“You made the kids hate me!” – Does parental alienation syndrome exist?

Eales & Mackenzie Lawyers Melbourne

By Gordon Ainger and Charlotte Black

It’s often the case in a family law matter involving parenting issues that a parent (usually the father) mentions that their relationship with their children has deteriorated since separation and that their former partner has turned their children against them.  Parents describe children who refuse to see them and their family, who say extremely negative and derogatory things about them, and who refer to events in the past which seemingly made the child feel the way they do but which the parent says never happened. These parents describe the children as being so completely in the other parent’s pocket that their previously happy relationship with the children has been destroyed.

There was recognition in the 1980s that the child who was refusing, adamantly and definitely, to see a parent after their parent’s separation was a phenomenon, a “thing”.  There were articles in newspapers, and greater social recognition that children refusing to spend time with their parents after separation was a social problem that needed some attention.  The phrase “parental alienation syndrome” was first used in 1987 to describe the various reactions of children of separated parents who were adamantly refusing to see a parent. This “syndrome” suggests that the child has a psychological disorder brought on by not only the parents’ divorce but also, or so the story usually goes, the active and deliberate participation by one parent in convincing the child to turn away from the other parent.  The cases where parental alienation syndrome was said to apply usually involved enormous acrimony, allegations of sexual abuse often proven to be false, and weak, unconvincing, but definite statements from the child.

Over time, psychological researchers have come to a more nuanced opinion.  Most psychologists would dispute that a child enduring a situation like this is suffering from a diagnosable syndrome.  The child is not ill. Concentrating on the allegation that one parent has engaged in conduct designed to alienate a child from the other parent also means that not only is that other parent’s possible contribution to the child’s current circumstances somewhat overlooked, but more importantly, it shifts the focus of any family law matter to the conduct of the parent or parents in an attempt to place blame so the focus moves away from what the case is actually about: ie, the child in question.

The court’s job, in a family law matter, is to make an order which will be in the best interests of the child.  The child is the focus of the proceedings, and if a child is refusing to see a parent then that issue needs to be investigated in a child focussed manner.  Each family is different so a “one size fits all” approach to the query: “Why is my child reluctant to spend time with me” is not appropriate and unhelpful.   Quite often the parent who claims their children have been alienated from them has contributed to, or indeed caused the estrangement with their own dysfunctional behaviour.  A preference for one parent over the other may be a passing and completely normal facet of child development. A child preferring one parent to the other might be a naïve, but normal response by the child to a separation involving extreme conflict and animosity where the child’s parents cannot or will not protect their children from their ongoing vicious fighting.  It might be a deliberate course of conduct by the other parent, or it might be the by-product of other interpersonal issues usually arising from before separation which the alienating parent does not realise is even happening.  

Children refusing to see a parent is one of the hardest issues we deal with as family lawyers.  To be rejected by your own child is one of the most psychologically challenging things that a parent might experience and it is very easy (and completely understandable) to blame the other parent when it happens.  Reasons why a child might refuse to see a parent are many, and if it happens, the alienated child needs to be given the opportunity by both parents openly and honestly to express their views in a therapeutic environment established to foster a reconnection of the alienated child with the rejected parent.

Children’s cases can be very difficult and challenging for everyone involved with them.  Please contact Gordon Ainger or Charlotte Black for further information about this or any other parenting law issue.

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