Parental Alienation Definition: What Is It and How Do You Stop It?

a family split by divorce and parental alienation

Updated November 2019

Whether you’re in the process of getting a divorce or you’ve been separated for a while, parental alienation is a challenging experience. But what exactly is it? We look at the definition of parental alienation and how to stop it.

Experiencing the breakdown of a relationship is difficult enough alone, but when there are children involved, it can be especially challenging. All parents want what’s best for their children, and many aim to come to an arrangement as amicably as possible to prevent their children from experiencing additional and unnecessary stress. The child has a right to have a relationship with both parents. If set out in a court order, the arrangements for the time the child spends with each parent is called a Child Arrangements Order (previously known as access). 

Sometimes, the child’s relationship with a parent may deteriorate, and there can be several causes for this, but, unfortunately, one of the most common is parental alienation. In this blog post, we define what parental alienation is and explain how you can stop it.

Parental Alienation Definition: What Is It?

Parental alienation is when one parent (this is usually — but not exclusively — the parent with whom the child lives the majority of the time) turns their child against the other parent. This might take place during a bitter “custody” battle or when an agreement has been made by the courts for a child to spend time with one parent and the other parent isn’t satisfied with the result. Unless there is a danger to the child — for example, if domestic abuse is present — the court will always rule in favour of a child spending time with both parents. However, the most damaging form of parental alienation is when it is allowed to fester — sometimes for years.  Children are drip-fed harsh words about their other parent and prevented from spending time with them, often to the point, the relationship becomes non-existent.

Parental alienation is heartbreaking, and awareness of the issue is key. In 2005, as part of a global awareness campaign to highlight the prevalence of the phenomenon, April 25th was chosen as Parental Alienation Awareness Day (PAAD). It was initially introduced in Canada but is now celebrated in multiple countries across the globe.

Parental alienation can manifest in a variety of different ways, including:

    • Bad-mouthing the other parent
    • Preventing the child from seeing their other parent
    • Forbidding the child from talking about or having pictures of their other parent
    • Forcing the child to choose between parents
  • Limiting contact with the extended family of the other parent (including uncles, aunts and grandparents).

When a parent seeks to destroy the relationship between their child and the other parent, they are aiming to strengthen their own relationship with their child. They attempt to do this by getting the child on their side and creating a distance between them and the targeted parent, often inciting  conflict to demonstrate the other parent is dangerous or evil. This indicates to the child that only one parent loves them and having a relationship with the other parent jeopardises the relationship they have with the alienating parent.

Parental alienation is particularly heartbreaking because it forces the child to take responsibility for rejecting their other parent. It becomes their idea, rather than what it really is: manipulation by the other parent.

The Long-Term Impact of Parental Alienation

Parental alienation is a serious mental condition, and it can have a considerable impact on the long-term well-being of the child. In what is called parental alienation syndrome, children exhibit a variety of behaviours, including an obsessive hatred of the targeted parent and, eventually, hatred of their extended family, accompanied by borrowed phrases that the alienating parent might use. The effects of parental alienation can last long into adulthood. Not only is there the obvious degradation of the relationship with the parent, but children can also suffer anger problems, trouble at school, eating disorders and depression. Children might also suffer from low self-esteem, self-hatred and lack of trust, and be more prone to substance abuse and other addictions.

Of course, this can impact a child’s relationships with others as they progress into adulthood. Self-hatred can be particularly damaging, with children internalising their hate for the targeted parent and also feeling guilt over rejecting them. Self-hatred also affects the child’s ability to not only give and receive love from their parents but also to give love to their own children. Alienated children are more likely to be alienated from their children, with one report citing that this was the case for half of the respondents.

A child holding stick figure drawings of a male and female torn down the middle showing the impact of divorce and parental alienation on children

How Can You Stop Parental Alienation?

As with most situations, prevention is the best cure. Arming yourself with the knowledge of the definition of parental alienation and recognising it early can help you salvage your relationship with your child before a significant amount of damage is done. But what can you do to stop parental alienation if it’s already present? Recently, more work has been done to combat parental alienation. Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) trialling a groundbreaking new process that can see children having limited contact with their divorcing parents if one parent tries to turn them against the other parent.

Internationally, parental alienation is recognised as a form of parental psychological abuse. It undermines the core principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states a child who is separated from one or both parents has the right to maintain “personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis, except if it is contrary to the child’s best interests.” Cafcass states parental alienation is increasingly prevalent in the 125,000 cases it deals with each year. One UK judge even wrote of the “exceptionally harmful” nature of parental alienation, stating she sees it a “distressingly enormous amount.”

When one parent is actively trying to harm the relationship their child has with the other parent, the main priority is to help the targeted parent rebuild their relationship with their child and, if necessary, take the child out of an environment that is harmful to them. Parents may work with Cafcass, where a Family Court Advisor (FCA) is assigned to the case. It is their responsibility to get to know your case, make recommendations (for example, therapy to address the alienating parent’s harmful behaviours) and liaise with the court to determine the best outcome for the child. Some parents have experienced cases of parental alienation missed by the legal system, which has led to the permanent breakdown of their relationship with their child, Cafcass has since introduced a new set of guidelines caseworkers must follow when dealing with cases of alienation. These guidelines called the High-Conflict Pathway, detail when a child should be removed from the home (when living with the alienating parent) and placed with the alienated (target) parent.

These guidelines came as a result of a three-month consultation period involving the input of various lobby groups, experts, doctors and solicitors.

Cafcass has also developed a 12-week programme called “positive parenting” to help the abusive parent (the alienator) break negative patterns of behaviour. Psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health experts may also be brought in at this stage to provide additional support. However, it’s important to note Cafcass itself does not have the power to force parents to attend counselling or remove the child from home — it can only make these recommendations to a judge.

As previously stated, in extreme cases, the court may place the child with their other parent and visits from the alienating parent may be limited and supervised, if not cease entirely. A judge will look carefully at your case. Parental alienation revolves around the concept of breaking down the relationship a child has with a parent entirely, and it may be that the child has decided they do not even want to see, let alone live with, their other parent. The court will take the child’s wishes into account, and this will carry more or less weight depending on the age of the child. However, a court may decide to place the child with the other parent regardless of their wishes, if it is in their best interests, and because the court acknowledges that parental alienation is a severe issue and potentially dangerous to children affected. In these cases, additional support will be provided to help the child bond again with their parent.

If you’re concerned about parental alienation, or you’re currently experiencing it and want to stop it, the first step you should take is to talk to an experienced family lawyer, well-versed in child law who can make your case to the family court.

Preventing Parental Alienation

A divorce is a difficult time for all involved. You and your spouse may both be frustrated. However, it’s important to be aware of the signs of parental alienation. There is a significant difference between your child overhearing a comment made by your spouse about you being late to pick them up, and systematically and intentionally bad-mouthing you and telling lies about you at every opportunity. Both parents should acknowledge that the divorce may be bitter but work to reduce the impact it can have on your child — if nothing else, for your child’s emotional well-being.

It’s essential that if you do fear your child is being alienated from you, you do not act rashly. Bad-mouthing your spouse to your child will not improve the situation, and will often give them more ammunition to use against you. In some cases, it may “prove” the point your spouse is trying to convey to your child. Your child may then internalise this and use that to support the notion they are right not to want to see you.

If you are concerned your ex-partner is alienating your child, there are some steps you can take to help you best make your case to the court, safeguard your relationship with your child from further harm and stop parental alienation.

It’s helpful to keep a record of any unusual behaviours you’re seeing from your child — are they more withdrawn than usual? Do they make comments that they don’t like being with you? If you are prevented from spending time with your child, make a note of when it happens, along with the excuse your child or spouse used. This information can be beneficial to your solicitor, as it demonstrates  that you are consistently making an effort to spend time with your child (which places you in good stead should child arrangements issues arise) — and that the other parent is continually making excuses to block access.

Therapy can be useful for parents alienated from their children. A therapist will be trained to identify when parental alienation may be happening and offer support, advice and techniques you can use when communicating with your ex-partner or child. It may also be beneficial to invite your spouse. This will show you are working to be an effective co-parent to your child, while a therapist can approach the issue sensitively.

Ultimately, it’s important not to give up. Parental alienation can be heartbreaking and it can sometimes be all too easy to lose hope if you’re repeatedly told your child doesn’t want to see you. However, it’s important to remember your child needs you in their life. Speaking with a child law solicitors’ firm is the first step to stopping parental alienation and getting your relationship with your child back on track.

Are you being alienated from your child? Now you know what its definition is and how to spot the signs, you’ll be more equipped to stop parental alienation. Get in touch today to speak with one of our expert family lawyers, who are well versed in child and divorce law.

Clayton spent five years working in family law with a firm in Australia before moving to the UK in 1999. He deals with all aspects of family law, specialising in all family matters, offshore trusts, company structures, international law, prenuptial agreements, high net worth cases and cohabitation law.