Dealing with Parental Alienation during a Relationship Breakdown

Patrick Tedstone, Commercial Litigation Specialist

By Patrick Tedstone

Unhappy child lying on a sofaParental alienation is a situation in which one parent (usually the resident parent but not exclusively) poisons their child against the non-resident parent. Parental alienation often occurs following the hostile breakdown of a relationship.

The definition of parental alienation as a recognised concept in family law cases remains debatable, however it is widely accepted that where there is a hostile breakdown in a relationship one parent can deliberately or undeliberately act in a way that alienates a child from the other parent.

It is always advisable for parents to try and put their own differences aside and to focus on the child’s needs following an acrimonious relationship breakdown. Professional services such as therapists, counsellors, mediators and arbitrators can assist parents to better manage conflict and help parents focus on the impact on children who are stuck in the middle of their disputes. It is important to try and agree arrangements for the children via those services at an early stage should it not be possible to effectively communicate directly with a former partner.

In cases where parental alienation is deep seated, court proceedings may be necessary sooner rather than later. There is an increased risk of irrevocable emotional damage being caused to a child and to their relationship with wider family the longer alienation continues.

Signs of parental alienation

  1. A child does not want to spend time with a parent despite there being no logical explanation as to why they would not want to see their parent.
  2. A parent can be constantly criticising/berating the other parent in front of the child in a deliberate attempt to turn them against the other parent.
  3. In some cases, parental alienation is not always deliberate for example where one parent is speaking negatively about a parent to another and the conversation is unwittingly overheard by the child. Some parents can be ignorant to how their negative remarks may inadvertently influence a child’s decision not to spend time with the other parent.
  4. One parent makes unfounded false allegations of violence, neglect or sexual abuse towards the other parent.

It can be quite difficult for the court and professionals involved in a case to ascertain exactly what a child’s beliefs, wishes and feelings really are. A child’s view may have become heavily entrenched or distorted by the views of the parent who is causing the alienation. The child may have a misguided loyalty towards one particular parent and feel that he/she cannot express their honest views about spending time with the absent parent out of fear of disappointing or hurting the other parent. There is no ‘quick fix’ in cases which involve ‘implacably hostile’ parents and more often than not such cases do result in lengthy contentious court proceedings.

The impact of parental alienation

The impact of parental alienation on a child is devastating as is the impact on the parent (and extended family) the child is being isolated from. A child could suffer emotional harm as a result. A child may grow up lacking a sense of identity in situations where they are denied the opportunity to have a relationship with one parent.

What can the court do to resolve parental alienation?

The court has the power to order parents to attend a ‘contact activity direction’ in cases where court proceedings have been issued. A contact activity direction may require one or both parents to attend mediation, counselling or a course namely a Separated Parenting Information Programme. The programme is designed to assist parents in establishing, maintaining, improving and promoting contact with a child.

The court could make an order for CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) to complete a Section 7 Report which may involve a CAFCASS officer obtaining a child’s ascertainable wishes and feelings (depending on the age of the child and if it is considered appropriate by CAFCASS to obtain the child’s wishes and feelings). It may not be possible to obtain a child’s true wishes and feelings particularly if they live with the parent causing the alienation. It is doubtful a CAFCASS report alone would be sufficient to progress matters to a point where parents can agree and maintain positive arrangements for the children.

The court can appoint a children’s guardian where there is concern a child has experienced emotional harm. A guardian, usually an experienced CAFCASS officer, is appointed by the court and has a duty to safeguard the interests of the child during court proceedings. The guardian will instruct a solicitor to represent the child and will provide appropriate advice to the child. The guardian acts as a voice for the child for the purposes of court proceedings and will provide a report to the court as to how best the child’s interests may be safeguarded.

An independent social worker can be appointed in some cases with a view to working closely with the family to try and to use social work methods to try and assist why one parent is unable to give emotional permission to the child to have a continuing relationship with the other parent. It can be extremely helpful for experts to be instructed to carry out comprehensive assessments followed by targeted therapy. This can be successful but very much dependent on the willingness of both parents to engage with the idea and to fund the costs of obtaining such a report.

If you wish to discuss any issues raised in this article, please do not hesitate to contact us on 01785 223440 for a confidential discussion.

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