How to Recognise the 17 Signs of Parental Alienation
Parental Alienation is a term used to describe the situation where one parent’s vitriol of the other parent during the parties’ separation influences the mind of the child or children of the relationship. The parent that denigrates the other parent to the child is known as the alienating parent and the parent being alienated is known as the targeted parent.
Parental alienation is a phenomenon in academic literature, whereby it is not the conduct or abuse of a parent that results in estrangement, but from the unjust conduct of the other parent. For example, a couple goes through a divorce or separates, and the father describes to the children in detail how the mother cheated on him and stole all his money, and that is why they separated. In this scenario the father is bringing the children into the parties’ conflict, and is using his negative feelings of the mother against her by influencing the children’s perceptions of her. In severe situations, parental alienation can result in the child fully rejecting the targeted parent.
Situations that are not instances of parental alienation are where the parent who is alienated from the child exhibits neglect or abuse that directly contributes to the child rejecting them. Parental alienation is where one parent uses manipulation, criticism or other negative behaviours to influence the perceptions of the child to turn them against the targeted parent.
While it is beyond the scope of this article to go into detail about the definition, impact and solutions to addressing parental alienation, the article titled ‘Everything you need to know about Parental Alienation Syndrome’ by the writer details a refined response. This article may be read in conjunction with ‘Taking Parental Alienation to Court’ by Sara Arnold, which adeptly outlines how the Australian Court system deals with and responds to parental alienation.
It should also be noted that parental alienation as a concept, while recognised in academic literature, is not explicitly referred to in the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth). This reflects how the term is highly contested and that there are significant risks of its recognition, being the use of parental alienation as a weapon to disregard claims of abuse made by the child against a parent.
This article will outline seventeen (17) signs of parental alienation, to give the reader the practical tools to both identify and recognise parental alienation.
The Seventeen (17) Symptoms of Parental Alienation
Signs by the Child
- Expressing disapproval towards the targeted parent
- Justifying their own hostile actions
- Hostility toward the targeted parent’s relatives
- Adopting the opinions of the alienating parent as their own
- Impervious to feelings of guilt
- Thinking that their own rejection of the targeted parent is their own decision
- Idealised perspective of the alienating parent
Signs by the Alienating Parent
- Badmouthing the targeted parent
- Withholding medical, academic, and other important information
- Referring to the targeted parent by first name instead of “mum” or “dad”
- Confiding in the child
- Telling the child that the targeted parent does not love him or her
- Forcing the child to choose
- Telling the child that the targeted parent is dangerous
- Withdrawal of love
- Interfering with communication
- Limiting contact
Let’s look at these in more detail below.
The Child’s Behaviour
(1) Expressing disapproval towards the targeted parent:
The child makes criticisms of the targeted parent that reflect statements made to them by the alienating parent, in an attempt to become the favoured parent. Children who are severely alienated from the targeted parent deny all positive past experiences and focus on making statements to the parent that demeans and denigrates them.
(2) Justifying their own hostile actions:
The child has weak or absurd rationalisations for why they are hostile to the targeted parent. These rationalisations are not of significant enough magnitude to warrant rejection of the targeted parent, including a focus on hatred of trivial acts. For example, the child may blame their negative feelings on the way the parent prepares their food. The reason provided by the child ultimately does not explain their level of hostility.
(3) Hostility toward the targeted parent’s relatives:
The child’s behaviour toward the targeted parent extends to the targeted parent’s family. Formerly beloved family members, like a step-parent, aunts, grandparents and cousins are also rejected by the child.
(4) Adopting the opinions of the alienating parent as their own:
The child talks like and makes accusations using language reflecting that of the alienating parent. The words used by the child in this instance are words ‘too old’ for them, including words they likely do not understand.
(5) Impervious to feelings of guilt:
The child is rude and ungrateful towards the targeted parent, and they exhibit language demanding things from the parent and appear impervious to feelings of guilt about their actions.
(6) Thinking that their own rejection of the targeted parent is their own decision:
The child believes and explains that their rejection of the targeted parent is from their own independent thoughts and experiences, and that it has nothing to do with the alienating parent’s conduct.
(7) Idealised perspective of the alienating parent:
The child sees the alienating parent as wholly good or perfect and the targeted parent as wholly bad or imperfect. Their perception of the alienating parent is automatic and idealised.
The Alienating Parent’s Behaviour
(8) Badmouthing the targeted parent:
The alienating parent consistently speaks to the child about their hatred or disdain of the targeted parent, and tells the child that the parent is a bad person or parent.
(9) Withholding medical, academic, and other important information:
The alienating parent refuses to confide in or consult the targeted parent regarding important information and decisions to do with the child. It can also involve asking the child to keep secrets from the targeted parent.
(10) Referring to the targeted parent by their first name instead of “Mum” or “Dad”:
The alienating parent stops referring to the targeted parent as mum or dad, and by using more formal language, further alienates the child from feeling a close personal bond with the targeted parent.
(11) Confiding in the child:
The alienating parent tells the child of what is occurring in the separation, including that of any legal proceedings.
(12) Telling the child that the targeted parent does not love him or her:
The alienating parent consistently reminds the child that the targeted parent does not care for or love them anymore.
(13) Forcing the child to choose:
The alienating parent will force the child to choose between the two parents, and will often offer more ‘attractive’ activities in time that is meant to be for the targeted parent to sway the child away from them.
(14) Telling the child that the targeted parent is dangerous:
The alienating parent will tell the child that the targeted parent is not safe to be around, and that they cannot protect the child from harm.
(15) Withdrawal of love:
The alienating parent will withhold their love and affection for the child unless the child outwardly rejects the targeted parent.
(16) Interfering with communication:
The alienating parent will interrupt calls or videocalls between the child and targeted parent (for example take the phone and hang up early), or cease facilitating the communications entirely.
(17) Limiting contact:
The alienating parent will make excuses and reduce the time the targeted parent spends with the child.
Each of these signs involve the alienating parent influencing the child to perceive reality and the targeted parent in a negative light, regardless of whether the targeted parent exhibits any problematic behaviours. This can be extremely distressing for the targeted parent, whose relationship with their child changes dramatically after separation. Thus it is important to know what steps you can take to address the signs above.
What to do if you are experiencing parental alienation
While there is no failsafe answer in trying to respond to and mitigate the impact of parental alienation, a targeted parent can take steps to maintain their relationship with the child by continuing to listen to the child, allowing the child to speak their mind, and consistently making time to play with and engage with the child. Therapy can also help, seeing mental health professionals like a psychologist can help you to manage the situation and ultimately take care of yourself. In circumstances where taking these steps fails to prevent parental alienation from occurring, legal steps should be taken by the targeted parent to address their concerns more firmly.
While the law in Australia recognises that it can be in the best interests of the child to maintain a relationship with both parents, and in fact currently presumes this, it does not infallibly always make orders for this. Ultimately, in circumstances where the child is being hurt by the conduct of one or both of their parents, it may be decided that it is not in their best interests to maintain a relationship with both parents.
Seeking legal advice
If you are experiencing parental alienation and your former partner or spouse is withholding your child for no justifiable reason, it is important get legal advice on the next steps to take. Mediation and family dispute resolution is also another tool that can be utilised to assist parties with learning about and managing parental alienation.
Doolan Wagner Family Lawyers offer specialist family law advice and are based in St Leonards on Sydney’s North Shore. If you have recently separated or have a Family Law enquiry, please contact us on (02) 9437 0010 or send us an email at email@example.com to discuss your matter in complete confidence. We have a dedicated team of experienced family lawyers to handle your matter effectively and efficiently, providing you with reliable, direct and practical advice.
About the Authors:
Lisa Wagner is Managing Director and Principal of Doolan Wagner Family Lawyers. Lisa is an Accredited Family Law specialist holding honours degrees in economics and law. She is also a Collaboratively trained Family Lawyer, a Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner, and a Parenting Coordinator. Lisa has over 30 years’ experience as a specialist family lawyer, experienced litigator and skilful negotiator in all family law matters; working for the majority of that time in Sydney’s CBD as well as on Sydney’s lower North Shore and Northern Beaches.
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Emilia Turnbull is a family lawyer at Doolan Wagner Family Lawyers. Emilia holds a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Security Studies from Macquarie University and a Master of Laws specialising in International Human Rights Law from the University of NSW.
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These posts are only intended as an overview or comment on current issues that may interest you and are not legal advice. If there are any matters that you would like us to advise you on, then please contact us.