Understanding Parental Alienation: Progress and Challenges in Family Law

    Understanding Parental Alienation: Progress and Challenges in Family Law

    In 2019 I wrote a blog about parental alienation (linked here). It’s time for an update on where we are now 5 years on…

    The legal starting point

    Is that it is best for a child to grow up having a safe relationship with both parents after they separate. Parents may be flawed but having both loving parents in their life maximises a child’s emotional health for their future wellbeing. 

    What is parental alienation?

    It is where one parent expresses an ongoing negative attitude towards the other parent that has the potential or intention of undermining or destroying the child’s relationship with the other parent.  It can be emotionally abusive and harmful to a child. 

    Is the label of parental alienation helpful? 

    It can be unhelpful to apply a label of Parental Alienation to a parent. The guidance is that rather than applying a label, instead we should look at what is the presenting issue, the parents specific behaviours and explore the reasons for a child’s refusal of a relationship with one parent.  Applying a universal label may not help unpick each unique family’s dynamics.  

    It is rare that one parent is “all bad” but parents may need to recognise and change some behaviours.  

    Children need to be given emotional “permission” to see the other parent.  A parent may not realise what they are doing or may feel entirely justified in rejecting the other parent’s involvement in the child’s life.  Children can align themselves emotionally with one parent and their views about the other parent with or without encouragement (conscious or otherwise). Sometimes rejection of a parent is shown in the presence of one parent only because it is expected by that parent. 

    One parent may have always been the primary carer.  They may, post separation, feel their role as such should continue without involvement from the other parent. It may be they are struggling to adjust to the new family dynamics and the new role the other parent now has to play. 

    It may not be a conscious deliberate decision to undermine the child’s relationship with the other parent.  

    If a child has previously had a loving relationship with the parent the refusal to see them now may not be legitimate. 

    A parent may have been subject to domestic abuse or coercive control from the other parent which affects their ability to see any positives in the “abusive” parent.  There may be a need to keep the child safe from harmful behaviours.  

    Just because a child says they don’t want to see one parent that may or may not represent their true wishes and feelings.  The child’s age and level of insight and understanding are important factors to consider when the Court determines what their real wishes and feelings are.  

    Exposure to derogatory comments about the other parent within a home can have an impact. Think about what adult conversations take place which children might overhear.  Try to shield children from the fallout of separation. 

    We know what it is but what is it not?

    It is not a syndrome recognised by the medical profession.

    What if there are good reasons for a parent not to be involved in a child’s life and a parent is protecting that child from the other parent? A child may genuinely be frightened of a parent because of what they have experienced historically from the parent they are now opposed to seeing. 

    A child may have come to their own decision about what they want entirely free from influence from either parent. Are they old enough to do so? It depends every child is unique. 

    Things to be alert for 

    A child may have a hostile response to the prospect of seeing the other parent (“I am not going”, “I don’t want to see them”, “you cant make me”. There can be numerous reasons for that.

    A child may present with physical symptoms crying, wetting, poor sleep before seeing the other parent.  A sign something is wrong but what. Is it that they are scared of one parent or scared to go for fear they will upset the other parent?

    What happens next? 

    Clear and expert input is needed to determine what is the reality of what is happening for your individual child. Is one parent influencing them or are there very real reasons why they should not go? 

    If one parent is deliberately preventing a child from having a full relationship with the other parent without good reason then that parent's ability to meet the child’s emotional needs (and continue to care for them) might be challenged even if meeting their physical needs. 

    What can be done

    • Parents may need to work on their parenting skills to meet their child’s needs.  
    • An expert can help unpick and understand the family dynamics and what is the crux of the presenting issue.  
    • Children may need help and support from someone outside of the family to reorder their experiences and memories and attitude to a parent if a parent is being rejected without justification. 
    • Reunification work may be needed
    • Change of living with one parent to another might need to be considered.
    • Therapy to help a child understand the reality of the situation (this must not be set up if there are ongoing Court proceedings unless a Judge has approved it as being right for the child). Don’t arrange it without seeking advice as it might make things worse if not dealt with appropriately. 
    • Helping parents understand what is really going on for their child which may be different from what they think is going on!

    What happens next? 

    CAFCASS (the Child and Family Court advisory and support service) may become involved to speak to you and your child about what has happened. 

    Mediation may be appropriate. 

    The role of experts  may be crucial.  We have available to us experts in the fields of child psychiatry, psychologists, Independent Social workers who we work with regularly and who help resolve the problems you and your child may face. We work collaboratively with them to support your family. 

    Such experts can often help assess the potential cause of the rejection of a parent and offer therapeutic intervention where appropriate and if approved by the Court to do so.  

    If there is an unjustifiable failure to promote a relationship with both parents and no changes can be made, a transfer of living from one parent to the other might need to be considered. 

    Mental Health issues or personality disorders may be impacting one parent– a psychological or psychiatric expert may be required to assess this.  

    Allegations of abuse may need a Court fact finding hearing to determine a baseline for the truth of what has gone on before so that future plans can be made safely.

    What you as a parent should not do 

    • Do not risk alienating your child from the other parent but do make sure they are safe. 
    • If you are worried your child is at risk of harm from the other parent you should not directly question children about the other parent. 
    • Seek professional help but don’t arrange for experts to see the child yourself.  Speak to Children’s Social Care first and your GP and lawyer.
    • Evidence can be tainted if not dealt with properly.  Well meaning parents with the best of intentions might unknowingly plant false narratives in a child’s mind and those can perpetuate over time. A parent might not realise they are influencing a child. 
    • If an allegation is made by a child that they have been harmed act quickly and appropriately.  It is important it is dealt with from day 1 carefully and by professionals.  Speak to Children’s social care and seek their advice if you are concerned your child has been harmed and ask them to investigate what your child alleges.  
    • Be guided by professionals.  

    What can you as a parent do?

    Act now, it is unlikely to get better with time. 

    Seek professional advice from the above agencies and  an experienced children lawyer who is a Resolution specialist children lawyer. This includes Porter Dodson’s Samantha Smith.

    Do you need any help?


    Our Family Law Team is skilled at identifying where this may be an issue and exploring effective ways forward. We can give you clear, robust advice and intervention from the start. This is key to succeeding in a successful, child-focused outcome.

    For more information, please contact one of the family lawyers in our Children Team who would be happy to advise you.

    For legal advice on Family law

    Get in touch

    Related posts