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What is parental alienation and how can it be avoided?

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Rebecca Patience, a solicitor in Harrison Drury’s divorce and family law team, outlines how to identify parental alienation during separation and divorce, and what can be done to address it.

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) recently launched a scheme to crack down on parental alienation which is said to be present in between 13% and 15% of all UK divorces.

Parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse and psychological manipulation of a child to create unwarranted fear, disrespect or hostility towards a parent or other family member during separation and divorce. The parent will deliberately pressure the child to favour them over the other parent to attempt to gain an advantage when making arrangements as to with whom the child should live following separation. This can be done in many ways including:

  • Limiting or preventing contact between the child and the other parent to weaken their relationship and make their time together less enjoyable.
  • ‘Badmouthing’ which includes telling the child the other parent does not love them or cannot care for them, as well as criticising and belittling the other parent in the presence of the child.
  • Causing the child to reject the other parent by making the child feel guilty for loving them, forcing the child to choose between parents or talking to the child about the separation in a biased way.
  • Undermining the child’s relationship with the other parent and the parent’s role in the child’s life.

Many parents may not realise that they are doing this as it is sometimes difficult to hide heightened emotions from children during such a difficult time. However, the long-term effect of parental alienation is serious for any child and can have a detrimental impact on their emotional wellbeing and their development.

Parental alienation can confuse children who love their parents equally and it can affect a child’s happiness and confidence. It is also considered a form of neglect or child abuse due to the permanent impact it can have in a child’s life, which will consequently affect their relationship with their other parent.

In reality, parental alienation is very difficult to tackle and prevent because it is difficult to prove in court.  However, if you believe your child is being influenced in this way, there are a few things you can do to help your case and support your arguments. These include:

  • Keep a journal. Write down any incidents that occur or anything out of the ordinary that concerns you. Note any dates and times of irregularities in contact with your child, such as plans being made by the other parent that conflict with the usual arrangements for the child to spend time in your care, as well as failure to collect or deliver the children on time. By doing this you may identify patterns in behaviour that may be able to be used to support your case.
  • Record any changes to the way a child speaks or acts which you find unusual or particularly strange. These may demonstrate the effect of parental alienation.
  • Pay attention to warning signs and how children suffer from parental alienation. A child may start to become very critical of the other parent, or make complaints to people about them, or the child may suffer from a lack of guilt and ambivalence.

Parental alienation has been previously dismissed as a result of relationship failure, but in recent years it has become increasingly recognised internationally as psychological abuse and considered a breach of the UN Convention of Rights of a Child. It is illegal in some countries including Italy, Brazil and Mexico (with a maximum prison sentence of 15 years), and recognised in America and Canada as an issue that should be dealt with more seriously. Whilst it is not a criminal offence in the UK it is something that the Court and Cafcass are becoming increasingly concerned with.  They are actively trying to tackle this issue within the Court forum in an effort to limit the damage caused to children as a result of parental alienation.

For additional information on parent alienation, or for advice on any family law matter, contact Rebecca on 01772 258321.


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