What is Parental Alienation and What Are its Legal Implications?

colourful parental alienation cover photo
Donna Nguyen - Family Lawyer

Donna Nguyen - Family Lawyer

Parental alienation happens when one parent deliberately undermines and damages the relationship that the other parent has with their child.

After a divorce or separation, both you, your ex-spouse, and your children may be feeling vulnerable which could affect your child’s relationship with you or the other parent. 

In most cases it is normal to go through a rough patch after the trauma of parents splitting. In other situations the change in behaviour occurs because of parental alienation.

This article will go into the symptoms, the effects and the legal implications of parental alienation. It will also give you some tips on how you can recognise it, and what to do if your child is experiencing it.

As always, if you or your child are in immediate danger please call the police on 000 or 1800 RESPECT.

Cartoon image of parental alienation with sad child

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation is where one parent tries to turn their child against the other parent. It may cause the parents to become competitive and fight for the child’s affection. 

Parental alienation can occur when one parent makes nasty comments, manipulates or makes untrue allegations of abuse. These comments are made to influence the child and may result in the child hating and refusing to spend time with one of the parents. 

When parental alienation occurs, it can lead to the child’s relationship with one of their parents breaking down. That can create issues, such as hostility, between the parent and the child. The child may even refuse to see one of their parents. This may inadvertently cause psychological harm to the child.

Either parent, regardless of gender is just as likely to do the alienating. There is no evidence to say that either gender is more responsible. The alienator is more likely to be the person who is the primary carer of the children as they may have more ‘influence’.   

Parental alienation may destroy the bond that a parent has with their children, even if they previously had a good relationship.

It is an unjustified campaign of denigration where one parent almost exclusively makes negative comments about the other parent in the child’s presence. This may be based on a false opinion that the alienated parent is unfit and unworthy.

Example 1

Betty and Christopher separate. They have two children together, Natalie and Timothy. 

Betty has a vendetta against Christopher and starts a campaign of denigration, which involves telling Natalie and Timothy that Christopher has a new girlfriend and doesn’t want to spend time with them. Betty also says that Christopher prefers to spend time with his new girlfriend and her kids.

Natalie and Timothy start to feel as if Christopher doesn’t care about them. If they do still spend time with him, their relationship is strained, and eventually, they refuse to see him.

Even if the allegations are not true, the constant bad-mouthing is a form of parental alienation.

Example 2

Tanya and Peter recently divorced under acrimonious conditions. They have three children. Tanya says that Peter was cheating on her and that is why they split. Even if this is not true, the children refuse to spend any time with Peter. This is even if a court order said that the children should spend equal parenting time with both of their parents.

Peter is an alienated parent because Tanya has been turning her children against him.

What is parental alienation syndrome (PAS)?

Parental Alienation Syndrome was first described by American psychologist Richard Gardner in 1985. It also features as a recognised mental health condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). 

A child cannot be diagnosed with it, however, it can still have devastating mental health effects.

Parental alienation is a form of abuse

International researchers have concluded that parental alienation is a form of child abuse, or family violence. When one parent comes between the relationship their child has with the other parent it can have devastating effects, including the child becoming estranged from the parent.

Estrangement from a parent contradicts the principles behind the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth), which says that children have a right to a meaningful relationship with both of their parents.

The effects of parental alienation are much greater than initially thought, with a US study concluding the 13.4% of American parents reported they had been the victim of parental alienation at some point in their life.

There is still misunderstanding and even denial around parental alienation. Researchers have found that intervention may improve parental alienation outcomes.

It is harder however to distinguish parental alienation from children becoming estranged from one of their parents for valid reasons, such as family violence. One method of distinguishing the two is to establish if the rejection is justified. If the child was physically abused or witnessed family violence then it may be justified.

Children may also cling to an abusive parent because of the programming and manipulation they have experienced.

Due to increasing knowledge, parental alienation is commonly being described as emotional abuse which may have serious psychological harm to the child..

It typically occurs when one of the parents has sole parental responsibility after a divorce or separation. It more commonly occurs in acrimonious legal proceedings when one parent wants to win child custody at all costs. One parent may feel as if undermining the other parent will strengthen their case. In reality, it is harmful to children. It may also hurt the alienated parent because they are unable to have a meaningful relationship with their child.

What are the effects of parental alienation on children?

The effects of parental alienation can be long-lasting. Children may experience psychosocial disturbances, which include poor social-emotional development, an inability to trust, social anxiety, and social anxiety. 

Studies have shown that later in life, the children are more likely to rush into relationships and have an increased chance of getting divorced. They may also be more likely to have children outside of relationships. There is also an increased chance that they will become alienated from any children they do have.

Another effect of parental alienation is that the child is not self-sufficient, they lack autonomy and the ability to make decisions. They may also be overly dependent on the parent who is doing the alienating. When people who have experienced parental alienation go into adulthood, they may be incapable of living properly as an adult.

Scientists around the world are still researching the effects of parental alienation, however, at this point, it is considered a form of emotional abuse.

How to reduce parental alienation rates

One of the keys to reducing parental alienation rates is early intervention before parental alienation becomes more severe. The best ways to deal with parental alienation are:

  1. Harm reduction: Research shows that effective approaches can be taken to prevent parental alienation. It is a form of child abuse and therefore, a child protection matter.
  2. Prevention: Although the courts hold the view that children have a right to a meaningful relationship with both of their parents, this presumption may be rebutted in circumstances where there is parental alienation due to the risk that it poses on the child.
  3. Treatment: Reunification programs and therapy are the best types of treatment available for parental alienation.
  4. Enforcement: In the most serious cases, parental alienation needs to be dealt with by the courts by way of a change in residence from the alienator even if they are the primary carer.

Parental alienation is extremely serious and parents should obtain legal advice if they believe the other parent is an alienator. It may also be a child protection matter, which means that it may be dealt with by the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) in the most severe cases.

How is parental alienation considered in the family courts?

Section 60CC of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) outlines what the court must consider when dealing with children in family proceedings to determine what is in the best interest of the children. The law says that the court must place primary considerations on:

  • the child having a meaningful relationship with both of their parents;
  • the child being protected from physical or psychological harm.

What are the legal implications of parental alienation?

Parental alienation is considered a type of emotional abuse, which contradicts the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) so it will be considered in proceedings, as highlighted in the case below.

Case of Goldman v Goldman

The case of Goldman v Goldman [2018] FamCACF 65 (12 April 2018) involved a separated husband and wife who had two children who were 13 and 11. Since the separation, the children had lived with the wife.

A single expert wrote a report and drew the conclusion that the children should not live with the mother because their relationship was not healthy. The single expert made a recommendation that the children live with the father and that the children’s time with the wife is placed on hold for up to 6 months.

Her Honour, Cleary J found that the wife had been focused on turning the children away from their father. This was causing emotional harm and posed an ongoing risk that was unacceptable.

An order was made that the children live with the father and only have supervised time with the wife. This was to commence four weeks into the order. 

The father appealed the decision and sought a no-contact order for three months. The Full Court of the Family Court dismissed the appeal. The court held the view that this would cause the children more trauma.

They did however make a no-contact order for a period so that the children could re-establish their relationship with their father.

Generally, the court will not make an order that the children should move residence unless there is sufficient reason, as there was in this case.

sign with hand saying stop parental alienation

How to prove parental alienation

The best way to prove that parental alienation is occurring is to prove that negative behaviour by the other parent is harming the child.

Parental alienation syndrome is the most obvious way to prove parental alienation.

It can be hard to prove because instead of proving you did something, you have to prove that you didn’t do something and that your child has no reason to hate you.

What are the signs of parental alienation?

There are certain signs you can look out for to determine if parental alienation is happening. We have listed some of them below.

  1. You are prevented from seeing or talking to your child. Your ex may say that your child does not want to talk to you without encouraging a positive relationship.
  2. Your ex controls how your child communicates with you. This might involve monitoring any text messages, phone calls, or other interactions you have with your child. You notice that the child acts or communicates differently when your ex partner is around.
  3. Your ex plans events that clash with the time that your child is supposed to spend time with you. For example, your ex makes plans with your child’s best friend for a sleepover to stop you from seeing them.
  4. Your ex breaks the conditions of a shared parenting plan and will not be flexible with the arrangements.
  5. Your ex withholds information about your children, such as medical information or school reports. This results in you gradually losing knowledge of your child.

What are some signs of parental alienation syndrome?

  • Your child starts to criticise you without justification or evidence.
  • Your child only has negative feelings about you and doesn’t believe you have any redeeming attributes.
  • Your child says that they have drawn these conclusions when it is obvious that your ex manipulated them.
  • Your child does not feel guilty about mistreating you or saying they hate you.
  • Your child begins to hate other family members, such as grandparents, causing more family problems.

Types of parental alienation 

Dr. Richard Gardner first conceptualised parental alienation in 1985 and noted that it normally occurs in high-tension separations or divorces. He noted that there are different types of parental alienation.

Mild parental alienation

Mild parental alienation is where a parent gives a child reason not to spend time with an alienated parent. The child however enjoys spending time with the parent when they are alone.

Moderate parental alienation

Moderate parental alienation occurs when a child resists spending time with an alienated parent. The child harbours resentment towards the alienated parent when they are alone together.

Severe parental alienation

Signs of severe parental alienation are when a child does not want to contact the alienated parent, and they may run away or hide to avoid spending time with them.

Why do parents do it?

In many cases, parental alienation occurs because the parents have narcissistic or borderline personality disorder traits.

narcissistic parent is self-centred and does not understand, or care for other people’s perspectives. Instead, their attention is focused on getting what they want, without any consideration for others. They may be spiteful and wants to ruin the other parent. In reality, they are hurting the child as well, as children need a relationship with both of their parents (assuming that they are not abusive).

Meanwhile, a person with a borderline personality disorder is hyper-reactive and often expresses emotions as anger. When they feel distressed, it tends to last longer, than for the average person. People with a borderline personality disorder may experience a victim mentality and an inability to take responsibility for things that go wrong. They have a perception that because they have been wronged, they have a right to do the same to others.

In some situations, the alienating parent will create a “them and us” scenario, where you are either with them or against them.

In other cases, a parent may have antisocial personality disorder where they lie and can carry out negative actions without feeling guilty about doing so.

In short, they do it because they are experiencing a mental health condition and because they are seeking revenge on their ex.

7 tips to combat parental alienation

There are ways you can minimise the impact of parental alienation. We’ve listed them below.

Tip 1. Don’t get defensive

Naturally, you will want to get defensive when you’re dealing with parental alienation, but doing so would be counter-productive. If you respond by getting defensive and putting your ex down, then you will fall into the trap of alienating your children as well. Remain calm and don’t continue to expose the children to the parental dispute.

Tip 2. Focus on your relationship

You don’t need to be a perfect parent, however, you can develop your relationship with your children by doing enjoyable activities together, such as taking them to the park or watching a movie. Responding with positive activities is more productive.

Tip 3. Maintain communication

Even if you know that your texts, calls, or letters are being intercepted by your ex, don’t stop trying. Keep a record of when you have tried to contact them. You could maintain a diary of any attempt to contact them, or you could retain copies of emails, or photocopies of letters and receipts from the post office of when you sent them. This will help if your children discover the truth down the track.

Tip 4. Use positive language

Instead of complaining and focusing on the negative, use positive language such as, “I can’t wait to see you again”, or “I look forward to watching your game this weekend”. Children generally respond better to positive reinforcement than negativity.

Tip 5. Don’t play the blame game

It might be tempting to blame your child for your ex’s behaviour, but this won’t help. It will only create issues in your relationship with your child and is counterproductive. If you are frustrated with your ex, find a different outlet for your frustrations.

Tip 6. Keep your word

It’s incredibly important that if you’ve made a promise to your child, you keep your word. If you are late or don’t follow through on a promise your ex may manipulate the circumstances and alienate you even more.

Tip 7. Hire a team of professionals

If you’re experiencing parental alienation after a bitter divorce having the right team on your side can make a huge difference. Your team should be made up of mental health professionals, counsellors, and legal professionals. They have knowledge and experience dealing with similar situations and will help you maintain your relationship with your children.

Find out how our family lawyers can help you

Unified Lawyers are dedicated family lawyers with experience in helping people who are going through messy and complicated divorces, or other family law proceedings. We are sympathetic to your needs and will do everything in our power to get you the outcome you desire. Our team is available 7 days a week on 1300 667 461.

Donna Nguyen - Family Lawyer
Donna Nguyen - Family Lawyer

Donna is a family law solicitor admitted in the Supreme Court of New South Wales with a double degree in Business and Law.

Donna is drawn to family law as she is interested in helping clients during a difficult and transitional period following separation. She strives to achieve the best outcome for her clients and has their best interest at the forefront of her advice.