Breaking the bonds: Parental alienation and the effect on families

In the usual balanced style of LGFL, this article explores Parental Alienation and the different aspects of the issue.

The organisers of the annual Parental Alienation Awareness day this week aim to promote a culture of equality in both child services and the family courts, and also on "Reducing the impact on children and their families experiencing family breakdown."

It's a noble aim, and we certainly agree that protecting children from the turmoil created by a bitter separation is crucial. However, parental alienation remains a controversial and hotly debated issue that is said to either be ignored or misused in family courts, depending on which side of the fence you are on. It has historically been and remains difficult to prove, even with the intervention of experts in the field.


What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation is when one parent, consciously or otherwise, has a negative and hostile attitude towards the other parent. This viewpoint is presented to the children, who then take on the same viewpoint.

As a result, the children become more distanced from their other parent. They may not want to see them as often, or not want any contact hours at all. As CAFCASS explains:

"Alienating behaviours (can) have the potential or intention to undermine or even destroy the child's relationship with their other parent or carer. These behaviours can result from a parent’s feelings of unresolved anger and a desire, conscious or not, to punish the other parent or carer."


Stuck in the middle

Sadly, it's not just the other parent who may feel punished. A Family Court Review in 2020 described the "Emotional abuse wrecked upon children who are victims of a manipulative parent."

Children experience a lot of emotional upheaval during a separation, and inevitably witness the arguments, anger, upset and frustration of their parents. When one parent turns against the other, the children are effectively being coerced into favouring one over the other. It takes a particularly determined and strong-willed child to insist on seeing their absent parent when their resident parent can't understand why the children even want to talk about them. It is with good reason that the Family Court called it “emotional abuse”.


Breaking the bonds

Parental alienation can potentially break the deep bonds between parents and their children. Recent cases highlight the situation for absent fathers who have been excluded from their children's lives by their ex-partner, and feel that the courts are not able to do much about their situation. The mother may cite parental alienation in court as a way to gain custody of children.

It’s not just the parents or children who will feel the long-lasting effects. Children have two sets of grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts, who may be cut off from the children’s lives simply because they are related to one parent. The children lose invaluable contact with this extended family with all its love, experience and support, isolating them further into the negative bubble of one parent’s viewpoint.

The same applies to family and personal friends, who may feel they have to ‘choose’ which person they socialise with and emotionally support. An angry alienating parent may cease contact with them if they have any contact with the maligned parent. Their children may have been friends too, and if contact is lost, they lose part of their own social network.


Domestic abuse and alienation

One of the reasons that parental alienation is such a hotly debated issue is that accusations have been used in court as a counter-allegation in cases of domestic abuse. Accusations of parental alienation can also enable abusers to continue their abusive control long after they have separated from their partner. There are cases of fathers misusing contact time with their children to perpetuate abuse, and then claiming parental alienation when the victim tries to take further action in court.


Parental alienation: the future

In August 2023, the Family Justice Council opened consultation for new guidelines for practitioners on how to handle accusations of parental alienation. We await the results with interest,


What all these means in practice

Tucked at the end of a Family Law Gazette article is a very telling sentence:

"A particular worry remains that so many parties in the Family Court unrepresented, and this affects the level of scrutiny expert witnesses face in such high-stakes cases."

In other words, if you are representing yourself in court and the other party proposes an expert witness, you may not have the experience and skills to examine and question their evidence.

That's why we always recommend that you seek legal advice early on in your separation. As a family law firm specialising in divorce, we work with you and for you to reach the best outcome for you and your children. We have decades of experience in dealing with expert witnesses drawn from across a wide range of professions. We also have considerable expertise (and empathy) in cases of domestic abuse, coercive control and post-separation abuse.

Contact us to book a 1 hour reduced fee consultation to discuss your specific circumstances and concerns.

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