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Parental alienation - no longer an alien concept?

The term 'parental alienation' describes a situation when parents with children divorce or separate and one parent purposefully alienates the child or children from the other parent.

The Daily Telegraph recently reported on comments made by Anthony Douglas, the Chief Executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), warning against the dangers of "parental alienation".

Parental alienation can therefore include situations where one parent constantly speaks negatively about the other parent in front of the child or refuses to acknowledge their existence in conversations with the child or limits contact between the child and "target" parent. As noted by the Daily Telegraph this has the impact of creating the impressions that the "target" parent does not love the child. This can have far reaching, serious implications which may result in the child rejecting their parent.

Mr Douglas, on behalf of CAFCASS, has suggested that parental alienation has become so common in separated families that it should be dealt with like any form of neglect or child abuse. Mr Douglas said "It's undoubtedly a form of neglect or child abuse in terms of the impact it can have … and I think the way you treat your children after a relationship has broken up is just as powerful a public health issue as smoking or drinking".

Whilst some countries have put in place legislation to prevent such behaviour, there is currently no specific law within the UK relating to parental alienation and it is not recognised as a criminal act. In some countries, such as Mexico, Italy and Brazil, parental alienation is a criminal offence and has serious consequences.

Whilst Mr Douglas's recent comments can be seen as a step towards legal recognition of parental alienation and hopefully the start of a move towards a stronger stance being taken against such behaviour, there are ways in which parental alienation can be tackled within England and Wales.

The Welfare Checklist

When considering disputes relating to a child, the child's welfare is the court's paramount consideration. There are various factors that the court will consider when making decisions about what is in a child's best interest, known as the "Welfare Checklist".

The factors taken into consideration include:

  • the child's wishes and feelings,
  • the child's needs,
  • their age and background,
  • any harm that they are at risk of suffering, and 
  • the capability of each parent to meet the child's needs.

Whilst parental alienation is not a specific label that is recognised within the Welfare Checklist, a parent's behaviour is considered part and parcel of considering a child's welfare and a parent's ability to meet a child's needs.

Where can lawyers help?

As members of Resolution we try to promote a non-confrontational approach to family problems. In the first instance, we therefore encourage parents to try and agree their own arrangements for their children and where it is safe for the child for them to do so. Whether this is through facilitating child-focussed discussions, introducing parenting plans or signposting parents to enable them to seek suitable professional support, it is widely recognised that agreements made by parties are more likely to succeed, compared to arrangements imposed upon parties by the court.

While the above tools can be used to prevent situations where one parent's behaviour can potentially have the impact of alienating the other parent, sometimes, despite the best intentions, there will be situations where it will be necessary to involve the court.

In these situations, it's essential that practitioners aren't afraid to remind the court of the judicial powers it has available. Whether it is the consideration of suspended residence orders, fact finding hearings, disclosure or the introduction of suitable experts, there are many ways in which a court can try to control a situation which has the potential to spiral with devastating consequences for both the target parent and children.

TLT regularly advises on the breakdown of relationships and the impact that this may have on children. If you are experience difficulties agreeing arrangements for your children, or would like some advice to overcome difficulties, please contact us. For further information on how to separate and parent successfully we recommend reading Resolution's helpful guide.

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