Understanding Parental Alienation

I truly, deeply sympathise with anyone suffering through parental alienation. There are no two ways about it, it is plain wrong, and if it’s not a Six Inch Killers topic then I don’t know what is.

To satisfy my own curiosity, I ran an Instagram poll asking whether anyone had suffered the effects of parental alienation. Anecdotally (this was not exactly scientific), 25% of the people who saw the question answered “yes”, which is a high percentage when you consider the devastating impact it has on children and their families. And this only captures the ones who want to talk about it.

For parents feeling the affects of a child manipulated against them, it has been an uphill battle (knee deep in mud and wearing iron boots) to have their fears and pain recognised.

Putting a child’s testimony at the heart of divorce proceedings seems to be a sensible way to protect them, but if that child has been the victim of parental alienation that testimony becomes enormously problematic. The child can no longer be the best judge of their own wellbeing, which begs the question – who is?

What is parental alienation?

In the UK there’s a difference between parental alienation, and Parental Alienation Syndrome (PA Syndrome). Parental alienation is the name given to the behaviours of a parent towards their child, whereas PA Syndrome is the outcome of this behaviour.

Behaviours of an alienating parent

CAFCASS has fairly recently set out a list of behaviours which may indicate an alienating parent. This was summarised in a great, if not depressing, article by two Family Law barristers as follows:

  • derogatory comments about the other parent;
  • suggesting the other parent presents a danger;
  • bringing the child into the dispute as a confidant;
  • obstructing or mitigating contact;
  • reframing the non-resident parent’s legitimate actions as wrong, or nasty. i.e. shouting or reprimanding the child;
  • not recognising, or rejecting any positive comments or behaviours regarding the targeted parent; and
  • creating an unnecessary level of dependency between the child and the alienating parent.

I can feel you nodding your head as you look down the list. It almost hurts how familiar some of these behaviours are, and you see it again and again in the stepmother forums, in comments on Instagram, in blog articles; these happen all the time.

Some other practical examples are explored in this article written by Alison Bushell, a social worker (and expert Family Law witness). The behaviours which stand out for me are:

  • drawing in third parties without telling the other parent, e.g. going to the child’s school to talk about issues without including the other parent, making them seem disinterested; and
  • sharing a parent’s communication out of context, making them appear unstable or unhinged. This is also a form of gaslighting.

Feeling a little uncomfortable?

Before you start biting your nails, remembering the badly timed ‘derogatory comments’ you and your other half made in the kitchen the other night about the Ex (which were definitely, definitely overheard by your stepchildren), be assured that there is a distinction between criticism and the behaviours listed above.

We’ve all said things we wish we hadn’t in the heat of sheer mind-numbing frustration, which spills over before you can help it. I have no doubt that you’re doing your best, and the chances are that you can and should distinguish this from parental alienation which is toxic, relentless and intentional.

Behaviour of alienated children

The following list might indicate the early signs of PA Syndrome in a child:

  • increasingly negative focus on the alienated parent, with the child showing unjustifiably one-sided views against that parent;
  • lack of neutrality or ambivalence – talks openly and without prompting as to the rejected parent’s shortcomings;
  • extreme and unecessary negativity in response to the parent’s behaviour. i.e. vilification of a parent for a minor (and appropriate) punishment or slight mistake;
  • child’s talk not matched by behaviour. i.e. child saying they’re scared of parent before contact, then having a positive contact and showing no fear;
  • making comments which are very similar to the other parent’s comments;
  • revising positive memories of previously enjoyable or pleasant experiences with the rejected parent;
  • reporting negative events that they could not possibly remember; and
  • claiming to be fearful but the child themselves are aggressive, confrontational, even belligerent. 

Julia Nelson and Iain Hutchinson, Parklane Plowden Chambers

Ouch, ouch and ouch. The trouble with many of these is that external parties, such as the Court, could easily chalk them down to the temperament or character of the child, the age they’re at perhaps (hello teenager!), or as evidence of a parent’s misdemeanour – particularly if the child’s narrative aligns with the other parent’s.

The Court must always investigate claims of domestic abuse. However in the instances of parental alienation or PA Syndrome which have lead to this, it invariably finds inconsistencies which eventually clears the accused parent. That is not to undermine the absolute hell that a parent must go through in order to clear their name, however, and the more public awareness which can be raised about parental alienation and PA Syndrome the better.

In short, Parental Alienation Syndrome indicates a form of psychological child abuse

An understanding of the psychological impacts are in their infancy, but it’s now widely accepted that they are enormously damaging. So damaging, in fact, that it constitutes a form of psychological child abuse.

A child exhibiting signs of PA Syndrome has been so thoroughly manipulated against a parent that they display signs of:

  • a lack of empathy;
  • low self-esteem;
  • self-hatred;
  • lack of trust;
  • depression; and
  • are at high risk of becoming alienated from their own children.

Self-hatred, low self-esteem etc. might not immediately spring to mind as obvious outcomes of a child hating their parent, but it makes sense when you consider how much of your identity is derived from who your parents are; particularly in the early stages of life. It is inevitable that we draw parallels between our own behaviour and our parents’, and telling a child that their parent is “bad” encourages the assumption that any similar part within the child is bad also.

Imagine being told by family members or friends how much you remind them of your mother or father, to then be told how hideous, or selfish, or repugnant your mother or father is by your other parent. How do you even begin to reconcile this within yourself?

A form of family violence

Edward Kruk PhD, writing in Psychology Today in 2018, called for the immediate and urgent response of lawyers, mediators and psychologists (to name a few – basically any professional coming into contact with parental alienation) in recognising parental alienation as a form of family violence.

It’s absolutely damning, isn’t it? And expert opinion such as this should be making the legal system sit up.

Kruk then takes this further, by pointing out that family violence is a form of criminal behaviour. One of the interventions he therefore advocates is a criminal justice response – enforcement against the alienating parent under the weight of the law.

Other practical suggestions are:

  • a child protection response (from the local child protection services), as a child suffering from PA Syndrome is not safe;
  • immediate reunification between the child and the targeted parent (e.g. new living arrangements); and
  • the provision of family therapy to target the damage caused.

The good news is that we’re becoming more aware of parental alienation

Thank god for that, we’re starting to talk about it more.

Last year, the BBC’s Women’s Hour ran a segment on the Court’s increasing focus on parental alienation, and how we’re wising up to the damaging effects of it in the UK. A month later, the BBC also released an exploration by Philippa Perry of the psychological manipulation of children during divorce. The concept is entering the mainstream media and that is something to celebrate.

Family mediators have reported that parents now arrive in their offices already using the terminology. They know that their lack of access is a direct result of parental alienation, and they’re not afraid to pinpoint this as the problem from the start. This wasn’t the case until very recently, and the fact that this language is now being used by struggling families indicates to professionals how badly these families want to be taken seriously.

And as far as Kruk’s recommendations go?

There is broad acceptance that social services training needs to take place. It’s a slow burner though, and lawyers note that uptake doesn’t seem to have been fantastic. There is now, at least, a CAFCASS framework to assist social workers in recognising parental alienation (along with other abuse), and this can only be a step in the right direction.

The Court, too, has started to order the removal of children from households where the very worst child manipulation is occurring. In recent history children would remain in an abusive household on the basis that they were “settled and secure”, but in theory this is now no longer the case.

But the work isn’t over yet

Although it can make the Orders suggested above, the Court has very limited power to forcefully remove a child from a home they do not want to leave. If a child does not want to live with the alienated parent, there is very little the Court can do beyond the Order that it makes.

We’re therefore in the difficult situation of having a solution which is entirely unenforceable.

The best thing we can do is to keep raising awareness of this pernicious, persisting issue, in the hope that other families can catch it and kill it early. Alienating behaviour has the tendency to snowball, and the results of unchecked parental alienation can be absolutely devastating for children and parents alike.

Parental alienation from the alienated parent’s perspective – I interviewed Dadvocate; see what he said here.

We’ve also bitten the bullet and shared our own parental alienation story here – for better or for worse!

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Above sound all too familiar but not sure where to start to get the advice you so desperately need? Here I’ve set out the nuts and bolts of the UK’s legal system, and some ideas to get you started.

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