Intentional alienation of a child against one parent is absolutely wrong and virtually unforgivable.
note: This article describes the relationships between conflicting parents and the children – but it’s vitally important to remember that the targeted parent and child whose affections are alienated can also be the victims of others they are in a high conflict relationship with- such as a grandparent who has, for whatever reason, decided to destroy the parent/child bond with these tactics.
In many cases, others may witness this alienation as it occurs but, despite knowing that it is wrong, or feeling sad for the harm being done, they do not interfere or attempt to stop the alienation. Maybe they think it’s none of their business, or maybe they feel they have no standing, or maybe they, too, are intimidated by the abuser.
Standing idly by without a word can be potentially catastrophic with irreparable consequences for both the child and the targeted parent.
While any application which flows from a suspicion of alienation will be costly and worsen the conflict between the parents, it is urgent that the alienation be stopped immediately if its long-term impact is to be avoided”
The Difference Between an Estranged Cold and an Alienated Child
An estranged child is not the same thing as an alienated child. Parental alienation is AN INTENTIONAL ACT OF CHILD ABUSE, often with permanent lifelong negative effects.
The difference between an estranged child and an alienated child is that an estranged child has grown apart from the parent for reasons that are, to be blunt, reasonable and realistic.
An alienated child, however, is the victim of one parent‘s efforts to destroy the child‘s relationship with the other parent.
An estranged child is either absolutely ambivalent about the other parent or enraged by the other parent. These feelings are, however, justified by the child‘s experience of the separation or by the child‘s experience of that parent.
These children are usually estranged as a result of:
- witnessing violence committed by that parent against the other parent,
- being the victim of abuse from that parent,
- the parent‘s persistently immature and self-centered behaviour,
- the parent‘s unduly rigid and restrictive parenting style, and/or
- the parent‘s own psychological or psychiatric issues.
The point here is that the feelings of estranged children are based on the child‘s lived experiences. In cases of estrangement, the child‘s rejection of a parent is reasonable, and is an adaptive and protective response to the parent‘s behaviour.
The feelings of alienated children, however, are neither reasonable nor the result of the rejected parent‘s conduct
Alienated children usually reject a parent without guilt or sadness and without an objectively reasonable cause.
The children’s views of the alienated parent are usually grossly distorted and exaggerated.
Alienation is most easily defined as the complete breakdown of a child‘s relationship with a parent as a result of the other parent‘s efforts to turn a child against that parent.
Typically, alienation begins to show itself as a problem when the parents are involved in extremely bitter and heated litigation. Not every case of high conflict litigation involves alienation, but alienation can and does happen.
A 1991 study by the American Bar Association found indications of alienation in the majority of 700 high conflict divorce cases studied over 12 years..
In some circumstances, alienation can amount to child abuse.
As J.M. Bone and M.R. Walsh put it in their article “Parental Alienation Syndrome: How to detect it and what to do about it,” published in 1999 in the Florida Bar Journal, 73(3): 44–48 I, usually because of an interim order or some other sort of temporary arrangement.
The sorts of behaviours that suggest an intention to alienate a child from the other parent include, among other things:
- making negative comments about the other parent to the child,
- stating or implying that the child is in danger when with the other parent,
- grilling the child about their activities, meals, and living conditions when with the other parent,
- stating or implying that the activities, meals, and living conditions offered by the other parent are deficient or problematic,
- setting up activities that the child will enjoy during times when the child is with the other parent,
- telling the child that it’s up to them to decide whether to visit the other parent, and/or
- stating or implying that the child is being abused or maltreated by the other parent.
The consequences of parental alienation or attempted alienation can be quite profound.
Alienation at its best is a form of psychological programming; at worst, it’s brainwashing.
Alienation may result in the permanent destruction of a child‘s relationship with a parent and in long-lasting psychological problems for the alienated child.
In their article, Bone and Walsh conclude that when alienation has been identified, the solution is to deal with it immediately:
“When attempted [parental alienation syndrome] has been identified, successful or not, it must be dealt with swiftly by the court. If it is not, it will contaminate and quietly control all other parenting issues and then lead only to unhappiness, frustration, and, lastly, parental estrangement. …
The study by Johnston and Campbell described children with strong alignments as “forfeiting their childhood” because of the adult role they are forced to play when they become the alienating parent‘s nurturer, ally, and support system.
Dr. Rand notes that:
“Divorce almost inevitably burdens children with greater responsibilities and makes them feel less cared for. Children of chronically troubled parents bear a greater burden. … The needs of the troubled parent override the developmental needs of the child, with the result that the child becomes psychologically depleted and their own emotional and social progress is crippled.”
While the process of alienation is underway, children are subject to a tremendous conflict of loyalties, which compounds the burden of nurturing an emotionally troubled parent, particularly when the alienation is intentional.
When the parents were together, their children loved them both, and children naturally desire for this to continue even when their parents aren’t together. Alienating conduct essentially asks children to pick sides, to chose one parent permanently and irrevocably over the other parent.
In G.F. Cartwright’s article “Expanding the Parameters of Parental Alienation Syndrome,” published in the American Journal of Family Therapy in 1993, a number of long-term psychological problems were found in children in alienation situations, including:
- depression, anxiety, and/or stress,
- delayed emotional maturity,
- psychosomatic illnesses, and
- long-term feelings of guilt and loss.
In A. Lampel’s article “Children’s Alignment with Parents in Highly Conflicted Custody Cases,” published in the Family and Conciliation Courts Review in 1996, these psychological problems were found to include:
- being angrier than non-alienated children,
- being less well-adjusted, and
- being less able to conceptualize complex situations.
Finally, when the process of alienation is complete, the child will have chosen sides.
The child‘s relationship with the other parent may be permanently impaired. While many children afflicted by alienation will recover in their mid- to late-teens and reach out to the other parent, some never do, and their relationship with the other parent is permanently destroyed.
-an unforgivable intentional act of malice –
child abuse in a most destructive form….
To quote from the judge in a 2005 Ontario case, Cooper v. Cooper, 2004 CanLII 47783 (ON SC):
“I find that [the mother’s] sabotaging actions have been knowing, wilful and deliberate. As a result of [her] behaviour, the children have little or no relationship with the father who loves them, who has tried to be a good father, and who has been a good provider throughout their lives.”
While evidence of alienation is necessary before a court can make a determination that it has occurred or make orders to ameliorate it, the impact of that behaviour or the allegation that it has occurred can give rise to situations where children become actively involved in the court action.
Parents often find themselves feeling closer to their children following separation than they did during the relationship. Dr. Rand says that fathers in particular find a greater reward in parenting as a result of the loss, loneliness, and feelings of failure that can follow from the breakdown of the relationship.
Accordingly, the impact of parental alienation is particularly traumatic to the targeted parent.
D.S. Huntington, in an article published in 1986 in Divorce and Fatherhood, noted that some parents can be driven off by a child‘s apparent rejection and refusal to visit.
J.W. Jacobs, in a different article in the same book, says that targeted parents may also voluntarily withdraw from the child‘s life where, in their view, the child would suffer if the custody issues were pursued, or if the child would be exposed to additional conflict between the parents.
Contributing to the problem
Johnston has described ways that a targeted parent can inadvertently contribute to the child‘s alienation by displaying the sorts of behaviours that the alienating parent has taught the child to expect. These sorts of behaviours include: being cold and emotionally distant; being rigid and controlling; being insensitive to the child‘s needs; and, not being empathetic.
These sorts of behaviours may reinforce the alienating parent‘s position and make the environment provided by the alienating parent compare favourably to that of the targted parent.
In cases that are profoundly high conflict, false claims may be made, usually by the alienating parent, that the other parent has sexually or physically abused the child. Sometimes this is the fruit of the paranoia with which the alienating parent views the other parent, when a diaper rash turns into sexual assault and a bruise from falling off a jungle gym turns into proof of a beating.
Sometimes, however, false claims are a part of the campaign to alienate the other parent when the alienation is intentional.
For the targeted parent, claims of this nature are devastating because they are so very difficult to disprove and they attack the moral fitness of the parent in a fundamental and humiliating way.
While the claim is being defended, however, the parent may spend months without seeing their child. Even if the claim can be disproven, the parent may find that so much time has been lost that their relationship with the child is damaged. (Note that even unproven claims may result in arrest and possible criminal charges. Even where there are no criminal charges, a parent who has been arrested is invariably released following arrest on a promise not to contact the other parent or the child.)
Interestingly, K.L. Ross and G.J. Blush, in an article published in 1990 in Issues in Child Abuse Allegations, observed that falsely accused parents typically displayed passive behaviour in contrast to the accuser’s excitable and hysterical behaviour.
An American attorney Dr. Rand mentions says that the falsely accused parents she represents in parental alienation cases are typically emotionally and financially stable people, who were often the child‘s primary parent before separation.
When a child is becoming estranged or alienated, or when parental alienation is suspected, the situation must be dealt with as soon as possible.
In most cases, these sorts of problems occur in the context of ongoing litigation, and the problem can usually be dealt with in the context of that litigation.
Section 211 of the Family Law Act allows a court to order that a Needs of the Child Assessment, formerly called a Custody and Access Report, be prepared. If the other parent will not agree to the preparation of a Needs of the Child Assessment, you must apply for an order that the report be prepared.
Proper Needs of the Child Assessments are prepared by a psychologist or a psychiatrist, or another mental health professional, who interviews each of the parents separately, and then interviews the child twice, once in the presence of each parent. The assessor may also give the children and the parents certain common psychological tests, such as personality evaluations and parenting inventories.
Most often it’s only the parents who are tested. The assessor will then prepare a report that sets out their observations and recommendations.
In making an order that a Needs of the Child Assessment be prepared, the court can simply say “a report will be prepared” or it can be more detailed and discuss which person will prepare the report, when it will be finished, and who will pay for it. Most importantly, the order can identify particular issues that the assessor is to address in the report.
Where a report is sought because of suspected parental alienation, the order should expressly state that the assessor is to see whether alienation is or is not happening.
Can you fix the problem?
Frankly, it may be impossible to fix a child‘s alienation from one of their parents even when alienation has been identified by a psychiatrist.
In a 1988 article by N.R. Palmer published in the American Journal of Family Therapy, Palmer quotes a Florida judge who dealt with an alienation case:
“The Court has no doubt that the cause of the blind, brainwashed, bigoted belligerence of the children toward the father grew from the soil nurtured, watered and tilled by the mother.
The Court is thoroughly convinced that the mother breached every duty she owed as the custodial parent to the noncustodial parent of instilling love, respect and feeling in the children for their father. Worse, she slowly dripped poison into the minds of these children, maybe even beyond the power of this Court to find the antidote.”
Dr. Gardner’s solution was to remove the child from the care of the alienating parent. This is, in most cases, a drastic solution which forces the child to live full-time with the parent they have been taught to dislike and distrust.
It may still be appropriate in the right circumstances.
This is what the Supreme Court did in the 2009 case of A.A. v. S.N.A., 2009 BCSC 303 when it found that the mother had “continued to undermine the relationship between [the child] and her father” and “acted in ways that are detrimental to [the child‘s] psychological healing.”
The court ordered that the child have no contact with her mother at all for one year. This kind of solution remains the exception rather than the rule.
In most cases, however, the best that can be done to cure the problem is to obtain an order requiring that the child, the alienated parent, or both the child and the parent see a family counsellor skilled in dealing with the psychological effects of separation. The court can specify who the counsellor will be, how frequent the sessions will be, and who will pay for them.
There is no guarantee that counselling will fix the problem since the source of the problem lies in the conduct of the alienating parent, but counselling is a less drastic step and will be easier to obtain than an order changing the children’s home.
In a small number of cases, it may prove impossible to ameliorate an alienated child‘s views about the targeted parent. These cases are tragic and a legal solution may not be available.
When the alienation becomes deeply entrenched, the issue about which parent bears the blame for the children’s views is irrelevant.
You can lay blame, but that won’t change the fact of how the children feel. In situations like this, the targeted parent may have no choice but to wait until the children become mature and independent enough to seek out the parent and talk about their childhood.
The Fall 2008 edition of AFCC News, an organ of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, discusses a ground-breaking program for alienated and estranged children called Breaking Barriers Camp. The program involved all family members in intensive therapy in an overnight camp setting at a facility called Common Ground Center in Starksboro, Vermont, with enormous amounts of support available to encourage reunification between parents and their children.
The program, by the article’s account, was a stunning success, with four of five families leaving with mutually agreed plans to continue working on the re-established parent-child relationship.