Parental alienation following separation is a little discussed topic, possibly because it is controversial and can be difficult to prove.
The aftermath of separation and navigating the nuances of co-parenting relationships where there is high conflict can occasionally take parents and children into murky waters. Ones they never imagined they would ever have to wade through. Whilst many families navigate communication and high conflict, parental alienation is a more serious and extreme form of behaviour which is not as frequently observed. The behaviours of the alienating parent are more insidious and can mean that the consequences of parental alienation can be earth-shattering and soul-destroying for those affected.
Typically, working through the process of parental alienation is lengthy, and it can be difficult to report on. In those more circumstances where behaviours which may constitute parental alienation are present, once these behaviours start affecting your relationship with your children, it can take a long time to reverse the effects.
Being able to identify the signs, and taking action early, can help avoid these behaviours progressing to a point where they would be characterised as alienation of a parent.
What is Parental Alienation?
Put simply, parent alienation is when one parent continually takes steps which undermine a child’s relationship with the other parent. The result is the child’s ultimate rejection of that parent based not on their own experiences, but rather because they are reflecting the attitude of the alienating parent.
Parental alienation can be deliberate, but it can also be more subtle than that. Although one parent may not intend to alienate the other from a child, their actions, emotions, and opinions can still create alienation between the child and the other parent.
So although you may be possibly concerned about preventing an escalation of behaviours after separation by the other parent to prevent this from happening to you, it is also worth reflecting upon your own behaviours you may be inadvertently exposing your children to.
The 5 warning signs of parental alienation
Parental alienation can start slowly. It often comes about when one parent feels anger, hurt or contempt for the other which does not lessen or is maintained over time. Perhaps they feel the relationship breakdown was the other parent’s fault, and therefore there is a perceived justification for their actions. However where parental alienation is present, it is beyond the hurt, or typical behaviours you may expect people to experience following a separation and is often maintained, rather than diminishing, with the passage of time.
But unless there is a risk to the child, children should be able to have access to both parents. It should not be withheld, discouraged or impeded in any way.
There are 5 main warning signs of parental alienation. Keep in mind these are not conclusive. It is important to keep perspective that many of these factors may also be present where there are no concerns about parental alienation. For example, they may arise where tensions are high, as a once off or as a result of a miscommunication. However, it is often a matter of the degree and frequency of the behaviours which may
If the following warning signs are happening regularly, and your relationship with your child is significantly deteriorating or rejecting you, because they feel it is impossible to maintain a relationship with both you and the other parent, then it may be time to seek some professional help.
1. Your child repeats adult issues
If your child consistently is saying things that clearly are not their own thoughts or talks about things they shouldn’t know the details of, chances are, the other parent is sharing information with them that they shouldn’t be. Whether it be details of an affair, Court proceedings, or details of an impending divorce or separation, sharing these details with a child who is possibly not equipped to process them, can be damaging. This might look like a child who is “parroting” or repeating what they have been told, without fully understanding. Whilst this can occur shortly following a separation, where tensions are high, a more sustained or prolonged period of this heightens the concern.
If your child is speaking about private details they really shouldn’t be privy to, then it may be time to seek some professional legal advice.
2. Arrangements made and exorbitant gifts
If a parent makes plans or organises events for a child that falls in the other parent’s time without consultation, be conscious of how regularly it occurs. This could look like a plan for the child to go to a party or a sleepover and one parent is put in the situation where the child will be upset or angry if it needs to be cancelled to accommodate time with their child.
Another example is when one parent is buying exorbitant gifts and the other parent is then perceived to be the bad parent if they object to the child receiving these. Although one-offs or occasional behaviour like this shouldn’t cause alarm bells, be mindful and aware of ongoing patterns and behaviours developing along with other behaviours. This type of control can be a foundation to alienation, but it is important to keep things in perspective.
3. Not seeing your children while negotiating an agreement
Often parents are in a situation where they need to put in place temporary arrangements regarding the children until a more formalised agreement can be reached. Sometimes though, a temporary agreement cannot be reached and in the meantime, one parent may be prevented from seeing their children.
If coming to an agreed arrangement has stalled, and you aren’t seeing your children for an extended period, then something needs to be done quickly. The longer you let the situation go, the more difficult it may become to reinitiate time.
4. Allowing children to make decisions
This can sound like a parent saying “they didn’t want to go” or “I couldn’t get them to go” as an excuse for not letting the other parent see their children. This can be especially concerning if the children are young, at an age where they typically wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, be making decisions like this.
If the same child were to say they didn’t want to go to school, the parent would have a responsibility for them to attend. In the same way, a child should not be allowed to dictate their relationship with a parent in that way. Time with both parents should be encouraged.
Sometimes, children can be made to feel guilty for abandoning one parent to spend time with the other parent. Children shouldn’t be made to feel this way.
Acting hurt and betrayed if a child shows positive feelings towards the other parent is harmful and sends the wrong message about that parent’s role in the child’s life. Putting a child in a situation where it’s either “me” or “them” creates sides, and forces a child to choose, which is extremely damaging. And regardless of how the child felt about the other parent, it has an influence on how they feel and creates conflicted loyalties between the child and the other parent.
5. Using children to relay information
If one parent avoids communicating with the other and instead uses the children to relay information, this may also be a warning sign, when coupled with other behaviours identified. Not only does it make the children feel like they’re the “meat in the sandwich”, it exposes them to discussions and information that should be left to the parents.
Similarly, using your child as a spy to find out what is happening in the other parent’s house is, or should be, a no-go zone.
While many parents have an agreement that they are able to contact their child when they are with their other parent, sometimes it is not put into practice. If you never seem to be able to make contact with your child, they are always ‘busy’ or ‘in the shower’, the other parent may be putting up a barrier between you and your child.
All of these examples of behaviours that can, but are not always, warning signs your child may be influenced by their other parent in how they feel about you.
Proving parental alienation
Where there are legitimate concerns about the cumulative effect of the behaviours described above, over a sustained period of time, and a child is rejecting a parent, even then proving parental alienation is difficult, and the process can be lengthy.
Being aware, acting on warning signs early and getting some independent advice from a specialist to look at the overall context of the behaviour and whether you ought to be concerned, is the best approach.
Often where such behaviours exist there is little common ground and the issues escalate and the parenting arrangements are often dealt with through a Court setting. The considerations for the Court are finely balanced because the child rejecting one parent and getting to the bottom of the underlying reasons for this is often nuanced and complex. Effectively it requires a finding that one parent is undermining the other parent and brainwashing the child into rejecting them.
If parental alienation is found to have occurred, the Court may order a change of residence. So the child will then live with the alienated parent for an uninterrupted period of time to try to undo the damage done by the other parent, who is unable to support the other parent’s relationship with the child. This is because parental alienation can be hard to reverse. By changing the living arrangements, the relationship is given an opportunity to repair without influence or interference from the alienating parent.
What to do if you suspect parental alienation
First and foremost, get legal advice early. Do not put it off. The sooner parental alienation issues are identified and dealt with, the better the outcomes for all involved, including the child. However, it is important to look at the behaviours in context – taking into account the cumulative effect and degree of the behaviours before jumping to conclusions.
Parents should arm themselves with information. Find out what you can from reliable sources and seek support from family law specialists and social scientists such as social workers or psychologists who have demonstrated experience dealing with these nuanced and complex issues.
If you do suspect this is the case, your children may start acting out or treating you badly. If that is the case, knowing how to respond to this rather than react can be instrumental in preventing things from getting worse.
United front for your children
Conflict does not have to be part and parcel of separation. Alienation is rare and it is important to keep this in mind. If you do separate, wherever possible, discussing how you’ll both raise the children is important. Children should never be used as a way to get back at your partner for what they may have done, or for how you’re feeling.
Coming to an agreement, with some guidelines in place for both parents, means you will have established at least some boundaries to work within, regardless of how you feel about the other parent.
Sheltering your children from any adult conversations will also help. Showing a united front despite your issues always leads to better outcomes for your children.
Get trusted advice
If you are worried about your child rejecting you and you think that the other parent’s behaviour may be a factor, ensure you seek initial legal advice from a trusted professional to put your mind at rest. Separation can be an emotionally fuelled time, so if you are unsure, do not be afraid to pick up the phone, to get the clarification you need from a family lawyer who has had experience in this area.
Phillips Family Law is an award winning Family Law practice serving clients across Australia and abroad. Regardless of where you are in your decision making process, we can make you aware of your options. To discuss your situation confidentially phone +61730079898 or secure a time by clicking here.
Disclaimer: The content in this article provides general information however it does not substitute legal advice or opinion. Information is best used in conjunction with legal advice from an experienced member of our team.