Parental AlienationDownload PDF version
Co-parenting children when separated is not without its challenges. The quality of parenting and of the relationship between parents has a profound influence on children and their long-term life prospects. Shielding children as much as possible from parental conflict and encouraging their relationship with both parents in a safe environment is paramount.
Unfortunately, ongoing and unresolved conflict between parents can often be played out through children, with the misuse of their parental position in a way that can cause grave emotional harm to their child, including alienating the other parent from the child’s life. The impact of parental alienation on children, the targeted parent and the entire family is substantial, with increasing research highlighting the negative impact of alienation on a child’s psychological and emotional development.
What is parental alienation?
There is no legal definition for parental alienation, but the condition has been accepted within family law via case law as a form of psychological abuse. There has also been a shift in psychological science toward the identification and categorisation of parental alienation as a form of both child abuse and family violence. There has certainly been an increase in the incidence of the term, possibly driven by campaign groups and media narratives.
A good working definition of parental alienation often adopted within the legal sector is defined by the Government’s Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS): “When a child’s resistance/hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.”
Both men and women can demonstrate alienating behaviours. However, it is often the resident parent undermining the non-resident parent and promoting a negative view of the child’s relationship with that parent, that leads to the child’s rejection and resistance. When parental alienation is suspected, it is paramount to identify the behaviours which are impacting on the relationship between child and parent and seek prompt specialist help to recognise and investigate them before they can start to be resolved.
Whilst parental alienation is a complex concept, the situation for the alienated parent involved is really quite a simple one: a desire to protect and rebuild the relationship between parent and child as soon as possible. Time again is critical and frequently used as a leverage in this power-play dynamic – with the alienating parent often using tactics to extend the process, delaying positive outcomes, and the alienated parent – short on time and in need of a swift reunification.
What impact do parental alienating behaviours have?
Parental alienating behaviours have significant consequences for children, the targeted parent, and the entire family system:
Alienated children experience more psychosocial and psychological adjustment disorders than children who have not been alienated. As adults they report low levels of self-esteem and high levels of self-hatred, substance abuse disorders, guilt, anxiety, and depression. These individuals also develop fears and phobias, experience attachment difficulties, have problems communicating with their children as adults, and develop a lack of trust in others or themselves.
Alienated parents report experiencing depression, anxiety, unresolved grief and ambiguous loss.
As the definition of parental alienation itself is a concept in family court cases, its surrounding terminology and its scale remain under discussion, and as such there is no clear data as to its extent and no clear legislative provision which specifically addresses the issue of parental alienation or states what should happen in private law family proceedings.
In 2016 the Government were of the view that the existing legislation contained adequate provisions in respect of parental alienation, highlighting the role of Cafcass, and whereby the court would consider a suitable remedy on a case-by-case basis with very broad legislative frameworks as guidance. This view was again reiterated by the Government in November 2017.
During a Commons debate in 2017 it was called to recognise parental alienation as a form of emotional abuse, and as such steps were needed to prevent it and, in some circumstances, punish perpetrators. It was suggested by Ministers that parental alienation would be addressed in the forthcoming Green Paper ‘Support for All – the Families and Relationships’. After a delay of publishing the Green Paper, the Government (led by Theresa May) indicated that there would be no significant reforms to private family law.
More recently Philip Davies, MP for Shipley has been bringing parental alienation into the Conservative Government agenda, and in April 2020 proposed an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill to include parental alienation as a form of domestic abuse. Once debated and approved this will be a huge step forward in the realm of parental alienation but still a long way to go for change.
The court’s approach
Cases in which parental alienation feature are often complex but simple at the same time and require a nuanced and considered approach to deliver a finely balanced assessment which can be life-changing for the child’s welfare.
If a child is refusing to see one parent, the court will have to consider the evidence as to why a child is exhibiting such negative behaviours towards that parent. If their perception of a parent is wholly unjustified it is important for the court to consider why such a distorted perception is held by the child. If the court finds that these behaviours are a result of the actions of one parent, the court will then need to consider whether those actions are emotionally harmful to the child.
When parental alienation is raised as an issue, it is deeply distressing for the parents and the child as it calls into question what the child is saying. The court deals with evidence and it is important that the court is provided with legitimate examples so that it can make a decision in the best interests of the child.
However, it is important that the court identifies the issues and makes findings swiftly. Delay can be a significant problem where one parent suspects that the other parent is alienating a child from the other – the longer children are permitted to believe a false or distorted narrative, the harder it is to remedy those beliefs. Sadly, we have seen that in many cases involving parental alienation there has been lengthy proceedings over the course of years resulting in a further breakdown of the alienated parents’ relationship with their child.
The court, when considering arrangements must base any welfare decision of the child which is the court’s principal consideration as set out in s1 Children Act 1989 and the welfare checklist in s1(3). The most relevant parts of this checklist when considering alienation are:
- The child’s ascertainable wishes and feelings based upon their age and understanding;
- Any harm which the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering;
- How capable each parent is of meeting the needs of the child.
The court need to also consider:
- s2A as inserted by the Children and Families Act (CFA) 2014 s.11 that the court is “to presume, unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of that parent in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare.”
- The child’s Article 8 right to family life pursuant to the European Convention on Human Rights;
- Practice Direction 12J, with the obligation to consider when any allegations of harm are raised, whether those allegations will impact upon the ultimate welfare determination the court has to make and if so, make a finding as to those allegations.
A further difficulty for judges is evaluating the wishes and feelings of a child where parental alienation is present, and judges need to assess what weight to give to the view of the child in these cases. Case law makes clear however that when parental alienation is present, a child’s views need to be heard but are not determinative.
When dealing with a parental alienation case, the court will also need to ensure that both the child and adults are kept safe and that the child is able to continue relationships with both parents where this is safe and, in the child’s best interests
Where a child is being alienated, it may be in their interests for the court to make orders that will help restore the relationship with the alienated parent, although the court is aware of how difficult this can be. There is likely to be some form of short-term resistance from a child that has been alienated from a parent so it imperative that realistic proposals of transition are implemented.
The court, in making a decision, will also be mindful of making orders that cannot be enforced, especially where parental alienation has been present over a protracted period and so early intervention is key.
Child Impact Assessment Framework and Cafcass
Cafcass has recently published specific guidance for officers who are responsible for reporting to the court on suspected parental alienation cases within family proceedings, called the Child Impact Assessment Framework (CIAF). The CIAF aims to promote a consistent approach to identify what is happening in a child’s life and whether a child is being alienated or is rejecting a parent due to inappropriate or harmful behaviour. This will not eradicate alienation but is a step in the right direction to ensure that there is a consistent approach across the family justice system.
The role of Cafcass is primarily to report to the court, not to offer ongoing therapy, counselling or work with families. If there are concerns over alienation, it is important for parents to be proactive and arm themselves with details of experienced professionals who can assist children and the family away from the court. Our experience would suggest that the best methods for assessment and treatments of alienating behaviours is currently better understood within the realm of medical experts and psychiatrists; not therapists or social workers.
There is an increasing amount of awareness of the effects of parental conflict on children with initiatives such as the Government’s recent Improving Lives strategy introducing a new focus on tackling the impact of parental conflict on children. As part of this work, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is also undertaking a national Reducing Parental Conflict Programme to embed evidence-based support in local areas – with the aim that this will become mainstream.
All steps in the right direction, however, parental alienation deserves and warrants its own bespoke interventions: a child protection response to address the safety needs of an affected child, immediate family reunification between the child and targeted parent at the earliest opportunity, the provision of family therapy and a range of low-cost and accessible specialist therapeutic options, and legal enforcement.
Going forward there needs to be a much greater understanding of the extent and impact of parental alienation to reduce the substantial harm caused to children, parents and extended family members. Identifying and stopping parental alienation behaviour at the outset should be the focus for legal and medical professionals, and for court directed interventions.
Suffering from parental alienation
We would advise all parents who feel they are being actively pushed away from their child to seek specialist legal and childcare advice as soon as possible:
- Identify the problem early and work to ensure that your own behaviour does not compound the problem – try not to get drawn into arguments or issues not related to the children;
- Work with your GP and school to be pre-emptive and child focused;
- Work with mental health professionals who have extensive and relevant experience;
- Explore all options to try to rebuild relationships without court intervention;
- Choose a law firm that will solve these issues quickly as time is critical;
- Be mindful of the harm alienation can cause for a child including mental health issues.
Parental alienation is a truly emotive and devastating issue and one that is very close to our hearts.
We are committed to helping resident and non-resident parents, the family court and the wider professional community fully understand the impact of separation and adult behaviours on children, and to implement a connectivity of services which understand, identify and effectively stem the pathological enmeshment of parental alienation in its infancy.
We actively contribute to The Positive Parenting Alliance and are currently working with the Anna Freud Centre and Only Mums & Only Dads to help raise public awareness on the parental alienation narrative and explore ways in which to drive and support change – to create better outcomes for alienated children, targeted parents and the extended family.
If you would like any further information on this issue, or to find out if we can help you, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
This post is intended to be a brief note for clients and other interested parties. The information is believed to be correct at the date of publication but should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional advice.