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Listen: Parental alienation in separation

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What is parental alienation? Are you experiencing it? What are the impacts of it? And what to do when you are going through this difficult period.

Jack Whelan spoke with Lynne Datnow from Stonnington Family Counselling, and to Bron O’Loan from O’Loan Family Law, and Kath Manby from VM Family Law, about the sensitive topic of parental alienation.

They discussed:

  • The purposeful, sometimes unconscious,  denigration of the other parent
  • The conflict and ambivalence that the child or children on the feel about having any relationship space with that parent
  • What the best interests for the child look like in these circumstances
  • Compliance and enforcement processes
  • How excoriating the whole court process can be
  • As well as some practical advice to assist people to separate well

 

You can listen to more podcasts from The Separation Guide on our channel played across Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Google Podcasts.

Jack Whelan: Good morning, friends. It’s Jack Whelan here, barrister, mediator, family dispute resolution practitioner, and also the co-founder of The Separation Guide, which is a national network of providers across different professions. The law, psychology counselling, accounting, and financial planning, all connected to an online Q and A, which educates, triages and connects people who are going through the difficult time of separation. Today, we are podcasting about the very difficult issue of parental alienation. What is it? Are you experiencing it? What are the impacts of it? And what to do when you are actually going through this very, very difficult period of separation and being affected by parental alienation. I’m joined by Lynne Datnow, psychologist and family therapist. Lynne is a psychologist and family therapist who has spent 40 years in a professional career, working with children, adolescents, adults, couples and families, experiencing a range of life challenges.

Lynne founded Stonnington Family Counselling Center, which is the private individual family and couples therapy center in Melbourne in 1990, after working in senior clinical roles in child and adult psychology, hospital department, and heading up a family therapy center for over 20 years. Importantly, figuring out how children can be helped to feel better supported and understood is a major focus of Lynne’s work and from Lynne’s perspective, and certainly in my professional experience as well, a critical objective wherever possible is to enable the children of a dissolving marriage to maintain a safe and caring relationship with each parent based on that parent’s capacity to nurture and care for their children. Good morning to you, Lynne.

Lynne DatnowL Good morning, Jack. Thanks for inviting me.

Jack Whelan: Absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for contributing. I’m really looking forward to your contribution today. I’m also joined by Kath Manby. Kath is an accredited specialist in family law and the Principal of VM Family Law. Kath has worked with clients on a broad range of matters, including parenting arrangements, domestic violence, child support, binding financial agreements, representation in court, property settlement, divorce and child support. Kath began her career in England as a lawyer in 2004, since moving to Queensland in 2007. And she has a long and broad experience in both private law and also legal aid. It was her work as a senior lawyer in the violence prevention and women’s advocacy team at legal aid, which inspired her to open her own practice, VM Family Law, and Kath recognized a need for the legal process to be a little bit easier on the client and a little bit more accessible. Good day, Kath and good morning.

Kath Manby: Good morning, Jack. Thanks for having me here today.

JW: Pleasure. Thank you. We’re also joined by Bron O’Loan. Bron has a view that there is a different way of doing things and that the adversarial jargon-rich lawyer stereotype isn’t really helpful. Instead, alone family law embodies kindness and compassion supporting families as they navigate the often complex legal system. Bron assists with parenting issues, property settlements, child and financial support, and finalizing settlements. Prior to studying law, Bron practiced as a primary school educator and also worked in the corporate sector, which gives Bron a very unique and valuable background to guide people and their family through a family law matter. And having three teenage children of her own, Bron can certainly appreciate the difficulties that families can experience in raising children. Good morning, Bron. Thanks for joining us as well.

Bron O’Loan: Hi, Jack. Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here.

JW: All right, friends. So we’re going to have a discussion about parental alienation. Lynne, I’m going to go first to you. Can you explain to podcast listeners what parental alienation actually is?

LD: Well, parental alienation is a notion in problematic family functioning. Has been around for quite a long time in as much when two parents who’ve been in a loving relationship are no longer in that space with one another. The issues that they have always had in their communication and their struggles with respect for one another can really start to blow up when the family dissolves. And the parental alienation part really focuses on when that troubled relationship space turns out to be something where one parent is preventing a child from having a reasonable relationship with the other parent. So where there is a purposeful, sometimes unconscious, but a purposeful denigration of the other parent evaluation of their contribution to the child’s life that ends up with that child feeling conflicted and ambivalent about having any relationship space with that other parent.

JW: Lynne, you mentioned the word prevention, preventing a child from having that meaningful relationship with the other parent. What are the sort of behaviours that give effect to that prevention?

LD: Well, so talking very ill of the other parent or having the child understand that that parent doesn’t have the child’s best interests at heart, or how they behave and what they do is not acceptable. Sometimes it’s really blocking opportunities for that parent who is being alienated from having contact with the child. And it can be issues like making other arrangements for the children when they’re supposed to be going to see the parent. And I stress that this is only where both parents are equally capable of offering good parenting opportunities to their children. It’s not where there’s a concern about one of the parents. So where they are equally capable of being the parents that we like to see children have, then when one is being pushed out of their parenting role, it comes in all sorts of forms.

JW: And you mentioned that it could be either deliberate or perhaps unconscious.

LD: Yeah. So sometimes people are not fully aware of how their behaviors are being experienced by others around them. They’re so caught up in their own pain and hurt and need to punish, that they really haven’t thought about the impact on the child. And that’s where we can have some really valuable conversations about, “Let’s think about how this feels for the child and what we can do to make this better.” And sometimes that’s a really important intervention.

JW: Absolutely. And let’s talk about impacts, Lynne. And let’s talk about impacts to both parents and also the child or the children in question. What is the impact on the child who is experiencing one parent potentially being, for want of a better word, diminished by another parent?

LD: Well, it creates a lot of confusion and uncertainty for the child. Obviously it depends on the age of the child. If we’re talking about preschoolers and really young children, their experience of that other parent is different from say a teenager’s experience of that parent, where the teenager might have their own views about that parent. So it varies developmentally across the age of the child, but the child will feel very conflicted, can feel very vulnerable. We can see symptoms of anxiety and depression in children where they start to become avoidant of activities that they previously enjoyed, or we can see also them pulling away from one or other parent or both parents and feeling quite lost and alone.

JW: And on the parent who perhaps is the subject of the negative commentary from the other parent, what is the impact upon that person, Lynne?

LD: Well, I’ve worked with some parents in that situation and it’s a profound impact. So the loss of family is a grief and people are dealing with the family not being what they had anticipated, being the children and both parents. When that parent who’s been alienated is no longer able to have contact with the child and be part of the child’s growth and development, it creates a profound sense of loss and hopelessness, and that can be experienced as anxiety, depression, a sense of failure. So the feelings for that parent can be very profound.

JW: And Lynne, how does one, actually… If you’re going through this as a parent who perhaps feels that they are being subject to this sort of behavior, what are the steps that that parent needs to take to name it, to address it, to discuss it, and in a practical sense, what steps can be taken in relation to, say, the other parent and then also perhaps in relation to the child?

LD: Well, that’s a very good question. So it depends at what stage that family comes to see a family therapist. So if they’ve come along to couples therapy or family therapy, or their child has been symptomatic and they’ve come along to get some help for their child, you can start working on these issues very early on, and then you can take a much more preventive role. Sometimes, though, the people that present to my office have, are well down the track and have almost given up the opportunity to be in contact with that child. And we don’t then get access to working with the other parent and or the child. So in the best of all worlds, if we can work early with a family, we can achieve much better outcomes. And it might be practical suggestions like when it’s a child’s birthday, I had a case recently, even though the mom was saying, “No, the child doesn’t want to receive a birthday present from you,” saying to the dad, “Well, what’s your feeling about this?” And him being clear that he wanted to provide a gift and inviting him to do that.

And it was a 16-year-old birthday. He didn’t want to miss it. So he sent his daughter flowers and a beautiful gift, and it made all the difference to turning around that relationship. Now that’s a bit of a simplistic position, but that’s a family I’d worked with for a long, long time. And they were actually not conflicted about any of the matters around the separation. They’d agreed to it and were trying to be amicable. It’s much harder where there’s profound conflict. And as you know, in situations where people have been to court, some of those painful experiences with affidavits about each other can get so stuck in people’s minds and can be very derailing of conciliatory approaches.

JW: In that way, and this is certainly my experience as well. I find when I’m mediating matters in family law, if the separating parents have actually been through some counseling, some family therapy, then they tend to be far easy to work with, far more minded to design agreements rather than get into unnecessary escalation. So that’s certainly a advice that I am giving to many people perhaps if they’re finding the relationship so difficult that they actually can’t have any dialogue or participating in mediation. But Lynne, is it, is there value in couples who are separating, exploring family therapy and counseling before they’re entering the more formal or informal separation process?

LD: Well, I think ideally we would intervene as early as possible. I’ve had some really good success with couples who are already separated, who are concerned about a child, coming along together to talk with me about their concerns about their child. So even if there’s been a separation that can work, but that’s when people are prepared to be reasonable with each other, sit in the same room together. I think where the conflict, and the literature supports this, where the conflict is incredibly high level and it’s been entrenched in the family for a long, long time, it’s very, very difficult to get people to think differently about the other partner, because they’ve placed all of the pain and anguish on blame towards that person. And I suspect it’s the same with a mediation approach. If someone’s out for retribution, it’s very difficult to get them to think in a more open-minded way, but certainly if we can get them to think about what’s in this child’s best interests rather than getting back at the other parent, I think we get a bit further down the track to get better outcomes for the family.

JW: Thanks. Thanks very much, Lynne. I’m just going to turn to Kath and Bron. And Kath, firstly to you. I’m interested in how the law can help in circumstances when someone perhaps comes to you and says, “Look, Kath, I feel as if the children are being turned against me and I need help.” So does this happen often? And how can the law help?

KM: Look, unfortunately, it does happen fairly frequently. My practice is primarily based around domestic violence. So I do see a lot of this issue happening for many of my clients. I guess the starting point for any of the clients that come through my way or anybody listening to this podcast would be to try and determine, as Lynne said, what’s actually happening because if there’s a significant level of parental alienation happening, as Lynne’s indicated, there may be no merit in trying to do mediation or try some counseling. Although that would be my preference for clients to start as a first step. So we’ve really got to try and identify what’s happening. Is there a significant risk to the children in terms of their physical or psychological harm? Because the courts, if we were going to the court, the overriding factor that the court has to consider is what’s in the best interest of the children.

And part of determining that is ensuring that the children are protected from those issues of physical or psychological harm. And psychological harm include a child being turned against a party, which is obviously what parental alienation essentially is. So the law can help, but it really is, as I say, coming down to identifying what’s happening. Is there merit in the parties trying to resolve it themselves with some assistance from either a counselor or psychologist or an FDRP and if not, then having the law help by making an application to the court. There’s always, as I say, the merit in having people resolve it themselves, because the longer that that behavior happens, the worse it generally gets. And unfortunately the court system, it isn’t a quick fix. So filing an application with the court has to be done on an urgent basis, if that’s going to happen, to try and ensure that that behavior is stopped as soon as possible.

JW: Thanks, Kath. And Bron, in respect to filing that application, explain to people what that process looks like, what that process entails.

BO: Yeah, sure, Jack. Well, actually with the merger of the courts now to the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia, there’s even more of a focus now… I mean, there always has been in parenting proceedings, but even more so now in ensuring that pre action procedures are followed. So as Kath was just saying, it’s really important to cover off certain aspects, such as trying to attempt to mediate or otherwise, trying to look at some kind of FDR process. But where parental alienation is very difficult, Jack, and I’m sure Kath would agree with me here, is actually really uncovering those facts and ensuring parental alienation is in fact what is occurring. And what I mean there, Jack, is that often, well, not often, but sometimes there can be the case where someone will raise an allegation of parental alienation, or it seems to be the case when in fact it may not be as well. So as lawyers, we have to be live to that. And as Kath was saying, we’ve got to clearly get all the facts upfront.

So look an answer to your question and just circling back to that, firstly, I would always be looking to try and get the family involved in some kind of family therapy with someone like Lynne, but otherwise, if there has to be proceedings and again, as Kath said, you need to act urgently in that regard and ensure that you have all of your facts set out in an affidavit to be able to move as quickly as possible to an interim hearing process.

Now, again, with the new court system, there’s a new, we are required to have a Child Impact Report Prepared before an interim hearing. So again, moving as quickly as possible is essential. But unfortunately from my experience, it’s often the case that the court itself can delay in any event that matters. So it’s you can find yourself in a situation where it’s almost a fatal error for your case often to commence proceedings and then just get stuck and there’s nothing happening. And as you said before, it puts people off to be reading things in affidavits. So all of those things have to be taken into account strategically when you’re looking at what to do moving forward with a case that may have parental alienation involved.

JW: Of course, the truth is really simple, tends to be complicated and is often contested. Kath and Bron. I’ll go to you first, Kath, they’re big decisions, aren’t they, for legal practitioners to make? The giving of advice which may necessarily create an escalation which may be entirely necessary. But of course there can also be a transaction cost associated with giving that very necessary advice. How difficult, Kath, do you find it to make sorts of decisions given what’s at stake for people?

KM: It’s exceptionally hard. I think as a lawyer, there’s a lot of pressure on our shoulders to get it right. And what Bron was saying earlier in terms of actually trying to determine whether parental alienation is happening, is quite difficult. As I said, I deal a lot in domestic violence cases and quite often the respondent or the perpetrator of the violence suggests that the person who’s actually been subjected to the violence is alienating the children from them, when in fact it’s a protective factor. So you’ve really got to be across what’s happening in each individual situation. And as a lawyer, you’ve got to really be attuned to reality testing the information that the clients are giving you, because the last thing you want to do is throw something into court that isn’t potentially accurate, which is more harmful for your client’s case.

As a lawyer, I think, we have a duty as well to make sure that the best interest of children are protected. So you certainly don’t want to be putting something into court where you’re potentially putting children more at risk as well. So I think there is a lot of pressure on lawyers’ shoulders in terms of these sorts of applications. And there are the costs and the emotional implications for the clients as well. And I think clients have to be aware that it’s not a quick and easy fix. It takes a long time and it is extremely draining on all parties, including the children in the proceeding. So you’ve really got to set people up and really make them understand that this is a hard process that they’re about to go into.

JW: They’re big decisions, Bron, aren’t they?

BO: They are. And look, as Kath just, I was thinking about what she was saying just then and reminded of some research that was conducted by the School of Justice at Queensland University of Technology in August, 2019, that looked into family law cases that showed parental alienation continues to be raised by dads as a defence to child sexual abuse allegations. Now like, just stop for a minute and think about that. If that’s correct, that some parents are being falsely accused of parental alienation, when in fact they’re trying to protect their kids from abuse, that can have disastrous consequences in court. So Kath, what you’re saying, I completely agree with. It’s a heavy weight on our shoulders.

And I think the other thing that we always have to take into account, and this adds to the complexity is the age of the kids as well. Because if you’ve got a child who is 15, 16 years of age, given the delays in the court system, and we’re all hoping that that will change now, but even if there was a 12-month process to get through, that child, there’s a question about whether if there are orders obtained is, how does that actually then play out in the real world? How can you actually enforce that for a 15, 16, 17-year-old who ultimately will vote with their feet?

JW: Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about that, Bron. And let’s come at it from this perspective. So firstly to you, and then to you, Kath. So can parenting orders actually mandate the sorts of behaviors that the court believes is appropriate? And further to your point, who enforces these orders and how are they enforced? Bron?

BO: Well, basically the orders, once an order is made, it’s, parties are supposed to follow those orders. If a party doesn’t follow those orders, then there are compliance and enforcement processes that the court has. For example, you can put on an application for contravention if those orders are being contravened by a party. But again, my concern from my perspective and in my practice, and I’ve seen this happen, is that if you’ve got an older child who’s not wanting to follow those orders themselves, whether it’s because there has been parental alienation or perhaps there hasn’t been, will the court actually make that order? Kath, I don’t know what your experience is with that. And if you actually run any contravention applications in relation to this kind of a matter, but from my experience, it’s very difficult to actually have those orders enforced.

Yeah. I would agree with that. I think it’s really difficult for cases where there is parental alienation and you’re acting for the parent who’s been alienated and the child is 13, 14 or plus. You’ve really got to have an honest conversation with them about if that child has been alienated to the point that they just don’t want to spend time with your client, with that parent, then is it more harmful to try and push that? Sometimes I get clients saying, “Well, it’s not fair.” And it’s not fair, but that’s not what the family law system is designed to do. The family law system is designed to figure out what’s in the children’s best interest. It’s not a jurisdiction that’s designed to punish another parent.

KM: And so even if we’ve got a child who is absolutely alienated and one parent has done the wrong thing, if the court determines that it’s not in the child’s best interest to be forced to spend time with that parent because of further psychological harm, unfortunately, the court’s not going to make that order. So I agree absolutely with you in terms of, yes, you can have the order, but if it’s going to be harmful to the child to have it enforced, the court’s not likely to do it.

And I think then that brings us back around doesn’t it to people like Lynne who can help upfront. And Lynne, you were saying that at the beginning of this, of our chat, that the idea is to come in and to move early on and to engage in family therapy early on. And that’s been my experience of being able to try and assist parties in this situation where it’s essentially one of the first steps. I get all the facts and then really look at how I can engage the family and bring them back into a family therapy process. It just… It reminds me of a matter that I had last year, where I was acting for the mom, and it’s not usually the case, but the father, we were saying that the father was alienating the child who was 14 years of age.

We went through an interim hearing. We had an expert report prepared. It was all very difficult. And the matter was going along, I guess if you could say, in our favour, but unfortunately, the child was suffering from being aware of what was happening in the court process and there was self-harm. And there were a lot of issues with her directly related to the court process itself, which really is an eye-opener as a practitioner. Eventually what happened in that matter was that the mother, my client, decided to let it be, and she just, stepped away from it because she didn’t want to see her daughter suffering the way she was being taken through the court process.

And I think then that kind of, that speaks to the fact that when we commence these kinds of proceedings, it’s fairly likely that an independent children’s lawyer is going to be appointed, that the child or the children are going to be, they’re going to need to be interviewed by an expert for a family report to be written. And there’s probably some other therapy that’s going on as well. So there’s a lot going on for those children or that child. And I think we have to take that into consideration and really lean on our experts such as Lynne before we take that step. That’s my experience.

JW: Yeah. And further to that, Bron, and now to you, Lynne, what can be the impacts on a child of an escalated, say, longer term, elongated court process, Lynne?

LD: Well, I think it’s really important. That conversation just highlights how excoriating the whole court process can be with children being exposed to experts who have to examine what it is like for them with each parent, that whole process of reports being written, an opinion being made by an expert outside the family. Often as family therapists, we are hamstrung by that process. We can’t be therapeutically involved when there’s all this adversarial stuff going on between parents, because we are at risk of being dragged in by one side or the other. And it means that we really are unable to be independent and neutral and supportive of the family as a whole or of the individual child. So I think that conflict is internalized for that child. They can feel gutted by the experience of what it means to them to be torn between two parents. It’s literally like tearing them apart, internally and emotionally.

They need support. They need support of a really good therapist and the parents need to respect that as a separate space for that child to be supported. If parents then start to try and use that space to get at the other parent and involve the therapist in the proceedings, it really all goes awry and we lose the opportunity to support that child and/or that parent. So it’s complex, but it is potentially very destructive for that child, as they emerge to their own adult space and their own relationship world, to have had that damaging experience of parents battling and fighting and the mistrust and the hurt and the pain that’s caused. It is profound. And as a therapist of adults, many, many, many times I’m working through the pain that people still carry into their adult life of the struggles they had in their family around conflict. Obviously, where there’s violence or abuse or neglect of a child, we have to be very, very cautious about how we proceed in order to help people heal through that process once it’s all been resolved.

JW: You mentioned losing the opportunity, Lynne, at a point at which there is an escalation which has been proceeding for some time. How hard is it to…? Well, can that opportunity be recaptured or will it be lost forever?

LD: Well, I’m an optimist and I’m someone who’s worked for a long, long time with lots of families and lots of individuals. I would err on the side of, “No, it’s never lost. It’s just harder to retrieve.” And it’s just a question of how much damage is done in the meantime and how much work then really has to be done to create that space of internal comfort and emotional responses that are less heightened and less triggering as you work that through therapeutically with the person. So, no, the opportunity’s never lost. It can be damaged and it can be lost in the short term, but not in the long term.

JW: Thanks very much, Lynne. Friends, we’re going to finish in a slightly more, well, sharing any information is of course, positive, in a slightly more positive frame, putting aside issues of triage and so forth and in fact-finding and establishing truth and all of the complexities associated with that. For those who have been listening, to the many thousands of people who listen to these podcasts, what is some practical advice to assist people to separate well? So if it’s possible to separate well, Lynne, from your perspective, how can people do that? And then I’ll ask the same question to you, Bron and to you, Kath. Lynne?

LD: So I think people can separate well, and I think there’s lots and lots of families who do this well, and we don’t see those families usually because it’s not a high conflict situation. But if they come to a therapist’s attention, we can help people to really think about their children and to help them to separate out their pain, their loss, their frustration from the actions they take towards their children and towards their partner. And if we do that successfully, I think we can support people to think differently and to take different choices. And I think it is possible to do that.

Kath?

That’s a really difficult question, Jack. And I don’t know that I’ve ever really thought about it before, because as Lynne said, we only ever really see the bad stuff, but I absolutely know that there is a better way to separate. There are many hundreds of thousands of people that do it without the assistance of a lawyer. And I think it does, It comes down to respect for your former partner and focus on the kids. That has to be the priority. And I think the people that are able to maintain a level of respect and put aside any hurt and focus on the children are the people that we don’t see, the people that don’t need the lawyers and the people that don’t need the assistance of Lynne and her types of colleagues. I think there is absolutely a way to do it, and if I could wave a magic wand and have everybody do it that way, it would be a better place.

Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t that be nice if a family could issue some magic wand.

Yes.

And finally, Bron, to you.

Yep. Look, Jack, I love an amicable matter. We actually see quite a few of our clients coming into us who have reached agreement, which is lovely. And we are there just to support them to finalize orders. So I actually see a lot of that through my practice. And what I also see and what we’re all about is, if somebody comes to us and the wheels have fallen off and they are heading down that court path, there’s always an opportunity to reign it all back in and just say to everyone, “Hang on a minute, just stop and breathe. And let’s have a look at what the issues really are.” Because it’s okay to perhaps, for separating couples, to fall off the rails, but then to say, “It’s okay, we’re going to come back on again. We’re back on track.” And I think that’s a responsibility of family lawyers that we need to try very hard to bring people back on track.

Now I’m not saying that in situations where there’s family and domestic violence. Of course that’s a completely different situation, but where though those concerns aren’t in place, I think that we have that responsibility to try and bring people back to the ability to be able to be amicable. And I think, also then thinking about parental alienation and if clients come to us with thoughts of that in their minds, and if you think that you are the alienated parent, I think it’s really important just to remember that there’s stuff you can do to try and turn things around yourself as well. Like keeping in contact with your kids, keeping your promises, telling your kids that you love them, don’t change who you are. Those kinds of things may be able to assist early on in one of these situations as well. So as Lynne said, be positive, try to be as positive as you can with the process, because it’s about, at the end of the day, it’s about the kids. It’s not about you. It’s about getting them through.

Bron O’Loan from O’Loan Family Law, Kath Manby from VM Family Law, and Lynne Datnow, psychologist and family therapist, thank you so much for providing such useful, practical and hugely beneficial advice to our podcast listeners. And strength to your arm as you are navigating the complexity of family law and of family therapy. Friends, thank you very much.

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