Divorce is never easy, particularly when there are children involved. Sometimes there will be a tale of divorced couples who amicably share the care of their children and who are effective in raising children who are psychologically sound and happy. If you are blessed to have a sensible ex-partner, an amicable resolution can be achieved. But there are occasions when the reverse occurs and where one parent alienates a child from the other.

About 80% of the complicated disputes about children in court involve a child or children who are being exposed to parental alienation. Historically, the courts have battled with the issues of parental alienation. In recent years, there has been growing emphasis on hearing and exploring the ‘voice’ and ‘wishes and feelings’ of the child when making decisions about their welfare. Courts faced with a child who conveys opposition to contact should be vigilant to the possibilities parental alienation at play. Unlike South Africa, some countries have gone much further in identifying the problem: in the US, third parties are put in place to help restore relationships where children have been alienated from one parent and in other countries penalisation for parental alienation range from fines to prison sentences.

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) in the UK started a pilot scheme to bring an end to separated parents poisoning their child against the other parent. Parents who are guilty of manipulating their child in this way may have their child taken away from them and, in the most extreme cases, they may be denied contact. Previously parental alienation has been ignored as a common product of bitterness about a failed relationship, but it is separate from these normal feelings of hurt. Parental alienation is in fact an internationally recognised as form of parental psychological abuse and undermines the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Convention on the rights of the child. In Mexico and Brazil, it is even classed as a criminal offense

Indeed, parental alienation can be a very complex issue as many parents truly believe that they are enhancing their child’s life by shutting out the other parent. In other cases, both parents feel as though they are victims of alienation. Although the consequence of genuine parental alienation can be distressing, we must be conscious that there are many cases where a child or parent may need to limit contact with the other parent for lawful reasons. Where an ex may have been abusive in the past, it is understandable that the resident parent takes it upon themselves to warn the child not to get too close.

Parental Alienation is the psychological manipulation of a child into demonstrating unwarranted fear, disrespect or hatred towards a parent and/or other family members.

Alienation can include: tactics employed include one parent constantly criticizing or belittling the other, stopping the child talking about the other parent, limiting contact, eliminating any presence of the other parent from the life of the child, encouraging the idea that the other parent does not love the child or presenting the impression that the child must decide between parents or be disciplined, by way of threats or by removing affection and attention. Parents explain situations where they feel their children have been brainwashed against them so that any positive recollections of their relationship have been wiped out.

Extreme examples of parental alienation are generally accepted as being a small percentage of the cases that come before the family court. More common are ‘hybrid’ or mixed cases which feature a combination of child and adult behaviours and attitudes leading to the child rejecting or resisting one parent. 

Parents who attempt to alienate their children from their ex-partners are committing a form of child abuse. The way you treat your children after a relationship has broken up is just as compelling as a public health issue like smoking or drinking. The absence of a law expressly outlawing alienation complicates matters. 

Dr Craig Childress, a US psychologist and expert in the field of parental alienation describes parental alienation as a circumstance in which one parent deliberately or subconsciously turns their shared children against the other parent, through various means of manipulation. According to Dr Childress one has to look at the child’s behaviour. “It’s the child’s behaviour that need to be observed. 

Unnecessary levels of anxiety or fear of the alienated parent can be a sign.” Eventually, children can become so indoctrinated and eager to please who they view as the “powerful parent,” they may start hating or abusing the targeted parent themselves. According to Dr Childress, parents who indoctrinate children into alienating the other parent are linked to narcissist borderline pathogenic parenting. The symptoms of narcissism include: grandiosity, entitlement, absence of empathy, haughty, arrogant behaviour and delusional belief systems. 

Researcher Amy Baker says that parents who try to alienate their child from the other parent subtlety, or not so subtlety gives a three-part message to the child. She says:

“I am the only parent who loves you and you need me to feel good about yourself; the other parent is dangerous and unavailable; and pursuing a relationship with the other parent jeopardizes your relationship with me.”

Despite recognition in some of our high court judgements, parental alienation is poorly understood and rarely acknowledged in our family justice system. Whilst there is recognition of the long term psychological impact on the child, there is little research into the sense alienated parents make of their lives when being rejected. 

In many cases before our courts alienated parents are exposed to false allegations of domestic violence against their ex-spouse or partner, false allegations of physical, emotional, sexual, abuse or neglect against their child. In Family law proceedings in South Africa, a child’s best interests are paramount and therefore allegations of abuse generally result in the instant pause of direct contact with the child while fact finding, safeguarding and clinical assessments are undertaken. It goes without saying that parents who are then unable to see their child experience a presumption of guilt and a need to prove their innocence.

The legal process in determining the trust of such allegations is time consuming. The absence of direct and meaningful contact during this period often prolongs the alienation, making meaningful relationships more difficult and unlikely. One of the key determinant factors in the perpetuation of the alienation process is “time since last direct contact” according to Dr Fiona Fidler an Australian psychologist. 

The lack of power that alienated parents experience is found in their experiences with, and opinions of our legal system. There is a belief that the legal process is itself powerless, weak or unwilling to enforce the repeatedly broken contact orders which it has sanctioned. 

Research presented by Dr Sue Whitcombe to the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Counselling Psychology in London found in a study of 54 parents that have been alienated from their children that they initially had direct contact with their child when their relationship broke down but that contact broke down at a later date. 94% participants had engaged in family law proceedings in the courts regarding their children and 70% reported that their ex-partner repeatedly broke one or more of the court orders in place. As such, many parents feel that their former partner holds all the power. 78% of these parents had not seen their children for more than a year and 72% of the children had been cut off completely from the alienated parent’s extended family. 

Dr Whitcombe also found that there was a “lack of knowledge and understanding” about parental alienation and this resonated from her own experience when raising the topic with mental health professionals, practitioner psychologists, colleagues in social care and education. It therefore goes without saying that a failure to recognise an alienation dynamic, and differentiate it from justifiable estrangement leads to inappropriate therapeutic or judicial intervention, with potentially long term detrimental repercussions for the families and individuals concerned. 

According to Dr Childress the only way to deal with a parent who alienates a child from is to obtain the child’s protective separation from the borderline alienating parent. Until one obtains this protective separation, efforts to restore the child’s authentic affectionate bonding will simply lead to the child’s further triangulation into the “spousal” conflict because of the increasing psychological pressure placed on the child by the alienating parent to maintain the child’s symptomatic rejection of the other parent, thereby turning the child into a psychological battleground. 

Childress uses the image of a “hostage situation” with a psychologically disturbed and highly controlling narcissistic parent, who can unleash an intense anger and rejection toward the child if the child dares to deviate from the parentally desired responses. He believes that unless one is able to free the child from this hostage situation, one cannot reasonably ask the child to go against the will of the personality disordered “hostage taker” because of the excessive degree of psychological torment the child will be subjected to if the child does show an affectionate bond with the target parent. 

Childress also believes that to convince the child to show affectionate bonding towards a targeted parent the alienating parent will increase the psychological pressure on the child to remain symptomatically rejecting the targeted parent. This essentially according to him turns the child into a psychological battleground which will destroy the child. He says further that to begin to restore the child to balanced and normal-range functioning, one must first protect the child from the distorted and pathogenic parenting of the personality disordered alienating parent. No qualified therapist according to him should attempt “reunification therapy” without first obtaining a protective separation of the child from the distorting pathogenic influence of the narcissistic-borderline personality disordered parent. 

Essentially, the situation represents the Judgment of Solomon. Two women came before Solomon, each claiming that a baby was theirs. Solomon ordered the child cut in half, and that half be given to each woman. The child’s true mother intervened and told Solomon not to cut the baby in half, but to instead give the child to the other woman. Solomon recognized this woman to be the child’s true mother since she was willing to give up the child rather than see the child destroyed, and Solomon awarded the child to the true mother. 

In attachment-based “parental alienation”, the personality disordered narcissistic borderline alienating parent is entirely willing to psychologically destroy the child rather than see the child bond with the targeted parent. Any steps to restore the child’s normal range and balanced functioning, will increase the psychological pressure on the child to remain symptomatic, and the narcissistic-borderline parent is willing to psychologically destroy the child in the process if it is necessary to prevent the child from forming an affectionate bond with the alienated parent. 

The sad reality is that in many instances an alienated parent is unwilling to psychologically destroy the child and placed in a position where such a parent relinquishes the child to the psychologically disturbed, personality disordered parent, the emotionally and psychologically false parent, because the alienated parent is unwilling to “cut the child in half.” 

Unfortunately, the wisdom of our legal system often falls short in recognizing a child’s true psychological and emotional parent, the parent who is relinquishing the child (i.e., is being rejected and abandoned by the child) because this parent is unwilling to destroy the child in order to possess the child. The time has come for our courts to recognize the false parent, the narcissistically self-absorbed parent who is willing to psychologically and emotionally destroy the child in order to possess the child as a narcissistic object and symbol of his or her narcissistic victory over the other parent. 

Regrettably, this level of sophisticated wisdom is far too often lacking from the Court. Childress makes a valid point and believes that the wisdom of our Courts is dependent upon the wisdom provided from mental health in identifying the underlying pathology, and currently our mental health practitioners are woefully inadequate in reliability identifying the pathology associated with attachment-based “parental alienation.” According to him the Courts’ wisdom is lacking because: “…mental health has failed in its responsibility to the targeted parent and child. The mental health response to attachment-based “parental alienation” needs to change dramatically before Courts will be able to act with the decisive clarity necessary to solve the tragedy of parental alienation.”

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