Co-authored by Lisa Wagner and Emilia Turnbull, Doolan Wagner Family Lawyers
Parental alienation is the term used to describe a situation often experienced by separating partners. It is where one parent’s negative influence and derogation of the other parent to the child modify the child’s views, leading to that child’s rejection of the other parent. The likelihood of this occurring is exacerbated in high conflict separations. While there is no definitive solution for preventing or addressing parental alienation, there are steps that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of it occurring and/or counteracting its effects.
As a parent, it can be a very stressful and traumatic experience to feel as if your child is rejecting you for no fault of your own. These eight (8) steps are helpful in maintaining a strong, loving and healthy relationship with your child or children, and help to build a pathway in counteracting the impact of parental alienation:
- In circumstances where the separation is new and new care patterns are being formed, try to maintain open communication with the other parent and work as a team.
While this may seem an obvious first step to some, parental alienation occurs because one parent’s feelings for the other parent are vocalised to the child. In circumstances where the relationship is still, even somewhat, communicative and productive, it is important to try and maintain an amicable co-parenting relationship to ensure the other parent feels less inclined to start badmouthing.
- Do not stoop to the other parent’s level. Do not get defensive and/or blame the other parent or child for their words and actions.
While ‘biting back’ can be a normal emotional response to this situation, it sends a message to the child that the behaviour is normal and okay. It prevents you from focusing on the positive aspects of your relationship with the child instead and harms the child where they are privy to parts of your adult relationship that they cannot understand.
- Reiterate positive affirmations of love to the child.
If the child feels love and a sense of connection with their parent, they are less likely to be persuaded to have a negative view. Vocalising positive messages to the child of how much you love them, praising them for their unique qualities and supporting them in their endeavours (instead of replicating the other parent’s behaviour and telling them how much the other parent is an awful person), allows the child to associate time with you as a positive experience where they will be supported.
- Maintain contact with the child to build the relationship. Do not make promises you cannot keep and continue to reach out even when things are difficult.
It can be easy in this situation to try and placate the other parent by slowly over time reducing your attempts at reaching out to the child. It is easy to slowly withdraw. It is imperative that regular and meaningful contact with the child is maintained. While it is not necessary to be a ‘super parent’ or to buy their love with expensive experiences, planning time that you know the child will find enjoyable and investing in their interests during your contact and play with him will keep them engaged and wanting to see you again. Letting the child guide the play and always showing up when you promise to build trust that is harder to break.
- Listen to your child and provide them with a safe space to express themselves.
This may be one of the most difficult steps on this list. A child impacted by parental alienation will likely derogate you and use words that would not ordinarily be in a child’s vocabulary. Sitting and listening to the child express these things will not feel fair or just. However, if the child learns that they can speak to you about anything and that you will not react in anger or with blame, this will teach them that they are in a safe environment. Over time, this strategy allows the child to more easily form their own views when in your presence because they know that their feelings will be validated.
- Be patient and reasonable.
The psychological impact of parental alienation, and the severity of its influence, varies from case to case. Remaining patient and grounded, and trying to view things from a reasonable perspective, makes it harder for the other parent to point out flaws in your current behaviour.
- Be aware of the signs and keep a diary of troubling behaviour.
There are a number of signs of parental alienation, and our recent article “How to Recognise the 17 Signs of Parental Alienation” goes into detail about how to ascertain whether parental alienation is occurring. Making sure to record both the child’s behaviour and statements will allow you to build a pattern of the other parent’s conduct, and will help you keep track of whether the severity of the alienation is worsening. This is also a helpful tool in circumstances where you can no longer deal with the situation by yourself, and you may think to engage a lawyer who will find your records very helpful in building your case.
- Have the child receive some form of therapy.
Parental alienation has detrimental effects on children, and if you are worried that this situation is occurring, having an unbiased third party as an external source of support for the child can only make their mental health and ability to adjust better.
In conclusion, Parental Alienation is a tricky and difficult situation to deal with. Ultimately, maintaining a positive and productive co-parenting relationship with the other parent is key to preventing parental alienation from occurring. In circumstances where this cannot be maintained, and the other parent cannot be reasoned with, the steps above will help guide you in countering parental alienation’s effects.
If you are considering a separation or divorce or have a Family Law enquiry, please contact us at 9437 0010 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss your matter with no obligation, in complete confidence.
At Doolan Wagner Family Lawyers we specialise in complex family law matters and are conveniently located in St Leonards, on Sydney’s North Shore. We have a team of accredited and experienced family lawyers available to help guide you through the emotional and financial challenges of separation and divorce.
About the author:
Lisa Wagner is the founding principal of Doolan Wagner Family Lawyers and has over 30 years’ experience as a specialist family lawyer.
Lisa is committed to helping separate couples and families, achieve the best possible outcomes in an amicable manner, outside the traditional adversarial court system. Lisa offers expertise, experience and empathy, enabling separating couples to move forward and live the next stage of their lives with confidence.
Lisa is an Accredited Family Law Specialist, a nationally registered Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner and is trained in Collaborative Family Law Practice, Mediation and Parenting Coordination.
Lisa has extensive experience across all areas of family law including mediation, negotiation, parenting coordination and collaborative law. Additionally, she has a reputation for being a skilled litigator when required and acts as a court-appointed Independent Children’s Lawyer for children in difficult and complex parenting cases; as well as being identified as a recommended family lawyer in Doyles Guide.