Parental Alienation: an emotional contagion
Over the past decade, the Family Court has seen an influx of high conflict parenting matters involving allegations of parental alienation. Parental alienation is the deliberate behaviour of one parent, seeking to undermine and destroy the child’s relationship with the other parent which was normal and healthy prior to separation.
This behaviour occurs in the absence of any genuine risk that would ordinarily preclude the child from spending time with the other parent.
Parental alienation can be likened to covert war, an emotional contagion. The alienating parent forms an alliance with the child and uses them as a weapon to spy and spread propaganda about the rejected parent.
The alienating parent arms the child so that they are the voice of litigation, often coaching them to use specific adult phrases and borrowed narratives. The child and rejected parent are both collateral damage of the emotional turmoil, whilst the child sees the alienating parent’s embrace as safe refuge.
Identifying behaviour of an alienated child
An alienated child is easy to identify, with a strong affinity for one parent and equally strong (but hollow) aversion for the other.
Some common behaviours of alienated children include:
- A lack of ambivalence, describing the alienating parent almost entirely negatively and the rejected parent almost entirely positively;
- Although reasons for the dislike of the rejected parent may appear to be justified on the surface, they may be flimsy, contradictory or exaggerated upon further probing;
- An expression of wanting less contact with the rejected parent which requires little or no prompting;
- Complaints often having a quality of being rehearsed or practiced;
- Little or no concern for the feelings of the rejected parent;
- An unspoken closeness and affection for the rejected parent, despite outward denigration of them (although this affection can be erased by the alienating parent with time); and
- An inability to recall any positive memories of the rejected parent.
Identifying behaviour of an alienating parent
While on the surface it may seem as the though the alienating parent is behaving protectively and in the best interests of the children, they are actively working to sever the bond between the child and the rejected parent.
Some common behaviour of alienating parents include:
- Rigid thinking, often adopting an “all or nothing approach”;
- A lack of insight or empathy into the consequences of the child’s severed relationship with the rejected parent;
- A campaign of subtle denigration of the rejected parent to extended family, close friend, school teachers and therapists;
- An expression of an aggressive refusal to co-parent with the rejected parent;
- Inability to identify any legitimate risk, or a disproportionate expression of risk, that would ordinarily preclude the child from spending time with the rejected parent;
- A propensity to undermine parenting orders on the basis that the child is unmanageable and so resistant to spending time with the rejected parent that handover impossible;
- Reports of confusion and concern about why the child resists and refuses to spend time with the rejected parent; and
- A constant and intense focus on the alleged limitations of the rejected parent, acting as a shield to deflect from examination of their own behaviour.
Types of alienating parents
Naïve alienators – a parent who is generally passive toward the other parent but sometimes slips up and makes the odd inappropriate or derogatory comment to the child about them.
Active alienators – a parent who occasionally has impulsive periods where they are unable to control their alienating behaviour, but can reflect and eventually have insight that such behaviour is wrong.
Obsessed alienators – a parent who is deeply wounded, often narcissistic and feels justified (even compelled) to sever the child’s relationship with the child.
Do mothers and fathers alienate differently?
We know that parents of all genders can alienate children, but do they do it differently? Research says yes.
Fathers tend to alienate more overtly, speaking about the mother in derogatory and harmful tones to influence the child’s views of her. Mothers tend to alienate more covertly, using passive aggressive communication to misinform the child about the shortcomings of the father, so that the child is inclined to side with the mother.
Parental alienation and family violence
In 2011, the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) was amended to expand the definition of family violence and incorporate notions of coercion and control (which are not always accompanied by more obvious physical violence or threats of abuse). As a result, a person commits an act of family violence where they are “preventing the family member from making or keeping connections with his or her family, friends or culture”.
Parental alienation falls squarely within this definition and should be viewed as a form of family violence. This behaviour also aligns with statutory definition of child abuse, where serious psychological harm is sustained by being subjected to this family violence.
While the “family violence” label might seem extreme at first, its important to consider the serious psychological harm that arises from parental alienation and the vulnerability of children, particularly at separation when they are feeling confused and frightened. Parental alienation involves these vulnerable children being actively groomed, stoking fear and anxiety within them, and ultimately persuading them that they will be unsafe if they don’t reject the other parent.
So how does the Family Court deal with parental alienation? Can litigation or therapeutic mechanisms remove the metaphorical wedge between the alienated child and the rejected parent?
Our blog post “Parental Alienation: removing the wedge” explains.