What happens if parents are in dispute about the upbringing of a child? If mediation or other forms of dispute resolution fail the courts will become involved and the Children Act, 1989 will apply.

When it comes to deciding where a child should live and how much time he or she should spend with each parent the Act is quite clear. At the top of the so-called ‘welfare checklist’ (used to decide issues around a child’s upbringing) the courts are instructed to establish:

“the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of his age and understanding)”

The degree to which a court will listen to a child will depend on the child’s maturity and his or her level of understanding of the family’s situation. Often the Children and Family Court Advice and Support Service (Cafcass) will prepare a report for the family judge to assess what future living and contact arrangements should be.

But sometimes the child’s wishes appear extremely one-sided in favour of a particular parent. Unjustifiably so. In such cases the courts are alive to the possibility of ‘parental alienation’. That is, where one parent skews or manipulates a child’s feelings in their own favour. In such a case the child might not always be expressing genuine feelings of negativity towards a parent he or she has rejected.

What Can I Do To Prevent Parental Alienation?

What can you do if you think your child has become alienated from you because of the other parent’s behaviour?

In our experience it’s important for a parent who is being alienated from his or her child to take immediate steps to reduce the impact on you and your child. This means:

  • Ensuring contact provisions are maintained – If your ex partner is making contact with your child difficult or preventing it altogether, it may be necessary to seek legal advice to ensure you continue to see your child and minimise alienation as far as possible
  • Not engaging in manipulation – Remember the harm that can be caused to your child by alienation. While it might be tempting to retaliate and counteract the poor behaviour of your ex with similar treatment, this won’t help your child and may lead to Cafcass or the court drawing negative inferences against you
  • Understanding that when your child exhibits alienating behaviour toward you it’s not his or her fault
  • Using the many online resourcesand others to understand more about parental alienation
  • Seeking legal advice if you are concerned about the effect of parental alienation on you or your child

How To Recognise Parental Alienation

There’s no legal definition of parental alienation. Nevertheless the courts, Cafcass and family law professionals have come to recognise a range of behaviours that, when present, are suggestive of parental alienation.

Child behaviour following alienation might include:

  • Expressing an unjustifiably biased negative opinion about one parent
  • Reacting disproportionately to a parent’s behaviour
  • Extending a negative attitude to a rejected parent’s wider family
  • Exhibiting irrational reasons to justify dislike of one parent
  • Erasing positive memories of time spent with the rejected parent
  • Use of stilted or adult-like language when explaining negativity towards rejected parent

And behaviour of an alienating parent might include:

  • Exaggerating the other parent’s shortcomings to the child
  • Coaching the child to express certain feeling to professionals such as Cafcass officers
  • Not allowing the child to praise the other parent
  • Conscious or sub conscious suggestions of rejecting the child if they continue to contact the other parent
  • Fabricating false information about the other parent, including unjustified suggestions of abuse
  • Allowing the child to behave badly toward the other parent without reprimand

How We Can Help

It’s rarely straightforward to establish a pattern of behaviour that amounts to parental alienation. But cases in this area have shown that when proven, alienation can result in an order transferring a child’s main residence away from the alienating parent.

You should bear in mind that when deciding on child arrangements courts start on the basis that a child benefits from regular contact with both parents. Judges now understand the harm done to a child that’s been alienated. Where possible the court will take steps to redress alienation.

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