In the latest iteration of In the Yellow Chair, Tom Nash – also known as Mr Divorce Coach – offers his perspective on the concept of parental alienation in cases of separation.
The concept of parental alienation is somewhat novel in many aspects. As a passenger on the emotional journey of somebody who has separated, do you often encounter such allegations?
Unfortunately, quite regularly, though it is only labelled as parental alienation (PA) on occasion. In the severest of cases it can be quite blatant. More often, however, it is more parental and child obstruction: obstacles created to make life, the relationship, and connection difficult. If left unchecked and unresolved, this can develop into full-blown PA.
I also witness clients who are developing foundational habits that could become PA. Interestingly, I can spot quite quickly who is open to stepping back from the precipice and willing to self-reflect, learn to be better, and accept that positive change is a mutual bipartisan approach. Accountability is king here.
However, the ones who are hellbent on going down this path seldom want to be open to the idea of change on their own part. They tend to have only a few sessions then disappear and are overtly outward looking rather than inward.
So, if you are working with someone who has changed their “professional support network” a few times or disengaged from coaching, therapy, or counselling quickly, they could likely to be the alienator and are focused on revenge – not their child(ren).
Likewise, I have clients who believe they’re the victim of severe PA and abruptly label the experiences as such, but are also not looking at their own actions and behaviours that are attributing to the outcomes of their spouse’s actions towards them. Moving on extremely quickly and expecting everyone else to fall in line immediately, for example, with no time for their ex or child(ren) to grieve. Not taking the steps they need to take to work together with their ex, or not setting up a proper second home for their kids, thus not taking the situation seriously and considering others.
Typically, revenge and fear drive PA. Revenge is very harsh: it’s a parent who is seeking annihilation and degradation of the other parent.
Conversely, fear-based PA can often be seen as a lower level form of “doing it for the kids”, but it’s still actually about themselves and their feelings towards the other parent: their hurt, upset, and pain coming out as “keeping the kids routine”, “I always took them to school”, “always late for handovers and early for pick-ups”, inflexible until they themselves want and need flexibility.
I fear we may see – many already are seeing – a rise in certain allegations between separating parties. Clearer definitions and understanding around PA would help to reduce this.
Options like Child Inclusive Mediation could also potentially be helpful in some cases. However, it could also cause more harm than good if said children have already been “armed” with the psychological tools to begin – or are already – rejecting a parent.
The concept itself is somewhat controversial. On the topic of unregulated “experts” in the field, Sir Andrew McFarlane said “pseudo-science which is not based on any established body of knowledge will be inadmissible in the family court”. What are your views on this?
I understand and, for the most part, concur with Sir Andrew’s comments. However, we need to consider definitions of who is deemed an expert in this area.
Whilst vocations such as coaching and mediation are unregulated, can we look towards the true professionals in these areas that are carrying the requisite credentials and are active members to related governing bodies?
Where a regulator may not exist, it may be that a leading governing body would suffice by implementing strict training, best practice, and approvals processes, as is the case in coaching and mediation. Would someone who takes their education, ethical guidelines, and practice be considered a “pseudo-science non-expert”?
I also believe that, combining the skills of a mediator, collaborative family lawyer, and divorce coach, there could be a template assessment for such situations. It is feasible to conceive but would require support across the board of both legal and non-legal specialists.
Where a parent does become alienated and risks losing contact with their child[ren], what signs might family lawyers see in a parent who has been alienated but does not realise?
It can be hard to spot true signs of PA as many are subtle or circumstantial. Below is a snapshot of lived experiences many victims of PA find themselves exposed to, or you may even find that your client themselves is the aggressor of such behaviours.
As with most things in life, early intervention to minimise conflict and work towards a resolution is the best approach. That may include such support resources outside for your legal expertise as a Family Law professional by directing clients to other areas of support such as trained divorce coaches, therapists, counsellors, child psychologists, or even specialist parenting programmes such as Kids Come First. It’s about helping parents to locate the resources to help themselves and their separated family through this transition.
The below is not an exhaustive list, but be mindful in your work to question and establish the basis and foundations behind some of these actions and behaviours:
- Giving up too easily and rolling over on most issues related to the children. Emotional exhaustion leads to an array of physiological shifts
- Huge guilt – feeling they deserve to be punished by their spouse in relation to their time and relationship with the children
- Reluctance to acquire parental equality – what’s the why behind the why?
- Overly accepting of ex’s decisions and treatment towards them
- Do they tell you child[ren] plans are changed regularly, little to no consistency or notice, and their ex is framing it nicely and getting them “onside”, yet is holding all the strings and control over their relationship with their child(ren).
- Many do not think their ex is “capable” of PA, so they will not label it as such, or look at the signs, likely justify ex’s behaviours as they themselves have been convinced “its in the best interests…”.
- Look for standard Gaslighting behaviours towards them by their ex.
- Overly accepting their child[ren]’s statements and negative treatments towards them as ok: “they say they don’t want to see me anyway”
- Low self-worth and little-to-no confidence as a parent. Other parent or child[ren] has belittled and degraded any parental confidence they had in themselves: “I’m a bad dad/mum” statements
- Children who are living with the aggressor of PA begin to take on the same behaviours: a show of solidarity and bias, very typically through their own fears of feeling the aggressor’s wrath
- When did they see their child[ren] last? How often? Do they have interaction in between visits (text, calls, none)? Are the gaps between visits getting longer?
- Does the “primary carer” parent always turn up late for handovers, or kids are always conveniently “not ready yet” and are also early for pick-ups/immediately chasing when the child(ren) are one minute late home, thus reducing the time on both ends of the visit and controlling the situation
- Children repeating adult language, statements, phrases, and words that are not akin to their age group, especially towards/about their alienated parent, but also extended family on the victim’s side
- Children making false and unsubstantiated claims of how they’re treated at the alienated parents