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Parental Alienation

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation is a term which is often used to describe a child´s being deliberately manipulated over a period of time to harbour unjustified, negative feelings and beliefs towards one of their parents (and/or other members of the biological family or step-parents).

My child isn´t seeing me, is this parental alienation?

Not necessarily. Children will at times:

Toddlers and teenagers can share a somewhat egocentric view of the world, and teenagers have the added emotional burden of puberty and ´pushing´ against authority (which normally means the parents are on the receiving end).

All of the above are normal reactions, and whether or not they become a significant problem will depend on how both parents handle the situation. If the parents remain hostile, the situation and the child can be manipulated.

Contact can also break down due to a lack of parental control e.g. apathy or an overly liberal parenting style. ´Oh, I couldn´t possibly tell Johnny what to do.´ It surprises me that the courts sometimes accept a parent saying they can´t force their child to go to contact, whereas if that same parent accepted ´Johnny´ not going to school, they´d be accused of poor parenting.

It must also be said that contact can break down because parents make mistakes, are thoughtless or do not consider the potential consequences of their actions:

In intact families, it is entirely normal for a teenage to tell a parent they hate them at some stage. It´s part of growing up. Sadly, for separated parents, that normal part of growing up can result in the long term devastation of relationships. This can also affect the parent with whom the child lives. if the other parent is seen as the ´fun parent´ while they are the one who routinely deals with homework, school commitments and disciplines. Shared parenting from the point of separation ameliorates these risks.

Subtle language/Unsubtle consequences

Many parents would be shocked at the opinion that they don´t actively encourage their children´s relationships, but what appears as ´choice´ can lead to more and more instances of broken contact, with wishes and feelings being blamed, and put forward as a defence.

´Do you want to speak to Daddy?´ ... ´Do you want to see Mummy this weekend?´ ... ´If we were still living together, we could afford holidays´ ... ´Daddy refuses to give me money for that´ (despite CMEC payments being made).

Sometimes, the alienating comments are blatant. Less subtle language can include ´Daddy used to be horrid to you when you were a baby´, ´Mummy loved the other man more than us´, ´Daddy tried to poison me´ (or other unsubstantiated allegations which the court found against) or ´he/she wants me to go to jail´ (when it becomes necessary to return to court due to contact breakdown).

Subjecting children to alienating comments is undoubtedly a form of psychological/emotional abuse, but is rarely treated as domestic violence by the courts (despite falling within the accepted definition of domestic violence.

A child may however be influenced by comments which aren't deliberately malicious, but ill-judged. Parents can involve children in discussions which are inappropriate for their age, or seek emotional reassurance from their child which in turn increases the child´s own insecurity, making the child more protective over their ´vulnerable´ parent.

What is parental alienation syndrome (PAS)?

Among some individual Psychologists, parental alienation is accepted as a psychological condition. It is sometimes referred to as PAS. The term was first used in 1985 by an American Psychiatrist, Richard Gardener, and mentioned by Dr Richard Warshak, an American Psychologist and author.

While parental alienation syndrome is often discussed by campaign groups, charities and on forums in the UK, the syndrome is NOT officially recognised as a psychological condition either in the UK or USA.

PAS is not included within the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) despite campaigning.

Should I use the term PAS in court?

Do not use either the term ´parental alienation syndrome´ or its abbreviation ´PAS´ in court. It should be remembered that only a Psychologist or psychiatrist can make a psychological diagnosis, and the condition isn´t recognised.

You may however describe the behaviour/language which causes problems, and how it impacts on your child´s welfare. Leave the medical terminology alone.

Guardians and Welfare Investigations

If contact has ceased, or is likely to cease, then clearly there are significant welfare issues for the court to investigate and determine. The contact parent should consider asking for a guardian-ad-litem to be appointed to independently and objectively represent the children´s interests (this is quite often a CAFCASS Officer).The contact parent should also consider asking for a CAFCASS investigation into the reasons for contact breaking down.

One risk is that the CAFCASS Officer fails to spot signs of alienation e.g. the child using language which isn´t age appropriate, or commenting on court matters which they should not be aware of. CAFCASS Officers are NOT child Psychologists, or experts. For this reason, you may also wish to consider asking for there to be a psychological evaluation of the child and possibly both parents as well (although be aware that the cost for this will run into thousands of pounds and you must NOT organise this without having first sought the court´s consent).

"Justice to the children and the deprived parent require the Court to leave no stone unturned that might resolve the situation and prevent long term harm to the children." "Includes the Court directing a psychiatric or psychological assessment from an expert experienced in dealing with families with children with problems of this kind." "...the Court should not stand by and take no positive action." [M (Children) (Contact: Long Term Best Interests) [2005] EWCA Civ 1090]

Also see our guide on the role of the Guardian-Ad-Litem and requirements for their appointment in proceedings.

Powers of the Court

While parental alienation syndrome (as a psychological condition) is not recognised by the courts, the phenomena of a child being alienated has been accepted... and the term parental alienation (but without the word syndrome attached) has been used and seemingly accepted by the courts in recent years.

In S (A Child) [2010] EWCA Civ 219 the court accepted that the child had been alienated by the mother and against the father, and the father was awarded residence (although this was later reversed as the alienation was so entrenched). Reversal of decisions about which parent the child should live with remains an option for the court, and Psychologists such as Professor Lowenstein recommend therapeutic assistance prior to the child going to live with the parent against whom they have been alienated.

Suspended orders are also a relatively new judicial ´tool´. This is where rather than transfer living arrangements for the child from the alienating to the contact parent, a judge suspends the order. It is essentially a final warning to the alienating parent. The Court of Appeal has endorsed such an approach a number of times (when the decision of the trial judge has been challenged): see Re A (Suspended Residence Order) [2009] EWHC 1576 (Fam), [2010] 1 FLR 1679 (appeal dismissed Re D (Children) [2009] EWCA Civ 1551), and Re D (Children) xxx (appeal dismissed Re D (Children) [2010] EWCA Civ 496).

Parenting Information Programmes or Counselling may also prove beneficial, as alluded to in the case P (Children) [2008] EWCA Civ 1431 - (albeit in that case, there were genuine reasons for the children´s reluctance to attend contact).

"Where an intractable dispute has resulted in the children refusing to see their father, the court should not terminate direct contact until every avenue has been explored , including counselling or therapy for the parents." [Re P (Children) [2008] EWCA Civ 1431, [2009] 1 FLR 1056 ‐ see paragraphs 37 & 38]

Be aware that therapeutic approaches can be undermined where alienation is clearly taking place.

Other options for the court involve the use of family assistance orders, whereby CAFCASS monitor contact for up to a 12 month period, and may report back to the court if there is a need. Technically, all parties must agree to a family assistance order, but judges can and do nudge parties to agreement.

Most recently, where the alienating parent is incapable of changing their behaviour, and where the child's alienation is entrenched, the court has taken steps to place the child in foster care as a stage in the transfer of residence.

Finally, the court can threaten jail for contempt, threaten fines for breaches to orders, or make recalcitrant parents undergo community service. Punitive measures can be a double edged sword, as the alienating parent often seeks to present their victim in a bad light, suggesting ´x wants to punish them´... or doesn´t care what their children want etc. Reversal of residence is also an option, but one which doesn´t always work.

The Court should "pursue all possible avenues to the resumption of direct contact" established in particular in G (A Child) [2006] EWCA Civ 348. "Whatever the difficulties, however scant the prospects of success, the courts must not relent in pursuit of the restoration of what had been a natural relationship between father and daughter, absent compelling evidence that the welfare of the child requires respite." It may prove necessary to remind the court of this!

The reduction or cessation of contact should be approached with caution in the hope things will improve. At the point when contact breaks down, don't delay in getting the matter back to court. See our guide on Child Arrangements and Contact Enforcement:

Contact Enforcement

Other guides to read include the following, which include tools which you might suggest to the court to help focus the other parent on the child´s needs and to monitor and assist contact. Where contact has broken down entirely, supervised contact can assist in the court having independent assessment of the true nature of the parent/child relationship (where one parent falsely alleges that the child is fearful/against contact or has manipulated the child):

Parenting Information Programmes Family Assistance Orders Contact Centres False Allegations

Wishes and Feelings

The courts in the UK (and indeed in Europe) place importance on the children´s wishes and feelings. If the child is alienated, their wishes and feelings may have been manipulated and go against their best interests and welfare.

Be aware of the following cases, if you need to challenge whether the child´s expressed wishes support a cessation of contact:

"It would be ... inappropriate proceed on the basis that expressed wishes and feelings should necessarily be taken at face value. They need to be assessed in the light of [Sīs] age and understanding. The impact of alienation upon the reliability of those wishes and feelings and the signs (albeit modest) that they may not in fact reflect his true feelings, are matters to be taken into account when assessing the weight to be attached to them". [TE v SH and S [2010] EWHC 192]
It would be "wrong to proceed on the basis of wishes and feelings alone.." and "...wishes and feelings are secondary to their welfare..". [S (Children) [2010] EWCA Civ 447]

In a case where alienation is a possibility Judges should be carrying out an inquisitorial role in understanding why the relationship has broken down, rather than simply accepting that it has. How else can the child´s welfare be properly considered? Are the child´s wishes and feelings justified? Is the language they use appropriate to their age? Is their behaviour age appropriate? What is the impact on the child´s welfare of a cessation of or interruption to contact? How will this impact on their relationships with other family members? Etc.

"I have concluded that the judge failed to make a finding or sufficiently reasoned finding on alienation by the mother or to make it clear that he was not making such a finding". There was a serious breakdown in the child/father relationship and the judge failed in his quasi-inquisitorial duty to assess the origins of the breakdown. [RE T (CONTACT: ALIENATION: PERMISSION TO APPEAL) [2002] EWCA Civ 1736 [2003] 1 FLR 531]

Protecting against alienation?

Nothing is guaranteed, as nothing is completely within your control, but the following may help:

The Need to Be Informed

Alienation cases can be exceptionally difficult to resolve but are not lost causes.

It is particularly important to be informed of the powers of the court in these cases, and to be proactive in making child focused recommendations as to how the court might proceed. To this end we recommend you be fully conversant with case law in this area. Read how the upper courts have resolved such cases in the past to help you learn of the potential options available.

Intractable contact disputes and alienation cases are difficult to resolve and require early investigation as part of the legal process, should you take matters to court to help address contact problems.

It is important to be aware of the guidance as to what level of judge has the necessary experience to handle such cases. These cases should not be handled by Magistrates. When you apply to court, we recommend using the following wording within your application:

"This case involves an intractable contact dispute and I respectfully ask that it be put before a District or Circuit Judge in accordance with Part II of the Schedule to the Allocation and Gatekeeping Guidance - Private Law [April 2014]"


If a therapist is proposed to help address alienation, we strongly recommend that, if they are a Counsellor or Psychotherapist, they are registered with a reputable professional association (see the next section for links to registers). Check whether that association has a complaints process.

There are no legal requirements regarding fitness to practice as a Counsellor or Psychotherapist, and their accreditation or registration by/with a professional body is voluntary.

If a Psychologist is recommended, check that they are members of the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). In order to practice as a Psychologist (Clinical, Counselling, Forensic, Health or Educational), registration with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) is a statutory requirement.

It is important that you check that the therapist is experienced in assisting with alienation.

Complaints About Therapists

The need for high standards in alienation cases is paramount. On occasion, we hear rumours about therapists involved in alienation cases who charge high fees yet cancel appointments, and conduct therapy by telephone when they're contracted to see the clients face-to-face. More damaging can be their recommending a course of action to parents which goes counter to the instructions of the court or lacking experience in the area of investigation or therapy in which they are asked to assist. Another area of concern is poor standards of reporting to the court.

Firstly, if considering a Counsellor/Psychotherapist, please check whether they are a member of a professional association (but again, remember that membership of a professional body is voluntary for Counsellors and Psychotherapists). Check their memberships via the link buttons below:

The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

British Psychoanalytic Council

UK Council for Psychotherapy

National Counselling Society

The Online CBT Register

The College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists

Association of Child Psychotherapists

UK Association for Humanistic Psychology Practitioners

If considering using a Psychologist, check their membership (and that they are a Clinical or Counselling Psychologist) via the link below:

Health Care Professions Council (HCPC) Register

The Psychologist may also be a member of the British Psychological Society (BPS). Be aware that past (or present) complaints to the British Psychological Society may have been upheld against a Chartered Psychologist, yet that Psychologist would still be able to practice if there was no HCPC complaint - another reason to check the HCPC Register when considering which Psychologist to involve!

Directory of Chartered Psychologists

No therapist can guarantee an outcome, but service standards must be maintained and clients should expect therapists to meet professional standards. Membership of a professional body is no guarantee of standards, but at least these organisations usually have a complaints process should standards be poor.

Please consider that while going through a complaints process is an emotional burden often at a highly stressful time, not doing so leaves another parent and their children to face the same experience.

Where in the public domain, we provide full text case law. See our Parental Alienation Case Law Menu section where we also provide download links for printable versions of the judgments.

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Michael Robinson © 2014

Family law information for parents whose children are resident in England and Wales

Crown Copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen's printer for Scotland.

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