What is parental alienation? A short guide

Divorce and separation can put enormous pressure on families. Adding to this pressure, parents may become involved in bitter disputes, and children become exposed to parents’ negative comments about each other. 

By Amelia Coutts, Lawyer at Australian Family Lawyers, Sydney.

Parents involved in family law disputes often complain that their child’s behaviour has changed or that their child has “turned against them.” Some parents may have even heard of the term “parental alienation syndrome” and believe their child suffers from it.

Read on to learn more about some definitions and different usages of the term “parental alienation”, plus some general advice and further legal steps you can take to get through this challenging time.

Firstly, what is ”parental alienation”?

Parental alienation versus parental alienation syndrome or alignment

Grayscale photo of young child looking out window pondering parental alienation laws in Australia

In the 1980s, a phenomenon called “parental alienation syndrome” first emerged in psychology, social work and legal literature, describing a mental condition suffered by children who have become alienated from one parent by the other. This theory of a “syndrome” has been largely discredited by the scientific community yet the term continues to be used in the legal system and in the Family Law Courts. Problematically too, the term has often been used as a defence to allegations of child abuse, child sexual abuse and/or family violence. These issues are beyond the scope of this article. 

This article will use the term “parental alienation” to mean circumstances where a parent deliberately acts to disrupt and prevent a child’s ongoing relationship with the other parent (referenced here.). The term “resist-refuse dynamics” has also started to be used commonly to describe these circumstances. 

In such cases, a parent manipulates a child who in turn grows to dislike, criticise and avoid spending time with the other parent, in severe cases rejecting the relationship entirely. This often occurs at the time of separation and the period following separation, though it can happen during a relationship. 

It is important to remember that there are circumstances where a parent seeks to restrict contact with the other parent which are warranted in order to protect a child from risks of harm – for example, cases involving family violence, child abuse and child sexual abuse. 

Children may also decide they do not wish to spend time with a parent independently and for legitimate reasons. Indeed, they may come to this decision without any negative comments from the other parent. In some cases, a child may wish to avoid spending time with a parent even where the other parent has tried to foster the relationship. Complex family dynamics are often involved in such cases and one must not jump to the conclusion that parental alienation has occurred. 

What to do if your child does not want to spend time with you

In family law, the most important consideration is the child’s best interests which are determined by considering: 

  1. The benefit of having a meaningful relationship with both parents; and
  2. The need to protect the child from physical or psychological harm from being subjected to, or exposed to, abuse, neglect or family violence.

Ask yourself whether there is any reasonable explanation and if there are any steps you can take to rebuild the relationship with your child. If you continue to have no contact with your child, the problem could become worse. It is important to remain consistent with the time and to be involved in your child’s daily routine as well as weekend time. 

If you have a good relationship with your ex-partner, you could ask them to assist with this by having additional time and contact with your child. Get parenting advice on your own so that you can learn a better way of re-engaging with your child and changing the dynamic with them.

If you do not have a good relationship with your ex-partner, or you have already sought additional time, and they have refused, you could attend mediation with or without a lawyer. Relationships Australia and the Family Relationships Centre offer low-cost dispute resolution or you can use a private mediator. 

Otherwise, you can contact a lawyer who can help you negotiate additional time with your child. 

Parental alienation by a former partner

What should you do if your ex-partner:

  • is making negative comments about you to your child;
  • is not promoting the relationship; or 
  • has caused your child to reject a relationship with you.

In some cases, a parent may seek to turn a child against the other parent out of spite or to achieve a better financial outcome in the property aspect of the case. This behaviour is very concerning as it is very damaging for children who should be sheltered from the dispute. 

In such cases, you should first try to negotiate with your ex-partner and if that does not work, consider dispute resolution as outlined above. You should also consider family therapy with a good psychologist who has experience in dealing with separated families and children. 

A lawyer can also assist by negotiating with your ex-partner. 

Suggested next steps

Resist-refuse dynamics are hurtful for the parent whose relationship with a child is affected. For a child who has experienced parental alienation, their relationship with a parent can be seriously and negatively affected in the long-term which can lead to a range of negative consequences. Early intervention is key. 

It is important to engage with family therapists, mental health professionals where necessary and consider family dispute resolution where possible. You should obtain legal assistance regarding the family law principles which apply when deciding your best course of action. 

In severe cases, court proceedings may need to be commenced, including seeking orders for other supportive therapies. Court ideally should be a last resort, although the longer the child is subject to this unhealthy dynamic, the more negative the impact is for the child – both short and long term.

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