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Understanding Parental Alienation

09 · 3 · 22

Parental alienation is the term used to describe when one parent deliberately damages the relationship between the other parent and their child or children.

High-conflict situations can be hard on the child or children involved, and although some children maintain a strong connection with both of their parents, in other cases a child or children may prefer spending time with one parent over the other or even refuse to spend any time with the other parent.

This may be due to legitimate circumstances of a difficult parent-child relationship, or it could be as a result of one parent deliberating alienating their child from the other parent.

The Difference Between Parental Alienation and Estrangement

Estrangement refers to the breakdown of a relationship between two or more family members. Parental alienation, on the other hand, often leaves the child feeling very negatively towards the alienated parent for unjustified or false reasons because of the manipulation from their other parent.

There are different reasons why family members may become estranged from one another, for example family violence, poor parenting, high conflict, difficulty in communicating or major life changes.

In an estranged parent-child relationship, the child may express indecision towards the parent and be able to present justifiable reasons for the way that they feel.

In the case of parental alienation, one parent intentionally harms the other parent-child relationship. 

Types of Alienating Behaviours

There is no definitive way to describe the way a person alienates their child from the other parent.

The alienating parent uses emotionally manipulative tactics to influence their child. One of the most common behaviours is denigrating the other parent in front of the child. In an ultimate attempt to prevent the child from spending time with their other parent, the alienating parent may make false claims of abuse.

The alienating parent generally wants to limit the time the child spends with the other parent or prevent the child from spending time with them altogether.

Another key alienating behaviour is the keeping of secrets between the alienating parent and the child, things that the child has been told not to mention to their other parent, such as an illness or medical appointments. 

These types of behaviours most often begin after the breakdown of the parents’ relationship. However, parental alienation behaviours can also occur when the parents are still together.

Exposure to parental alienation will most likely negatively impact the children’s psychological and social wellbeing. 

Parental Alienation In Court

Cases involving allegations of parental alienation can be challenging for the Court as they must work to understand complex family dynamics and make the best decision possible about how to intervene in relationships between parents and children in which relationships are often fractured.

The Court will base their decisions on findings of fact, and therefore it is important to have strong evidence of alienating behaviour. This can be presented in the form of affidavits from the parents. 

The Court may also rely on evidence and assessments from independent experts such as Child Court Experts, Family Consultants, Counsellors, Psychologists and Psychiatrists and Family Therapists to determine whether a parent is engaging in alienating behaviours and to decide on the best order for the child or children. 

Each case is decided based on its own individual circumstances. Ultimately, the judge makes the order that they feel best promotes the child’s best interests pursuant to section 60CC of the Family Law Act 1975 with the primary considerations being: 

  1. The benefit to the child of having a meaningful relationship with both of the parents. 
  2. The need to protect the child from physical or psychological harm from being subjected to, or exposed to, abuse, neglect or family violence. 

Examples of cases which involve parental alienation are the cases of  Ward & Ward (No 2) [2016] FamCA 890 (20 October 2016) and Goldman v Goldman [2018] FamCACF 65 (12 April 2018). 

Ward & Ward (No 2) [2016] FamCA 890 (20 October 2016)

In this casethe mother and the father disputed the parenting arrangements for their two children, known as Y and X and then aged 14 and 12 respectively. The parents’ relationship was one of high conflict with the parents arguing in the presence of the children. 

After separation, both parents both re-partnered and the relationship between the children and the parents became more difficult, with the younger child becoming more closely aligned with the father and the older child becoming more closely aligned with the mother.

There were multiple Family Reports written and one of the counsellors found that the father and his current wife were putting pressure on the younger child to behave in a particular way towards the mother.

One of the key issues the Judge used to determine the risk of harm was “emotional harm, including alienation from the other parent”.

The Judge assessed the family relationships and evaluated the benefit to the children from a meaningful relationship with both their parents, although each household was deemed to pose some level of risk to the children. 

Taking the children’s wishes into account proved complex as regarding the younger child, “It is said that his wishes are not truly his but have been the product of emotional manipulation.” The judge was satisfied with this in part but also recognised that the child had expressed these wishes quite early on.

The Judge ordered that:

  1. The mother and the father were given equal shared parental responsibility of the two children. 
  2. The children may express a choice on who they want to live with.
  3. If Y, the older child, does not express a choice, then he will live with the mother and spend such time with the father as he may choose.
  4. If X, the younger child, does not express a choice, then he will live with the father and spend such time with the mother as he may choose.
  5. The children must spend time together after school on Monday and Wednesday each week.

Goldman v Goldman [2018] FamCACF 65 (12 April 2018)

In this case the mother was the primary caregiver of two children of the relationship, aged 13 and 11 years of age respectively. The children lived with the mother post-separation and until the Trial of the matter. Up until the Trial the father was spending time with the children on a limited basis.

In this case the Judge changed the primary residence of the two children as the Court determined that the mother was entirely focused on “punishing” the father and “turning the children’s affections away from him”. 

The Court found that the mother’s conduct caused emotional harm to the children and it represented an unacceptable risk of harm to the children if such harm continued.

The Judge ordered that: 

  1. The children live with their father. 
  2. For the children’s time with their mother to be suspended for a period of four weeks to enable the children to settle into their new environment. 
  3. The Mother to spend time with the children under supervision for a period of 12 months. 
  4. A regime thereafter for the mother to have unsupervised time with the children. 

The Father appealed the decision of the Judge seeking an order that there be no contact between the mother and the children for a period of three years. The Full Court of the Family Court dismissed the appeal. 

Parental alienation cases can often be the most difficult cases to run and strong evidence is required to prove one of the parties is alienating the child or children from the other parent. If you are experiencing parental alienation, we encourage you to get in touch with us today to discuss your situation in further detail.

Anderson Family Lawyers