I thought it might be helpful to write about parental alienation, because in some form or another it comes up fairly regularly in mediation.
At its worst parental alienation is the deliberate manipulation of a child by one parent into fear, dislike and hostility of the other parent. It can result in a child refusing to see the other parent.
It often occurs when parents are in dispute about arrangements for their children, and tends to be alleged by the non-resident parent against the resident parent.
But the process by which children align themselves with one or other parent, can happen for many reasons, other than through conscious or intentional manipulation. Parents can unintentionally contribute to the alienation of a child from their other parent, by for example crying or being upset in front of their child when they leave to visit the other parent. Or by telling them how much they will miss them when they are with the other parent. ‘Call me when you get to your Dad’s so I know you’re OK.’, ‘Try and make sure Mum doesn’t feed you junk food.’, or ‘Are you really going to be OK this weekend?’ This all adds emotional pressure onto children, making them to worry about the parent they are away from and creating anxiety because that parent doesn’t think they’re going to be OK.
Sometimes children simply align themselves with the parent they spend most time with. If their parents are in a lot of conflict, it may feel easier to reject one parent, than face the complication of being attached to two warring parents.
In the 1980s the American psychiatrist Richard A Gardner proposed the concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome or (PAS), based on his clinical experience with the children of divorcing parents. However, this concept is not accepted by the UK courts, or generally acknowledged by the British medical profession.
Since then other researchers have tended to focus less on parental alienation as a diagnosable syndrome, but more on looking at how and why alienation has occurred – seeing alienation as a breakdown of the usual attachment between parent and child. It is generally accepted that this may be caused by multiple factors, including the behaviour of all family members, including the alienated parent.
It is important to remember that in some circumstances, for example when they have witnessed domestic violence, or themselves been the victims of abuse by one parent, that the estrangement of children from the abusive parent may be rational and beneficial for those children.
Luckily these cases are rare, and in mediation most of the people we see accept the role of the other parent as significant, and say they will do what they can to support the other parent’s relationship with their children.
In a recent study academics Jane Fortin, Joan Hunt and Lesley Scanlan analysed interviews with 358 children who had experienced the break-up of their parent’s relationship before they were aged 16, to get their views of their parents’ separation and the contact they had with each of their parents after separation. They say:
“We found no evidence to support the common perception that children resist contact primarily because their resident mothers pressurise them to do so. Such manipulation was reported but only extremely rarely. Our findings suggest that if and when children resist contact visits, they do so, not as brain washed children, but for reasons of their own, often in response to the non-resident parent’s own behaviour.”
Their study went on to say that the key to preventing alienation of a parent from a child is the relationship that parent had with the child prior to the separation, and how they spend the time they have with their child after the separation.
We often point out to parents that it’s very normal for children to say to each parent what they think they want to hear. So sometimes a child will report criticism from the other parent, which hasn’t actually come from them. As mediators we try to work on improving communication between separated parents, so that children don’t have to take on the role of messenger. If parents are talking between themselves, misinterpretation of the other parent’s actions and comments is less likely to happen
A study by Judith Soloman from 1999 describes how detrimental any form of attempted parental alienation is to a child’s relationship with both parents. She says that young children are acutely sensitive to the relationship between their divorced parents. If parents are angry, critical and unable to cooperate, children show disorganized attachment to both their parents. ‘They lose the ability to trust either Mummy or Daddy as a protective figure. They feel insecure everywhere.’
If one parent thinks that the other parent is trying to alienate their children from them, there is no legal recourse. Courts and judges aren’t able to order parents to speak well of each other. And if a child is outright refusing to visit one of his or her parents, a judge is not going to force that child against their will to see them. If they did, think how damaging that would be to the long term relationship between that parent and child. So the advice to a parent who feels that the other parent might be alienating their child against them, is not to keep pushing the child, as that is likely to only increase the alienation. They should try and raise it with the other parent in as non-confrontational a way as possible. If this is difficult it is something that can be done in mediation.
As mediators it is not our role to determine whether parental alienation is occurring, or indeed to judge the rights or wrongs of any aspect of the cases we see. We explore with parents what impact their behaviours may be having on their children, we ask them to respond to the other parent’s concerns, and at all times we try to bring both parents’ attention back to their children’s thoughts and experiences.