Children Who Resist Seeing a Parent

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Children may resist seeing a parent after separation for many reasons. Whatever those reasons may be, it's always hard to be the parent a child doesn't want to spend time with. Because children's resistance to seeing a parent usually doesn't become obvious until the relationship between the parents has ended, it's easy to see how a child's preferences could be interpreted as something new that's been caused by the other parent's malicious behaviour. However, it's important to know that the reasons a child may not want to spend time with a parent range from innocent reasons related to the child's age, gender identity and stage of development, to understandable but more difficult reasons related to parenting styles, parental conflict and family violence, to truly blameworthy reasons stemming from a parent's intentional interference with the relationship between the child and the other parent.

This section provides an introduction to the problem of children who resist seeing a parent after separation and talks about possible solutions to the problem. It also discusses alienated and estranged children, as well as what the experts have to say about a largely discredited theory called Parental Alienation Syndrome. It also looks at the options available for dealing with children who resist seeing a parent after separation, and provides a selection of helpful online and printed resources.

Introduction

While parents are together, they usually sort out childrearing and childcare issues together. Sometimes they talk and negotiate how these things will work; for other parents, issues about the kids just seem to sort themselves out. However these issues are resolved, each parent's strengths, skills and interests usually work to offset the other parent's weaknesses. One parent might be better at homework, and take on the lion's share of helping the kids with school. Another parent might be more detail-oriented, and take care of booking parent-teacher conferences and appointments with medical and dental professionals. One parent might enjoy cooking more than the other, and wind up doing most of the meal planning and meal preparation as a result.

After separation, each parent's strengths and weaknesses are no longer buffered by the strengths and weaknesses of the other parent, putting their parenting styles into sharp contrast. A parent who never cooked needs to either master Skip the Dishes or figure out how the kitchen works in short order; a parent who wasn't responsible for discipline and making sure the kids are up on time and go to bed at a reasonable hour, now has to manage these tasks as well. This understandably creates anxiety for the parents — "She never cooked, how are the kids going to stay healthy living on pizza and hotdogs at her place?" — as well as confusion for the children. One parent might make a cozy, warm and welcoming home after separation, while the other might leave the walls blank and take a minimalist approach to furniture and other creature comforts. One parent might be a more rigid disciplinarian and insist that homework gets done right after dinner and impose strict rules about screen time, while the other might take a more relaxed approach to the children and let them free-range. One parent might be interested in the children's social lives, friend groups and conflict with bullies at school, the other parent might not be interested in these things and not talk to the children about them as a result.

It's rare for parents to be so well-matched that the homes they make, the lives they build, and the parenting expectations they set after separation are more or less the same.

These differences, coupled with the fact of separation, often give children choices and perspectives that they never had while their parents were together. There are a few reasons for this. First, while their parents were together, they had no choice about dealing with a parent they liked less than another parent, putting up with a punishment they thought was unfair, or dealing with household routines, like getting ready for school or getting ready for bed, that they didn't like. Second, while their parents were together, they had the benefit of the support both parents provided as well as the different parenting skills and approaches each parent offered, as well as the buffering effect that offsets each parent's weaknesses. After separation, when parents each make a new home for themselves, all of this changes.

Like it or not, it's easy for kids to form preferences for one parent over the other, and for one parent's home over the other. Sometimes this is a response to different approaches to parenting. Sometimes it results from different parenting skills, particularly when a parent is inflexible or intolerant, takes a harsh and erratic approach to discipline, or has problems with drug or alcohol use. Sometimes it's about the home environment, and which parent's home has bicycles, skateboards and scooters, which parent's home has the XBox or PlayStation console, which parent's home has more toys and stuffies, or which parent's home has a better selection of clothes and shoes and a more comfortable bed. It's also about the children, because as children age it's developmentally normal to have a preference for one parent over the other that changes back and forth as they get older and mature and their needs evolve.

This is normal; it happens all the time. It can become problematic when a child's preference for a parent or a parent's home — or, to put it the other way, a child's dislike of a parent or a parent's home — results in the child not wanting to spend time with a parent. Left unchecked, a child's dislike of a parent can grow into a complete, sometimes long-lasting, breakdown in their relationship with that parent.

In this section, we'll talk about the parent a child prefers to spend time with as the favoured parent, as the preferred parent, as the alienating parent, depending on the context, or just as the parent the child prefers to spend time with. We'll talk about the other parent as the rejected parent, or as the parent the child resists seeing and similar terms.

When children resist spending time with a parent

When a child begins to form a preference for one parent over the other, the first sign that this might become a problem often occurs when the child begins to express a reluctance to spend time with the other parent. It's important to distinguish a simple reluctance, that might be appropriate for the child's age and stage of development or result from age-appropriate separation anxiety, from a more serious problem like estrangement or alienation. It's also important to distinguish between a reluctance that stems from the child's own feelings toward a parent and a reluctance that a parent encourages.

Normal reasons why a child might resist parenting time or contact with a parent include:

  • a developmentally-appropriate preference for a parent,
  • age-appropriate separation anxieties that make it difficult to leave a parent,
  • challenges coping with the transition between homes, especially when there is a lot of conflict between the parents and when the two homes are very different in terms of environment, expectations and rules,
  • not liking a parent's new partner,
  • not wanting to leave an upset, emotionally-vulnerable parent at home alone,
  • a dislike of a parent's parenting style,
  • seeing or suffering family violence,
  • a parent having issues with substance use and abuse, and
  • parents who are in high levels of conflict with each other after separation.

Of course, any resistance to seeing one parent is, or at least should be, difficult for both parents. For the parent sending the child to the other parent, it can be heart-wrenching to force the child out the door and into the car against their complaints. 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 unwanted, and experience the profound sense of rejection, grief and loss that results.

It's important to know that each parent has a duty to nurture and encourage the children's relationships with the other parent. In the context of parenting after separation, this means helping the child look forward to seeing the other parent. In a more general context, 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 aren't stupid; they know that something's not right and they'll be painfully aware of the feelings each parent has toward the other. Even young children will pick up on non-verbal clues to a parent's feelings. This sort of unintentional communication 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 talk about the other parent or their activities with that parent.

It's far worse when a parent intentionally expresses their negative feelings about the other parent to the child.

When a child begins to express a reluctance to visit the other parent, both parents must take action to stop the problem from getting worse. For the parent preferred by the children, this means that you must:

  • work harder at encouraging the children to look forward to their time with the other parent,
  • make sure that you are not a part of the problem by unconsciously broadcasting your feelings about the other parent,
  • make a consistent effort to remind the children about the other parent's positive qualities and the fun they have with that parent,
  • consider getting the children in to see a counsellor about the separation and their relationship with the other parent, and
  • seriously consider taking a parenting after separation course.

For the parent whom the children are resisting seeing, this means that you must:

  • work harder at making the children 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, mocking or belittling the other parent when the children are within earshot,
  • consider getting the children in to see a counsellor about the separation and their relationship with you,
  • consider seeing a counsellor yourself about your approach to parenting and your relationship with the children, and
  • seriously consider taking a parenting after separation course.

None of these solutions may be effective if a 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 child's relationship with the other parent. When things go too far, or when an emerging problem is left unchecked, a child's simple preference for one parent can develop to the point where the child is estranged or alienated from the other parent. We'll talk more about this later.

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 their 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 their experience of the separation. Mild expressions of a change in the child's attachment to a parent include:

  • expressing ambivalence about visiting the parent, in other words, not caring one way or the other about seeing the parent,
  • grumbling about having to go to see the other parent, and
  • stating a preference for particular activities, like playing a game or seeing friends, over seeing the other parent.

More serious expressions of a change in the child's attachment to a parent include the child:

  • expressing a preference for one parent over the other, and a general ambivalence about the other parent,
  • expressing a stong preference for one home over the other,
  • expressing concern about missing the parent the child is leaving,
  • being upset that an activity, like playing a game, going on an outing or seeing friends, will be interrupted by their time with the other parent,
  • saying that their time with the other parent is boring, and
  • being reluctant to speak to the other parent on the telephone.

Much more serious expressions of a change include the child:

  • saying that they don't like the other parent,
  • occasionally putting the other parent down,
  • expressing concern for the well-being of the parent the child is leaving, in the case of older children,
  • crying before the visit, in the case of younger children,
  • complaining that it's not fair to have to visit, in the case of older children,
  • offering promises, like studying harder or doing more chores, in exchange for not having to spend time with the other parent,
  • claiming that the other parent doesn't parent properly and does things like providing bad food, imposing unfair discipline and making them do things they don't want to do, and
  • refusing to talk to the other parent when they telephone.

The most serious expressions of a change in the child's attachment to a parent include the child:

  • throwing temper tantrums before leaving to spend time with the other parent, in the case of younger children,
  • becoming enraged about being forced to go to the other parent, in the case of older children,
  • saying that they hate the other parent,
  • making threats about running away or involving the police, in the case of older children,
  • pleading to do anything except go on the visit,
  • making bizarre and unlikely claims about the other parent's behaviour, like making claims about abuse, neglect and so forth, and
  • constantly making insulting comments about the other parent or putting the other parent down.

Even mild indications that a child is growing emotionally distant from a parent are disturbing and deserve 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 and themselves in to see a mental health professional who specializes in helping children cope with and adjust to the separation of their parents. It's often helpful for parents themselves to find some counselling of their own as well, and get input on how to approach parenting time and contact issues with the child.

A few notes from John-Paul 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's 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 much 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.

Parental alienation

The alienation of children from parents in the course of high-conflict family law litigation was first noted by the mental health community in 1976. In 1987, Dr. Richard Gardner gave this problem the label "Parental Alienation Syndrome," which he used to describe a disorder in children that he said occurs in the course of disputes between separated parents about their children's parenting arrangements.

Gardner's take on this problem was not without controversy and the problem and Gardner's theory has continued to be studied, critiqued, and updated by the mental health community. In fact, I think it's fair to say that Parental Alienation Syndrome, as Gardner originally framed it, has largely been discredited. No one doubts that alienation can occur when parents separate; the questions raised by mental health and other professionals largely concern whether Parental Alienation Syndrome is a diagnosable "syndrome" at all, and the fact that more current research shows that there are many reasons why a child can come to resist seeing a parent other than alienation. The current thinking on alienation, and a related problem called estrangement, has become quite nuanced. The most recent significant work on parental alienation comes from Drs. Joan Kelly and Janet Johnston, but since Gardner came up with his formulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome 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 Gardner's theory. In that article, Rand describes Parental Alienation Syndrome 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 Johnston and Dr. Linda Campbell in 1988 found a measurable degree of alignment between children and one parent in 35 to 40 percent of the high-conflict cases they studied. In a 1993 article entitled "Children of Divorce who Refuse Visitation," Johnston reported finding strong alignments in 28 to 43 percent of 9- to 12-year-olds in high-conflict cases, with another 29 percent showing symptoms of a mild alignment.

According to 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 understand 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 this old 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 Parental Alienation Syndrome, 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, and sometimes critical, view of their parents' fight, but a significant number of teens maintain their alignment and continue to reject one parent in favour of the other.

According to 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. (In fact, in his original writing about Parental Alienation Syndrome, Gardner claimed to see evidence of alienation in 90 percent of the children he saw in his clinical practice, and that, for these children, their mothers were the alienating parent 90 percent of the time!)

Rand says that Parental Alienation Syndrome is a risk whenever parents must litigate a parenting dispute. This risk increases when one or both parents make claims that attack the integrity, moral fitness, or character of the other parent. (Claims like these are typically hard to defend, and put one parent on the defensive while giving the other parent an often unwarranted sense of moral superiority.) She notes that the statistical risk of Parental Alienation Syndrome increases when: the parent perceived to be responsible for the breakdown of the relationship becomes involved in a new relationship shortly afterwards; or, a parent leaves the relationship suddenly. In my view, a third risk factor occurs when a parent's immediate family members vigorously support the parent's cause and encourage the parent's negative feelings about the other parent.

Rand and Gardner identify five types of behaviour that they say are characteristic of Parental Alienation Syndrome:

  • 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 if the child expresses positive feelings about the other parent.
  • 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 that are highly valued by the child but conflict with the other parent's time with the child.
  • Resigning: The alienating parent ceases to accept responsibility for the child's time with the other parent, and seems 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.

Gardner suggested that, when the courts find that a child is suffering from Parental Alienation Syndrome, the best and maybe only solution is for the court to order that the child be placed into the full-time care of the parent the child rejects, in order to insulate the child from the ongoing malignant influence of the alienating parent.

Reaction to Gardner's Parental Alienation Syndrome

As you can imagine, lawyers loved the idea of Parental Alienation Syndrome when Gardner first wrote about it, especially in the United States where it became a rather trendy strategy in high-conflict parenting cases.

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 Parental Alienation Syndrome were said to be women, because Gardner's work seemed to give them the credible scientific backing that would turn the tide in courts they perceived to be biased in favour of women, and because Gardner's recommended response to Parental Alienation Syndrome would have the children removed from the other parent and placed in their primary care. Women's groups hated it as a sexist and unscientific piece of claptrap that was often used to sidestep and trivialize serious concerns about family violence and poor parenting skills.

The courts didn't like it because implementing 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. Here, for example, is what the judge said in A.A. v S.N.A., a 2007 decision of the Supreme Court:

[77] If custody is transferred to [the father], the immediate effect of that change will be extremely traumatic to [the child]. She may or may not adjust in a reasonable length of time. She will have to be forcibly removed from the custody of her mother, either by the authorities arriving at her school and physically apprehending her or by forcibly apprehending her from her mother. Her mother will not cooperate. In my view, [the child] will, with much justification, conclude that she is being forcibly dealt with in a manner that completely ignores her integrity and her wishes. ...

The mental health community has been split on Parental Alienation Syndrome for a number of reasons, including that:

  • there is no scientific support to give Parental Alienation Syndrome status as a diagnosable syndrome, and Parental Alienation Syndrome is still not recognized as a "syndrome,"
  • the theory focuses almost exclusively on the alienating parent as the cause of the child's rejection, glossing over other important contributing factors, and
  • Parental Alienation Syndrome is overly simplistic and frequently misapplied.

Rethinking Parental Alienation Syndrome

In their 2001 article "The Alienated Child", published in Family Court Review, Kelly and Johnston propose a reformulation of Gardner's theory that focuses primarily on the child rather than on the alienating parent, on the principle that there are many different factors that can cause a child's relationship with a parent to break down other than the actions of a malicious parent who intends to undermine the child's relationship with the other parent. Kelly and Johnston made the important observation that children's relationships with their parents fall on a spectrum that runs from the child wanting a positive relationship with both parents to the child being pathologically detached from one parent:

POSITIVE RELATIONSHIP
with both parents
Child prefers to have time with both parents
AFFINITY
with one parent
Child prefers to have time with both parents
ALLIANCE
with one parent
Child prefers one parent, and expresses ambivalent feelings 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 Gardner's theory are these important ideas:

  • children should be the primary focus of any investigation into the breakdown of their relationship with a parent, not just the behaviour of one of their parents,
  • children can grow apart from a parent for objectively good and justifiable reasons, which the authors call estrangement, and
  • there are many more potential factors that might cause a child's relationship with a parent to break down, including developmentally-normal factors, than just the actions of a parent who is actively trying to harm the child's relationship with the other parent.

Kelly and Johnston do not reject Gardner's suggestion that malicious, alienating parents exist, but they do broaden the scope of things that should be considered when looking into the breakdown of a child's relationship with a parent. Most importantly, they point out that there are many reasons why a child might resist seeing a parent, and that the reasons why a child might resist seeing a parent are complex and nuanced. Part of the key to understanding the important points Kelly and Johnston make is the difference they draw between estranged children and alienated children.

Estranged children

The difference between an estranged child and an alienated child is that an estranged child has grown apart from a parent for reasons that are, to be blunt, reasonable and understandable from the child's perspective. 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 a parent or enraged by that parent, and doesn't want to spend time with them. These feelings are, most importantly, justified by the child's experience of the separation or by the child's experience of that parent. (In fact, some researchers use the term "justified rejection" when talking about estrangement.) These children have usually become estranged from a parent for reasons that a stranger would understand and sympathize with, such as:

  • witnessing family violence committed by that parent against the other parent,
  • being the victim of family violence at the hands of that parent,
  • the parent's persistently immature and self-centered behaviour,
  • the parent's unduly rigid and restrictive parenting style, and
  • the parent's own psychological or psychiatric issues.

The point here is that the feelings of estranged children have grown from the child's actual, lived experience. In cases of estrangement, the child's rejection of a parent is reasonable, and is an adaptive and self-protecting response to the rejected parent's behaviour and their interactions with the rejected parent. The feelings of alienated children, however, are neither reasonable nor primarily the result of the rejected parent's conduct.

Alienated children

Alienated children usually reject a parent without guilt or sadness, and do so without an objectively reasonable cause that stems from the rejected parent's behaviour or the child's interactions with the rejected parent. The children's views of the rejected parent are usually distorted and exaggerated.

Alienation is most easily defined as the breakdown of a child's relationship with a parent as a result of the other parent's efforts to turn the child against the rejected parent. Typically, alienation only becomes a problem when the parents are involved in extremely bitter and heated litigation about the children's parenting arrangements. Not every case of high conflict litigation involves alienation, of course, but alienation can and does happen.

The intentional alienation of a child from a parent is absolutely wrong and strikes me as virtually inexcusable and unforgivable. Some writers even say that alienation amounts to child abuse, a position I tend to agree with. As Dr. Michael Bone and Michael 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."

While the parent most likely to attempt to alienate a child from the other parent is the parent who has most of the child's time, usually because of an interim order or some other sort of temporary arrangement, there are a small number of cases in which the parent with the least of the child's time has attempted to alienate the child from the parent with most of the child's time.

The sorts of behaviours that suggest an intention to alienate a child from the other parent include, among other things:

  • persistently 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 but cannot do with the other parent,
  • telling the child that it's up to them 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 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 the rejected parent and in long-lasting psychological problems for the alienated child. In Dr. Glenn 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 who had been the victims of alienation, including:

  • depression, anxiety and stress,
  • delayed emotional maturity,
  • psychosomatic illnesses, and
  • long-term feelings of guilt and loss.

In Dr. Anita 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 children who had not been alienated from a parent,
  • being less well-adjusted, and
  • being less able to conceptualize complex situations.

Other researchers describe other potential impacts of alienation, including higher rates of substance use and abuse as adults, higher rates of separation and divorce as adults, and higher rates of suicide and other self-harming behaviours.

Contemporary perspectives on alienation and estrangement

Gardner's Parental Alienation Syndrome continues to live on in popular culture, especially among men's rights groups, often without the dose of tempering wisdom offered by more recent research such as the work of Kelly and Johnston. Claims that a child doesn't want to see a parent because of alienation are commonplace in Canada's courts, but rarely proven. Some lawyers even think that the rate of cases involving alienation claims is on the rise.

Part of the problem understanding children who resist seeing a parent after separation is that it's hard for the rejected parent to engage in a sometimes painful reflection on their past history as a parent. It's difficult to ask whether you might be the reason why your child doesn't want to see you. On the other hand, what's really easy — and emotionally gratifying as well! — is to avoid that awkward introspection and point the finger at the other parent and claim alienation.

On the other hand, these claims put the parent accused of alienation in a difficult spot too. They can't say that they're even a tiny, little bit responsible for how the child feels about the other parent, for fear of damaging their legal position in the eyes of the judge. Instead, all these parents can reasonably say is that they had nothing at all to do with the child's feelings, and that the problem lies entirely in the poor parenting provided by the rejected parent.

And for their part, judges and lawyers are not mental health professionals. Law school doesn't teach anything about psychology, family breakdown and children's responses to the separation of their parents. Not a thing! We are not experts in psychology, let alone in complex issues about estranged children and alienating parents. So, where does the expertise we need come from? Often the only way to get objective information about a claim of alienation comes from a parenting assessment conducted by a psychologist, clinical counsellor or social worker, and these reports can be really, really expensive and take a lot of time to complete. As a result, when alienation claims come to court, quite a few of those claims are presented without the input of an expert, and you can imagine how challenging cases involving a child's resistance to seeing a parent might be.

Attachment disruption

One way to crack the problem is to focus on the basic problem — a child's reluctance to spend time with a parent — rather than on concepts like alienation and digging into whose behaviour is responsible for what. One way of looking at the problem of children who resist seeing a parent after separation is from the perspective of attachment theory. Attachment theory was first proposed by Dr. John Bowlby, a psychiatrist, in 1988, drawing on earlier research conducted by Dr. Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s and 1970s. It describes how children bond with their parents, and how the quality of this bond can have life-long implications for the wellbeing of children and wind up impacting their relationships with parents, friends and future partners down the road. Attachment theory has been widely researched and remains a cornerstone of how mental health professionals think about families and family relationships.

Looking at a child's reluctance to see a parent from an attachment point of view, the one thing that claims of estrangement and alienation have in common is the obvious breakdown in the attachment between the child and the rejected parent. The idea that there has been a disruption in the child's attachment to that parent is something that both the favoured parent and the rejected parent can agree on... perhaps the only thing they can agree on. If we get rid of labels like "alienation" and "Parental Alienation Syndrome," neither of which tend to be well understood by lawyers or by litigating parents anyway, and focus on the problem of attachment disruption, we can start looking at the problem without having to worry about which parent did what and we can do that without the usual finger-pointing, rancour, blaming and anger that accompany claims about alienation.

Although the cause of the problem is still important, parents, lawyers and judges still have the same set of tools to deal with a child's resistance to seeing a parent as they do when the child's resistance is said to be caused by the malicious actions of the favoured parent or the incompetent parenting of the rejected parent. Plus, in my experience, I have never had a case of attachment disruption that resulted wholly from "alienation" or from "estrangement." In the cases I've dealt with, a child's reluctance to see a parent usually results from a combination of factors that suggest alienation and factors that suggest estrangement; these cases are rarely one or the other.

Resist-refuse dynamics

"Resist-refuse dynamics" is a term that has begun to gain a lot of traction within the legal and mental health communities. It's another way of trying to focus on the basic problem without using the labels of "alienation" and "estrangement," and all the baggage and misunderstandings that come with those terms. Like attachment disruption, this term suggests a child-centred examination into why the child is reluctant to spend time with a parent and proposes that there are many more potential factors at play than just the malicious actions of one parent or the poor parenting of the other.

The research on alienation and estrangement today

There's good news and bad news here. The bad news is that we continue to lack long-term, large-population, high-quality research about children who resist contact with a parent after separation. The research currently available uses only small numbers of people, and is often confined to the people that psychologists see in their normal, day-to-day practices. We still don't have a definition of "alienation" that is widely accepted, although to my mind the way that Kelly and Johnston talk about alienation and estrangement seems closest to the mark. We also don't have a lot of good research about the legal and therapeutic responses to children who resist seeing a parent that could tell us which responses work best. While most writers on the subject suggest that courts should assign judges to these cases early on, judges who continue to be involved in these cases as case managers, most courts don't have enough judges or enough court time to make case management a practical solution.

The good news is that there has been lots of research on different aspects of alienation and the problem of children who resist seeing a parent, although this research tends to rely on small numbers of people and tends not to be conducted over the lengthy periods of time necessary to really understand the impact on children and their wellbeing. There are also a lot of very good books, articles and essays about children who resist seeing a parent, some of which are listed below, and there are an increasing number of mental health professionals who have made working with families and children who resist contact their priority and are developing specialized programs to address the issue. We also have some good, creative ideas about the kinds of legal and therapeutic responses that do help, and those that might help, although we don't know nearly enough about how effective these responses are, especially over the long term.

The other bit of good news is that more and more judges and lawyers are familiar with the alienation and the problem of children who resist spending time with a parent, although many of these legal professionals don't have a deep understanding of the issues and may not know much more about them than the basics of what Gardner had to say about his Parental Alienation Syndrome.

Responding to children who resist spending time with a parent

It's usually important to take action when a child begins to resist spending time with a parent after separation, and many parents will want to start trying to find out what's going on for the child as soon as possible, perhaps when the child begins to demonstrate some of the more serious behaviours identified above, in the "Knowing when there's a problem" part of this section.

Hopefully, both parents will see the deterioration in the child's relationship with a parent as a problem. If that's the case, then their first steps should probably be to get help from a mental health professional with expertise in working with families and family breakdown. Because the problem isn't just the child's problem, it isn't just the child who will need to see the psychologist or counsellor. The favoured parent might need help supporting the child's relationship with the rejected parent and responding to the child's negative remarks about that parent. The parent the child doesn't want to see might need help coping with the rejection they may feel, rebuilding their relationship with the child and changing their approach to parenting.

If both parents don't see this as a problem, which is most likely to occur when the parents are in court arguing about the children's parenting arrangements, the parent the child doesn't want to see may have to ask for orders to address the problem. It's important to understand, however, that judges don't have a magic wand they can wave and heal the relationship between a child and their parent. Judges simply don't have that power. While there are orders the court can make that can help children overcome a reluctance to see a parent, if a solution to that problem exists anywhere, it lies in the counselling and therapeutic services provided by mental health professionals. You're not going to find a cure in court.

Legal and therapeutic responses

There are a number of orders the court can make to deal with the problem of a child's reluctance to see a parent. These are the legal responses available when a child resists seeing a parent. The therapeutic responses consist of the different kinds of help available from mental health professionals.

It may be necessary to ask the court for orders when one or both parents won't agree to take steps to support and foster the child's relationship with the rejected parent. These orders might include adjusting the children's parenting plan, limiting how and when the parents interact with each other, and enforcing orders and agreements that say when a child will see their parents. Other orders can require children and parents to participate in one or more of the available therapeutic responses. The kind of orders that are most likely to help will change depending on the circumstances, the age and maturity of the child, and the extent of the breakdown in the child's relationship with the rejected parent.

Intevene early

It can be important to get professional help to figure out what's going on as soon as a child begins to demonstrate a continuing reluctance to see a parent or any other sign that problems are developing, or already exist, in the child's relationship with a parent. Involving mental health professionals right off the bat can help stop the problem from getting worse and maybe even suggest ways of fixing the problem. The potential roles mental health professionals can play at this early stage are about diagnosis, figuring out what the problem is, and providing ongoing therapeutic help.

If you need help getting you, the other parent or your child in to see a counsellor or psychologist, section 224(1)(b) of the Family Law Act allows the court to make orders that:

require one or more parties or, without the consent of the child's guardian, a child, to attend counselling, specified services or programs.

This sort of early intervention is especially important if the child's time with the rejected parent is already limited. Don't wait, do it now. Find out what's going on.

Set a schedule of parenting time

Another good early step is to apply for an order for parenting time, under section 45 of the Family Law Act or section 16.1 of the Divorce Act, that provides a specific schedule for the child's time with each parent. These orders can give the rejected parent specific, set periods of time with the child, on a schedule neither parent can control, and ensure that the child continues to see the parent despite their resistance.

Orders about parenting time are relatively easy to enforce, and a failure to follow orders always makes a parent look bad in court. See the section "Enforcing Orders, Awards and Agreements" for more information.

Address problems with a parent's behaviour

When the behaviour of the favoured parent is or might be part of the problem, another step is to ask the court to include terms in the order for parenting time that are aimed at managing bad behaviour. Section 218 of the Family Law Act and section 16.1(5) of the Divorce Act allow the court to include any terms and conditions it thinks appropriate in parenting orders. Helpful terms might include requirements that a parent:

  • not speak badly of the other parent to the children or within the children's hearing,
  • not allow others to speak badly of the other parent in front of the children, and
  • support and encourage the children's relationship with the other parent.

When the conflict between the parents is contributing to the problem, other terms might talk about the parents' behaviour when the children are being exchanged from one parent to the other, limit the face-to-face contact between the parents at exchanges, or manage how the children are exchanged, for example by being dropped off and picked up through school.

Get a parenting assessment

Section 211 of the Family Law Act allows the court to order that a mental health professional, including psychologists, clinical counsellors, social workers and Family Justice Counsellors, conduct an assessment of the needs of a child, the views of a child, and the ability and willingness of the parties to meet the child's needs. To prepare these reports, assessors will usually speak to both parents, interview the children, if the children are old enough, watch each parent engage and interact with the children, and interview other people with knowledge of the family, including friends and family members. They will also read any reports about the children that may be available, including medical and psychiatric reports, psych-ed assessments and so on. Assessors who are psychologists will also usually ask the parents to complete psychological tests like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.

When a child is resisting spending time with a parent, a parenting assessment can provide parents and the court with valuable information about the relationships between parents, between siblings, and between the parents and their children. Usually, these reports are sought to get recommendations and information about the parenting arrangements that are likely to be in the best interests of the children. However, they can also be used to look into specific issues, like the reasons why a child is resisting seeing a parent, and get recommendations about the things that can be done to restore the relationship between the child and the rejected parent.

While these reports are often invaluable, and can help parents settle their legal disputes, they're also often very expensive. Family Justice Counsellors are government employees, usually social workers, attached to the Provincial Court who will prepare parenting assessments for free. The demand for their services is huge, as you'd probably expect, and their reports can take many months to start and finish as a result. Reports prepared by other mental health professionals cost money and will be paid for by the parents. While these reports will be available much sooner than the reports of Family Justice Counsellors, the cost can range from $6,000 to $24,000, depending on the circumstances and complexity of the case, the number of children, and whether the assessor must travel to meet the family.

Ask for case management

A lot of people, including Kelly and Dr. Matthew Sullivan, strongly recommend that family law cases involving claims of alienation be managed by a single judge, so that all court appearances leading to the trial are dealt with by the same person. The idea behind this sort of case management is that the judge learns about the family, gains an understanding of the family's needs and dynamics, makes sure that the case stays on track, and makes sure that orders are both followed and adapted as needed to better suit the family's changing circumstances.

I think the idea of case management is a great idea for all families who are in court and engaged in higher levels of conflict. However, the courts of British Columbia just don't have the resources to take this kind of an approach as a general rule. Sometimes, a judge may agree or volunteer to "seize" themselves of a case, which means that the judge will deal with all of the family's court appearances except for the trial, until the judge "unseizes" themself of the case. Seizing themselves of a case can be very challenging for judges, never mind court administrators, as it adds to the judge's workload and creates huge scheduling problems, usually with the result that appearances are handled before the start of the usual court day or after the end of the court day.

Look for specialized interventions

Section 224(1)(b) of the Family Law Act can also be used to get orders that parents and children get special kinds of counselling specifically to address the problem in the relationship between a child and the parent they don't want to spend time with. This sort of counselling is provided by mental health professionals, usually psychologists and clinical counsellors, who specialize in family breakdown, family relationships and attachment disruptions. In fact, a number of mental health professionals in the province have created programs aimed at helping children restore their relationships with parents they resist spending time with.

The available therapeutic interventions include:

  • Regular counselling, the kind of basic, affordable counselling most people are familiar with. This is an easily-accessible option, but it's helpful to make sure that the therapist has experience dealing with attachment issues and family breakdown.
  • Coordinated counselling, involving several different therapists working with different family members, all under the management of a team leader. This will be more expensive because of the number of people involved, but it offers a good opportunity for the therapists to coordinate their work. It can also be hard to find therapists who are willing to work together.
  • Non-residential treatment programs specifically aimed at separated families dealing with a child's reluctance to see a parent. These programs usually involve a team approach under the guidance of a team leader and a treatment agreement that outlines how the therapists will talk to each other about the family and coordinate their responses. There are lots of benefits of this kind of program, especially when the therapists involved are specialists in the area of attachment and attachment breakdown, but can be hard to find and cost a lot of money.
  • Residential treatment programs that are also specifically aimed at separated families dealing with a child's reluctance to see a parent but are shorter, far more intense and require the children and one or both parents to live in a camp-style setting. These programs are available primarily in the United States.

What's really important to understand about these interventions is that they're not geared toward helping a parent "prove" alienation; they're about helping the child have a normal relationship with the parent they have rejected. They're not about who's right and who's wrong, they're about trying to restore the child's relationship with the parent they don't want to spend time with, rebuilding a healthy attachment between the child and that parent, and supporting the child's best interests, growth and wellbeing.

Adjust the children's parenting arrangements

There are a number of ways that schedules of parenting time may need to be adjusted when a child resists seeing a parent.

Most commonly, parenting arrangements are changed to clarify and reduce ambiguity in parenting schedules, particularly in high-conflict cases. The purposes of changes like this are to eliminate either parent's discretion to avoid complying with the children's parenting arrangements and make sure that the child's time with each parent happens as it is planned to happen.

Sometimes parenting arrangements are changed to reduce a parent's time with the children, particularly when it is suspected that the parent is undermining the child's relationship with the other parent. When the problem is particularly difficult, parenting arrangements may be changed to require that the favoured parent's time with the children be supervised. This will usually only be appropriate as an extreme measure when the parent simply cannot be trusted to refrain from trash-talking the rejected parent to the children and sabotaging the children's relationship with that parent, or just refuses to stop engaging in these behaviours.

In extreme cases, parenting arrangements may be changed to suspend or terminate the favoured parent's time and communication with the children, usually with the result that the children have their primary home with the rejected parent. This is a drastic remedy as it puts the children in the home of the parent they don't want to spend time with, and can be fairly traumatic as a result. Orders like these require the court to be convinced that the long-term benefit to the children outweighs the discomfort they'll feel in the short-term, and are usually only made where the court believes that the favoured parent is trying to alienate the children from the other parent. These orders are rare, but they do get made from time to time.

Risky responses

By "risky responses," I mean legal responses to children's resistance to seeing a parent that have a chance of backfiring, and making the situation worse rather than better. These include getting views of the child reports and asking for orders that a parent be found in contempt of court, asking for orders for court costs from the favoured parent, and enforcing orders about parenting time using the peace officer enforcement provisions of the Family Law Act.

Views of the child reports

There are two kinds of reports that are limited to describing the children's views, evaluative views of the child reports, prepared under section 211(1)(b) of the Family Law Act, and non-evaluative views of the child reports, prepared under sections 37(2)(b) and 202 of the act. These reports are sometimes also called "hear the child" reports and "voice of the child" reports, but they're both focused on speaking to a child and describing what the child has said. ("Evaluative" reports are prepared only by mental health professionals and include the author's opinion of the child's views, while "non-evaluative" reports can be prepared by anyone with the right training and experience, and contain only a factual statement of what the child has told the author.)

These reports are often used to get a statement of the child's views for the purposes of the best-interests tests in sections 37 and 38 of the Family Law Act and section 16 of the Divorce Act. While they're normally very helpful, in cases where a child is estranged or alienated from a parent, they're helpfulness is limited. Reports in circumstances like these may only deepen the disruption in the child's attachment to the rejected parent as they give the child the chance to confirm their negative views about that parent, and put those views on the record. In cases like this, views of the child reports may only serve to tell everyone what they already know, and making a permanent record of the child's views may make it impossible for the child's relationship with the rejected parent to ever heal.

Contempt applications and cost awards

When someone fails to follow a court order, they are said to have "breached" the order, and breaching an order is called contempt of court. One way of enforcing a court order is to make an application to court asking for an order that the other person be found "in contempt" for breaching a particular term of a particular order in a particular way. When contempt is proven, the court may make orders intended to punish the person who breached the order by issuing fines, sending them to jail, or requiring them to perform community service of some nature. (The court has lots of other choices as well.) Contempt applications are serious business.

Sometimes a contempt application, or the threat of a contempt application, is what's necessary to force someone to comply with a court order. However, where a child is estranged or alienated from a parent, a contempt application could inadvertently wind up reinforcing the child's negative views of the rejected parent by making the favoured parent look like a victim. In cases of alienation in particular, a contempt application may just feed into the idea that the rejected parent is being unfair, mean or nasty to the favoured parent.

"Costs awards" are orders that one party have their costs of an application or a court proceeding. "Costs" doesn't mean that one party has to pay the bill of the other party's lawyer, but they will have to pay for the lawyer's out-of-pocket expenses for things like filing fees and photocopying, plus an additional amount that usually works out to maybe 35 to 40 percent of the lawyer's bill. ("Special costs" require a much larger payment, and "solicitor-client" or "lawyer-client" costs require the payment of an amount equal to the lawyer's bill.) Costs awards aren't often made in family law cases because of their financial impact on the party who has to pay them.

Like contempt orders, an award of costs, special costs or lawyer-client costs may also wind up reinforcing the child's negative views of the rejected parent by making the favoured parent look like a victim. It can be tempting to ask for costs awards when the behaviour of a parent is particularly bad, but be careful about how the award might ultimately undermine the rejected parent's chances of rebuilding their child's relationship with them.

Peace officer enforcement

Section 231 of the Family Law Act allows the court to make an order requiring a peace officer, including a police officer, to take a child and deliver the child to another parent if the court believes that the other parent has been "wrongfully denied" parenting time. The court may order that the officer enter any place where the child is being kept, seize the child, and take the child to the other parent.

As you can imagine, this is a pretty serious order. Peace officer enforcement orders are only made in extreme circumstances, when the court is satisfied that nothing else will get a parent to follow an order. Some parents may feel that this is the only way they can get a parent to follow an order for parenting time, and sometimes that's true. In cases where a child is estranged or alienated from a parent, however, the effect of the police showing up at the door to forcibly remove the child from the favoured parent can be devastating. It's easy to see how this sort of thing would feed into the story the favoured parent tells about the rejected parent, and make the rejected parent look like a bully. Be careful of asking for these orders in cases of estrangement and alienation.

When responses fail

Sometimes, there's nothing that can done to restore the relationship between an estranged or alienated child and the rejected parent. Counselling and other interventions may not have succeeded; a child's negative views of a parent may have been allowed to sit for so long that they are deeply entrenched and can't be changed; or, steps to enforce a parenting schedule may have failed in the face of a child's threats to run away or hurt themselves if they're made to see a parent. At other times, a parent may have run out of money and not be able to continue fighting for the actions that might revive the child's relationship with them. The emotional toll of the fighting in court may be too much; or, all of the battles in court may be causing more harm to the child than the benefit of restoring the child's relationship with a parent.

In circumstances like these, a rejected parent may decide to give up the fight, or a judge may decide that nothing is ever going to change the child's views about the parent. While these outcomes are tragic and profoundly upsetting, sometimes it's best, and even necessary, to just stop.

It's important to know, however, that reconciliation between the child and the parent can still occur, although this may not happen until later in the child's life, when the child is older and more mature. This sort of "spontaneous reconciliation," as the research calls it, can and does occur. Although no one can count on this sort of thing happening, there are a few steps the rejected parent can take to encourage the chances of reconciliation down the road:

  • Stay in touch: Make a point of sending the child greeting cards for important events such as birthdays and important public holidays, always with a return address on the envelope and providing current contact information. It's important to include personal messages, keeping those messages relatively light and supportive in tone and avoiding intense expressions of emotion that might discourage the child from wanting to read the card.
  • Create a private social media group: Create a private group on social media platforms like Facebook to post personal news and updates in a way that is accessible to the child and lets them keep up to date on life events without having to directly communicate with you if they'd rather not.
  • Keep your contact information current: Sometimes all that can be done is to wait until the child is old enough that they begin to look back on their own childhood with more objectivity, perhaps in their late teens or in their 20s, reexamine their experiences and relationships, and reach out on their own. However, it's important to make sure that the child can contact you, by email or telephone, or can find you on social media.

The common theme among these suggestions is about the importance of finding ways to keep the door open for the possibility of contact by the child in the future. It's usually important to take a consciously passive and restrained approach that doesn't expose the child to the parent's feelings of grief and loss, and makes it as easy as possible for the child to reach out.

Resources on children who resist spending time with a parent

The following lists of resources are not, of course, encyclopedic. There are doubtless many valuable studies, articles, and websites that I have overlooked; it's always a good idea to do your own research and consult with a legal or mental health professional whenever possible.

Academic materials

The January 2010 and April 2020 editions of Family Court Review, published by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, are entirely devoted to the issue of alienated and estranged children and other contact problems after separation. If you can get your hands on a copy of these editions, you should. (Courthouse Libraries BC can help you with this.) They offer a fairly up-to-date look at current court practices and the latest literature on the subject, and were edited by two prominent Canadian professionals, Professor Nicholas Bala, a law professor at Queen's University, and Dr. Barbara Jo Fidler, a psychologist and mediator based in Toronto.

Bala, Fidler and Professor Michael Saini, a member of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Social Work, are also the authors of Children Who Resist Postseparation Parental Contact, a 2013 book published by Oxford University Press that provides a really good overview of more recent research and therapeutic and legal responses to children who resist contact after separation. Courthouse Libraries BC can probably help you find this book as well.

The Association of Family and Conciliation Courts has also recently published a joint statement on parent-child contact problems with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, an American organization. The statement is worth reading for the suggestions it directs toward lawyers, judges and mental health professionals dealing with children who resist seeing a parent after separation. Another excellent resource in the "what can we do about this problem" vein is Overcoming Parent-child Contact Problems, published by Oxford University Press in 2017, which includes chapters by prominent mental health professionals, researchers and academics including Bala, Fidler, Sullivan, Johnston and Saini, as well as Drs. Robin Deutsch, Abigail Judge and Peggie Ward.

The following articles were among the readings on child alienation and estrangement recommended by Kelly at a seminar in Vancouver and may be helpful, even though they're all more than a few years old.

  • Cummings, E. M., Davies, P., & Emery, R. E. (1994). Children and marital conflict: The impact of family dispute and resolution. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Emery, R. E. (2005). Parental alienation syndrome: Proponents bear the burden of proof. Family Court Review, 43(1), 8-13.
  • Faller, K. (1998). The Parental alienation syndrome: What is it and what data support it?. Child Maltreatment, 3(2), 100-115.
  • Freeman, R., Abel, D., Cowper-Smith, M., & Stein, L. (2004) Reconnecting children with absent parents: A model for intervention. Family Court Review, 42(3), 439-459.
  • 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, 31(2), 158-170.
  • 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. Newbury, Calif.: Sage.
  • Johnston, J.R., & Kelly, J. (2004). Rejoinder to Gardner’s Commentary on Kelly and Johnston’s The alienated child: A reformulation of parental alienation syndrome. Family Court Review, 42(4), 622.
  • Johnston, J., & Kelly, J. (2004). Commentary on Walker, Brantley, and Rigsbee's "A Critical Analysis of Parental Alienation Syndrome and It's Admissibility in Family Court". Journal of Child Custody, 1(4), 77-89.
  • Johnston, J., & Roseby, V. (1998). In the name of the child: A developmental approach to understanding and helping children of conflicted and violent divorce. Family Court Review, 36(2), 317-319.
  • Johnston, J. R., Walters, M. G., & Friedlander, S. (2001). Therapeutic work with alienated children and their families. Family Court Review, 39(3), 316-333.
  • Kelly, J. B. (2000). Children's adjustment in conflicted marriage and divorce: A decade review of research. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 39, 963-973.
  • Kelly, J. B. (2003). Parents with enduring child disputes: Multiple pathways to enduring disputes. Journal of Family Studies, 9, 37-50.
  • Kelly, J. B. (2003). Parents with enduring child disputes: Focused interventions with parents in enduring disputes. Journal of Family Studies, 9, 51-62.
  • Kelly, J. B. (2002). Psychological and legal interventions for parents and children in custody and access disputes: Current research and practice. Virginia Journal of Social Policy & the Law, 10, 129-163.
  • Kelly, J.B. & Emery. (2003). Children's adjustment following divorce: Risk and resilience perspectives. Family Relations, 52, 352-362.
  • Kelly, J. B., & Johnston, J. R. (2001). The alienated child: A reformulation of parental alienation syndrome. Family Court Review, 39(3), 249-266.
  • Kline, M. (1991). The long shadow of marital conflict: A model of children's postdivorce adjustment. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 53(2), 297-309.
  • Lampel, A. K. (1996). Children’s alignment with parents in highly conflicted custody cases. Family Court Review, 34(2), 229-239.
  • Lee, S. M., & Olesen, N. W. (2001). Assessing for alienation in child custody and access evaluations. Family Court Review, 39(3), 282-298.
  • Rand, D.C. (1997). The spectrum of parent alienation: Part 1. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 15(3).
  • Rand, D.C. (1997) "The spectrum of parent alienation: Part 2. American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 15(4).
  • Sullivan, M. J., & Kelly, J. B. (2001). Legal and psychological management of cases with an alienated child. Family Court Review, 39(3), 299-315.
  • Turkat, I. D. (1994). Child visitation interference in divorce. Clinical Psychology Review, 14(8), 737.
  • Waldron, K. H., & Joanis, D. E. (1996). Understanding and collaboratively treating parental alienation syndrome. American Journal of Family Law, 10, 121-134.
  • Wallerstein, J. S., & Kelly, J. B. (1976). The effects of parental divorce: Experiences of the child in later latency. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 46(2), 256.
  • Wallerstein, J. S., & Kelly, J. B. (1980). Surviving the breakup: How children and parents cope with divorce. New York: Basic Books.
  • Warshak, R. A. (2003). Bringing sense to parental alienation: A look at the disputes and the evidence. Family Law Quarterly, 37(2) 273-301.
  • Warshak, R. A. (2003). Payoffs and pitfalls of listening to children. Family Relations, 52(4), 373-384.
  • Wood, C. L. (1994). The parental alienation syndrome: A dangerous aura of reliability, 27 Loy. LAL Rev, 1367.

Online information

The web is full of resources about alienation, estrangement and children who resist seeing a parent after separation. Much of the information available online is, however, of limited usefulness. Look about the internet and educate yourself about children who are reluctant to spend time with a parent, but be cautious about the sources of what you're reading. Stick to information published by academics, lawyers, psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical counsellors and researchers, 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 is published in a professional journal, as journal articles are usually peer-reviewed and normally of a very high quality.

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 Parental Alienation Syndrome, such as Fathers Are Capable Too, seem to regard the problem of children who resist seeing a parent after separation as a men's rights or fathers' rights issue. In part, this is because a small majority of alienating parents are women, but mostly it's because of the inflammatory nature of Gardner's theory and conclusions. 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 behaviours. Fathers also engage in alienating behaviour. Take care in choosing your sources of information and make sure you're reading between the lines.

Resources and links

Legislation

Links


This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by JP Boyd, 28 September 2022.


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