Parental Alienation: The impact of separation on children

July 22, 2020, By Slater Heelis

Is your child refusing to spend time with you or their other parent following separation? Our family team explains parental alienation and how to work to overcome it.

When parents separate, it is inevitable that there will be some emotional impact on their children. There are, however, many resources and techniques available which help to lessen the effect of separation on children and, in an ideal world, both parents will utilise these tools and work together for the benefit of their children.

However, the reality can sometimes be very different and you may find yourself in a situation where your child resists or refuses to spend time with one parent. Whilst there are a number of different factors that could be influencing the child’s decision, such as domestic abuse or harmful parenting, it may also be as a result of one parent’s deliberate actions, known as ‘parental alienation’.

This concept is now a live issue that the courts are attuned to when considering cases. The government also identified it as a pressing concern, recommending a Green Paper in 2017 to address specific guidance on parental alienation in legislation that is otherwise silent on this issue. This proposed reform of the law was ultimately delayed, but it highlights the growing awareness and need to identify parental alienation in a family law case.

Out of court dispute resolution options, such as mediation and arbitration, are often used to resolve disputes relating to arrangements for children. In certain circumstances, children can even engage in mediation themselves such as where children express clear wishes that differ to the views of one or both parents (this is known as child-assisted mediation and requires a mediator that is specifically trained to speak to children).

However, mediation is unlikely to assist where you believe that the child’s expressed wishes are influenced by the other parent. In such circumstances, it is necessary to apply to the court for suitable child arrangements to be determined (through a Child Arrangements Order).

The best interests of the children

In deciding arrangements, the court has a duty to consider the child’s best interests. To assist the court in this process, guidance is obtained from an independent third party who will speak to the child and assess their behaviour as well as listen to their views (depending on their age and understanding). CAFCASS usually takes on this role (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service).

If there is no apparent or justifiable reason for the child to reject one parent, CAFCASS will need to carefully assess the behaviours of the child and both parents in order to establish whether there are any indicators of parental alienation. Examples of such behaviour include the child siding with one parent and de-valuing the role of, and vilifying, the other parent. The child may also talk openly about the rejected parent’s shortcomings and express no guilt regarding their attitudes towards the rejected parent.

Other markers include the child using adult language or appearing rehearsed in what they say. This can be very hurtful for the rejected parent especially when the child can seem to start taking on their own views if they have been exposed to persistent alienating. This is why it is important for a court to thoroughly investigate what is being said and understand why it is being said.

Both parents’ behaviours are also scrutinised as part of the court’s investigative techniques. There may be some obvious traits apparent in the behaviour of the alienating parent, such as actively denigrating and exaggerating flaws of the other parent. There may also be more subtle behaviours, such as repeating false information to the child to distort history, or perhaps not correcting the child’s rude or defiant behaviour.

The rejected parent’s behaviour can also be helpful to look at when trying to identify if parental alienation is taking place and, whilst it may be hard to hear, it can sometimes contribute to the dynamic of the situation. For example, they may have a more punitive parenting style, which the child may naturally want to avoid.

In extreme cases, it may be necessary for an expert psychologist to assess the whole family unit to determine the emotional impact of the child having been exposed to adult issues and to advise on appropriate support and intervention. The court has to give permission for an expert to be appointed, particularly where it is proposed that the child should be interviewed as part of the process. Understandably, not every case will meet the threshold criteria for such expert involvement.

It is crucial to seek expert legal advice and representation at an early stage where parental alienation is alleged, as there is ultimately a lot riding on the outcome for the children involved. Even when proceedings have concluded, there is often a lot of ongoing support required by an affected family to address the emotional impact on a child of parental alienation, particularly if it has been a persistent, long-standing campaign.

Expert legal guidance

Where you suspect there has been any parental alienation, or if you have any difficulties agreeing arrangements for your children, get in touch with our expert family lawyers who specialise in this complex area of children law.

Call us on 0161 969 3131 or fill in our contact form and of one the team will be in touch.