Parental alienation

Parental alienation is a much-used, but much misunderstood term, used frequently in relation to children matters. The basic concept is that the child develops an unwarranted rejection of one, alienated, parent and an alliance with the other, alienating, parent, due to the intentional or unintentional actions of the alienating parent, adversely affecting the child’s relationship with the alienated parent. However, parental alienation is not formally recognised as a specific form of child psychological abuse (although certain adjacent behaviours are, such as parental overprotection and inappropriate parental pressure), and there is no one agreed-upon definition of what it is. So how useful is the notion of parental alienation, and how might it be used legitimately as part of Children Act proceedings?

 Hannah Jones, a chartered forensic psychologist who has worked as an expert in the Family Courts, was recently quoted in The Guardian as saying that “true alienation of a parent where that parent is entirely unproblematic is rare enough that it does not need its own concept”. With this, she is trying to convey that it usually takes two to tango, and if a child is rejecting one parent this is usually not solely down to the other parent badmouthing them, but rather a combination of attachment to the so-called “alienating” parent (usually the parent the child lives or spends most time with) and the behaviour of the other. There is also an important distinction to be made between genuine alienation claims and tendencies and the tactic many parents have developed of using alienation as a defence against domestic abuse claims – once parental alienation has been found by the Court, any domestic abuse allegations are often downplayed thereafter, as the Court is reluctant to accept what the “alienating” parent and child are alleging.

This is all to say that claims of parental alienation tend to be looked on with a degree of cynicism by Judges in particular, and it has become a question of trying to detect when a parent might be “crying wolf” because they are in the midst of an intractable dispute over contact with the other party; while a frustrating situation, it is not an uncommon one, and very often parents do not fully understand the consequences of claiming alienation as a way of winning the argument.

If parental alienation is found by a Judge, the most likely outcomes are either intensive therapy for the child and/or the parents, or a transfer of residence if it is believed that what the child needs most is to get away from the alienating parent. This can have very serious implications for both the child and the parents, particularly if the finding is incorrect or the allegations exaggerated, and there is an ongoing crisis in terms of the type of expert who should be appointed to either prove or disprove these allegations. There are many psychologists, who are not registered with the HCPC (Health and Care Professionals Council) and do not have the appropriate expertise, who are nonetheless being instructed in these matters and making assessments with potentially life-changing outcomes; the Court is in the process of trying to crack down on this issue.

Even taking all this into account, there are situations in which parental alienation is a real concern, and the non-resident parent should be able to expect that the other party will not speak badly about them to the children or discourage contact. So what can you do if you think this is an issue in your case?

  1. Try to agree provisions in relation to this as part of a Child Arrangements Order: rather than raising alienation, or even alongside it, try to agree directions with your ex in which neither of you speaks badly of the other to the children, for example, and that you will each encourage contact with the other parent. If the Order is breached you can return the matter to Court, and this can be much more easily and swiftly dealt with than allegations of alienation.
  2. If an expert does need to be appointed, ensure that they are HCPC registered: there are nine protected titles in relation to psychology, and if your expert falls under one of them this will help to reassure all parties that they are qualified and capable of giving a reliable, independent assessment of the situation.
  3. Speak to a solicitor to see whether other negotiation tactics may be more helpful: while it can feel tempting to play the blame game with the other parent, this is unlikely to resolve contact disputes in the long run. Consider whether raising parental alienation is going to be persuasive in re-instating contact, or whether other, pragmatic solutions can be offered.

Paola Cuffolo Solicitor

 If you would like to speak to someone about parental alienation, we are on hand with a wealth of experience to answer your queries. Please contact Paola Cuffolo at

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