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The impacts of parental alienation and how to avoid it

When a relationship falters, communication and respect can break down. If the separating couple has children, this can result in parental alienation, where one parent tries to prevent a child from having a reasonable relationship with the other parent.

While some people are caught up in their own pain and unaware that they are alienating their former partner, it is often intentional behaviour to punish the other parent and diminish them in the eyes of the child.

Some behaviours of parental alienation include:

  • speaking ill of the other parent
  • saying they behave in an unacceptable way
  • blocking opportunities for contact with the child
  • saying they do not have the child’s best interests at heart
  • pushing them out of their parenting role.

It is important to note that restricting a parent’s access to their child is not alienation when there is a legitimate concern that the child is in danger. Parental alienation occurs when both parents are able to provide a safe and nurturing environment.

How parental alienation impacts children

Children experiencing parental alienation can feel very vulnerable and conflicted.

Lynne Datnow, Psychologist and Clinical Family Therapist at Stonnington Family Counselling, explains it can be very stressful and confusing for children. In her practice, she often sees symptoms of anxiety and depression, and a child can become ‘avoidant of activities that they previously enjoyed, or we can also see them pulling away from one or other parent or both parents and feeling quite lost and alone.’

How parental alienation impacts the other parent

Lynne says the effect on the other parent can be profound. ‘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.’

Parental alienation in Court

Accredited Specialist in Family Law, Kath Manby, from VM Family Law explains that the Court system isn’t a quick fix. Determining whether parental alienation is happening can be difficult and Court proceedings often become delayed and drawn out. This exposes all parties to further pain and de-rails conciliatory approaches.
Putting children through the Court system can be damaging to their mental health and further hurt their relationship with one or both parents. Kath acknowledges there are some cases where Court proceedings are unavoidable. But she says, ‘we have a duty as well to make sure that the best interests 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.’

How to avoid parental alienation

While it is common to feel anger and hurt towards a former partner, it is important that parents change their mindset away from their own hurt and consider the best outcome for their children. One way to achieve this is to practice radical acceptance. You can read about it here.

Family Lawyer Bron O’Loan from O’Loan Family Law recommends working with the whole family in mediation and counselling as early as possible before the issue becomes advanced. Even if the situation seems unsolvable, Bron says that as long as both parties are equally capable of being supportive parents, it isn’t necessarily too late.

‘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, 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.’

If you’d like to hear more about parental alienation, listen to the full podcast here.

The Separation Guide aims to make separation and divorce simpler, more manageable and less stressful. To find out more about how one of our Network Members could support your separation, take our free 3-minute Q&A.

The information in our resources is general only. Consider getting in touch with a professional adviser if you need support with your legal, financial or wellbeing needs.