Parental Alienation: Where Subtle Negativity has an Impact

Year Published: 2019

Father’s day is a time to acknowledge the importance of Fathers. For most, it is a day of recognition and togetherness. However, for some, the day may be an unhappy reminder of time lost with their children or a time to recognise the signs of parental alienation.

When a relationship between adults fails, any number of consequences can arise. For many parents, they are absolutely committed to approaching separation with civility and cooperation to ensure the transition for their children is seamless and positive.

Sadly, there are a small minority of parents for whom the emotional impact of the relationship breakdown is too intense. They struggle to overcome their negativity and mistrust of the other and this becomes an integral part of their ongoing interactions.

This can be overtly hostile; manifesting itself in anger, threats, vitriolic communications, even physical altercations damaging to all concerned, most particularly the children.

In a few cases the negativity is more subtle, the impact equally destructive. These cases are becoming defined as those of ‘parental alienation’.

The cumulative effect of a pattern of behaviours

Parental alienation is referred to as a syndrome, but is in reality a pattern of behaviours, the cumulative effect of which is to cause the breakdown of the relationship between a child and their parent. It can occur deliberately, but sometimes not.

What are the signs of parental alienation?

Most usually, but not exclusively:

  • There is a child who previously had a good relationship with the absent parent;
  • This child is now resistant to spending time with that parent, or in some cases, refusing to see them altogether;
  • The child claims this is their choice, and clearly believes this to be so however, when asked to provide reasoning for their position, struggles to come up with specific examples of historical problems or examples of sufficient extremity to warrant their position;
  • The child states emotional absolutes such as ‘the relationship is broken’, ‘My life is fine without my father in it’;
  • The child will often express adult reasons for their decision such as ‘he’s a waste of space’, ‘he only wants to pay less child support’;
  • The child is resolutely supportive and defensive of the residential parent, to the extent it is clear they perceive a side has to be taken and they have made their election.

How does this situation come about?

There are often complex dynamics at play in parental alienation. Again, there are many facets and the following can play their part:

  • The child becomes aware of hostility and negativity between the parents, and not necessarily explicitly. When children sense problems they eavesdrop telephone calls, they listen when you believe they are not, and they hear the resident parent’s exasperation, frustration and annoyance with the other parent;
  • In support of the unhappy resident parent, they may say something negative about the other parent, such as ‘I’m bored at dad’s house’, ‘I don’t like his new girlfriend’s children’, etc. Whilst the right thing may be said in response, the resident parent is secretly pleased and many, often unwittingly, reward the child for their expression of ‘loyalty’, e.g. ‘Well, we’ll do something nice together when you get back to make up’, or reinforce the negativity ‘what is it the girlfriend’s children do that you don’t like?’ Whilst these may seem innocuous remarks, the child is being rewarded directly or indirectly through increased attention, as a result of their negative comment;
  • As opposition to the absent parent provides credit with the resident parent, so the child becomes slowly entrenched in their diorama;
  • The resident parent becomes increasingly sure that contact with the absent parent is neither wanted by the child, nor in their best interests. The breakdown of contact is presented by the resident parent as being at the child’s instigation, the claim being the child is expressing implacable hostility to contact and it would be emotionally damaging to them to force the issue;

Potential damage to the child

Boy looking at a broken family

The law presumes that children are best served by maintaining contact with both parents, and for good reason. Studies show that children manage better socially, emotionally and academically where they have the ongoing involvement of both parents, and that emotionally conflicted children struggle to thrive.



Is there a practical solution to Parental Alienation?

Unfortunately, parental alienation presents real difficulty for the courts. If a child is vehemently opposed to spending time with a parent, it can be counterproductive to force the issue. Parents are not expected to use physical force to require their children to attend, older children will simply leave, and any drama in the attempt of contact can reinforce the child`s reluctance to engage in a situation which brings their parents into direct conflict.

What can the law do?

If a parent is perceived to be wilfully obstructing an order that the child spends time with the other parent, enforcement action includes:

  • Warning notices;
  • Contact directions (such as requiring attendance at parenting programmes);
  • Monitoring of compliance by an officer of the court;
  • Compensation for financial losses;
  • Unpaid work of up to 200 hours by the offending parent;
  • Fines;
  • mmittal to prison.

The obvious flaw being that each of these lends credibility to the child’s perception that the absent parent is vindictive and out to hurt the chosen parent.

In the reported case of Re: S (A Child) [2010] EWCA Civ 325 the court had threatened to take the child from the resident parent and place them to live with the absent parent, this being the only way the court could envisage the child maintaining a relationship with both parents. This is a gamble and would involve the child being placed in foster care whilst they were ‘deprogrammed’. This is significant because, in parental alienation cases I have known about, which have come to this last resort, the parent with primary care has suddenly managed to persuade the child to relent and contact has recommenced.

Father and SonIn my experience, very few parents are indifferent to their children’s welfare, however a significant number have their judgment clouded by the complex emotional maelstrom that inevitably accompanies relationship breakdown and some may be assisted by family counselling at the early stages.

Absent parents also need to ensure they do not inadvertently feed a child’s wariness by:

  • Attaching too little importance to issues which may seem small to them but are significant to a child (sleeping without a favoured toy, sleeping without outside lights on, etc.);
  • Changing usual routines such as bedtimes, overlooking homework, etc. as these cause stress.
  • Changing boundaries, such as punishable behaviour, as this leads children to feel worryingly insecure;
  • Being uncivil to their former spouse/partner either directly, or through body language, such as turning and walking away whilst being spoken to;
  • Progressing new situations, such as new partners, at a speed the children may feel is too fast.

Can it be fixed?

Small starts work best. Consider:

  • Community based contact, such as a hot chocolate in a café for 20 minutes.
  • Watching a football game where support is evident by attendance, but the child isn’t required to inter-react;
  • Skype contact with younger children. Read a bedtime story;
  • Start contact with an independent social worker who can unobtrusively observe and provide a report if needed.

Parental alienation is easier to rectify if tackled early. If you can relate to the above or fear your situation could deteriorate, contact our Family law team on 0161 475 7676.

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