Principal of Justice Family Lawyers, Hayder specialises in complex parenting and property family law matters. He is based in Sydney and holds a Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of Communications from UTS.
Parental alienation is the term used to describe when one parent deliberately damages the relationship between the other parent and their child.
High-conflict situations can be hard on the children involved, and although some maintain a strong connection with both of their parents, in other cases a child may prefer spending time with one parent over the other or even outright refuse contact.
This may be due to legitimate circumstances of a difficult parent-child relationship, or it could be as a result of one parent deliberating alienating their child from the other.
There are some misconceptions about what parental alienation is and what types of behaviours constitute alienating behaviours.
Most psychologists and legal professionals have been aware of parental alienation for a long time, but there are other people and groups who do not believe it exists.
Because of this, it can be hard for people – affected parents and the friends and family close to them – to know what is going on and identify their situation as one of alienation.
The Difference Between Parental Alienation and Estrangement
Family relationships are not always easy, and some families do become estranged, whether in whole or in part.
Estrangement refers to the disintegration of a relationship between two or more family members.
It may occur as a result of a rejection of the relationship or a slow deterioration over time.
There are different reasons why family members may become estranged from one another, for example abuse, violence, poor parenting, high conflict, emotional distance, difficulty communicating, different values or major life changes.
In an estranged parent-child relationship, the child may express ambivalence towards the parent and be able to present justifiable reasons for the way that they feel.
Parental alienation, on the other hand, often leaves the child feeling very negatively towards the alienated parent for unjustified or even false reasons because of the manipulation from their other parent.
In the case of parental alienation, one parent intentionally harms the other parent-child relationship.
The manipulation may be to such an extent that the child feels little or no guilt about their feelings towards the alienated parent.
Parental Alienation Syndrome
Parental alienation has a related and far more controversial term: parental alienation syndrome.
It is important to recognise the distinction between the two: Parental alienation is the behaviours of one parent to undermine the relationship between the child and their other parent, while parental alienation syndrome is the cumulative effects of these behaviours on the psychological wellbeing of the child.
Richard Gardner, an American psychiatrist, coined the term parental alienation syndrome in 1985, but there is a lot of controversy as to whether it is a genuine syndrome or not.
Parental alienation syndrome is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the highly regarded publication that classifies mental disorders, and is unlikely to be admissible in court.
Types of Alienating Behaviours
There is no definitive way to describe the way a person alienates their child from the other parent.
The alienating parent uses emotionally manipulative tactics to influence their child.
One of the most common behaviours is denigrating the other parent in front of the child.
The alienating parent generally wants to limit the time the child spends with the other parent or prevent the child from spending time with them altogether.
They may interfere with the other parent’s designated parenting time, for example by texting them excessively.
When talking with their child they may reconstruct memories of past events to change the child’s perception of the other parent, causing them to believe damaging, untrue things.
Another key alienating behaviour is the keeping of secrets between the alienating parent and the child, things that the child has been told not to mention to their other parent.
These “secrets” may not be particularly important pieces of information but they set up a different kind of relationship between the alienating parent and the child.
In an ultimate attempt to prevent the child from spending time with their other parent, the alienating parent may make false claims of abuse.
This is one of the reasons why parental alienation as a syndrome is particularly controversial.
These types of behaviours most often begin after the breakdown of the parents’ relationship, possible increasing if one parent remarries.
However, parental alienation behaviours can also occur when the parents are still together.
The Alienating Parent, Targeted Parent and Targeted Child
There is a lack of research on the type of people who engage in parental alienation and the type of people affected by it, but there are some general profiles of the alienating parent, targeted parent and targeted child.
The alienating parent is likely to have narcissistic personality traits and tendencies to become paranoid.
They may also have difficult relationships with their own family.
The targeted parent may have some difficulty managing their emotions or come across as emotionally detached.
Having their relationship with their child damaged by their ex-spouse generally leads to emotions of frustration, fear, loss, anger, stress, powerlessness and helplessness.
The costs of this can be emotional and financial, in what is probably already an emotionally and financially draining situation if the family dispute is being heard in court.
The targeted child mostly likely lives partly with one parent and partly with the other and due to the behaviour of the alienating parent may find themselves behaving in completely different ways depending on which parent they are staying with.
They may first be somewhat resistant to their parent’s alienating behaviour, but the main problem lies in the fact that they remain dependent on this parent, particularly if it is the parent with whom they spend the most time.
It is possible that the targeted child has an unhealthy dependence on the alienating parent that does not align with their age.
Targeted children are more likely to be girls and are more likely to be aged between 10 and 14 years old.
Exposure to parental alienation will most probably negatively impact their psychological and social wellbeing.
These impacts could include mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, difficulty establishing trust in relationships, disrupted social-emotional development, difficulty controlling impulses, social isolation and poor self-sufficiency.
The harmful effects of parental alienation may be similar for the targeted child and the targeted parent.
Both are more likely to suffer depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide ideation.
The child may also stop performing as well at school and the targeted parent’s work productivity may decline.
Parental Alienation In Court
Cases involving allegations of parental alienation can be challenging for the court as they must work to understand complex family dynamics and make the best decision possible about how to intervene in relationships between parents and children.
The court will base their decisions on findings of fact, and therefore it is important to have strong evidence of alienating behaviour. This can be presented in affidavits.
The court may also rely on evidence and assessments from independent experts such as counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists and sociologists to determine whether a parent is engaging in alienating behaviours and to decide on the best order for the child.
Each case is decided based on its own individual circumstances.
Ultimately, the judge makes the order that they feel best promotes the child’s best interests.
A complex case from 2016 demonstrates the difficulty in making orders for situations of parental alienation.
In Ward & Ward (No 2)  FamCA 890 (20 October 2016), the applicant Ms Ward and her former husband Mr Ward disputed custody arrangements for their two children, known as Y and X and then aged 14 and 12 respectively.
Mr and Ms Ward’s relationship was one of high conflict, often arguing in front of the children, and heavy drinking.
After separation, both the mother and father had new partners and the relationship between the children became more fraught.
The younger child is more closely aligned with the father, the older child with the mother.
Multiple family reports were written to identify the dynamics between the parents and children, and the judge had accepted evidence from counsellors that the father and his current wife were putting pressure on the younger child to behave in a particular way towards the mother.
“Emotional harm, including alienation from the other parent” was one of the key issues the judge used to determine the risk of harm posed to the children in each of the parent’s households.
The judge assessed the family relationships and evaluated the benefit to the children from a meaningful relationship with both their parents, although each household was deemed to pose some level of risk.
Taking the children’s wishes into account proved complex as regarding the younger child, “It is said that his wishes are not truly his, but have been the product of emotional manipulation.”
The judge was satisfied with this in part but also recognised that the child had expressed these wishes quite early on.
Mr and Ms Ward were given equal shared parental responsibility of the two children.
The children may express a choice on who they want to live with.
If Y, the older child, does not express a choice, then he will live with the mother and spend such time with the father as he may choose.
If X, the younger child, does not express a choice, then he will live with the father and spend such time with the mother as he may choose.
The children must spend time together after school on Monday and Wednesday each week.