November 16, 2020

What is parental alienation and how does it impact on children when relationships break down between parents?

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Parental Alienation

Parental alienation is a term that can often be used by parents without much thought as to the impact making such a claim can have. But whilst it is a term that is thrown into disputes when issues arise regarding arrangements for a separating couple’s children, there are times when genuine alienation causes real harm to both children and families.

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation is the estrangement of a child, or children, from one of their parents as a result of the actions and manipulation of the other parent. The process of alienation, which is most often undertaken by the parent who has the more frequent care duties, has a number of manifestations which can include disrespectful behaviour, hostility and sometimes fear towards one parent.

The issue of parental alienation is of growing concern within the family courts and it is viewed by many as a form of child abuse. Under the laws of England and Wales, all children have the right to know and have a relationship with both their parents and where there are no welfare concerns, contact should be supported by both parents.

The impact on children

When relationships break down, children can often become the ‘weapon’ and find themselves dragged into the middle of parental conflict, with one parent alienating the children from the other. In the case of Re A (Children) (Parental alienation) the mother’s campaign of alienation was described by the Judge as “demonising” and “alienating”, leaving the children suffering “significant and long-term emotional harm”. 

The psychological effects of alienation on children can be extremely severe and long lasting. In the case of Re H (parental alienation), the Judge stated that if the mother continued to alienate the child from his father than this would “impede his [the child’s] ability to form meaningful and positive relationships now and in the future. It may cause him to suffer depression in later life”. He spoke of the damage that would have been done to the child’s emotional and mental wellbeing, such as identity crises and poor self-esteem.

Recognising alienation

Legal practitioners need to be alert to the issue of parental alienation, and the repercussions it can have on a child if it isn’t detected and addressed. However, identifying parental alienation is not always easy, particularly at the early stages of proceedings; damage to the emotional wellbeing of the child can be done before the underlying cause of this damage is identified. Legal advisers will need to consider the particular circumstances of a case where parental alienation may be occurring, and gather, from an appropriate expert, the expert opinion as to why issues in a parent/child relationship are occurring. If these steps are taken early enough and obstruction of contact is dealt with effectively, then any further damage to the wellbeing of the child may be avoided.

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