Parenting Alienation and Family Dispute ResolutionNick Richards FDRP LL.B MBA GDLP DMgmt MQLS
A Common Response
Parental alienation is a common response by a perpetrator when a claim of family violence is made.
How does the family dispute resolution process manage such claims and counter claims?
A Nutshell View of Parental Alienation
The roots of parental alienation syndrome stem from the theory of psychiatrist Richard Gardner, and whilst not widely accepted as grounded science, courts in Australia and the United States have embraced the theory, despite criticism that the theory ignored family violence when labelling parties as the ‘alienating parent’ and the ‘victim parent’.
Many victims of family violence are anecdotally discouraged by their legal representatives from the full disclosure of family violence for fear of being labelled an ‘alienating parent’ and being subjected to all its disadvantages attached to the label by the courts. This brief article considers how the FDR process and FDRP’s can manage claims of parental alienation in the shadow of domestic violence claims.
Parental alienation occurs when a child loses the capacity to give and accept love from a parent or other family member. Commonly the alienatee will observe things such the child not wanting to spend time with them, display emotions of fear and fright towards the parent, communicate that the parent is dangerous, in addition to acting out with the alienated parent. As FDRP’s we need to be aware of children becoming alienated from the non-residential parent.
Effects of Parental Alienation
The effects of parental alienation on children include low self-esteem, self-hatred, lack of trust, depression, substance abuse, relationship difficulties and an increased likelihood of attachment issues with their own children later in life, in which one study found as high as 50 percent.
The cause of child alienation stem from poorly handled separations where there are elongated times of little to no contact, in instances where attachment is under strain or when the parent is blamed by the child. Additionally, in instances where the parent is emotionally unavailable or dangerous be it from the effects of drugs, violence, mental illness, or post traumatic stress disorder. Whereas parental alienation is a deliberate, malicious agenda where the sole objective is to absolve the other parent from the child’s life.
How do parents encourage parental alienation?
Unfortunately, parents in the process leading up to, during and post separation and divorce can encourage parental alienation. Some examples could include:
- asking the child to choose sides, by looking to the child for support against the other parent or by denigrating the other parent or family.
undermining trust and love by sharing their own emotional pain, preventing contact, making contact frightening, by high lighting faults and minimising positive points.
- actively interfering with the relationship by telling frightening stories, constant denigration, forbidding positive discussion on the other parent, interruption of the time spent with the other parent, passing decisions onto the child.
- encouraging aligned behaviour by punishing the child for their acceptance of the parent, encouraging the child to show their distress, encouraging the child to refuse contact visits and rewarding the child for rejecting the other parent.
Policy Response to Parental Alienation
The legislative framework around parental alienation is a three tiered approach in that firstly the parents must consider the best interests of the child, secondly there is a presumption of shared parental responsibility and thirdly that consideration must be had to equal, substantial and significant time.
Many would argue that its in the best interests of the child to spend time with both parents in line with the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) however the reality is some parents are unable to provide a safe environment for their child and as such the child’s fear may be real and justified. It is at this point where we must consider has an adequate risk assessment be undertaken? Commence family dispute resolution with a child inclusive approach. Time is inherently of the essence, as studies has illustrated the longer the child is exposed to an insecure attachment there is an ascending difficulty to reverse.
Intervention when identified
It has been suggested that parental alienation requires early specialist intervention when identified in mediation when triggers are identified such as when parents describe behaviours that are aligned with alienation and estrangement, it is important to note that a full assessment should be undertaken by a practitioner to understanding the whole of family dynamics.
FDR & Case Management
The FDR process can manage parental alienation, through a child focused and inclusive approach with the FDRP engaging with parents, placing the child at the forefront of all discussions to combat the ‘you’ and ‘me’ congestive personal issues between former spouses. The three-step approach in which FDRP’s need to be mindful of, is to firstly conduct a thorough evaluation, to then educate the parties and to create a developed support platform for the child. Each will be considered in turn.
As noted by Lowenstein et al, a full assessment of the family dynamics is the starting point in the process of prevention. The initial evaluation can be easily summarised by:
- Conduct intake
- Assess safety risk factors (see noted response above)
- Identify whether family violence actual or not
- If actual, assess probability of occurrence and severity
- If threat is high take steps for safety planning and determine whether suitable for FDR or not
- If threat is low and matter proceeds to FDR stake steps for session planning (shuttle, support persons, legal representatives)
Many parents in the hype and angst of separation forget about the effects of separation on a child, let alone the toxic effects of parental alienation. Many studies have shown that it causes attachment issues in future familial generations in addition to considerable mental health and substance abuse issues. Some steps an FDRP can take to educate parents about parental alienation and its effects on all family unit members could include:
- educate the parents of the importance of keeping the child at the front focus of discussions;
- educate the parents as to the detrimental effects on a child such as low self-esteem, self-hatred, lack of trust, depression and substance abuse;
- if there is no immediate threat or danger to parent or child, introduce the idea of child inclusive mediation and educate parents on the process and advantages;
- make use of information sheets and relevant professional materials that explain separation, domestic violence, parental alienation and child inclusive practice to assist parents in coming to an agreement to child inclusive mediation;
- encourage self-help courses in dealing with familial issues;
use appropriate referrals for the parents such as practitioners or specialist help lines that deal with separation and domestic violence;
engage the child in mediation through the voice of another (child consultant).
Support the child
As noted above, the long term effects of parental alienation on a child are dire and not without considerable detriment to their mental development, as such support for the child is the vital ingredient for prevention or lessening the damaging and somewhat irreversible effects of parental alienation.
Whilst prevention is the best cure, for many families this is a somewhat utopian dream due to ungraded familial dynamics, so the basic framework deals with treating the child and taking steps to filter out any form of conduct that fosters the toxic environment of parental alienation. FDRP’s can assist in the process by undertaking the following:
- Make suitable referrals to qualified child practitioners (counsellors, child psychologists);
- Create an environment for the child that eradicates forms of conscious and subconscious brainwashing;
- Encourage parents to make full use of time spent with the child and allow them to use the FDR process to negotiate as much time as reasonably practical;
- Encourage parents to give the child options on how they wish to spend time, rather than telling them what you will do, which reduces a form of controlling behaviour;
- Encourage parents to create a positive environment for the child, free of undermining love and trust or interference in the relationship with the other parent;
- Reiterate to the parents that they have an obligation to the child to consider their best interests;
As demonstrated above an FDRP can provide the necessary framework to identify domestic violence through a thorough intake, and can take steps to preventing or reducing the effects of parental alienation when domestic violence is used as a response.
Note: The above is not legal advice, it is for informational purposes only.