Family Law Blog

What is Parental Alienation?

What is Parental Alienation?

Parental Alienation is a psychological theory that explains the negative emotions a child may experience towards one of their parents following separation.  The theory provides that if a separated parent manipulates a child into developing persistent negative behaviours towards the other parent, that child will align themselves with the alienating parent.  In turn, this leads to the child’s words and behaviours reflecting those of the alienating parent.

Parental Alienation is a complex and controversial topic so we’ve decided to take a deep dive into the topic and will be posting a three-part series on parental alienation. This week, we’ll take a closer look at the history and emergence of Parental Alienation as a sociological theory and its uptake by the courts in British Columbia. 

Origin of Parental Alienation

In the 1980s, American child psychiatrist Richard Gardner developed the term, parental alienation syndrome (PAS) to describe the programming of a child by the alienating parent to reject the other parent.

Symptoms of PAS include:

1) the child denigrates the alienated parent;

2) the child has no reasonable explanation for rejecting the alienated parent;

3) the hated parent is viewed as ‘all bad’ and the loved parent is ‘all good;’”

4) the child insists that they are not influenced by the alienating parent;

5) the child constantly sides with the alienating parent;

6) the child feels no guilt for rejecting or being cruel towards the alienating parent;

7) the child’s grievances towards the alienating parent mirror the alienator’s discourse and borrow adult vocabulary;

8) the child rejects the alienated parent’s extended family, friends, and even pets.

The Evolution of PAS

Gardner was called many times to act as an expert witness in child custody cases in the United States and his interpretation of PAS was embraced by courts worldwide, including in Canada. In some cases, Gardner’s influential work led to complete custody transfers, with courts reversing custody from the alienating parent to the alienated parent. However, Gardner’s theory was highly controversial since it was first established. Critics have pointed out the lack of evidentiary admissibility and scientific validity of PAS, as well as its gender bias and disregard for the impact of family violence in custody cases.

Over the past several decades, researchers have reformulated PAS, referring to the concept now simply as “parental alienation”. By dropping “syndrome” from its description, it has helped remove some confusion of whether it ought to be treated as a mental illness. Child psychologists Joan Kelly and Janet Johnston have described an alienated child as one who “expresses, freely and persistently, unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs (such as anger, hatred, rejection and/or fear) toward a parent that are significantly disproportionate to the child’s actual experience with that parent.” They have found that there are multiple reasons why a child may resist visits with one parent and that behaviour that qualifies as parental alienation is present only in a small proportion of high-conflict custody cases.

Parental Alienation vs Parental Estrangement

Alienation and estrangement are two completely separate issues that can often cause confusion. It’s important to highlight the distinction between the two issues. Parental Alienation only applies to situations in which there is no justified reason for the animosity towards one parent.

Parental Estrangement, sometimes referred to as “realistic estrangement” is the process in which a child develops animosity towards a parent as a result of abusive behaviour or parental conduct. Examples include physical or emotional abuse, rigid or restrictive parenting, immature and self-centered behaviour, and/or dysfunctional conduct arising from the parent’s own psychological or psychiatric issues. In cases of parental estrangement, the child’s rejection of the estranged parent may be a reasonable and adaptive response to that parent’s behaviour.

The Long-Term Impacts of Parental Alienation

Where Parental Alienation is present, it imposes damaging prospects for the child. If we refer back to the case of N.R.G. v. G.R.G. 2015 BCSC 1062, the psychological consequences can include:

  •   Developmental problems
  •   Issues with fostering social relationships
  •   Difficulty with trust and relationships in later life
  •   Difficulties caring for children in later life
  •   Mental health problems such as depression and anxiety
  •   Increased risk of substance abuse problems

Recognition of Parental Alienation by the Courts

Despite the controversy over parental alienation, the concept is widely recognized by BC courts and allegations of alienation are treated extremely seriously. In fact, such allegations can have dire consequences – both if they are legitimate, or if they’re unfounded. BC courts consider Parental Alienation a form of emotional abuse (see case of L.D.K. v. M.A.L., 2015 BCSC 226, paragraph 98). However, discussions about PAS in high-custody cases tend to resemble the more modern understanding of parental alienation as a complex and rare situation, as opposed to the more simplistic and alarming PAS put forward by Gardner. 

In the next of this series, we will explore further how parental alienation is treated in family law courts in BC and complications it brings to cases involving family violence.

Contact a Family Lawyer

If you’re dealing with Parental Alienation, either because you have been accused of alienating your child or you feel your child is being alienated from you, we understand how emotionally draining the process can be. It’s important to work with a skilled family lawyer to act as a level-head in an emotionally trying situation. Get in touch with us today. Our qualified team of family lawyers are ready to help.