Parental alienation is a complex and emotionally charged family dynamic that occurs when one parent deliberately attempts to distance their child from the other parent, often resulting in strained or severed relationships. This can happen overtly and covertly, making some cases more challenging to identify and address.

Feeling alienated from a parent can have profound and lasting effects on children, causing emotional distress and impacting their overall well-being. Recognising and addressing the signs of parental alienation is crucial for neutralising its harmful effects and fostering healthy parent-child relationships.

Understanding Parental Alienation

Parental alienation can manifest in various ways, including denigrating remarks, false accusations, interference with communication, and manipulation of a child's emotions. The alienating parent may consciously or unconsciously engage in these behaviours, creating an unhealthy dynamic that negatively influences the child's perception of the targeted parent.

In some cases, the parent causing the alienation is unable to manage their own sadness, hurt, anger or other negative feelings following a separation and instead directs them towards children involved in the relationship. This negatively impacts all parties involved, hurting the child and the alienated parent. It also creates an unhealthy avenue of expression for the parent who is responsible for alienation.

Negative Comments and Criticism

Alienating parents may make disparaging remarks about the targeted parent in the child's presence, ear-shot, or on a social media platform that the child has access to, portraying them in a consistently negative light. This can create a distorted image of the other parent in the child's mind.

Limiting Contact

Restricting or monitoring communication between the child and the targeted parent is a common sign of parental alienation. This may include interfering with phone calls, messages, or care arrangements. An alienating parent may not allow a child the privacy to speak with the other parent (when no valid reason exists) or monitor texts and other communications.

False Accusations

Making false accusations of abuse or neglect against the targeted parent is another tactic that may be employed in situations of parental alienation. This can lead to legal complications, including serious ramifications for the falsely accusing parent, and adds further strain on the parent-child relationship.

Undermining Authority

Alienating parents often undermine the authority of the targeted parent, portraying them as unworthy or incapable of providing emotional, financial, or practical support. This erodes the child's trust and respect for the targeted parent. 

An example would be if one parent has set a fair disciplinary action, and the other parent says to the child it’s unnecessary. This is not an instance of abuse, or parental neglect, but is often over small issues such as different meal times, use of screens/devices, different perspectives or ideas of discipline.

Refusal To See Any Positives

In healthy relationships, even if one or both parties have flaws, most people can still see the good in another person, or show some level of compassion and ability to positively reflect in some areas. In many cases of parental alienation, the alienating parent shares very ‘black and white’ negative views of the other parent with both the children and other parties involved such as mutual friends or extended family.

Encouraging Rejection

Alienating parents may encourage the child to reject the targeted parent, fostering an environment where the child feels compelled to choose sides. This "us versus them" mentality can lead to lasting emotional scars, for both the child and the alienated parent. 

This can be an incredibly frightening concept for a child who is living with the parent doing the alienating, because they may fear not having basic needs met or being rejected if they question or default from the alienating parent’s narrative. Children in these situations have also witnessed a parent, someone they love and trust, be able to completely shut out and depreciate their other parent, who they also love and trust

Watching this sort of behaviour from adults shapes how a child sees the world deeply, and may also lead the child to concerns that if they ‘take the wrong side’ they could be punished or be ostracised from the family unit. If a child has seen highly manipulative behaviour or lies being told, it can possibly lead to the experience of mental instability, self-image issues, depression and anxiety. 

Addressing Parental Alienation

In Australia, the courts recognise parental alienation and have the power to act on matters in which this is determined to have occurred. This can be a complex process, which may require children living with the alienating parent to speak to child-related professionals or have psychological assessments done.

If a child believes that the other parent is ‘bad’ without any real coherence of what this means, or has been told lies or half-truths, or been emotionally manipulated, this can cause significant distress. It can take considerable effort to identify and address, but resources and awareness are growing in this area.

High Conflict Divorce & Separation Increases The Likelihood of Parental Alienation

When a relationship ends in a ‘high-conflict’ situation, parental alienation is more prevalent.

Often children will ‘side’ with the parent who has more custody, which can be a safety mechanism or due to being repeatedly told negative things about the other parent, whether they are true or not. This will often lead to children absorbing the views of the alienating parent and defending the alienating parent while attacking the alienated parent.

Some common signs of parental alienation include:

  • A parent who refuses to foster connection between their child and the other parent, despite the parent wanting contact, without any clear reason
  • A child who sees one parent as good, and the other as bad - despite facts that are more balanced 
  • Lack of cooperation from the alienating parent with any attempts to change the situation
  • A parent who claims they have been falsely accused of something or lied about for the financial gain of the other parent, or to create a barrier for having contact 
  • Children who are sent by the alienating parent to ‘get information’ about the alienated parent, or to deliver information to them that the parents should be solely responsible for exchanging 
  • A parent who unreasonably compares their new partner to the child’s other parent in front of the child, knowing the child is likely to tell their parent
  • Children who are unable to see a situation clearly (ie, they ‘forget’ the strong relationship they had with the alienated parent, or it is minimised by the alienating parent if they were younger at the time)
  • Children who show no remorse, guilt or regret being mean, harsh or judgemental to the alienated parent, which may be modelled from the alienating parent.
  • Children with ‘black and white’ thinking, with one parent being defended, and the other being criticised, without any sound reasoning
  • Children may feel they will be ‘punished’ by the alienating parent if they do not reject or criticise the alienated parent, which can be a very real fear, especially if they are dependent on the alienating parent. 

Signs of a healthy child/ parental relationship:

  • Parents who foster connection with their children and the other parent, in the best interests of the child
  • Children who see both parents as human, with strengths and weaknesses
  • Separated parents who have challenges, conflict and differences that children are aware of, but are not placed in the middle or encouraged to ‘take sides’.
  • Parents who communicate privately and reach agreements, and then approach children with a unified front and back each other up

Is Parental Alienation The Same As Family Violence or Child Abuse?

Parental alienation has many similar crossovers with family violence and child abuse. It’s often noted by professionals in these areas that the presence of power and control dynamics defines family violence. Alienation can be extremely distressing to children and the alienated parent and have significant long-term impacts, and some behaviours may be seen as child abuse.

How Can I Get Help If Parental Alienation Is Affecting My Family?  

If you or someone you know is experiencing a situation of parental alienation, you do have some options. It can be difficult to prove in some instances and in more serious cases, unfortunately, children may be requested by the courts to attend psychological assessments to ascertain the impacts.

In Australia, there is no set law around parental alienation, but there is a growing awareness of its prevalence and the impact that is has on the emotional and psychological wellbeing of children and their development. Courts have the power to intervene, but it can be distressing for families living through this. Outcomes may include changes in the child’s living arrangements, court-ordered counselling or courses focused on reunification.

Early Intervention

Recognising the signs of parental alienation early is crucial for effective intervention. Legal professionals, therapists, and family counsellors can play a key role in identifying and addressing these behaviours.

Legal Support

Seeking legal advice is essential for parents experiencing alienation. Courts can intervene to protect the child's best interests and enforce visitation rights, ensuring the targeted parent has the opportunity to maintain a meaningful relationship. Acting quickly to address these issues will assist in preserving these significant relationships.

Therapeutic Intervention

Family therapy or counselling can be instrumental in addressing the emotional impact of parental alienation. A qualified therapist can help rebuild trust and communication between the parent and child.

Open Communication

Establishing open and honest communication with the child is crucial. Encouraging them to express their feelings and concerns without fear of judgement can help bridge gaps and rebuild the parent-child bond.

Court-Ordered Reunification Programs

In severe cases where alienation has significantly damaged the parent-child relationship, courts may order reunification programs. These programs aim to rebuild the relationship through therapeutic interventions.

Parental alienation is a deeply distressing phenomenon that requires careful recognition and proactive intervention. By understanding the signs and taking decisive steps to address the issue, parents can work towards fostering healthy relationships with their children, ensuring their emotional well-being and long-term happiness. 

If you are experiencing parental alienation and need support or to understand your options, please contact one of our Family Lawyers to learn more about the specific legal considerations relevant to your situation.

This is general information only. Please contact us for expert legal advice that takes your unique personal situation into account prior to making any decisions based on this article.