behaviours and what you might be able to do about it.

Parental alienation vs parental alienation syndrome

Parental alienation is when a parent does things to harm a child's relationship with the other parent. As we've covered, this can happen in many different ways and actions.

Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is a term created by child psychiatrist Richard Gardner. He used it to describe a situation where a child rejects one parent because of the actions of the other parent. PAS has come up in lots of divorce and child arrangement cases, but in the UK, courts have not accepted it as a valid concept.

Parental alienation and the law

In the UK, dealing with parental alienation is part of family law, and the focus is on what's best for the child. Therefore, before jumping into legal action, it's a good idea to talk to a family law solicitor for advice. They might suggest alternatives like family mediation to try and sort things out without going to court.

If those alternatives don't work or communication between parents is impossible, parents can ask for help from the family court. The court looks into the case, considering any evidence or expert options, especially from professionals like psychologists, doctors, or social workers.

The court might also order a Cafcass report. Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) is a group of social workers who advise the family courts. They get involved in cases of parental alienation, spending time with the family outside of court to understand the situation better. They then write a report with recommendations for the court.

When the court makes a decision, it might suggest interventions to tackle alienation. These could be therapeutic or educational, aiming to improve relationships between parents and between parents and children. The court could also make new decisions about child arrangements.

Who is responsible for identifying parental alienation?

Currently, it's mainly Cafcass' job to spot alienating behaviours where one parent consistently communicates negative attitudes about the other to undermine or destroy the child's relationship with that parent.

Cafcass' Family Court Advisors (FCAs) identify these behaviours and consider the child's perspective, exploring the impact of their views on living or spending time with a parent.

However, Cafcass usually only steps in when a matter goes to court. At this point, the alienating behaviour may have gone on for a long time and done much damage. Therefore, parents, teachers, lawyers, and other professionals all play a role in spotting parental alienation. They need to understand what it is, how it manifests itself, and the consequences of it. If they do this, there's a good chance they can rescue the relationship before it reaches a point of no return.

How does Cafcass assess parental alienation?

In looking at the reasons for a child's resistance to or rejection of a parent, the first consideration is whether domestic abuse or harmful parenting plays a role.

The Child Impact Assessment Framework (CIAF) guides FCAs in understanding how children experience their parents' separation and its impact, including the potential influence of parental alienation and alienating behaviours.

When a child experiences parental alienation and alienating behaviours, the FCA uses professional judgment to assess their short and long-term welfare, considering identified risks, unique needs, resilience, vulnerabilities, and the child's wishes. The FCA then reports its analysis and recommendations to the court, contributing to the court's final decision regarding the child's living arrangements and contact with the other parent.

Is parental alienation a crime?

Parental alienation is not considered a criminal offence in the United Kingdom.

The Government's reasoning for not introducing a law relating to parental alienation is that the family justice system is capable of addressing parental alienation allegations in child arrangement cases.

Is parental alienation classed as child abuse?

The official website of Parental Alienation UK confirms that parental alienation is a type of domestic and emotional abuse. They highlight that the effects of alienating behaviour can leave a child dealing with psychological consequences that may last longer than other forms of abuse.

Child abuse, as defined by the NSPCC, involves a child being intentionally harmed by an adult, whether it's a prolonged or one-time occurrence. This hard can be physical, sexual, or emotional.

Parental alienation takes different forms, and the severity of cases can vary. Lots of legal professionals don't universally agree on whether to categorise it as a distinct form of child abuse. However, the consistent negative behaviour and the significant impact on a child's well-being point to it as a form of abuse. It essentially undermines a child's right to have meaningful relationships with both parents and can be considered a type of child abuse.

Common signs of parental alienation

Early signs of parental alienation often show up in a child's behaviour. They might:

  • Exclude one parent from their life (i.e. by asking them not to attend school events);

  • Become argumentative;

  • Overlook the love and affection they once shared with the alienated parent;

  • Say they don't want to see the alienated parent;

  • Avoid overnight visits;

  • Become withdrawn and less willing to talk to the alienated parent;

  • Start calling the alienated parent by their name instead of "mum" or "dad";

  • Repeatedly complain about one parent;

  • Provide trivial or baseless reasons for not wanting to see the alienated parent;

  • Speak negatively about the alienated parent and only praise the other parent;

  • Show disrespect and behave poorly towards one parent without feeling guilty.

Effects of parental alienation on the child

Parental alienation can significantly impact a child's psychological well-being. The extent of this impact depends on how severe or prolonged the alienation is, the child's age, and their personality.

Here are some examples of how it can affect your child:

  • Heightened emotional turmoil;

  • Low self-esteem and self-image;

  • Guilt without valid reason;

  • Anxiety and depression;

  • Behavioural issues;

  • Withdrawal from social interactions;

  • Difficulties in developing and maintaining relationships;

  • Lack of impulse control;

  • Aggression.

How to deal with parental alienation

If you're dealing with parental alienation, there are steps you can take to address the issue, such as:

  • Speaking to a family law solicitor to understand your legal options;

  • Collecting evidence such as messages, dates, and emails;

  • Maintaining open communication with the alienating parent to express concerns and focus on the child's wellbeing;

  • Seeking resolution outside of court through mediation;

  • Family or individual therapy both for yourself and your child;

  • Creating a supportive environment for the child;

  • Focusing on long-term solutions;

  • Staying patient and calm.

If you're concerned about a child's safety, contact the local authorities where the child lives. If there's an immediate risk, call the police on 999.

Get help with family law matters

Handling family matters concerning children can be distressing, and protecting the best interest of your child should be a top priority, as well as your well-being and peace of mind.

If you need help with family law issues like these, our solicitors are ready to offer fast, affordable, legal help and advice at fixed fees. Get a free case assessment from our expets to find out how we can support you.

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