Estrangement and Alienation
To alienate means to make separate. To estrange means to make indifferent. In family law, both terms relate to a breakdown in a child's relationship with a parent.
Children can become estranged from one parent for a good reason that has nothing to do with the behaviour of the other parent. In some cases, a child's relationship with one parent can be damaged by the actions of the other parent, sometimes in the course of a custody battle and sometimes intentionally. These children are usually said to have been alienated from the other parent.
This section will provide an introduction to the problem of alienated and estranged children, and discuss what the experts have to say about a largely discredited theory called Parental Alienation Syndrome. It will also look at ways of dealing with alienated and estranged children during parenting disputes, and provide a selection of helpful online and printed resources.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 What the experts say about parental alienation
- 3 Dealing with estranged or alienated children
- 4 Resources on Parental Alienation Syndrome
- 5 Resources and links
The end of a romantic relationship is always difficult for parents. It can be just as difficult, if not worse, for their children. How children deal with the end of their parents' relationship has to do with two things: the age and maturity of the children, and how their parents manage the breakdown of their relationship.
Children don't see things in terms of "custody" or "parental responsibilities" when their parents' relationship ends. All they know is that something has gone wrong. Mom and dad are yelling at each other a lot, and then, one day, mom or dad isn't there anymore. Young children won't understand these adult problems. Children who are in primary school will have a better idea, since they'll have friends whose parents have separated. Pre-teens and teens may seem to have a much more grown-up grasp of things as they'll have lost relationships of their own, and may be able to appreciate the idea that their parents' relationship has ended. How children cope with their parents' separation changes as they grow older and more mature.
Things are a lot different for parents. A significant relationship has ended, and in the midst of all of the emotions that go along with that — grief, anger, jealousy, love and loss — they might find themselves also having to deal with some extremely difficult legal issues. It's even worse where the parents wind up fighting about things in court.
Litigation can have a very profound impact on people. At its core, litigation is an adversarial process: each parent is fighting the other in order to "win," and where there's a winner there's always a loser. This sort of approach to a dispute often polarizes parents and encourages them to take extreme positions. What makes this so much worse is that the parents are both fighting about something they cherish dearly, their children, and they are both fighting against someone whom they used to deeply love.
In circumstances like these, it can be easy to forget how important it is that the children maintain a positive, loving relationship with the other parent. It can also be easy to overlook the importance of managing the children's exposure to and perception of their parents' conflict. One parent's view of the other becomes clouded by hatred, malice and spite, and nothing the other parent can do is ever right. This attitude is almost impossible to shield from the children. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the children are inevitably exposed to these negative views which, without interference, can come to colour the children's own views of the other parent.
Children's experiences of separation
It is important to remember that while one parent's thoughtless comments about the other parent can have an impact on how a child sees the other parent, so too will the child's own experience of the separation. This can include:
- blaming the parent who left for breaking up the family,
- seeing a parent as injured by the actions of the other parent,
- sympathizing with an emotionally upset parent, and
- missing and feeling sad for the parent that they see less often.
These feelings may have nothing at all to do with any blameworthy conduct on the part of either parent, but they can cause a child to feel closer to one parent than the other. Further, there a number of normal reasons why a child might feel closer to one parent even in families that haven't separated, such as:
- similarities in the temperament of the child and one of the parents,
- the parent's gender,
- interests the child shares with a parent, and
- how the parent handles discipline.
There are, of course, ways that parents can behave, intentionally and unintentionally, that will encourage a child to drift towards one parent and away from the other that are blameworthy. Remember, however, that there are normal reasons why a child's experience of divorce may align with one parent over the other that have nothing to do with a parent's conduct.
Resisting visits with a parent
When a child begins to drift apart from a parent, the first sign that this might become a serious problem often occurs when the child begins to express a reluctance to spend time with the other parent. It is important to distinguish a simple reluctance from a more serious problem like estrangement or alienation. It is also important to distinguish between a reluctance that stems from a child and a reluctance that is fostered by a parent. In a sense, this is the key difference between estrangement and alienation.
Normal reasons why a child might resist parenting time or contact include:
- age-appropriate separation anxieties,
- inability to cope with the transition between homes, especially where there is a lot of conflict between the parents,
- not wanting to leave an upset parent at home, and
- not liking the other parent's parenting style.
Of course, any resistance to separation is difficult for both parents. For the parent sending the child on the visit, it can be heart wrenching to force the child out the door. For the parent receiving the child, it can be devastating to hear — from the other parent or the child — that the parenting time or contact is unwelcome, and to experience the rejection that this entails.
These "normal" reasons why a child would be reluctant to see a parent can be aggravated by the unintentional conduct of each parent. Separated parents have a positive duty to nurture their child's relationship with the other parent. In the context of parenting time and contact, this means encouraging the child to look forward to seeing the other parent. In general, this means actively fostering the child's relationship with the other parent and refraining from making negative remarks about the other parent.
In high-conflict situations, even parents who understand this basic duty can unconsciously telegraph their feelings about the other parent to the child. Children are not stupid; they know something's not right. Even young children will pick up on non-verbal clues to a parent's feelings.
This sort of unintentional communication of emotion includes:
- making faces, grimacing, groaning, cringing or shuddering when the other parent is mentioned,
- arguing with the other parent when the children can see or hear the dispute,
- making negative comments about the other parent when the children are within earshot,
- using an emotionless or negative tone of voice when speaking to the children about the other parent, and
- reacting in a flat or negative manner when the children discuss the other parent or their activities with that parent.
Even though in these examples nothing is actually being said to the children to discourage their relationship with the other parent, they will pick up on the implications these behaviours suggest: there is something bad about one parent which is hurting the other parent. This sort of behaviour will inevitably encourage and reinforce any resistance the child might have to seeing the other parent.
When a child begins to express a reluctance to visit the other parent, both parents must act to stop the problem from getting worse.
For the parent who has the child most often, this means that you must:
- work harder at encouraging the child to look forward to the visits,
- make sure that you are not a part of the problem by unconsciously telegraphing your problems with the other parent,
- make an effort to remind the child about the other parent's positive traits,
- consider getting the child in to see a counsellor about the separation, and
- seriously consider taking a parenting after separation course.
For the parent whom the child is resisting seeing, this means that you must:
- work harder at making the child feel welcomed and listened to in your home,
- re-examine your approach to parenting issues, particularly if you were the disciplinarian during your relationship with the other parent,
- make sure that you are not insulting or mocking the other parent when the child is within earshot, and
- seriously consider taking a parenting after separation course.
None of these solutions may be effective if the child's opinion and emotions are too entrenched, if the parents are simply too angry with one another to cooperate effectively, or if one of the parents is actively working to undermine the other parent's relationship with the child.
When things go too far, or when a problem is left unchecked, a child's simple preference for one parent can develop to an extreme point, where the child is estranged or alienated from the other parent.
Knowing when there's a problem
An otherwise "normal" resistance to parenting time or contact can cross the line when the child's opinion of the parent and his or her emotional attachment to that parent begins to change. Temper tantrums about a visit, and expressions of rage and hate should send a loud and clear signal that both parents have to work a lot harder to help the child through his or her experience of the separation.
Mild expressions of a change in the child's attachment to a parent include:
- Expressing ambivalence about visiting the parent (not caring one way or the other about seeing the parent).
- Grumbling about having to go to see the other parent.
- Stating a preference for an activity (playing a game, seeing friends and so forth) over seeing the other parent.
More serious expressions of a change in the child's attachment to a parent include:
- Expressing a preference for one parent over the other, and a general ambivalence about the other parent.
- Expressing a preference for one home over the other.
- Expressing a worry about missing the parent the child is leaving.
- Being upset that an activity (playing a game, an outing, seeing friends and so forth) will be interrupted by the visit.
- Stating that visits with other parent are boring.
- Being reluctant to speak to the other parent on the telephone.
Still more serious expressions of a change include:
- Stating that he or she "doesn't like" the other parent.
- Occasionally putting the other parent down.
- Expressions of concern for the well-being of the parent the child is leaving for the visit (older children).
- Crying before the visit (younger children).
- Complaining that "it's not fair" to have to visit (older children).
- Offering promises (studying harder, doing more chores and so forth) in exchange for not having to go on the visit.
- Claiming that the other parent doesn't parent properly (bad food, unfair discipline, unwanted outings and so forth).
- Refusing to talk to the other parent when he or she telephones.
The most serious expressions of a change in the child's attachment to a parent include:
- Pitching temper tantrums before leaving for the visit (younger children).
- Becoming enraged about being forced to go to the other parent (older children).
- Stating that he or she "hates" the other parent.
- Threats about running away or involving the police (older children).
- Pleading to do anything except go on the visit.
- Making bizarre and unlikely claims about the other parent's conduct (abuse, neglect and so forth).
- Constantly making insulting comments about the other parent or putting the other parent down ("he's such a jerk," "she can't do anything right," and so forth).
Even mild indications that a child is growing emotionally distant from a parent are disturbing and warrant some attention by both parents. When a child is clearly heading from feeling ambivalent about a parent to feeling hatred towards that parent, parents should seriously consider getting the child professional help from counselors who specialize in helping children cope with and adjust to the separation of their parents. It is often helpful for the parents themselves to find some counselling and guidance on how to approach parenting time and contact issues with the child.
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-centred 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 child's experiences make the child's rejection of a parent reasonable, and are 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 reject a parent without guilt or sadness and without an objectively reasonable cause. Their views of the alienated parent are 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 a parent's efforts to turn a child against the other parent. Typically, alienation is only a problem when the parents are involved in extremely bitter and heated litigation as a result. Not every case of high conflict litigation involves alienation, but it 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.
This sort of intentional alienation is absolutely wrong and virtually unforgivable. 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:
"Any attempt at alienating the children from the other parent should be seen as a direct and willful violation of one of the prime duties of parenthood."
The parent most likely to attempt to alienate a child from the other parent is the parent who has the child for most of the time, 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 his or her 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 him or her to decide whether to visit the other parent, and
- 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.
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. ... 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."
A few notes from JP Boyd
I am not a psychologist, a psychiatrist or a counsellor. As a result this section should be read with a grain of salt, as it is based on my observations of my clients' experiences, a bit of research, and some common sense. For the same reason, be cautioned that this section should not be used as an authority for the propositions it sets out.
I also wish to acknowledge that the bulk of this section was drawn from two sources in particular: Dr. Deirdre Rand's 1997 article, "The Spectrum of Parental Alienation Syndrome (Part II)" in the American Journal of Forensic Psychology; and, a 2001 article by Drs. Joan Kelly and Janet Johnston, "The Alienated Child: A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome", published in Family Court Review. Both articles are excellent and should be read if you believe that estrangement or alienation is an issue in your family.
What the experts say about parental alienation
The alienation of children from parents in the course of high-conflict family law litigation was first noticed by the mental health community in 1976. In 1987, Dr. Richard Gardner gave this problem the label "Parental Alienation Syndrome" (PAS), which he used to describe a disorder in children that occurred in the course of a custody dispute.
Dr. Gardner's interpretation was not without controversy and has continued to be studied, reviewed and revised by the mental health community. In fact, I think it's fair to say that PAS, as a theory, has largely been discredited. No one doubts that parental alienation can occur when parents separate; the questions largely concern whether PAS is a diagnosable "syndrome" at all, and current thinking on alienation has become quite nuanced. The most recent significant work on parental alienation comes from Drs. Joan Kelly and Janet Johnston, but since Dr. Gardner came up with his formulation of PAS first, that's where we'll start.
Gardner's Parental Alienation Syndrome
In 1997, Dr. Deirdre Rand published an article called "The Spectrum of Parental Alienation Syndrome (Part II)" in the American Journal of Forensic Psychology, summarizing and updating Dr. Gardner's theory. In that article, Dr. Rand describes PAS as the child's formation of an "alignment" with one parent against the other. Think of "alignment" as meaning an alliance, or a sense of allegiance, in which a child comes to share the views and emotions of one parent over those of the other parent.
A study by J.R. Johnston and L.E. Campbell in 1988 found a measurable degree of alignment between children and one parent in 35 to 40% of the high-conflict cases they studied. In a 1993 article in Children of Divorce who Refuse Visitation, Johnston reported finding strong alignments in 28 to 43% of 9- to 12-year-olds in high-conflict cases, with another 29% showing symptoms of a mild alignment.
According to Dr. Rand, children align differently depending on their ages:
- 2- to 3-year-olds: Mostly show age-appropriate separation anxiety from their primary parent. This anxiety worsens when the primary parent is emotionally disturbed.
- 3- to 6-year-olds: Alignments shift depending on which parent the children are with. Children in this age range have not yet learned to comprehend two different points of view, and cannot understand why one parent says one thing and the other parent says another.
- 6- to 7-year-olds: Children in this age range are sensitive to hurting their parents, and often have conflicting loyalties between one parent and the other.
- 7- to 9-year-olds: Children are able to understand each parent's point of view and understand how one perspective can conflict with another.
- 9- to 12-year-olds: Children in this age range are the most vulnerable to PAS, as they are old enough to establish a strong alignment with one parent, and are old enough to try resolving conflicts of loyalty by "picking" one parent over the other.
- Teenagers: Children's alignments often continue into their mid-teens. Many teens are able to take a more mature and independent view of their parents' fight, but a significant number maintain their alignment and continue to reject one parent in favour of the other.
According to Drs. Rand and Gardner, children are about twice as likely to form alignments with their mothers than they are with their fathers, meaning that mothers are twice as likely to engage in alienating behaviour.
Dr. Rand says that PAS is a risk whenever parents must litigate a custody dispute. This risk increases when one or both parents make claims that attack the integrity, moral fitness, or character of the other parent. Such claims are typically hard to defend, and puts one parent on the defensive while giving the other parent a sense of moral superiority.
She notes that the statistical risk of PAS increases when: the parent perceived to be responsible for the breakdown of the relationship becomes involved in a new relationship shortly afterwards; and, a parent leaves the relationship precipitously. In my view, a third risk factor occurs when a parent's immediate family vigorously supports the parent's cause and encourages ill-will toward the other parent.
Drs. Rand and Gardner identify five types of behaviour that are characteristic of PAS:
- Rejecting: The parent rejects the child's need for a relationship with both parents. The child fears abandonment and rejection by the alienating parent if positive feelings are expressed about the other parent.
- Terrorizing: The alienating parent bullies the child into being terrified of the other parent, and punishes the child if the child expresses positive feelings about the other parent.
- Ignoring: The alienating parent withholds love and attention from the child.
- Isolating: The alienating parent prevents the child from participating in normal social activities with the other parent and that parent's friends and family.
- Corrupting: The alienating parent encourages the child to lie about and be aggressive toward the other parent. In very serious cases, the alienating parent will recruit the child to assist in deceits and manipulative behaviour intended to harm the other parent.
To this list, I would add two more categories:
- Distracting: The alienating parent sets up oppositional activities, goals or interests, some of which conflict with the other parent's time with the child. (For example, enrolling the child in a sports team and placing a high value on the child's participation such that the child is upset to miss a game or practice when with the other parent, or telling the child that he or she won't make the team if the child doesn't attend all the games or practices including those scheduled during the other parent's time.)
- Resigning: The alienating parent ceases to accept responsibility for the child's time with the other parent, and appears to leave it up to the child to decide whether to go or not go. This forces the child to make the choice to see the other parent, knowing that the alienating parent doesn't want the child to go at all, putting the child in a loyalty conflict.
Reaction to Gardner's Parental Alienation Syndrome
As you can imagine, lawyers loved the idea of Parental Alienation Syndrome, especially in the US where it became a rather trendy strategy in high-conflict cases. The American Bar Association's 1991 study found evidence suggesting PAS in the majority of 700 high-conflict custody cases they studied over the course of 12 years.
While lawyers might have loved the theory, it did raise lots of other problems. Men's rights groups liked it because the majority of parents perpetrating PAS were women, and Gardner's work appeared to give them the scientific backing that would turn the tide in courts they perceived to be biased in favour of women. Women's groups hated it as a sexist and an unscientific piece of claptrap. The courts didn't like it because implementing Dr. Gardner's recommendations would require them to place the child in the home of the "hated" parent, which was plainly the last thing the alienated child wanted.
The mental health community has been split on PAS for a number of reasons:
- There is no empirical support to give PAS status as a diagnosable syndrome.
- The theory focuses almost exclusively on the alienating parent as the cause of the child's rejection.
- PAS is overly simplistic and frequently misapplied.
Contemporary perspectives on alienated children
In their 2001 article "The Alienated Child", published in Family Court Review, Drs. Kelly and Johnston propose a reformulation of Dr. Gardner's theory that would focus primarily on the alienated child rather than on the alienating parent, on the principle that there are many different factors that can cause a child to be alienated from a parent apart from a malicious parent.
Drs. Kelly and Johnston view a child's relationships with his or her parents as falling on a spectrum that runs from the child wanting a positive relationship with both parents to the child being pathologically alienated from one parent:
with both parents
Child prefers contact with both parents AFFINITY
with one parent
Child prefers contact with both parents ALLIANCE
with one parent
Child prefers one parent, and is ambivalent about the other ESTRANGED
from one parent
Child rejects one parent and may either be ambivalent about that parent or express a strong dislike for that parent ALIENATED
from one parent
Child rejects one parent and expresses a strong dislike for that parent
Central to this reformulation of Dr. Gardner's theory are the ideas that:
- the child is the focus of investigation, not just one of the parents,
- children can become alienated from a parent for a good and justifiable reason, which the authors call estrangement, and
- there are more potential causes of a child's alienation than only a malicious parent who is actively trying to interfere with the child's relationship with the other parent.
Drs. Kelly and Johnston do not reject Dr. Gardner's theory of the malicious parent, but they do broaden the scope of things that should be considered when evaluating for parental alienation.
The impact on children
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. 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.
In a case called J.E.S.D v. Y.E.P, a 16 year old asked the court to have a lawyer appointed for her when she did not agree with the evidence of an expert witness who found that she was alienated from her father. The court in the circumstances did not find that it was appropriate for the child to have her own lawyer, or to be named a party to the action. However, because the Supreme Court of British Columbia has authority under the concept of parens patriae to make an order to protect someone who cannot protect himself or herself, the court ordered that an amicus be appointed. The court referred to the Honourable Madam Justice Martinson's decision in Dormer v. Thomas. While the court directed that an amicus be appointed, who that person was, or how he or she would be paid, was not considered.
Parents often find themselves feeling closer to the 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 targeted parent.
False claims of abuse
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 spends months without seeing his or her child. Even if the claim can be disproven, the parent may find that so much time has been lost that his or her 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 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.
Dealing with estranged or alienated children
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.
Needs of the child assessments
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 assessment 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 his or her 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.
Fixing the problem
Frankly, it may be impossible to fix a child's alienation from one of his or her 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 he or she has 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," and 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.
Resources on Parental Alienation Syndrome
The following lists of resources are not, of course, encyclopaedic. There are doubtless many valuable studies, articles and websites which I have overlooked; doing your own research is always recommended.
The January 2010 edition of Family Court Review, published by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, is entirely devoted to the issue of alienated and estranged children. If you can get your hands on a copy, you should. It offers an up-to-date look at current court practices and the latest literature on the subject and was edited by two prominent Canadians, Professor Nick Bala, a law professor at Queen's University, and Dr. Barbara Jo Fidler, a psychologist and mediator based in Toronto.
The following articles were suggested as recommended readings on child alienation and estrangement by Dr. Joan Kelly at a June 2005 seminar in Vancouver.
- Buchanan, C., Maccoby, E., & Dombusch, S. (1991) "Caught between parents: Adolescents’ experience in divorced homes." Child Development
- Buehler, C., Krishnakumar, A., Stone, G., Anthony, C., Pemberton, S., Gerard, J., & Barber, B.K. (1998) "Interparental conflict styles and youth problem behaviors: A two-sample replication study." Journal of Marriage & Family
- Clawar, S.S. & Rivlin, B.V. (1991) Children held hostage: Dealing with programmed and brainwashed children
- Cummings, E. & Davies, P. (1994) Children and marital conflict
- Dunne, J. & Hedrick, M. (1994) "The parental alienation syndrome: An analysis of sixteen selected cases." Journal of Divorce and Remarriage
- Emery, R. E. (2004) "Parental alienation syndrome: Proponents bear the burden of proof." Family Court Review
- Faller, K.C. (1998) "The parental alienation syndrome, What is it and what data support it?" Child Maltreatment
- Freeman, R., Abel, D., Cowper-Smith, M., & Stein, L. (2004) "Reconnecting children with absent parents: A model for intervention" Family Court Review
- Gardner, R.A. (1998) The parental alienation syndrome
- Johnston, J. R. (2003) "Parental alignments and rejection: An empirical study of alienation in children of divorce." Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law
- Johnston, J.R. (1993) "Children of divorce who refuse visitation," in C. Depner & J.H. Bray (Eds.), Non-residential parenting: New vistas in family living
- Johnston, J. R. & Kelly, J.B. (2004) "Rejoinder to Gardner’s 'Commentary on Kelly and Johnston’s The alienated child: A reformulation of parental alienation syndrome'." Family Court Review
- Johnston, J. R. & Kelly, J. B. (2004) "Commentary on Walker, Brantley & Rigsbee’s 'A critical analysis of parental alienation and its admissibility in the family court'." Journal of Child Custody
- Johnston, J.R. & Roseby, V. (1997) In the name of the child: A developmental approach to understanding and helping children of high-conflict and violent families.
- Johnston, J.R., Walters, M.G., & Friedlander, S. (2001) "Therapeutic work with alienated children and their families." Family Courts Review
- Kelly, J. B. (2000) "Children’s adjustment in conflicted marriage and divorce: A decade review of research." Journal of the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry
- Kelly, J. (2003) "Parents with enduring child disputes: Multiple pathways to enduring disputes." Journal of Family Studies
- Kelly, J. (2003) "Parents with enduring child disputes: Focused interventions with parents in enduring disputes." Journal of Family Studies
- Kelly, J. (2002) "Psychological and legal interventions for parents and children in custody and access disputes: Current research and practice." Virginia Journal of Social Policy and Law
- Kelly, J. & Emery, R. (2003) "Children’s adjustment following divorce: Risk and resilience perspectives." Family Relations
- Kelly, J.B. & Johnston, J.R. (2001) "The alienated child: A reformulation of parental alienation syndrome." Family Courts Review
- Kline, M., Johnston, J., & Tschann, J. (1990) "The long shadow of marital conflict: a model of children’s postdivorce adjustment." Journal of Marriage & Family
- Lampel, A.K. (1996) "Children’s alignments with parents in highly conflicted custody cases." Family & Conciliation Courts Review
- Lee, S. M. & Olesen, N. W. (2001) "Assessing for alienation in child custody and access evaluations." Family Courts Review
- Lund, M. (1995) "A therapist’s view of parental alienation syndrome." Family & Conciliation Courts Review
- Rand, D.C. (1997) "The spectrum of parent alienation: Part 1." American Journal of Forensic Psychology
- Rand, D.C. (1997) "The spectrum of parent alienation: Part 2." American Journal of Forensic Psychology
- Sullivan, M. J. & Kelly, J.B. (2001) "Legal and psychological management of cases with an alienated child." Family Courts Review
- Turkat, I.D. (1994) "Child visitation interference in divorce." Clinical Psychology Review
- Waldron, K.H. & Joanes, D.E. (1996) "Understanding and collaboratively treating parental alienation syndrome." American Journal of Family Law
- Wallerstein, J.S. & Kelly, J.B. (1976) "The effects of parental divorce: Experiences of the child in later latency." American Journal of Orthopsychiatry
- Wallerstein, J.S.. & Kelly, K.B. (1980) Surviving the breakup: How children and parents cope with divorce.
- Warshak, R. A. (2003) "Bring sense to parental alienation: A look at the disputes and the evidence." Family Law Quarterly
- Warshak, R. A. (2003) "Payoffs and pitfalls of listening to children." Family Relations
- Wood, C. (1994) "The parental alienation syndrome: A dangerous aura of reliability." Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review
The web is full of resources about parental alienation. Much of the information available online is, however, crap. Look about the web and educate yourself about alienation, but be cautious about the sources of what you're reading. Stick to information published by academics, lawyers, psychiatrists and psychologists, and avoid anonymous websites, websites sponsored by special interest groups that are likely to be biased, sensationalist websites, and websites that don't give a source for their data or their conclusions. The most reliable sort of online information is that which has been reproduced from a professional journal.
A good starting point for online research is the website of the Shared Parenting Information Group, a UK organization, which has a good discussion of the subject and plenty of useful links.
A final note of caution. Many of the groups you'll find online that offer information on alienation and PAS, such as Fathers Are Capable Too, seem to regard PAS as a men's rights or father's rights issue. In part this is because the majority of alienating parents are mothers. However, some of these sites go too far and identify feminism, or rather their prejudice against feminism, with the small number of women who engage in alienating behaviour. Fathers also engage in alienating behaviour. Take care in your sources of information and make sure you're reading between the lines.
- "The Alienated Child: A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome"
- "Children's Alignment with Parents in Highly Conflicted Custody Cases"
- Family Court Review
- Shared Parenting Information Group (UK)
|The above was last reviewed for legal accuracy by Mary Mouat, QC and Samantha Rapoport, April 14, 2017.|
|JP Boyd on Family Law © John-Paul Boyd and Courthouse Libraries BC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada Licence.|