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Estrangement or Parental Alienation – Which Is It?

It’s increasingly common for one parent to make allegations during contentious or difficult divorce proceedings. One type takes the form of parental alienation. What is this phenomenon, and are there other reasons why a child does not want to be with one of its parents? Or do issues exist that justify the child’s estrangement from that parent?

Conventional Reasons Why a Child Might Prefer One Parent Over Another

Some children may oppose being with one parent for understandable reasons and preferences, such as:

  • An age-appropriate or gender-appropriate desire to be with the favoured parent
  • Concern or fear for an emotionally vulnerable favoured parent
  • A reasonable reaction to the rejected parent’s new partner or the new partner’s family
  • Age-appropriate separation anxiety from the favoured parent

Children can change their mind as time passes or as they become more comfortable with the new partner and their family. Psychological counselling could also help in these circumstances.

Justifiable Estrangement

There are other reasons why children might be particularly resistant to spend time with the rejected parent. Children may want to stay away from a parent whose behaviour frightens or upsets them, or if they’re afraid the parent might hurt them.

This is called ‘justifiable estrangement’, as described in a 2001 Family Court Review article by Joan Kelly and Janet Johnson. Estrangement comes from:

  • Children seeing or suffering emotional abuse or violence against the favoured parent or themselves
  • The rejected parent having substance abuse problems that affects their parenting
  • Intense conflict between the parents before and after their separation
  • The parents’ involvement in contested and confrontational litigation
  • The rejected parent being a poor parent or having a difficult relationship with the children

Parental Alienation

Parental alienation is different from the above. It happens when one parent makes concerted, systematic efforts to destroy a child’s relationship with the other parent – to the extent that the child no longer wants any contact. Parental alienation can be created using many tactics:

  • Badmouthing the other parent by calling them dangerous, mean or having other bad qualities;
  • Reducing the child’s time with the other parent by arranging activities during the other parent’s time with the child, or frequently calling the child during their time together;
  • Removing the other parent’s picture from the child’s room or computer, or encouraging the child to call another person ‘mom’ or ‘dad’;
  • Blocking or monitoring calls, texts and email from the other parent, and preventing the child from getting letters and packages from the other parent;
  • Using the child to carry messages to the other parent and not sharing information from the child’s school and doctors;
  • Making the child feel guilty about spending time with the other parent, using the child to spy on the other parent, or forcing the child to say which parent the child prefers.

Judicial Options If Parental Alienation Is Happening

If court proceedings are ongoing when the child refuses to see the rejected parent, the situation should be assessed to determine why the child doesn’t want to see the rejected parent. Quick intervention can stop the deliberate estrangement before the child’s feelings become too ingrained to reverse.

If the child still refuses to see the rejected parent, the court may:

  • Award custody to the favoured parent but require ongoing counselling;
  • Award custody to the rejected parent with counselling;
  • Accept the child’s desire to have no contact with the rejected parent;
  • Take custody away from either parent if feasible.

If parental alienation arises after the divorce proceedings are over and custody awarded, the court can:

  • Change the parenting order to promote the child’s relationship with the rejected parent;
  • Make the parenting order more specific so that the favoured parent can’t interfere with the child’s time with the rejected parent;
  • Enforce the order by finding the parent in contempt of court or having the police enforce it;
  • Appoint a family counsellor to work with the child and the parents to follow the parenting order.

Courts must determine if parental alienation allegations are true or if the child feels justifiably estranged from a parent. But making the determination is essential, no matter how difficult, if the court is to act in the best interests of the child. Divorcing parents are wise to discuss concerns with a lawyer experienced in handling such contemporary issues.

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