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Parental Alienation - what you need to know

View profile for Cathryn Harper-Tedstone
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CAFCASS, the ‘Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service’ defines the term parental alienation as ‘The unjustified resistance or hostility from a child towards one parent as a result of psychological manipulation by the other parent’.

How does the family Court deal with this parental isolation?
CAFCASS are involved in every case before the Court, to determine any safeguarding risks, and/or investigate welfare concerns including parental alienation. However, parental alienation is not a term defined in the Children Act 1989 and this issue is a key factor in many cases before the Court, usually when one parent is saying the child does not want to spend time with the other parent, sometimes out of the blue, or stating reasons which are not echoed by the child.

This issue was considered at length by Sir Andrew McFarlane in Re C ('parental Alienation'; Instruction of Expert) [2023] EWHC 345 (Fam) on 21 February 2023, with his judgment being published in December 2023. The case related to an expert determination of whether the mother was ‘alienating’ the father. The case centred around the qualifications of the expert, with the ACP UK (Association of Clinical Psychologists UK) becoming involved within the case due to the alleged lack of qualification of the expert who had produced a report stating the mother was alienating the father. This resulted in a change of residence for the children into the father’s care. Nevertheless, and outside of the issues relating to the expert, Sir Andrew McFarlane gave very helpful guidance on how the Court will deal with allegations of parental alienation.  

At paragraph 103 of his judgment he states “Before leaving this part of the appeal, one particular paragraph in the ACP skeleton argument deserves to be widely understood and, I would strongly urge, accepted:

'Much like an allegation of domestic abuse; the decision about whether or not a parent has alienated a child is a question of fact for the Court to resolve and not a diagnosis that can or should be offered by a psychologist. For these purposes, the ACP-UK wishes to emphasise that "parental alienation" is not a syndrome capable of being diagnosed, but a process of manipulation of children perpetrated by one parent against the other through, what are termed as, "alienating behaviours". It is, fundamentally, a question of fact.'

It is not the purpose of this judgment to go further into the topic of alienation. Most Family judges have, for some time, regarded the label of 'parental alienation', and the suggestion that there may be a diagnosable syndrome of that name, as being unhelpful. What is important, as with domestic abuse, is the particular behaviour that is found to have taken place within the individual family before the court, and the impact that that behaviour may have had on the relationship of a child with either or both of his/her parents. In this regard, the identification of 'alienating behaviour' should be the court's focus, rather than any quest to determine whether the label 'parental alienation' can be applied”.

Sadly, there are many cases before the Court which include this type of manipulation of children which is fundamentally harmful to a child’s meaningful relationship with one parent. We now understand that the Court should look at a pattern of behaviour of one parent, which influences the child and their relationship with the other parent rather than solely focus on an expert’s determination of a psychological condition. We must remember that an independent expert report is there to assist the Court in establishing what a child has experienced, but the expert’s opinion is still subject to judicial scrutiny and determination.

Parental alienation is a complex factor for the Court to consider, and centres around a pattern of behaviour exhibited by one parent such as the following:

  • Incorrect recall of past events, which centre around the wrongdoing of one parent.
  • Encouraging disrespect or resistance towards the other parent.
  • Negative comments about the other parent.
  • Not encouraging contact with the other parent, or making contact seem unattractive.
  • Denying the child emotional permission to spend time with the other parent, and/or enjoy time away from the other parent.  
  • Manipulating the child into thinking the other parent is not trustworthy, reliable, or safe.

What you need to know about parental alienation
When considering this issue, there needs to be an element of caution when labelling a circumstance as “parental alienation” as a reluctance from the child to spend time with the parent may be due to other factors. It's important to remember that when a child is exhibiting the usual signs of the alienating behaviour it does not always mean they are being manipulated by the other parent. Children can, unfortunately be fickle, stubborn, strong willed and know how to play one parent against the other, especially when the parents are co-parenting in different households. Further, as children grow older, they become more independent, and resistant to parental guidance or direction. That being said, if the child’s attitude or resistance to contact is thought to be out of character, or unjustified, there are steps you should take to carefully consider how to resolve matters. These steps are as follows:

  1. Be aware of the comments/actions of your child. Is your child making adult comments, saying untrue things about you etc. If so, keep a note of these and monitor the situation. Any response should be completely child focused and not involve negative comments about the other parent. Don’t fight fire with fire as this approach only places your child in the middle of conflict.
  2. Remain child focused and keep going. Understandably, this situation can be very upsetting for both parents and the children involved, especially when your child is saying negative things about you or does not want to see you. The key thing to remember is that the law is on your side, and the starting point is that every child has the right to a meaningful relationship with both parents, unless it is unsafe to do so. Children need both parents, and extended family in their lives and the Court are here to ensure this happens.
  3. Speak to a family lawyer. If you feel that you are being alienated, the best course of action is to speak to a family practitioner sooner rather than later. Sadly, the more entrenched a child becomes in alienating thoughts, the harder it can be to rebuild the relationship. It is best to nip it in the bud as soon as possible. A family lawyer can talk through the options that you can take including whether family therapy may be appropriate to improve your communication with your co-parent and reduce the negative thoughts between you.

If you require specialist legal advice in relation to Parental Alienation or any other issues, please contact one of the family team at Roythornes who will be happy to help.