Parental Alienation: ‘An emotional act of violence that is aimed at an adult, but critically wounds a child’. (Steve Marabodi). How to recognise the signs.

The term ‘parental alienation’ describes a situation when parents with children divorce or separate and one parent purposefully alienates the child or children from the other parent. Sarah Parson Assistant Principal Social Work Assistant Director of CAFCASS (Child and Family Court Advisory And Support Service stated that Parental Alienation is responsible for 80% of the most intransigent cases that come before the family courts. Her view was echoed by Sir Anthony Douglas CEO of CAFCASS as ‘undoubtedly a form of neglect or child abuse. There is serious concern that not all professionals are trained to recognise this

When parents separate the children are the unwilling victims. Arlene Healey Consultant Family Therapist in Northern Ireland has done extensive research in how the concept of parental alienation affects the children. In a break up children can have normal feelings of guilt, anger, confusion and frustration. They might find it hard to express their opinions. Parents can normally talk to them and help them express these feelings making intervention unnecessary.

However sometimes this transition can be difficult.

This is usually when there are complex issues between both parents such as a history of mental health, domestic violence, and clear acrimony between the parties. How does it affect the child? It appears as a strong alignment or enmeshment with one parent or a vehement rejection of a relationship of one parent. The behaviour is unwarranted. Especially if the history of the actual child’s experience of the other parent is normal. It is ‘an almost phobic fear of the other parent’. This exists alongside a very contentious relationship of the parents.

Your child might on the outside appear they are coping yet they are at risk of a host of problems. These include emotional and psychological harm, anger problems, aggression, depression, loss of appetite and difficulty sleeping. In addition, they might in the long term have an impaired ability to sustain relationships, increased risk of mental health disorders and substance misuse.

It becomes apparent when the child behaves very differently to his or her ‘norm’. There is a refusal to see the other parents. An extreme withdrawal and animosity towards one parent, or you will see evidence of a psychological split where one parent is ‘idealised’ and the other is ‘worthless’. Of course the child will insist that these are his/ her own views. They will use adult expressions and language to the Courts Children’s Officer and Social Worker. Investigating professionals can pick up these parroted lines as rehearsed in a child.

The family unit is under extreme stress in these circumstances.

The child is elevated to the position of decision maker. Often under the guise of a parents stating ‘It’ s up to them. I don’t want to force them’. The sad reality is that the child’s critical thinking is impaired. The world makes no sense. They have to subconsciously reject one parent in order to survive psychologically themselves. They only appear that they are coping.

How is one parent behaving to cause these issues? Their actions may not be overt and explicit. They may be involved in direct/ indirect denigration of the other parent, labeling them as dangerous or telling the child the other parent abandoned them. There may be no positive dialogue about the other parent or have started using their first name rather than mummy or daddy. Also might even be derogatory talk at home about the other parent and no encouragement for the child to attend special occasions. There may also hide letters/ cards and interfere with arranged contact. The choice can be forced on a child.

How can we help you to solve this problem?

The key is an early interventionist approach and a realisation that the child needs assistance. This can best be tackled in various forms such as the recommendation by the court of appropriate therapy. A firmly enforced contact order is also vital. We recommend a swift return to court if contact breaks down. A contact order should reflect to the child that both parents are important. The court may direct the use of independent professionals to assist your child’s understanding of the situation. All parties involved with the child should be invited to share information such as their teachers, parents, grandparents etc. We will also try to ensure continuity of the Judge hearing the case to ensure well informed decisions based on the best interests of the child.

No one size fits all in fixing the effect that parental alienation is having on the child. A tailored approach is vital. At PA Duffy we are trained in recognising the indicators of parental alienation and will act to help you resolve it.

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