The term parental alienation is used to describe situations where a child turns against a parent in an extreme way, refusing to see them and wanting to sever their relationship with them. It can occur in both intact and separated families with the alienating parent usually being the primary carer. Both genders have the potential to be the target of alienation. Parental alienation is also often referred to as malicious mother syndrome, intractable or implacable hostility cases. The consequences of alienation are devastating. To deliberately influence a child to reject a parent is emotional abuse. To encourage a child to sever a previously loving relationship following a divorce or separation has long term consequences for the child, the alienated parent and the extended family.
Signs of parental alienation
An attempt to alienate a child from a parent is carried out for many reasons. It can be to punish the other person following divorce or separation, may be based on a belief that life would be easier if contact was severed or could be due to a personality disorder.
Alienation may begin subtly over a period of time. It can begin by the alienating parent making derogatory comments and denigrating the other parent. Their criticisms are likely to be made within ear shot of the child who may then start to repeat what they have heard. The parent will feel undermined by the alienating parent and unsupported when caring for the children and feel like the children are encouraged to defy their authority. This can then be followed by the alienator reducing the other parent’s contact with the child for what may appear to be rational reasons at first, such as Adam is busy with football this weekend or unwell this weekend. Indirect contact will be interfered with eg. Louise is too tired today to Facetime you. The effect of this will be to undermine the other parent’s relationship with the child and reduce the child’s expectation of time they will see the other parent. The alienated parent may find themselves excluded from involvement in the child’s day to day life, the alienator not making them aware of school parent evenings, concerts or shows, medical appointments etc. They may make important decisions about the child’s life in isolation leaving the alienated parent feeling excluded and uninformed.
Alternatively, we have seen many cases where something drastic happens, such as a false allegation is made which causes all contact to be severed for a lengthy period of time. We have experienced an array of allegations ranging from domestic abuse, sexual abuse, rape, and poisoning. Often a remark from a child is taken out of context by the alienating parent and misused in order to make an allegation to the police or social services about the other parent. This can result in that parent being arrested in relation to an offence and social services making a recommendation that they have no contact with their children until findings are made in the family court.
Inevitably the professionals including child protection police officers, social workers and CAFCASS guardian will have a default position of believing the child. The child is likely to be coerced or manipulated in the manufacture of the allegations by the alienating parent. Unfortunately for all involved, this process is likely to take many months. During this time the alienated parent will be completely isolated from the child which further reinforces the alienation. The focus of professional involvement will be on the accused and the false allegation rather than on the accusers. The alienating parent is left responsible for providing the child with a narrative as to why the absent parent has completely disappeared from their life. By the time the matter is heard by a family court, it is likely that the child will be expressing a desire not to see the alienated parent. Given that they will have perceived that they have been abandoned by that absent parent and have been privy to a biased narrative from the alienating parent during that period, this is not surprising.
Whatever the mechanism, the result is that the child becomes convinced that they would be happier without the alienated parent in their lives.
So, what can be done?
Parental alienation is a complex form of emotional abuse. The trauma it causes requires professional help for both you, the children and probably the alienating parent. From a legal perspective, seeking prompt expert professional advice can help you identify what can be done at an early stage with an aim to prevent the alienation becoming further entrenched. Stephanie Dew is a senior solicitor at Monan Gozzett Solicitors. She specialises in complex family litigationIn the first scenario, where the alienating parent is taking gradual steps to exclude you from the child’s life, an application can be made to the family courts under the Children Act 1989 for a child arrangement order. This order can set out clearly what should be happening with respect to contact, both direct and indirect (facetime, telephone calls, cards etc). If the alienating parent has been excluding you from involvement with decision making in relation to your child, eg with their schooling, an order can be obtained preventing this. If the alienating parent refuses to comply with the requirements of the order, the court can attach a penal notice meaning that if the alienating parent refuses to comply, they may be fined, ordered to undertake unpaid community work or in serious cases of non-compliance they can be sent to prison. In extreme cases, the court can order a change of residence so that the child moves to live with the alienated parent.
In certain cases it may be appropriate to instruct an appropriately qualified expert to carry out a comprehensive assessment at the outset of proceedings into the family dynamics, to provide an opinion on the causes of the child’s rejection, how the child and both parents respond to therapeutic input and detailed proposals for treatment.
In cases where a false allegation has been made the situation becomes rather more complex. Our team are experienced with representing clients with linked criminal and family matters and therefore a united approach can be taken to dealing with both matters. Even if the police have decided to take “no further action” following an investigation the family court often still wishes to proceed with a fact-finding hearing to ascertain the veracity of any allegations being made. Following this finding of fact, the court will move on to decide what is in the child’s best interests moving forward. It is important to obtain good quality legal advice in this situation. The child cannot be left in charge of the process. Whilst the court is required to consider their wishes and feelings, their views cannot be allowed to determine the outcome of the case. If appropriate professional support can be put in place, the alienated child can quickly reconnect with the alienated parent.
Alienation cases are particularly complex, they affect not just the alienated parent, but the extended family and the impact of the destruction of family relationships will have long term consequences for all those involved. It is essential not just to address the hostile parent’s behaviour but to also consider what course of action is in the best interests of the child with a view to promoting a relationship with both parents, whilst trying to minimise further trauma or distress. We aim to support you and your children through the process and we have experience working with a range of other professionals including, child and family therapists, counsellors, mediators, child psychologists and barristers who specialise in parental alienation.
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