Highlighting Parental Alienation

By 19th April 2023 Blog

Parent Alienation Awareness Day is on 25 April, it is a date recognised across the world and it aims to raise awareness of Parental Alienation.

Parental alienation is a “behaviour by a parent (or an adult a child trusts, such as a grandmother/father, aunt, uncle, etc), whether conscious or unconscious, that could create alienation in the relationship between a child and a parent.”

While there is no single definition, Cafcass (E&W) uses the term alienating behaviours to describe circumstances where there is an ongoing pattern of negative attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of one parent (or carer) that have the potential or expressed intent to undermine or obstruct the child’s relationship with the other parent. It is one of a number of reasons why a child may reject or resist spending time with one parent post-separation.

These behaviours are also described using different terms such as ‘Hostile Aggressive Parenting’ or ‘Psychological and Emotional Injury or abuse’*. The behaviour displayed can be mild and temporary but may also be extreme over a long period of time.

Any kind of behaviour that is displayed as a result of a child being alienated from a much loved parent, can be damaging for a child and could have potentially life long consequences if the behaviour of parent/guardian/carer and child is not recognised and effectively addressed.

Highlighting Parental Alienation

Parental Alienation Awareness Day aims to highlight to care givers the effects that this behaviour could have on children and to educate adults in order to identify signs that either they or others are behaving in a manner that could affect the children in their care.

Parental Alienation usually involves one care giver attempting to turn a child against another often with a view to persuade the child that they wish to exclude the other parent from their life permanently.

Potential behaviours in children

Being alienated from one parent and one side of their family can be especially hard on children because its effects may be long-lasting, sometimes into adulthood, including:

  • Disturbed sleep cycles, insomnia and being unable to relax
  • Psychological trauma resulting from the behaviours of the parents
  • Difficulty to control temper and emotions and acting impulsively
  • Inability to cope with school work and poor academic performance
  • Social isolation, moodiness, and unable to relate to peers
  • Being less considerate of others’ feelings and showing a lack of empathy
  • Mirroring the alienating parent’s personality and traits in late adulthood
  • Psychological distress, anxiety, and a lack of emotional intelligence
  • Constant fear, emotional pain, and a damaged childhood can last for life

Karen Woodall, Psychotherapist, Writer, Trainer, and Researcher, speaks of the impact on mental wellbeing of the child when alienated from one parent and therefore an entire one side of their identity…a child has two sets of DNA and to alienate one parent is to in fact cause the child to lose part of their identity. Karen describes this as ‘Splitting’…”an active process operating in the individuals mind….its purpose to separate all-bad and all-good aspects of self and the object.  It is a natural defense mechanism which permits the child to survive in an ever-changing environment.’’

Typical types of behaviour displayed by parents can include:

  • constantly belittling the other
  • limiting contact with the other
  • forbidding the child from discussing the other parent
  • portraying an impression that the other parent does not love the child
  • subtle or direct influencing the child to reject the other parent.

This can be conscious or sub-conscious and may be motivated by the urge to punish the other parent for behaviour that they believe resulted in the breakdown of the relationship.    However, ultimately the negative impact on the child, often not recognised by the parent with care, and the child becomes the victim of this behaviour.

Karen Woodall says:

“I believe that we are at the point at which the harm which is caused to children who suffer induced psychological splitting after divorce or family separation, is beginning to be universally recognised. In my work in the courts, with social workers and with adults who were alienated as children all around the world, I see the evidence, that the dynamics which cause children harm, are increasingly recognised. The campaign ‘noise’ around this issue, which is created in a deliberate attempt to normalise behaviours which are harming children, is silenced when we understand that the racket which is being made about the label parental alienation, emanates from those who use primitive defences in everyday life. When we understand that noise as a projection, we understand the intent and the underlying motives and by not engaging with that, we see it fall away.”

It is recognised that delays in accessing family courts to agree contact can have the unintended consequences of planting the seeds of alienation. It is important that all those who work with families are sufficiently trained to recognise the signs early to safeguard children and that includes Judges, Solicitors, Social Workers, Health Visitors, Counsellors, Mediators and other Voluntary and Community Sector family Services.

It is of the utmost importance that separating parents access education on child development and early intervention family support services such as family mediation to facilitate initial agreement on co-parenting plans.

Though Family Mediation parents can communicate in a safe space to negotiate and agree a co-parenting plan which puts their children’s needs at the centre, find out more here.

Parental Alienation statistics

200 children a day lose contact with a parent in family court. That is 1 in 3 children never seeing their alienated parent again after divorce and separation (Fathers for Justice)

1 million grandparents in the UK are denied access to their grandchildren’ (MOJ/GB Stats 2021, please note no information is collected in Northern Ireland)

Almost half of survey respondents to Parental Alienation UK survey have not seen their children in more than 6 months. Of these 29% were children between 1-5 years and 11% were under five years old. In the same survey 58% had court orders breached, 80% experienced an adverse health impact and 16% felt suicidal.

Alienated.i.e states, ‘This is not a gender issue. This happens to mothers and fathers. This happens to boys and girls. This happens to sisters and brothers. This happens to grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The abuse of the child affects everyone. One estimate has the number of affected people in Ireland, including extended family, at over 300,000.’

Other reading

  • Karen Woodall’s blog
  • ‘Divorce Poison’, Daniel Penz & Dr Richard. A. Warshak et al
  • ‘Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome’, Amy J.L Baker

*Not to be confused with Parental Alienation Syndrome which relates to the behaviour of the child, Parental Alienation focuses on the adult’s behaviour.