The issue of parental alienation has become particularly prevalent in family law cases over recent years and this has sparked growing concern among the public, the courts and the social work sector.
Parental alienation can be defined as a process in which a parent acts or speaks in a way, without legitimate justification, that causes a child to not wish to maintain a relationship with the other parent. A parent may speak or act in such a way as to lead the child to believe that they do not, consciously or unconsciously, want to engage with their other parent. It is extremely important to establish quickly whether alienation has taken place and also to take swift action before the impact on the child leaves the relationship with the other parent irreparable.
The issue is a complex one, as parental alienation is one of a number of reasons why a child might reject or resist spending time with one parent post-separation. All potential risk factors, such as domestic abuse or substance abuse, must be adequately and safely considered, reduced or resolved before assessing the other reasons. Cases in which parental alienation plays a part require careful assessment and decision making, as the impact of any final decision made by the courts can be life changing for both the parents and children.
Alienating behaviours vary and equally have a varied impact on individual children. Examples of these behaviours include constantly badmouthing or belittling the other parent, thereby exposing the child to negative views about the alienated parent. This can happen directly or indirectly and can be simply failing to protect the child from being exposed to these views. In some cases, the behaviours can include actively giving false or negative statements to a child to create a false negative perception of that parent. In other cases, the alienating parent might limit contact, by, for example, putting obstacles in the way of it or offering alternative activities and plans to discourage the child from spending time with the other parent. The child might be forbidden from mentioning the alienated parent and the alienating parent might create the impression that the other parent does not love the child. As a result of this, the child can come to believe that the alienated parent is dangerous, untrustworthy or simply does not care for them.
Issues of parental alienation should be treated with the utmost care and involve trained professionals. Unless these cases are dealt with robustly and swiftly, with the alienation stopped in its tracks, irreparable damage can be caused to the child. Alienation often becomes more difficult to deal with the longer it has been going on, so it is important to identify it as soon as possible. However, there should be some mechanism in place for dealing with the aftermath of parental alienation after it has been addressed.
The courts have been prepared to change residence in order to stop parental alienation, even if this initially causes distress to the child, and children have been placed with the alienated parent with the aim of preventing further emotional damage. However, all cases are unique and the impact of parental alienation affects each child differently, so repairing the damage caused by alienation may not be as simple as changing residence. The parties involved, including the child, are likely to need intensive, committed and relevant therapy in order to repair all the relationships and protect the mental health and emotional wellbeing of the child. Having a strongly negative view of a parent can affect a child’s future relationships, give a child trust issues, result in mental health problems and have lasting effects on a child’s self-esteem and self-identity.
There are many examples of alienation, but the law is clear that a child needs to have a positive relationship with both parents, unless there is a clear reason why this cannot happen, for example, if it puts the child at risk of harm.
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