What is Parental Alienation?
Upon separation, it is disappointingly common for a parent to speak negatively of the other parent to the child, urging the child to “choose sides” in an attempt to become the child’s “favourite parent”.
A parent’s continuous degradation of the other parent can result in psychological manipulation of the child to become resistant and hostile towards the other parent for no justified reason. In turn, the child’s relationship with the other parent may break down, causing the other parent to become alienated from the child.
This is known as parental alienation and is most common where the child is living with one parent and becomes brainwashed to believe that the other parent (the “alienated parent”) is bad, evil, dangerous etc.
This psychological manipulation may be deliberate or inadvertent, where a parent’s negative opinion of the alienated parent unintentionally translates onto the child, distorting the child’s view of the alienated parent.
Whether intentional or not, parental alienation is extremely harmful to the child, causing the child to develop warped views of the alienated parent for no justified reason, and in the long term causing unnecessary and potentially irreversible damage to the parent-child relationship.
As a result, it is unsurprising that in W, KM v K, J, the Court noted: “parental alienation is exceptionally harmful to children and can be seen as a kind of emotional abuse and thus in the best interests of the child, should be rectified immediately”  HKCU 1204 at §18, citing HHJ B. Chu in PFH v CMS (unrep., FCMC 9655/2005, 17 October 2007).
Although the term “parental alienation” was first coined by the child psychologist Richard Gardner in the 1980s, it has gained increasing traction in recent years, being recognised by the Courts and organisations such as the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (“CAFCASS”).
In light of the harmful effect of parental alienation on children and its increasing recognition, particularly in the context of legal proceedings, it is important to understand the signs and implications of parental alienation which will be discussed in this article.
What are the Signs of Parental Alienation?
As parental alienation is not something that is diagnosed, it is vital to look at “alienating behaviours” to determine whether parental alienation may be present (Re C (‘parental alienation’; instruction of expert)  EWHC 345 (fam) at §103).
CAFCASS has defined alienating behaviours as an “ongoing pattern of negative attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of one parent (or carer) that have the potential or expressed intent to undermine or obstruct the child’s relationship with the other parent.”
Some examples of alienating behaviour may include:
- A parent suspending all contact between the alienated parent and child;
- A parent refusing to cooperate with the alienated parent, for instance over schooling decisions (Re H (parental alienation) PA v TT and another EWHC 2723 (Fam));
- A parent speaking of the alienated parent in a degrading manner to the child, for instance by calling them names or attacking their character (Re S (parental alienation: cult) EWCA Civ 568).
As a result of this psychological manipulation, the child may show signs that could indicate alienation. For instance, in Re H (parental alienation) PA v TT and another  EWHC 2723 (Fam), the psychologist Dr. Braier assessed the child, Mother and Father, and found that the Mother was projecting her negative views of the Father onto the child, causing the Father to become alienated from the child. It was evident that the child had been manipulated as they expressed only negative views about the Father, and only positive views about the Mother, whereas a child would usually have some mixed feelings towards both parents. Additionally, the child and Father had enjoyed a loving and healthy relationship before the parents’ separation, so there was no legitimate or material explanation for the child’s rejection of the Father.
Another indicatory sign could be the child’s negative words contrasting their behaviour. In W, KM v K, J  HKCU 1204, the Single Joint Expert Report revealed that the Father told the child that the Mother was a “bad person” because she had “taken his money”. This manipulation resulted in the child claiming to be “scared” of the Mother. However, when seeing the Mother, the child was observed to run towards her in excitement and showed physical affection, demonstrating that the child was not actually scared of her. This made it apparent that the Father had been putting words into the child’s mouth to try and alienate the Mother.
These are just a few examples that could indicate parental alienation, but the individual circumstances must be taken into consideration on a case-by-case basis. Because family dynamics are complicated, where there are signs of parental alienation it may necessitate assessments by professionals such as social workers, psychiatrists, or psychologists.
Distinguishing Parental Alienation
Parental alienation is not the same as justified rejection or protective gatekeeping, although they are easily confused.
Justified rejection refers to a situation where the child rejects a parent, for instance by refusing to see the parent during access, and this rejection can be explained by that parent’s behaviour. Usually, justified rejection can be seen where the parent has been emotionally or physically abusive towards the child or the other parent.
Protective gatekeeping is where a parent restricts the other parent’s access due to genuine concerns for the child’s welfare. However, the signs may be similar to parental alienation (e.g., refusing access, not cooperating with the other parent).
The key attribute that distinguishes parental alienation is that the child’s rejection of the alienated parent is not justified or for no apparent reason.
What Happens if Parental Alienation Is Found?
The utmost priority of the Courts is that child’s “best interests” is the “first and paramount consideration” (s. 3 of the Guardianship and Minors Ordinance).
Generally, it would be considered in the child’s best interest to have a positive and healthy relationship with both parents. As a result, parties are encouraged to facilitate direct and indirect access with the child, with a focus on minimizing damage to the alienated parent and child’s relationship (or repairing the relationship if it has already been damaged).
The Court has emphasised that, because parental alienation is a form of emotional abuse, “in a situation of parental alienation the obligation on the court is to respond with exceptional diligence and take whatever effective measures are available.” (Re S (parental alienation: cult)  EWCA Civ 568 at §13).
In extreme circumstances of parental alienation where a parent is unwilling or unable to facilitate access for the alienated parent to rebuild their relationship with the child, the Court may order the child to live with the alienated parent.
For example, in Re L (a child)  EWHC 867 (Fam), the Court ordered a transfer of home for the child to move from living with the Mother to living with the Father. This is because the Court found that by living with the Father, the child would have sufficient “emotional space” to maintain a relationship with both parents. On the other hand, if the Child continued to reside with the Mother, she would continue to alienate the Father, causing the child “emotional harm in the future” (at §30).
However, in doing so, the short-term discomfort for the child of having to move home will be balanced with the long term benefit of having a positive relationship with both parents.
Parents going through divorce proceedings should focus on enabling children to maintain a healthy and strong relationship with both parents. Degrading the other parent and alienating them from the child can be extremely damaging to the child in the long term as their perception of the alienated parent becomes distorted and detached from reality.
Children are extremely susceptible to influence from adults, particularly where they are living with one parent, so this manipulation may not even be deliberate. It is therefore very important for parents to facilitate and encourage the child to maintain a good relationship with both parents wherever possible.
Ultimately, parental alienation is recognised as a form of emotional abuse by the Courts who have various measures available to facilitate the rebuilding of relationships between the alienated parent and child where parental alienation is found, with the child’s best interest being the paramount consideration for the Courts.