Parental alienation is a concept that has gained familiarity through divorce solicitors and child experts writing about the effect of parental alienation on the children of separated parents and on the parent who has been alienated.
A recent family court case has suggested the use of the words ‘alienating behaviour‘ rather than labelling one parent as guilty of parental alienation. In this blog, our children law expert Louise Halford looks at the case and looks at how to approach child arrangement order applications involving allegations of alienating behaviour.
As a specialist firm of Northwest family law solicitors, our lawyers can advise you on sorting out residence and contact arrangements after a separation or divorce and represent you in a child arrangement order application.
What is alienating behaviour?
Alienating behaviour or parental alienation is where one parent turns a child against the other parent without good reason. You may think that there is never a good reason to cause a child to reject a parent but some level of anxiety about a parent-child relationship may be justified where there are, for example, very real fears of domestic violence or a concern that a child will get sucked into the other parent’s lifestyle choices, such as the parent’s drug or alcohol addiction.
In other families, a parent may not have created the child’s feelings of aversion towards the other parent. The child’s feelings may be down to the child’s misconception that one parent was entirely to blame for the marriage breakdown and for the sale of a much-loved family home resulting in the child needing to change schools.
In classic cases of parental alienation, there is no objective justification for the alienating behaviour. One parent, through no fault of their own, is squeezed out of their child’s life. Some parents decide to fight back and apply for a child arrangement order so they can continue a relationship with their child. That’s what happened in the case of Re C (“parental alienation” instruction of expert)  EWHC 345 (Fam).
The judge, Sir Andrew McFarlane, said “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.” That approach makes perfect sense as the behaviour needs to be the focus of the court investigation rather than the label.
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The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (the independent body tasked with providing reports to the court in children law proceedings for child arrangement orders, specific issue orders and prohibited steps orders) have issued guidance on the sort of behaviour a child might display if they have been alienated against one parent by the other.
Whilst the guidance is helpful, it’s best to not be too focused on blaming the other parent for your child’s response to requests for contact but to examine any other reasons for your child’s reluctance to see you. For example, older children can be heavily influenced by their friends or by their social commitments and they may hate the thought of spending time with either of their ‘uncool’ parents. Alternatively, a child may be anxious about a new school or about school exams but instead, refocus their anxiety on parental contact rather than address the real reasons for how they are feeling.
The impact of alienating behaviour
Alienating behaviour can have a devastating impact on a child’s relationship with either their mother or father. Once a child has been alienated and turned against a parent it can be extremely hard to change a child’s mindset that one parent is bad and that the other one is good and can do no wrong. A child’s simplistic view of their parents can lead to long-term emotional and psychological damage to the child. Initially, the child may seem happier that they have cut one parent out of their life, thus reducing the other parent’s antipathy to the weekly contact handover. However, in the longer term, the child may experience feelings of guilt or even reject the parent who encouraged them to stop or limit contact with their other parent.
As family lawyers, we understand that many parents don’t foresee the consequences of being openly hostile or critical of the other parent. To some parents saying what they think about their ex-partner in the presence of their child is a way of letting off steam after a difficult separation and a way of verbalising their own feelings of hurt and rejection. It can be an immense comfort to one parent when a child takes their side and is supportive. However, the parent’s feelings of anger can be projected onto the child who in turn then rejects their other parent, thinking that their views are all their own idea but, in reality, they stem from one parent’s alienating behaviour.
Any child arrangement order application involving allegations of alienating behaviour needs to be addressed with a measure of sensitivity and caution. Whilst a parent denied contact with their child wants action, and most importantly wants contact with their son or daughter, it’s best to acknowledge how essential it is to move forward at the child’s pace to repair any damage created through one parent’s alienating behaviour.
Our children law solicitors can advise you on sorting out residence and contact arrangements after a difficult separation or divorce and represent you in a child arrangement order application.