Parental alienation is a distressing phenomenon that can significantly impact families undergoing separation or divorce. It describes a situation where one parent deliberately and systematically engages in a course of conduct that causes or influences their children to reject the other parent.
It might not necessarily be done for malicious reasons. The alienating parent may feel that they are doing the right thing by distancing their children from someone they believe (rightly or wrongly) is unsafe. But whether or not malicious, it’s still manipulative and can result in the destruction of the relationship between the children and the other parent, which can cause the children – and that parent –long-term psychological damage.
In such complex cases, it would be best to have the guidance of a family lawyer when navigating the legal aspects and seeking solutions that prioritise the well-being of the children and foster healthier family dynamics.
In my practice, actual parental alienation is rare. What is more common is a form of parental estrangement where the children reject a parent due to that parent’s failure to build a strong bond and connection with them. That lack of connection may well be worsened by the behaviour of the other parent, who might not actively encourage a beneficial relationship and may themselves passively or actively reject the other parent in a way which influences the children, but not in such a way that falls into the category of parental alienation.
Signs of parental alienation
Cases of genuine parental alienation may include the following:
- Denigration – The alienating parent speaks poorly about the other parent consistently, in a variety of settings. This may involve the alienating parent using ‘adult’ language and speaking about matters beyond their child’s developmental age. The alienating parent may justify their behaviour as being ‘honest’ and ‘truthful’ while painting the other parent as being ‘dishonest’ or ‘repressed.’
- False allegations – The children or the alienating parent may accuse the other parent of neglecting the children or abusing them physically, sexually, or emotionally. This may result in complaints to child welfare agencies or the police. Those complaints usually result in no action being taken, but exposing the children to these settings can be very upsetting to them.
- Black and white thinking – The children or the alienating parent lack nuance in their descriptions of the other parent, describing them as ‘all bad’ in all settings. The children are unable to identify or express positive aspects of the other parent or similarities between their own personality and that of the other parent.
- Lack of remorse or empathy – The children or the alienating parent do not show any guilt if they mistreat the other parent. If they verbally or physically attack the other parent, they say that the cause of the actions is that parent’s behaviour rather than taking accountability for their inappropriate actions.
- Unwavering support of the alienating parent – The children back the alienating parent in any contest between the parents, even if to do so is unreasonable, illogical, or contrary to the children’s best interests.
- Practised communications – The children may speak about the parties and their living situation in a robotic way that sounds scripted or coached, involving language which is not consistent with their developmental age. They may struggle to express a range of opinions, particularly if those opinions differ from the alienating parent.
- Anxiety – The children express significant distress at the prospect of spending time with the other parent. The alienating parent may express disproportionate anxiety at the prospect of seeing or interacting with the other parent, including at changeover. This may cause them to reject communicating with the other parent and to use the children or other adults to communicate messages to the other parent.
Parental alienation can be very harmful to children. It may make them feel like they are bad people if they have positive feelings towards the other parent. It may mean that the children start to repeat things the alienating parent says or make ‘reports’ about the other parent to the alienating parent that reinforces the latter’s belief about the other parent.
The alienation often extends to others associated with the alienated parent, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, stepparents, cousins, and half-siblings.
Parental alienation is an extremely complex issue. All of the above factors may be present to some degree in situations where there’s no parental alienation. It can be easy to confuse cases of alienation and genuine estrangement. The target parent is likely to feel equally devastated whether their circumstances are the result of alienation or estrangement caused by their own conduct. Their devastation is valid in either case, and there are things that can be done to assist and address alienating conduct, with the assistance of a specialist family lawyer who understands the underlying issues.