Australian family law recognises that children have a legal right to the opportunity for a relationship with both parents. Parental alienation as a legal issue, most often arises in divorce and separation cases. It involves behaviours that one parent does to deliberately damage a child’s relationship with the other parent. It infringes on the child’s basic rights and, perhaps more to the point, does harm to a child who may be very emotionally vulnerable.

In more extreme situations courts have been known to transfer custody of children away from an alienating parent or to limit that parent’s visitation in order to reduce the harm and reset the relationship on a healthier path.

For anyone involved in a contentious family law case where the care and support of children is an issue, it is also important to know that the topic of parental alienation and its companion concept “parental alienation syndrome” have some very controversial aspects.

The best way to avoid harm and further stress on a changing family that must carry on to provide care and support for children may be to seek professional assistance and advice.

Examples of parental alienation

Parental alienation is intentional behaviour that may be simpler to illustrate than define. It can involve:

  • Deliberately speaking ill of the other parent or sharing unnecessary details of the separation or divorce;
  • Infringing on the other parent’s time with the child by scheduling activities or making excessive phone calls;
  • Making the child unavailable to the other parent for visitation;
  • Making unilateral decisions in major areas of the child’s life without consulting with the other parent;
  • Rejecting the other parent’s gifts or offers of help; or
  • Suggesting to the child, without justification or evidence, that he or she has been the victim of abuse by the other parent.

Children can, of course, become estranged from a parent because of the parent’s own conduct. This is not parental alienation, just flawed parenting. Children are also keen observers and may empathise with a parent who seems sad, angry or otherwise distressed. However, unless there is deliberate parental action designed to damage the relationship with the other parent, this would likely not amount to parental alienation either; this is just normal human vulnerability.

The latter example points to some of the problems litigants may face in a situation where parental alienation is alleged. It’s not just a matter of strained relationships. Those happen and may be temporary. It’s a matter of bad intentions.

The controversy about “parental alienation syndrome”

Parental alienation syndrome (or PAS) is a term coined by Dr. Richard Gardner in 1985 to describe the ultimate impact of alienating behaviours on a child. There is, however, considerable debate in both the medical and legal communities as to whether PAS exists as a diagnosable condition.

The term has largely fallen out of favour, but the controversy rages on because of apparent gender bias in the situations where allegations of parental alienation are made. To be blunt, parental alienation is something that fathers are more likely to accuse mothers of than the other way around. Cultural stereotypes about what a “good mother” is may also complicate the picture. Fair or unfair, this is part of the legal landscape about which divorcing or separating parents need to be aware.

How to avoid parental alienation or accusations of parental alienation

First of all, keep in mind that every parent’s first concern should be the health and welfare of his or her children. If you are involved in a painful divorce or separation, you may be conveying a great deal more than you intend about your emotional state. Children see everything, and they react.

Second, seek emotional support from an adult network, not your children. Professional advice may be less biased than the usual group of family and friends and may help you to avoid inadvertently alienating behaviours. Seeking professional help may also demonstrate a good faith effort to avoid harming a child’s relationship with the other parent.

Finally, any allegations of parental alienation should also be promptly discussed with an experienced family law attorney. If substantiated, they may have serious consequences for your family law case and the nature of your relationship with your children going forward.  Do not brush them off as mere grousing.

The attorneys at Owen Hodge Lawyers would be happy to help you with issues of parental alienation and all of your family law matters. Please call us to schedule a consultation at 1800 770 780.