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Friday, June 14, 2024

Parental Alienation – Complete 2023 Guide In Family Law

In today’s world, where divorce and separation have become increasingly common, families often navigate complex legal systems to address child custody and visitation matters. One unfortunate phenomenon that has emerged during these difficult times is parental alienation. This deeply distressing issue can have far-reaching consequences for the parents involved and, most importantly, for the children caught in the middle.

Parental alienation is when one parent manipulates a child’s perception of the other parent, often leading to the child rejecting or showing hostility towards the targeted parent. This toxic dynamic can devastate the child’s emotional well-being and the parent-child relationship, resulting in long-lasting negative impacts on the family unit.

Recognizing the critical need to address this pressing concern, family law has evolved to provide mechanisms and solutions for dealing with parental alienation. As we enter 2023, it becomes increasingly important to understand the intricacies of this issue and the legal measures in place to protect children and restore healthy relationships within families.

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation is when one parent deliberately attempts to undermine the relationship between their child and the other parent. This behavior can trigger a competitive dynamic and conflicts between the parents as they vie for the child’s affection.

Parental alienation arises when one parent engages in harmful actions such as derogatory remarks, manipulating the child, or false accusations of abuse. These actions are aimed at influencing the child and can result in the child developing intense dislike or refusal to spend time with the targeted parent.

When parental alienation occurs, it often leads to the deterioration of the child’s relationship with the targeted parent. This breakdown can give rise to various issues, including hostility between the alienated parent and the child. In some cases, the child may even outrightly refuse to see or have contact with the targeted parent, inadvertently causing psychological harm to themselves.

It is important to note that either parent, irrespective of their gender, can engage in parental alienation. No conclusive evidence suggests that one gender is more responsible for this behavior. Typically, the parent with primary custody of the child or who spends more time with them may have a greater opportunity to exert influence, potentially becoming the alienating party.

Parental alienation has the potential to sever the previously strong bond between a parent and their children, even if they had a positive relationship in the past. It manifests as an unwarranted and relentless campaign of denigration, where one parent consistently comments negatively about the other parent in the child’s presence. This campaign may be fueled by a false belief that the targeted parent is unfit or unworthy of the child’s love and respect.

Examples of parental alienation

Example 1

After their separation, Betty and Christopher, who share two children named Natalie and Timothy, find themselves at odds.

Betty, driven by animosity towards Christopher, begins a campaign to denigrate him. As part of this campaign, she tells Natalie and Timothy that their father has found a new girlfriend and no longer wishes to spend time with them. Betty further states that Christopher prioritizes his new girlfriend and her children over his own.

Natalie and Timothy start to internalize the belief that their father is indifferent toward them. If they continue to spend time with him, their relationship becomes strained and tense. Eventually, they reach a point where they refuse to see their father.

It is crucial to recognize that even if the allegations made by Betty are unfounded, her consistent disparagement constitutes a form of parental alienation. By constantly speaking ill of Christopher, she manipulates the children’s perception and undermines their relationship with their father.

Example 2

Following a contentious divorce, Tanya and Peter find themselves in a strained situation. The couple has three children together.

Tanya alleges that Peter engaged in infidelity, citing it as the reason for their separation. Despite lacking evidence supporting this claim, the children adamantly refuse to spend time with their father. This resistance persists, even when a court order mandates equal parenting time for both parents.

What is parental alienation syndrome (PAS)?

The concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) was initially introduced by American psychologist Richard Gardner in 1985. It has since been recognized as a mental health condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

While a child cannot receive a direct diagnosis of PAS, its existence can have profound and detrimental effects on their mental health.

Parental alienation is a form of child abuse

International researchers have concluded that parental alienation constitutes a form of child abuse or family violence. When one parent interferes with the relationship between a child and the other parent, the consequences can be devastating, often resulting in the child becoming estranged from the alienated parent.

This estrangement contradicts the principles outlined in the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth), which emphasizes a child’s right to a meaningful relationship with both parents.

The impact of parental alienation is more significant than initially believed. A study conducted in the United States found that 13.4% of American parents reported being the targeted parent in a parental alienation case at some point in their lives.

Despite growing awareness, there is still a lack of understanding and even denial surrounding parental alienation. Researchers have discovered that intervention can improve outcomes in cases of parental alienation.

Differentiating parental alienation from instances where children become estranged from a parent for valid reasons, such as cases involving family violence, can be challenging. One way to distinguish between the two is by assessing whether the child’s rejection is justified. If the child has experienced physical abuse or witnessed family violence, their rejection may be justified.

Children may also exhibit loyalty or attachment to an abusive parent due to the programming and emotional manipulation they have endured.

As knowledge on the subject expands, parental alienation is increasingly recognized as an emotional abuse that can inflict serious psychological harm on the child.

Parental alienation typically occurs when one parent assumes sole responsibility following a divorce or separation. It is more prevalent in contentious legal proceedings where one parent is determined to secure child custody at any cost. Undermining the other parent is often seen as a means to strengthen their case, but in reality, it is detrimental to the children involved. Additionally, the alienated parent suffers as they cannot maintain a meaningful parent-child relationship.

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What are the effects of parental alienation on children?

The consequences of parental alienation can have enduring impacts on children. They may encounter psychosocial disturbances, including challenges in social-emotional development, difficulties in trust formation, and social anxiety.

Research indicates that individuals who have experienced parental alienation are more prone to rushing into relationships and have an increased likelihood of divorce later in life. They may also have a higher chance of having children outside of committed relationships. Furthermore, there is an elevated risk of becoming estranged from any children they do have.

Another effect of parental alienation is the impairment of a child’s self-sufficiency, autonomy, and decision-making abilities. They may develop excessive reliance on the parent engaging in alienating behaviors. Consequently, individuals who have experienced parental alienation may struggle with assuming adult responsibilities and living independently in adulthood.

Scientists worldwide continue to investigate the effects of parental alienation, and current understanding categorizes it as a form of emotional abuse.

How to reduce parental alienation rates

Early intervention is crucial in reducing parental alienation rates before the situation escalates. To effectively manage cases of parental alienation, several key strategies can be employed:

  • Harm reduction: Recognizing parental alienation as a form of child abuse, it is essential to adopt measures that prioritize the well-being and protection of the child.
  • Prevention: While courts generally uphold the principle that children have a right to maintain meaningful relationships with both parents, this presumption can be challenged when parental alienation risks the child’s well-being.
  • Treatment: Reunification programs and therapy are recognized as effective methods for addressing parental alienation. These interventions aim to repair and restore the parent-child relationship that has been undermined.
  • Enforcement: In severe cases, court intervention may be necessary. This could involve changing the child’s residence away from the alienating parent, even if they are the primary caregiver, to protect the child’s best interests.

Parental alienation is a grave matter; parents who suspect alienating behavior should seek legal advice. In the most severe instances, involving the relevant child protection authorities, such as the Department of Family and Community Services (FACS), may also be appropriate.

How is parental alienation considered in the family court?

Under the Australian family law system, section 60CC of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) delineates the factors that the court must consider when handling children’s matters in family proceedings, primarily determining the child’s best interests. The law stipulates that the court must give primary considerations to the following:

  1. The child’s right to maintain a meaningful relationship with both parents: The court recognizes the importance of fostering and preserving a significant connection between the child and each parent, promoting their involvement in the child’s life to the fullest extent possible.
  2. Protection of the child from physical or psychological harm: The court prioritizes the safety and well-being of the child, aiming to shield them from any form of physical or emotional harm. This entails assessing potential risks and taking measures to mitigate and prevent harm.

These primary considerations form the foundation for the court’s decision-making process regarding children’s welfare in family proceedings, ensuring that their best interests remain at the forefront of all considerations.

What are the legal implications of parental alienation?

Parental alienation is widely recognized as emotional abuse, directly contradicting the principles outlined in the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth). Consequently, parental alienation is given due consideration in legal proceedings, as illustrated in the following case.

Case of Goldman v Goldman

In the case of Goldman v Goldman [2018] FamCACF 65 (12 April 2018), a separated husband and wife had two children aged 13 and 11. Since the separation, the children have been living with the wife.

A single expert conducted an evaluation and determined that it was unhealthy for the children to continue residing with the mother. The expert recommended that the children live with the father and suggested temporarily suspending their time with the wife for up to 6 months.

Her Honour, Cleary J, presiding over the case, concluded that the wife had been actively engaged in parental alienation, deliberately trying to turn the children against their father. This behavior was causing emotional harm to the children and posed an ongoing and unacceptable risk.

Consequently, the court issued an order granting primary custody to the father and allowing only supervised visitation with the wife. This arrangement was scheduled to commence four weeks after the order.

The father appealed the decision, seeking three months of no contact between the children and the mother. The Full Court of the Family Court dismissed the appeal, considering that such an order would inflict further emotional trauma upon the children.

However, the court did impose a temporary no-contact order to allow the children to re-establish a healthy relationship with their father.

In general, the court does not decide to change the children’s residence unless there are compelling reasons, as in this particular instance.

How to prove parental alienation

The most effective approach to substantiating the occurrence of parental alienation is to provide evidence demonstrating the detrimental impact of negative behavior by the other parent on the child’s well-being.

Parental alienation syndrome is a prominent indicator of parental alienation, aiding in its identification.

Proving parental alienation can be challenging since it requires demonstrating not what you did but rather what you did not do and further establishing that your child has no justifiable reason to harbor negative sentiments towards you.

What are the signs of parental alienation?

There are observable indicators that can help identify potential cases of parental alienation. Here are some signs to watch for:

  1. Restriction of access and communication: You are prevented from seeing or talking to your child, and your ex-partner may claim that the child does not wish to engage with you without actively promoting a positive relationship.
  2. Controlling communication channels: Your ex controls how your child communicates with you, potentially monitoring text messages, phone calls, or other interactions. You may notice changes in your child’s behavior or communication patterns when your ex-partner is present.
  3. Scheduling conflicts: Your ex plans events or activities that overlap with the designated time for you to spend with your child. This may include arranging conflicting engagements, such as sleepovers with your child’s friends, to impede your access intentionally.
  4. Violation of shared parenting arrangements: Your ex disregards the agreed-upon terms of a shared parenting plan and exhibits inflexibility in adhering to the established arrangements.
  5. Withholding information: Your ex withholds essential information about your children, such as medical updates or school reports, gradually diminishing your knowledge and involvement in your child’s life.

Recognizing these signs can help you identify potential parental alienation and prompt you to take appropriate action to address the situation and safeguard your relationship with your child.

What are some signs of parental alienation syndrome?

Here are some indicators that may suggest the occurrence of parental alienation:

  1. Unjustified criticism: Your child begins criticizing you without valid justification or supporting evidence.
  2. Solely negative perception: Your child holds exclusively negative feelings towards you and fails to acknowledge any positive qualities or redeeming attributes you possess.
  3. Manipulative influence: It becomes apparent that your ex-partner has manipulated your child into forming these negative opinions, and your child admits that these conclusions were drawn under such influence.
  4. Absence of guilt: Your child displays a lack of remorse for mistreating or expressing hatred towards you, indicating a possible detachment from empathetic feelings.
  5. Extended family conflicts: Your child’s animosity extends beyond your relationship, leading to hostility towards other family members, such as grandparents, resulting in further disruptions within the family dynamics.

Observing these signs may indicate potential parental alienation, emphasizing the importance of promptly addressing the situation to protect your child’s well-being and maintain healthy family relationships.

Types of parental alienation 

Parental alienation was initially conceptualized by Dr. Richard Gardner in 1985, primarily observed in cases of highly contentious separations or divorces. Dr. Gardner identified various types of parental alienation that can manifest in such circumstances.

Mild parental alienation

Mild parental alienation occurs when a parent provides the child with reasons or influences discouraging them from spending time with the alienated parent. However, it is noteworthy that the child still enjoys spending time with the alienated parent when they are alone.

Moderate parental alienation

Moderate parental alienation arises when a child actively resists spending time with the alienated parent. In such cases, the child resents the alienated parent, even when they are alone together.

Severe parental alienation

Signs indicating severe parental alienation are apparent when a child vehemently refuses any contact with the alienated parent, potentially resorting to running away or hiding to evade spending time with them.

Why do parents do it?

Parental alienation often arises in cases where one or both parents exhibit narcissistic or borderline personality disorder traits.

A narcissistic parent displays self-centeredness and lacks empathy towards others, prioritizing their desires without regard for others’ perspectives. They may engage in spiteful behaviors and seek to undermine the other parent, inadvertently causing harm to the child and the targeted parent. It is important to note that maintaining a relationship with both parents (assuming they are not abusive) is essential for a child’s well-being.

On the other hand, an individual with borderline personality disorder tends to have heightened emotional reactivity, often expressing anger. Their distress may persist longer than that of an average person. Those with borderline personality disorder may adopt a victim mentality and struggle to take responsibility for their actions or failures, feeling justified in reciprocating harm due to perceived wrongdoings against them.

In certain cases, the alienating parent may create a divisive “us versus them” dynamic, where individuals are either aligned with or against them.

In some instances, a parent may exhibit antisocial personality disorder traits, engaging in deceitful behaviors and showing little remorse for their negative actions.

In summary, parental alienation can be attributed to mental health issues experienced by the alienating parent and their desire for revenge against their former partner.


Parental alienation is a distressing issue that can negatively impact a child’s emotional well-being and the parent-child relationship. It occurs when one parent manipulates a child’s perception of another parent, leading to hostility and a deterioration of the child’s relationship with the targeted parent. This can result in long-lasting negative impacts on the family unit. Family law has evolved to provide mechanisms and solutions to address parental alienation, but understanding its intricacies and legal measures is crucial for protecting children and restoring healthy relationships.

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