It’s one thing for a child to have to witness some animosity between parents who are unable to separate amicably. At least there is some truth to it, and at least it eventually sinks in that mummy and daddy are simply happier apart. It’s a whole other story, however, for children to find themselves rejecting one parent and refusing contact without legitimate justification – as a direct result of malicious tactics used by the other parent to distance their kid from the ex-partner. This is called parental alienation. It is dishonest, it is self-serving and it is toxic. It is not what a child should be exposed to.
Psychiatrist Dr. William Bernet has narrowed down the criteria for diagnosing parental alienation – “a campaign of denigration against the targeted parent, the child’s lack of ambivalence, frivolous rationalizations for the child’s criticisms against the target parent, reflexive support of the alienating parent against the target parent, the child’s lack of guilt over exploitation and mistreatment of the target parent, borrowed scenarios, and the spread of the child’s animosity toward the target parent’s extended family or friends.” In short, the child has been fed enough fabricated, distorted and exaggerated material to create a false reality that greatly demonises the other parent. A key point to note is that the parent may not realise they are alienating the other parent, and the child sincerely believes that the other parent is somehow “bad” – they are not simply parroting what they have heard from the parent they live with – they may have false memories of events or completely misconstrue events that took place. For example, all children slip and trip, but an alienated child may genuinely believe that a trip down the stairs was caused by a parent to deliberately hurt them.
This is not only unfair but also massively painful for both the child and the target parent. A Contact Order is a court order relevant where a child lives with one parent and it is meant to allow the child to visit, stay with or have contact with the other parent. The judge decides the requirements of whichever parent the child resides with to enable this correspondence or interaction. But when a child expresses zero interest in cooperating it then becomes a problem of whether or not the disinclination is sincere and authentic.
Sometimes the sabotaging parent does not fully get away with it. In Re S (Transfer of Residence)  1 FLR 1785, the Honourable Mr Justice Hedley said that, as important as it is not to ignore a child’s wishes and feelings, in light of a psychiatrist’s evidence, “it would be equally inappropriate for me to proceed on the basis that those expressed wishes and feelings should necessarily be taken at face value. They need to be assessed in the light of S’s age and understanding. The impact of alienation upon the reliability of those wishes and feelings and the signs that they may not in fact reflect his true feelings, are matters to be taken into account when assessing the weight to be attached to them.” But the grim fact remains that the child has been almost irreparably “brainwashed” and a once healthy and normal relationship with a father or a mother might never be the same.
Dr Bernet’s team makes a good point that “to turn a child against a parent is to turn a child against himself.” He or she garners feelings of bitterness and strong dislike without basis – this is emotionally exhausting and mentally destructive. He or she misses out on all the love, care, time and affection that the target parent is so keen to offer yet is so unwelcome to do so – this undermines the valuable potential for quality relationships and additional parental support. He or she may grow up feeling inadequate, unwanted or distressed.
And as a target parent this is obviously also a form of emotional and mental abuse. But resorting to retaliation or drowning in helplessness is not the answer. It may be a gradual process but the effects of parental alienation may be reversed – kindness always prevails.
Here is what Natasha Slabas, a solicitor at Grayfords has to say on the subject matter:
“I often deal with disputes where parental alienation is apparent. The warning signs are often not clear cut and I would recommend that a professional intervenes early on within court proceedings, to detect whether parental alienation is apparent and provide recommendations for moving forward positively.
Parental Separation Clinic is one example of such a service which can offer an initial meeting but it is important to ask for the Court’s permission in seeking for a report to be produced – unfortunately, you cannot simply ask for this report to be used within court proceedings without permission given in the first instance.
I would highly recommend that wherever a parent strongly believes parental alienation is a factor within their dispute, that it is investigated early on to avoid one parent’s word or manipulation through the child bearing weight throughout the matter.”