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What is parental alienation?

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Divorce and the family home

Breaking up is never easy to do. 

In the past few weeks, we’ve witnessed the fall out of ‘separation’ in the news and in the media.  We have fallen out with Europe and have decided to divorce. At home we fell out politically on a number of levels. Relationships are faltering all around us, creating instability and uncertainty.

A break up at any level can result in long standing damage if not dealt with carefully.  Separation can feel very personal, particularly so if there are deep rooted hostilities that prevent children spending time with a parent or child not wanting to see them.

Often, these feelings evolve from long-term problems between partners. When trust, respect and any feeling of loyalty or compassion are gone, it is nearly impossible to appreciate any benefit to a child of having the other parent in their lives. This can lead to the child being manipulated - whether consciously or sub-consciously - to say certain things, or act in a certain way. In the extreme, we have seen the extreme cases of encouraging a child to manufacture very serious allegations against their parent. 

When these allegations lead to the Police being involved, a parent can find themselves on bail, without charge and with conditions preventing them from seeing their child.  Any parent in this situation should seek advice from an experience child care lawyer alongside any criminal solicitor.  There should be no delay and anything which prevents a parent from contact with their child should be brought before the family court regardless of a police investigation.

This type of behaviour, by one parent against the other, has a name - Parental Alienation. In the UK, the phrase isn’t widely recognised, but countries such as Canada and USA have been proactive in dealing with it, while in Mexico and Brazil a criminal act is committed if a child is found to have been alienated from a parent in this way.

Label or no label, its presence is very real and requires rapid intervention if there is to be any chance of a healthy, stable future, free of long term psychological harm.   A child caught in the middle can often express very loud and forceful views about not wanting contact, when previously there has been a loving and close relationship.  The impact upon a child of being ‘recruited’ and alienated in this way should not be underestimated and asking children to make decisions about contact burdens them with a responsibility that they should not be asked to bear.

As a child heads towards adolescence resolving any conflict only becomes harder.  Yes - a child’s wishes and feelings should always be considered – the Children Act 1989 requires the court to do this - but the outcome of this consideration shouldn’t be predetermined. But those wishes are one of a number of important factors to be taken into account and there needs to be an accurate assessment of what is actually going on within the family.

Where there is clearly no evidence to justify the prevention of contact then the priority is to re-establish the relationship as quickly as possible.  Where court orders are ignored, and manipulation continues, courts can be forced into a transfer of residence in the interest of the child’s welfare. Such behaviour distorts the relationship of the child not only with their parents but also with the outside world. In the past, the courts have been slow to transfer residence, especially when taking account of the practical issues of moving a child to another home in the face of their opposition.  However this does seem to be changing. 

In several recent cases, children have gone into foster care or to a neutral third party to allow for them to transition to the care of the alienated parent.  It is one of many measure the courts are willing to take if contact does not take place.   A relationship with a parent is that important.

Parents grappling with separation should always stop and think about their behaviour in this time of stress and distress – not only towards their ex, but of anything that could cause worry, stress and anxiety for the children.

Parents need to think about what affect their behaviour is having on their children’s views and wishes. What’s more, parents can often create problems for themselves through their behaviour. This could include:

  • Giving children a choice about whether to visit when there is a court order in place
  • Sharing details about the breakdown of the relationship and reasons for your separation – this can be destructive and painful for a child
  • Refusing to cooperate by not allowing your ex access to school or medical records or schedules of extracurricular activities
  • Blaming your ex for your financial problems, break up of a family or changes in lifestyle
  • Refusing to be flexible with visits particularly if it is right for the child 
  • Organising so many other things for a child to do that there is little time to see their parent
  • Asking a child to choose between the two parents
  • Asking a child to spy or gather information about your ex

‘Bribing’ the child in a way that would interfere with their wish to see their parent – arranging to go to their favourite place or promising to buy something at their favourite shop

Reacting with hurt or sadness if a child says they have had a good time with your ex

The examples say much about the parent and little about what is best for the child. If you are sense that things are changing with your children or are experiencing a difficulty in seeing them always talk to your ex first.

Most parents can sort these things out.  But if you are worried, don’t be afraid to take extra advice, if only in an initial discussion with a family law professional.

By family and divorce solicitor, Mandy Rimmer