The awfully high price of parental alienation


How much are your children worth to you? Not in terms of financial value, obviously, but in spending time in their company, being blessed by their unconditional love and having their respect?

Doubtless there are times when you’d quite happily see the back of them for a few hours. But what if your children suddenly decided to have nothing more to do with you at all? If instead of love, respect and time, what you got from them instead was hatred, contempt and the withdrawal of their company?

What price would you be prepared to pay to start again?

A court in Norwich recently ruled that an 8-year-old boy who had been living with his mother following his parents’ divorce should instead go to live with his father. To remain with his mother, the judge decided, would be to place him at risk of significant emotional harm.

The reason? The mother’s hatred of the boy’s father was being used to turn the child against him.

This is something known as parental alienation.

Parental alienation happens when a child is coerced or pressurised into aligning themselves with one parent. Often, it’s done out of spite or malice, a deliberate sabotaging of the relationship the child has with the other parent. But it can be a more subtle, but repetitive process of reinforcing negative associations.

And it’s not exactly rare, either. We probably all know a couple who’ve been through an acrimonious divorce that triggered extreme emotions on one side or the other.

Those feelings of dislike or hatred grow over a period of time during the marriage, fuelled by perceived bad behaviour or treatment by one spouse to another, and can erupt into public disavowal or contempt once the marriage ends.

Understandably, if you feel terribly aggrieved by your experience of someone you once trusted implicitly but now feel betrayed by, it’s often difficult to keep those feelings of betrayal from spilling over into the relationship you have with your children.

Yet, in most cases parents do a pretty good job of papering over the emotional chasm in their post-divorce relationship for the sake of children who are already the innocent victims of their parent’s disintegrating marriage.

When one person finds it impossible to wear that mask in front of a child, and feels compelled to share feelings and opinions that will – whether by design or not – fundamentally compromise the child’s relationship with the other parent, the inevitable result is that the child’s relationship with the other parent is eroded.

The Norwich case only came to the public’s attention when the mother unsuccessfully appealed at the family division of the high court against the original ruling, which had decided the boy stood a better chance of having a positive relationship with both parents if he was no longer in the permanent care of his mother.

The destructive impact on the spouse whose character is being questioned is obvious. The act of alienation, if done deliberately, is designed to lower the standing of that parent in the eyes of their child or children. It’s not difficult to imagine how that will play out in the short term, if not over a much longer period. But the ruling also hints at another consideration when it comes to parental alienation following a divorce – the impact it can have on the long-term relationship between the child and the parent who is responsible for the alienation.

If the child later discovers that much of what he or she has been told is inaccurate, or untrue or a contortion of reality, the chances are that the relationship with the manipulative parent will also be wholly changed for the worse.

It’s important when divorcing to try to be objective and sift out personal feelings in order to make decisions that have the best interests of the children in the marriage at heart. That’s not always going to be easy, obviously.

But if, in seeking to dismantle your child’s relationship with your ex-spouse, you suffer the unintended consequence of destroying your own relationship with that child, you’ll be paying a price that is much higher than you might possibly imagine.

At Carlsons we are advocates of alternative dispute resolution and we will always try to help you to resolve issues around child living arrangements that work for all concerned.

Dayana Nikolova