Health Parenting

Are you suffering from parental alienation?

Written by Christian Butler

We take a look at the growing phenomenon of parental alienation.

For those who co-parent with an ex-partner, do you know what to do if you’re concerned that your child is being persuaded to spend less time with you? Perhaps even intentionally by your ex-partner through their behaviour or attitude.

This is a growing phenomenon known as parental alienation, and it’s becoming increasingly recognised in family courts across the UK.

Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) has said it had realised parental alienation occurred in significant numbers of the 125,000 cases it deals with each year.

Parental alienation is usually referred to as a syndrome. In reality a pattern of behaviours, the cumulative effect of which is to cause the breakdown of the relationship between a child and their parent. It can occur deliberately, but sometimes not.

Negative comments

One example of parental alienation is children being over-exposed to negative comments from their resident parent about their non-resident parent, which would result in them being deterred from wanting to spend time with them.

In other cases, children will be ‘rewarded’ for spending more time with the resident parent, or the resident parent may fuel minor issues a child has with a non-resident parent, such as, “I have to go to bed early when I’m there,” to allow the child to begin to see this as a reason not to go as often.

Of course, these are just a few general examples and it can actually take many forms with complex dynamics at play, with results ranging from minor to severe cases of parental alienation.

Anita Scorah, Associate in the Family Law team at SAS Daniels said: “Sadly, we are seeing an increasing number of parental alienation cases. Factors in life today, such as our use of technology, is continually changing the traditional family model. For example, with online dating being popular in society today, more couples are coming together from separate parts of the country, or even the world. If they separate and one wishes to move back to a home town with their children, they may try and alienate the other parent so it’s easier for them to relocate with their child.

For others, feelings of anger or resentment are heightened by social media, so seeing ex-spouses moving on for example, and situations become overtly hostile, with children caught up in this. In some cases, it can be completely unintentional but it’s still damaging to children and parents, which is why it’s being dealt with more in the courts.”

What are the signs of parental alienation?
  • A child who previously had a good relationship with a parent is now resistant to spending time with that parent, or in some cases, refusing to see them altogether.
  • A child claims not wanting to see a parent is their choice and clearly believes this to be so. However, when asked to provide reasoning for their position, they struggle to come up with specific examples of historical problems or examples of sufficient extremity to warrant their position.
  • A child states emotional absolutes, such as, “The relationship is broken,” “My life is fine without my father in it,”.
  • The child will often express adult reasons for their decision such as mentioning child support or finances.
  • The child is supportive and defensive of the residential parent, to the extent it is clear they perceive a side has to be taken.

For those parents that believe their child is being alienated from them, there is important advice around what not to do to aid the child’s feelings bought about from the behaviour of the other parent, such as:

  • Not giving enough importance to issues which may seem small to them but are significant to a child. For example, sleeping without a favoured toy, or sleeping without outside lights on, etc.
  • Don’t change usual routines such as bedtimes, overlooking homework, etc – as these cause stress.
  • Don’t change boundaries, such as punishable behaviour, as this leads children to feel worryingly insecure.
  • Don’t be uncivil to their other parent or family, either directly, or through body language, such as turning and walking away whilst being spoken to.
  • Don’t progress new situations, such as new partners, at a speed the children may feel is too fast.
What does the law say about parental alienation?

Scorah added: “If a parent is perceived to be wilfully obstructing an order that the child spends time with the other parent, enforcement action can include contact directions such as a parenting programme, monitoring of compliance by an officer of the court, unpaid work of up to 200 hours, fines and even committal to prison.

In a number of cases I have had direct contact with, and in one of the highest profile UK cases of its kind, the court has threatened to take the child from the resident parent and place them to live with the absent parent. This was the only way the court could envisage the child maintaining a relationship with both parents. This is a gamble though and would involve the child being placed in foster care whilst they were ‘deprogrammed’. In each of the cases I have been involved with, which have come to this last resort, the parent with primary care has suddenly managed to persuade the child to relent and contact has recommenced.

Ultimately, in any case of parental alienation it’s easier to rectify if tackled early, for example by family counselling at the early stages.

However, many parents who do have their child’s welfare at heart, can have their judgement clouded by the complex emotional maelstrom that inevitably accompanies relationship breakdown and in severe cases, UK judges are increasingly recognising the importance of parental alienation and dealing with the issue through the courts.”

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