Parental Alienation: It’s Not Black and White

Parental Alienation: when a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.

Sadly, when a relationship between two parents breaks down, it can bring out the very worst in behaviour, where one parent seeks to grind down the child’s relationship with the other parent, so the child may:

  • no longer wish to see the other parent.
  • think about the other parent in a negative light.
  • be prevented from having contact with the other parent, or at least have their contact time reduced to the bare minimum with that parent, for no logical reason.

The devastating impact which parental alienation has on the emotional well being of the child is increasingly well documented, as is the trauma for parents. In fact, according to the consumer watch foundation for example, a recent Australian study reports that every day, a parent dies in Australia due to the stress and heartbreak of losing their child in divorce.

Given that Parental Alienation has long term implications for alienated children, it’s no surprise that the general principal of CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service: the independent body which advises the family courts in the UK) is that parental alienation is abusive and where there is evidence of PA, it should be investigated and tackled.

But what if the behaviour of one parent, makes it virtually impossible for the other parent to; A) parent neutrally, B) deliver a positive co-parenting relationship?

The purpose of this post is to raise questions about:

  • A one-size-fits-all approach towards parental alienation.
  • The dilemmas faced by parents caught in bitter co-parenting relationships.

I will start by recounting the background to my own situation as briefly as I can, before describing two real-life examples from the train crash mess that was my co-parenting dynamic with my ex-wife.

The truth is, I could have included 20 dilemmas or more without any effort or thought, but 20 dilemmas would have turned this blog into a long essay, and who has time to read long essays these days?

Thus, I’ve picked two dilemmas at random. I will describe them and conclude with my own reflections and questions.

(Incidentally, when I put these 2 dilemmas to the family court in Birmingham, they did not approve of how I handled them, but neither the judge nor CAFCASS had any suggestions of how to better handle them … because there are no easy answers and sometimes, alienating behaviour is far more complicated than it at first seems.)

Setting the scene:

My two daughters initially lived with my ex wife in Dorset (UK) after we split. They were aged 7 and 4 when the split became permanent. My ex wife (in my humble opinion) has a number of undiagnosed mental health conditions and life wasn’t easy for my daughters in her care. But given that my ex lived near her parents and I also had fortnightly contact with them (driving down from Birmingham every other Friday to pick them up from school, bringing them back to Birmingham for the weekend, before returning them home on Sunday evenings) I figured that if things got really bad, they at least had responsible people around them with regular direct contact.

At first, it sort of worked, partly because my business was still making money and I gave my ex-wife far more maintenance than I was obliged to (the money bought her good behaviour for a while at least and my contact continued with my daughters, on her terms albeit, but still every other weekend to be fair to her and generally half the holidays).

But life got much worse for them as my business was failing in the recession and so whilst I continued to give more maintenance to my ex-wife than I was obliged to, it was far less then before. I also met my lovely wife who my daughters quickly bonded with and the problems grew from there.

Then, my eldest daughter (who’d turned 10 by this point) was physically attacked by my ex-wife, being grabbed and dragged across the floor, leaving friction burns and bruising on her shoulder. It traumatised my daughter, she told her teacher who told social services and when the visit to my ex-wife’s house was scheduled, my ex pressured my daughter to change her account of what happened, so social services took it no further.

From then on, my daughter begged and begged me to allow her to come and live with me and I calmly explained each time, that she lived with her mum and her sister, that was her home and that swapping it wasn’t possible or in her best interests.

But … getting her home on Sundays was turning into a nightmare as she’d stay under her bed, sobbing and refusing to come out when it was time to go. Her younger sister (aged 7) seemed OK about going back, but it was clear that my eldest daughter bore the brunt of the bullying from my ex (which for the most part, was regular and extreme emotional bullying and manipulation).

Then, one day, unexpectedly, my ex-wife blocked my contact with my daughters completely, saying I was a kidnap threat and that until a court order was firmly in place, I was not allowed to see them at all, not even for birthdays. I had no contact with them for 3 months (although I never stopped asking for it) contact got restored following my first date in court in Dorset.

We went to court and the battle commenced, I applied for custody and several months later, I secured it. The girls were moved with immediate affect into my care in Birmingham. The Cafcass officer involved through the Dorset courts, a lady in her early 60s, was so concerned by the level of emotional abuse that was taking place, that the girls were literally moved overnight from Dorset to Birmingham and my role immediately changed from non-resident parent to primary carer. Within weeks of moving to Birmingham, my eldest daughter refused to see her mum all-together, whilst my younger daughter continued to have contact every other weekend with her mum who was now driving up from Dorset.

My eldest daughter’s stance was accepted somewhat reluctantly by the courts. They wanted her to have contact with her mum as did I, but given the strength of her resistance, her maturity and the level of emotional damage she had suffered at the hands of her mum, Cafcass were clear that she shouldn’t be forced. She was 12 at the time.

Eventually, things settled down, I managed to get my eldest daughter to attend counselling with a view to helping her move forward so she could resume contact with her mum. She continued to see her wider maternal family although soon found the pressure from maternal family members to resume contact with her mum difficult to handle. She was adamant she wouldn’t see her mum again until she was an adult and whilst I tried to persuade her otherwise also, she would not budge.

She started referring to my wife as ‘mum’, something we both discouraged, particularly out of respect to our younger daughter who was still seeing her mum and regarded her very much as mum. My youngest seemed OK with the ongoing contact and for a while, an uneasy truce emerged.

Several years later though, it all kicked off again. The pressure became too much for my youngest daughter: the incessant questions she faced by my ex wife about logistics and getting me to change contact dates, and the continual slating of me by her mum whilst in her care, made her nervous of seeing her mum, so my youngest daughter now refused contact too.

Now at 12, I figured I couldn’t physically force her into contact either (and NO, before you say it, if they absolutely refused to go to school due to stress and were breaking down in hysterical tears at the prospect, I would not force them to go either, I’d head to school and try to explore the issue, moving schools if it really was that bad! There comes an age where forcing becomes less possible as a parent, at what age that is, is a mute point!) My ex wife took it back to court for battle number 2, accusing me of parental alienation and there was plenty that the court did not like …. about my parenting approach!

In fact, they seemed to care far less about my ex-wife’s behaviour and far more about how I responded to it: when one child refuses to see the other parent (most probably the non-resident parent), it seems that there is one spotlight only and it is shone very firmly on the primary carer parent.

To sum up the background therefore, before we get stuck into the dilemmas, I’ve experienced 2 X epic family court battles in my life: the first was as a non resident dad fighting for contact with my daughters, a battle which I won, with the outcome being beyond my wildest expectations. I never expected to win custody. I was fighting for it so I could look my daughter in the eye and say I tried. I was expecting an honourable defeat at best. The insights of a highly experienced Cafcass officer in Dorset were key to the move.

The second battle was as primary carer, facing allegations of parental alienation, and trying to prevent my 12 year old from being forced into contact with her mum. The battle took place in Birmingham where the girls and I are resident, and my experience of Cafcass and the family courts in Birmingham could not have been more different to my first battle which took place in Dorset.

Dilemma 1:

When my daughters still lived with their mum and before my eldest was physically attacked by her, they came on holiday with me to Ireland for a week. My eldest was 9 at the time and one night, she got really upset. She’d often described her mum’s outbursts to me and how it made her feel and I’d always worked hard to be neutral. I did not want to turn her against her mum because I felt it would be damaging for her and frankly, as a non-resident parent, I always felt vulnerable so I was very careful about what I said

(when I shared this with the courts, they were horrified by the latter part of this statement which they felt provided clear evidence of my self-interest over the interest of the child. Oh well, it was the truth I suppose, I was careful about what I said to my daughters for 2 reasons, one was the best interests of my daughter and the other was self interest I guess, so maybe they had a point?).

But on this occasion in Ireland, my daughter did not want to talk about her mum’s outbursts specifically, instead, she asked me a truly horrific question:

Daddy, why does mummy always lie?

well … hmmm … OK, so she was always going to ask me this question at some point given that her mum is a compulsive liar, but she was asking it at such a young age, I’d hoped she’d be older before she started to figure it out. So what the hell do I say now? My mind was racing: I had three options as far as I could see at the time:

| Option A)

| Me: “She doesn’t always lie, I’ve certainly never noticed”.

(which means I’m knowingly lying to my daughter when she is opening up and trying to have a heart-to-heart conversation with her dad. Maybe this would have been the right approach. The family courts would have approved. It would have been neutral, but dishonest.)

| Option B)

| Me: “What makes you think that?”

(which puts it back onto my daughter to explain herself a little more, but the danger is that it could be seen as encouraging her to delve into examples of her mum’s lying (thus re-enforcing the negatives) and it doesn’t answer her question anyway, which means she’ll simply ask it again)

This answer also indicates that I haven’t yet realised that my ex always lies and frankly, my daughter was not that stupid. She was a highly astute 9 year old and might well have realised, had this been my answer, that I was being disingenuous with her: not great for building trust with my daughter when she’s trying to have a heart-to-heart conversation with her dad.

| Option C)

| Me: “Sometimes, everyone lies. When we exaggerate, we lie. It doesn’t mean mummy doesn’t love you, nor does it mean I don’t love you if I exaggerate about something”.

I opted for option C. It was the best I could think of at the time and the most neutral approach I felt I could take. There are probably better answers out there but I was thinking on my feet. The family courts in Birmingham (Judge & Cafcass) hated my answer. It was not neutral enough according to them and was alienating in nature.

But given that my ex-wife IS a compulsive liar (and we’d already proved that in our court bundles and made the point in the hearings) how therefore, do I answer this question with some level of integrity, but without resorting to alienating behaviour?

No one has yet given me a compelling option to answer this question. No one has yet provided an answer which allows for honesty, and yet which is not alienating in any way.

Could it be argued therefore, that sometimes, one parent’s behaviour makes it impossible for the other parent to avoid alienating discourse with the child? (In which case, we need to be careful in how we train those working for CAFCASS/Social Services/Family courts, so they develop protocols for dealing with PA which allows for the fact that PA is not always black and white or clear-cut.

Dilemma 2:

When my daughters were resident with their mum in Dorset, they would come to me on Friday evenings (in their school uniform as I picked them up from school). I returned them home to Dorset on Sunday at 6 pm, wearing a set of clothes from Birmingham, and with their school uniforms always washed and ironed in a bag.

After a few weekends, I realised I was losing my clothes for the girls, because each time I returned them, I did so in a set of ‘Birmingham clothing’. So I politely asked my ex-wife to keep sending the outfits back, so I had clothes for them when they were in my care. (Which meant the girls should have a bag on Friday with the clothes in it, that they were wearing when I returned them the previous time.)

The problem on this clothing issue, was that my ex-wife would ‘forget’ to send the clothes back to me (every time). Occasionally a few bits and pieces would come back, but they weren’t the nice Birmingham clothes in good condition that I was dressing the girls in. They were ripped, they were dirty bits and pieces, odd socks with holes or trousers/tops/pants which were not age appropriate. So I asked again for the outfits to be returned because the logistics of the weekends, meant that I lost an outfit each time I returned the girls and I was getting sick of heading back to Primark so frequently.

But my polite requests were totally ignored and when I followed them up, I was met with hostility. I couldn’t afford to keep losing an outfit every other weekend, so after more pleading and more trips back to Primark for yet more clothes, I started returning the girls on Sunday in their school uniforms.

At the time, they were aged 5 and 8 and both intelligent girls, so guess what?

They wanted to know why they were being sent back home in their school uniforms on a friggin Sunday!

The saga of the clothes went on for a few years. The girls didn’t want to wear school uniforms on Sundays, but I couldn’t afford to keep losing clothes and my ex-wife revelled in the antagonism and the chance to put me in an awkward situation whilst slating stingy dad to the girls (something which they both said she did).

I would say to them that they needed to wear their uniforms because I was running out of clothes for them, because the clothes I bought for them never came back to me. I emphasised it was not their fault and that to be fair to their mum, she was a single working mum, and had a lot on her plate, so it wasn’t a major problem, but they would need to wear their school uniforms when I drop them back.

But … this was clearly was not a ‘neutral’ response on my part and it was apparently alienating in nature because I was ‘blaming’ mum for the clothes issue.

  • How do I answer my girl’s questions? (dad: why do we have to go back home in our school uniforms? It’s Sunday!)
  • How do I explain what is going on without resorting to alienating behaviour?
  • How do you stay 100% neutral when your children are getting older, when the other parent’s behaviour is throwing up issue after issue and when your children are asking direct questions about what is going on?

I asked my barrister and lawyer for honest feedback: what could I have done better?

How do you handle these issues whilst staying completely neutral?

Should I have just kept shelling out at Primark and charity shops?

I didn’t have much money at the time and was living with my parents. My barrister and lawyer struggled to give any answers, but made the point that sometimes, the other parent’s behaviour can make any hope of neutral co-parenting absolutely impossible.

I asked the same questions to Cafcass during my second court battle: but the Cafcass officers in Birmingham were unhelpful and had no credible answers (although they seemed to like slating my parenting skills in their reports, and ignoring the lengths I was going to, to try and re-establish contact between the girls and their mum). They even said that my efforts to facilitate contact with the wider maternal family were irrelevant because the maternal family was not mum!

Cafcass did send me on a generic, one-day parenting workshop as part of my second court battle, the content of which was perfect for parents with very young children, but an absolute waste of time for any parents like me whose children were now aged 12 and 15.

And I asked NYAS when they got involved later on in my case. What should I have done? What would have been a better way to handle some of these issues? NYAS were far more balanced than Cafcass to be fair, but still couldn’t come up with any credible answers.

The problem?

  1. So many of the cases which arrive at the family courts are too complex for the courts to handle, particularly when courts are already under-funded and under-resourced.
  2. You cannot squeeze every case through black and white thinking, general principles and sweeping statements. Hence my title, Parental Alienation is not black and white … it’s complex.
  3. When one parent’s behaviour is so unbalanced and destructive, delivering a neutral parenting approach becomes almost impossible. I have chosen two simple dilemmas I faced, but I could have included many, many more without even thinking about it: there is a vast library of examples! Looking back, I still feel my parenting was neutral given the circumstances and that the relationship break down between my daughters and their mum was about her behaviour, not mine.
  4. The behaviour of manipulative parents creates searching and difficult questions from the children who experience it. Avoiding answering those questions like a skillful politician gets harder as your children get older and want direct answers for their direct questions. A child of 10, wants and needs very different things than a child of 5. Do you lie in order to remain completely neutral? Or do you answer as honestly and as fairly as is feasibly possible? From my experience, if you opt for the latter, you risk being roasted in court!
  5. When my daughters would ask me about their mum’s bizarre and erratic behaviour, do I simply ignore the question and tell them mummy loves them? (which seems to be what the courts would want) And at what age does that no longer wash as an answer? My daughters were trying to make sense of their difficult circumstances and were asking increasingly awkward questions from as early as 9 years old.

Why does mummy behave differently to all the other mums?

They were just looking for answers!

I did discuss mental health issues with them. I was fair, reserved and very cautious in my approach, BUT the courts did not like this at all. It was clearly alienating behaviour in their eyes and they were hugely critical of me for being so open with the girls, even though they were no longer young children by the time these conversations were being had.

How did it all end?

In the end, the case rumbled on for a full year and by the time my youngest daughter was 13, CAFCASS were removed from the case because frankly it was too complex for their officers and NYAS were involved. Once NYAS were involved, common sense prevailed. NYAS case workers fully understood that you can’t force a teenager into contact if he/she is adamant that he/she doesn’t want it, and that it was clear from my actions, that I had always supported her contact with her mum and her wider maternal family.

I got criticised for many of my parenting decisions in the final summing up but no further action was taken (my ex was pushing for a change of residency for my youngest daughter, and for me to be punished either by a fine, community service or jail)

Parental alienation needs more research, more time and more balanced debate.

  • At what age should children/young people expect honest answers to their questions? (whatever those questions are)
  • What constitutes an adult subject and inappropriate to be discussed with anyone under the age of 16 therefore? (It would seem that children under the age of 16 whose parents have separated, should not discuss their concerns about a parent’s behaviour with the other parent. If they do, the parent must not engage in an honest or fair conversation.)
  • If a parent has shown signs of alienating behaviour, is it unprovoked and part of a selfish agenda to eradicate the other parent? Or is it an honest attempt to deal with a complex set of circumstances, which have largely been caused by the other parent’s manipulative behaviour?

I welcome comments, insights, reflections .. there is so much talk about Parental Alienation being abusive and wrong, which of course it is, but I was accused of it, and then criticised by the judge for it: I do not think I am an abusive parent though. I make mistakes, I get things wrong, but overall, I believe my parenting has been neutral and fair in extremely difficult circumstances.

This post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.

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Photo credit: Unsplash