Legal update: An introduction to Parental Alienation



Parental alienation refers to alignment of a child with one parent whilst rejecting a relationship with the other “without legitimate justification”1. This often results from the continued denigration of one parent by the other to the child / children of the family. In doing so, the alienating parent shapes the views of the child to such an extreme that it damages and undermines the child’s relationship with the alienated parent. The alienation can be either intentional or unintentional and occurs only once the child / children accept the targeting parent’s influence. In recent years studies have reported judicial findings of parental alienation in up to 15% of divorces involving children.

The concept of parental alienation, particularly Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), attracts split opinions from psychological and legal professionals alike. There is, however, a growing abundance of literature and acknowledgement from the courts of the existence of parental alienation in divorcing families. This suggests a need to give serious consideration to the impact of parents’ expression and often imposition of their negative views about the other parent to children of separation and divorce.

In more extreme cases of alienation even such interventions as therapeutic or psychoeducational treatments cannot reverse the damage caused to the relationship between child / children and alienated parent.2

Importance for children of maintaining positive relationships with both parents

It is almost always in a child’s best interests, and vitally important to their emotional development, for them to maintain a positive image of and relationship with both parents. Such positive relationships are imperative to a child’s ability to maintain self-esteem and regulate their emotional wellbeing.

In separated or divorced families, parents often lose sight of what is best for the children, that is, to be as far removed from the conflict between the parents as is possible under the circumstances. It is particularly difficult for parties to keep sight of this where the other fails to behave in a manner in which one would expect a responsible and loving parent to behave in order to protect and preserve the best interests of the children. Despite this, it is always our advice to focus only on the child / children and not on the behaviour of the other parent.

In cases where signs of parental alienation are apparent, children often experience heightened levels of anxiety and suffer as a result of trying to avoid one side of the conflict between the parents3.

Impact of parents’ behaviour in a legal context

Aside from the apparent impact alienating behaviour can have on a child’s psychological and emotional wellbeing, in a legal context, promoting a positive relationship for the child / children with the other parent is most important. In all disputed children’s matters the Court will call for a Social Welfare Report to be conducted by a Social Work Officer of the Family and Child Protective Services Unit of the Social Welfare Department. The purpose of this report is to investigate and gather information about the family and make recommendations with regard to custody and access arrangements in the best interests of the child. This involves talking to all family members and taking into account their views. It is without surprise that the Courts take a very dim view of reports recording parents behaving in a way that causes confusion, increases conflict for or damages the child / children’s view of or relationship with the other parent. It is often the children and not the parents who will reveal these details to the Social Work Officer during their interviews.

Psychological impact of alienating behaviour

In our practice we frequently see parents struggle to promote the other in a positive and constructive manner for the sake of the children of the family. In some circumstances it is necessary to collaborate with other professionals to assist parents in coping with the divorce themselves and in understanding what is necessary for and in the best interests of the children.

Below Dr. Alison Cook of Jadis Blurton Family Development Centre (General phone number is +852 2869 1962) offers her valuable insight into this subject based on her experience of parental alienation in high conflict divorces involving children:

When dealing with a divorce dispute involving children, there are plenty of indicators of “parent alienation syndrome”. As psychologists and legal professionals, we must be able to discern between genuine parental failings and a “not-based-on-actual-interaction” (NBOAI – Bricklin, 1997) scenario in which a child’s comments are not a reflection of reality.  In some cases, the child has already made their decision about which parent they would rather live with and they consciously advocate the skills and positives of this parent. In other cases, the child may be manipulated into a decision and perhaps not aware that they have been told what to believe. In both cases it is our task to make sure the child’s choice is supported by other critical data that is most reflective of a child’s actual and true interactions with the parent.

In our many years of experience at BFDC, we have seen a number of children projecting traits of PAS.  Below are a few clinical signs to look for in children who may be promoting (or avoiding) a particular parent are as follows:

  • Information about parents may be contrasted or polarized – usually very positive about one and very negative about the other.
  • A programmed child will not relax, will avoid eye contact and become increasingly agitated if they feel their message is not being received.
  • A rapport with the evaluator is difficult to achieve – the child avoids engagement.
  • Responses have a rehearsed quality to them and siblings will often use similar or exactly the same phrases when talking about their parents.
  • Verbal conscious reports often do not correlate with projective test results.
  • It is common for a child to limit the information they share about a parent without being directly questioned.  A programmed child will often give information without being asked.

Regardless of the outcome, there is great value in children having a continued relationship with each parent and being connected to a family system.  Once the child passes the developmental stage of infancy, research suggests that with the right guidance and support, children learn to deal with and meander their way through negative parenting styles (as opposed to an absent parent) – which eventually increases their ability to form coping mechanisms that can be applied to other aspects of their life.

Joanne Brown

The above is not intended to be relied on as legal advice and specific legal advice should be sought at all times in relation to the above.

If you would like to discuss any of the matters discussed in this brief article, please contact:

Joanne Brown
Partner | Email

Disclaimer: This publication is general in nature and is not intended to constitute legal advice. You should seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters dealt with in this publication.

1. Bernet, W., von Boch-Galhau, W., Baker, A. J. L. & Morrison, S. L. (2010) ‘Parental Alienation, DSM-V, and ICD-11‘, The American Journal of Family Therapy, 38: 2, 76 — 187.
2. Bala, N. & Fidler, B. J., ‘Children Resisting Postseparation Contact with a Parent: Concepts, Controversies, and Conundrums.’ Family Court Review, Vol. 49 No. 1, January 2010, 10-47.
3. Ibid 1.