father and child

The Case for Parental Alienation

Child arrangements and parents having access to their children after a divorce is based upon the child’s rights to have access to both parents. A father’s rights over their child is much the same as the mother’s in the eyes of the law. Therefore, normally, it is not lawful for one parent to restrict the other parent from seeing their child.

So how can a parent be restricted from meeting their child if they do not otherwise provide a danger or unhealthy environment for the child?

Make the child actively refuse to meet them. When parents separate, how children feel and react to the breakdown of relationships and their family life will vary. Some react negatively and act out in delinquency and violent emotional outbursts. It is normal for children to feel some resentment against one or both parents during such a stressful time.

The issue is that their behaviour can be easily influenced by the adult behaviours by which they are exposed to, and may feel forced to choose a side. Parents may misuse their parental position to paint the other party as the worse parent and cause lasting emotional harm to the child’s life and trust. Parents tell harmful lies which children can then internalize without the other parent to defend themselves.

Every year tens of thousands of parents (and grandparents) are prohibited from meeting their children and challenge these restrictions under the concept of Parental Alienation. This sort of proceedings takes time, and the danger is that even when it is over, the harm has already been done and the child would merely resent even more being removed from their recognized caretaker.


What is Parental Alienation?

Parental Alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome was first defined for use in UK law in the Court of Appeal case of Re L & Ors (Children) in 2001. In that case, the Court of Appeal commissioned a report from psychologists Sturge and Glaser within which commentary was offered as the Parental Alienation Syndrome.

It was defined as

“a psychological disturbance in which children are obsessed with deprecation and criticism of a parent – denigration that is unjustified and/or exaggerated.”

This case however was already two decades ago, and the current working definition by CAFCASS (court appointed social workers) is that parental alienation occurs

“when a child’s hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent”.


The problem with Parental Alienation Syndrome

The two definitions are very different. One is a matter of a child’s mindset, while the other defines an act committed by one parent. One is a matter that calls for examination, the other is explicitly a form of abuse. The newer definition has largely superseded the prior because it is more actionable.

Parental Alienation is a form of abuse – but parental rejection is what actually concerns the party being prevented from meeting their child. This is why finding the threshold can be problematic and lead to some viewing this as unnecessary litigation. Parents that alienate their child from the other parent may be doing so consciously or unconsciously.

According to Lord Justice Peter Jackson in Re S (Parental Alienation: Cult)  regarding the law on parental alienation:

“At the outset, it must be acknowledged that, whether a family is united or divided, it is not uncommon for there to be difficulties in a parent-child relationship that cannot fairly be laid at the door of the other parent. Children have their own feelings and needs and where their parents are polarised they are bound to feel the effects.” 

“As to alienation, we do not intend to add to the debate about labels. We agree with Sir Andrew McFarlane (see [2018] Fam Law 988) that where behaviour is abusive, protective action must be considered whether or not the behaviour arises from a syndrome or diagnosed condition.”

“For working purposes, the CAFCASS definition of alienation is sufficient: “When a child’s resistance/hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.” To that may be added that the manipulation of the child by the other parent need not be malicious or even deliberate. It is the process that matters, not the motive.”

Sometimes cases are complex situations in which a parent is genuinely concerned for their child’s welfare while in the care of the other parent. In presenting themselves as the better sole caregiver, they are unfortunately impinging on the child’s own right to maintain healthy relationships with both parents for their own happiness and development as a person.

Other times, parental alienation can be unfounded and is a matter of personality disorders by one parent.

In the worst case, one parent may falsely accuse the other of abuse and sexual harm in order to prevent any contact and sever relationships with their child.  Such an accusation can take months, if not years, to be sorted through by child protection services and the courts. Why? Because it is also proven that children are highly suggestible and may manufacture memories of abuse that never happened.

Case examples show that parental alienation is best resolved quickly, so that children can rebuild and maintain relationships with *both* parents.

The actual problem is that a child may have many reasons to not want to spend time with their other parent, and parental alienation is perhaps being overused as a way to reformulate child custody after the fact.


Other reasons for a child to reject being with their parent

Ultimately, social workers and the court can only act according to the desires unless there are special circumstances. Should a child reject staying with the other parent for these reasons, it is unjustifiable to force the issue.

  1. Rejection for post-separation distress

– it is common for a child to react negatively to the sudden change in their family situation and may feel better with one parent than the other. This is usually temporary, and as a sense of the ‘new normal’ settles, they may feel more open to spending time to reconnect with their other parent.

  1. Rejection for justified reasons

– this is when the child has actual justifiable reasons to reject being in the custody of the other parent. Usually this comes after being harmed, abused, or fear being in the care of their other parent. Harmful parenting, substance abuse, neglect, untrustworthy people or new romantic partners of the now-divorced parent, or other unsafe conditions make it dangerous to spend time with them. If a child is afraid, then there is no point in forcing them to move.

  1. Rejection from increased attachment

– this is when the child simply prefers one parent to the other and would feel anxious when separated. They resist spending time with the other parent not because they feel unsafe but because they feel uncomfortable. This may only be temporary if both parents have separated amicably and allow the child time to adjust.

  1. Rejection from affinity

– this is when the child rejects spending equal time with the other parent simply because of personality or gender or age reasons. There is a non-harmful but tangible conflict in personality and preferences. Like the previous reason for rejection, this may only be temporary and can be resolved with proper communication.

  1. Rejection from harmful conflict

– this is when the parents are actively in disagreement with each other and are unable to put the needs of the child first. The child’s fate with one parent can only be known after a lengthy process, perhaps through the courts. This may develop into parental alienation depending on who has custody in the meanwhile.

Identifying the underlying causes for rejection and putting highest value on what puts the child at risk should be the first step before any intervention. Emotional harm is considered a risk. Children are rarely able to formulate why they choose parental rejection and so this requires specialized support to identify and investigate reasons before they can start to be helped.

Remember, if asked, most children are unlikely to ask to be housed in the care of the parent they are being led to be alienated against.

Another trouble with parental alienation is that it is not something that is easily resolved and takes much time and investigation – but also something that needs to be resolved promptly.


This article is brought to you by HH Solicitors in North Shields UK, servicing the North East UK since 1901.


Cautionary tales about parental alienation

The case of Re A (Children) (Parental alienation) [2019] EWFC is a cautionary tale. Spanning 8 years and 36 court appearances, ultimately with a court decision to transfer residences failing catastrophically as children ran away, ending with the children being returned to care of their mother with no contact with their father.

According to HHJ Wildblood QC:

“It is a case in which a father leaves the proceedings with no contact with his children despite years of litigation, extensive professional input, the initiation of public law proceedings in a bid to support contact and many court orders. It is a case in which I described the father as being ‘smart, thoughtful, fluent in language and receptive to advice;’ he is an intelligent man who plainly loves his children. Although I have seen him deeply distressed in court because of things that have occurred, I have never seen him venting his frustrations. It is also a case in which the mother has deep and unresolved emotional needs, fixed ideas and a tendency to be compulsive.

No professional has suggested that there is anything about this father that renders him unsuited to have contact with his children; there have been consistent recommendations throughout the eight-year history of these proceedings from a wide spectrum of professionals that contact should take place between the father and the children 

Of the children it is said that they are generally polite, intelligent, compliant and obedient. There are very positive reports about them from their schools. However, in a demonstration of the misplaced empowerment of these children that is associated with the mother’s alienation, I have received a communication from one child refusing to have meetings with ‘any more social workers, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, guardians, et cetera.’ The children refused to meet Dr Berelowitz or engage with the Guardian. They will have nothing to do with their father or his family. They would not even acknowledge cards or presents that he has sent. When he wrote entirely appropriate letters and cards to them, the children expressed unjustified and illogical complaint about their contents. They also express false memories of how he has behaved towards them in the past.”

This has happened because of a failure to identify the key issue – the alienation of their father by their mother. The children became entrenched in their views not to have any contact with their father, and a court order to allow them time with their father to hopefully show counter-evidence only caused trauma and distress.

The case showed the insufficiency of indirect contact where allowed – gifts and letters are insufficient in a home environment where parental alienation occurs. They serve no purpose in maintaining any relationship between the estranged parent and their children.

Litigation fatigue only exacerbated the problem, and the children grew to resent the intrusion into their lives by professionals – who often showed disagreements and allowed family members to cherry-pick only what they wanted to hear.


A case for early intervention

Any delay is inimical to the emotional health and welfare of a child mired in such deeply contentious proceedings, both harmed by the psychological manipulation of the parent with whom they reside with and the continual denial of a relationship with their other parent.

Courts often see switching residences from one caregiver to the other only as a last resort, because doing so is a tacit acknowledgement that one has to actively ‘deprogram’ the child. Imposing such conditions can cause extra resentment and impose difficulties on both child and the receiving parent, but it is up to them to repair their relationship.

However, it may be an option of first resort when it comes to parental alienation. The case of [2019] EWHC 867 (Fam) RE: L (A CHILD) shows how easy it is to intimidate a child’s views towards their other parent, and in a home environment in which they exert total control, attempt to coach or manufacture allegations of sexual impropriety by the other parent towards the child attempting to the court to sever the relationship.

The similar case of manufacturing evidence and attempting to craft a false narrative in  Re H (Parental Alienation) [2019] EWHC 2723 (Fam) also demonstrates that prompt fact finding is the key to resolving questions of parental alienation.

In the first case, it was a ‘nuclear option’ to torpedo the other parent’s otherwise well-regarded time from influencing their child any further, and in the latter it was part of the parent’s mental illness. Both attempted to use the court in accusations of abuse before cases of parental alienation were brought against them after finding fact-finding showed no evidence of wrongdoing.

Any delay is inimical to the emotional health and welfare of a child mired in such deeply contentious proceedings, both harmed by the psychological manipulation of the parent with whom they reside with and the continual denial of a relationship with their other parent.

Where there are concerns about possible parental alienation, case studies show that mediation services would clearly have helped early in the proceedings. Guidance and support about living with separated parenting and child development would also be helpful, as most cases of parental alienation arise from intractable hostility and using their own children as a weapon to hurt the other.

Parents would benefit from advice and guidance in managing contact and handover, and communicating with each other about concerns regarding their child.

It is for the child’s welfare that they are both in contact, not their parental rights to having access to their child. What they have are parental responsibilities.