What is parental alienation? 

Parental alienation is a phrase that is used to describe when a child is influenced and/or conditioned to align themselves with one parent. Simply put, it is when a child is ‘turned against’ the other parent (and the wider family).

Children that have been affected by parental alienation tend to present as, or report that they, are scared or frightened of seeing/spending time with the other parent. This may even be the case where the child has not spent time with the other parent for a considerable period of time!

So what does parental alienation look like on the ground? 

Parental alienation can be demonstrated in a child in some of the following ways:

  • Being scared or frightened to see the other parent
  • Refusing to see or spend time with the other parent
  • Refusing to see or spend time with the wider family of the other parent
  • Reporting life or relationship events only known to adults
  • Reporting generic statements of concern
  • Using words or phrases that are not typical for the child’s age

However, there are other ‘red flags’ that professionals should be aware of:

  • Particularly long, private law proceeding with minimal improvement on the child’s wishes and feelings
  • Multiple private law proceedings in close succession, repeating the issues over and over again with minimal improvement or progression
  • The ‘caring parent’ continually presenting resistance to the concept of contact
  • Repeated involvement from local authorities via s7 reports and s37 reports
  • Allocation to a Child In Need plan for emotional harm caused by parental conflict

How is parental alienation caused?

There is no fixed or finite list of causations of parental alienation. However, there are a number of behaviours that are recognised as potential causations:

  • Changing, altering, reducing or cancelling contact on a consistent and repeated basis
  • Denigrating the other parent to or in the presence of the child
  • Wider family members denigrating the other parent
  • Conflicts between parents or family members at handovers
  • Not passing on messages or gifts from the other parent
  • Excluding the other parent from key aspects of the child’s life e.g. school, health etc.
  • Passively or actively encouraging a child to believe that the other parent does not care about them, does not want to see them and is only interested in something else
  • Passively or actively leading the child to believe that the other parent should not be present in their life

Similarly, there is no timeframe for parental alienation to take effect. It can take months or years to take grip and it can take a long time before the parent being alienated begins to identify the distance that is being created between them and the child. It is an intangible and abstract concept that is very difficult for the alienated parent to describe or pinpoint an exact time when ‘things changed.’

Professionals, like social workers, tasked with working with families where they consider parental alienation may be happening, must take care. Often direct work will be a necessary tool to deploy with the child. Professionals should be forensic in their analysis of the situation. They must be attentive to the potential that a parent may seek to persuade a variety of professionals around the child of a serious cause for concern and encourage the professionals to make allegations, rather than the parent. Leaving the parent in a position where they can say ‘ah, but I never actually made that allegation, it come from X professional!’ Professionals must be detailed, balanced and give due time and diligence to such work. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) guidance issued in October 2018 should be considered.

However, what should professionals not do?

Often in cases where the child is being alienated from another parent, there is usually a high level of acrimony that the child has been exposed to. In some cases. exposure to this acrimony may caused the child to have suffered emotional harm. If professionals out there are considering making a referral for the child to a form of talking therapy/support, care should be taken to ensure that the ‘offending’ parent does not join in with those sessions or attempt to hijack the session for their own ends. Equally, try, where possible, to not refer the child to the same support system that the offending parent may already be attending for risk of the offending parent having already coloured the view, or even groomed, those professionals to the offending parent’s way of thinking.

In many cases where parents separate or their co-parenting arrangements breakdown, there tends to be acrimony. Acrimony does not amount to parental alienation. So readers and practitioners should be aware, that not every case is parental alienation!

If you would like to consult with Unit Chambers on training or education in respect of working with parental alienation cases, please send Eve an email on [email protected] for more information.

Written by Kerri O’Neill, Unit Chambers Consultant Barrister

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