What Parents Must Consider in Cases of Parental Alienation and Other Parent-Child Conflict after Separation or Divorce

Children having a strained relationship with one parent, or even refusing to spend time with one parent, is one of the biggest issues in Family Courts. It can fully occupy the court’s attention and prevent any meaningful progress on any other issue between the parents. However, it is a topic so controversial that there is even fierce disagreement over what the dynamic should be called. Some referred to the dynamic as “parental alienation” while others referred to it as “parent-child contact problems.” Each term embeds a suggestion about what is causing the difficulty.

This article attempts to step back and not “take a side” on any of the positions on any aspect of alienation or post-separation parent-child contact issues. Although, this topic is so contentious, that not taking a position is often viewed as a controversial position.

There is one perspective that children will never reject a parent, no matter how badly that parent has treated them unless the other parent deliberately engages in behaviour designed to alienate that child from the estranged parent. Essentially, only one parent can disrupt a child’s relationship with another parent. There is research supporting that perspective, which many do not accept.

Others believe that one parent, on his or her own, cannot destroy a relationship between a child and another parent. Again, there is research, also contested by many, that parental alienation is not real. People who hold this view point out that parental alienation is not recognized as a condition by the World Health Organization and not specifically classified as a mental disorder in the DSM5 (the diagnostic manual of mental disorders), although associated conditions are

Still, another perspective proposes that difficulties in parent-child relationships can be the result of a multitude of factors and often there are several of those factors at play. Again, there is scholarly research supporting this view, which is rejected by some. Some of the factors that can lead to a problem in a relationship between a parent and child include:

  • ongoing parent-child conflict
  • rigid parent style (particularly by one parent)
  • family violence
  • maltreatment/neglect or compromised parenting
  • child’s mental health issues
  • substance abuse
  • parental alienating behaviours

Another factor that can interfere with parent-child relationships, but only applies in some cases, is that a parent honestly believes the other parent has, or wants to, harm the children of the relationship, even though objectively that is not a risk. The emotions surrounding separation, including a common feeling of betrayal, can result in one spouse having factually baseless feelings that his or her former partner may be the type of person who would inflict harm on the children of the relationship. That parent may then interfere with the other parent’s relationship with the children to protect them without the animus typical of parental alienation. The underlying factors in such circumstances can be very different from alienation cases, but equally important to address.

One factor common to all court cases where there are allegations of parental alienating behaviours, or other circumstances leading to a strained parent-child relationship, is a high level of conflict. These tend to be vicious, heavily litigated cases, with the battle spilling out into other parts of the parents’ lives, including the children’s home or homes. The existence of prolonged litigation and entrenched and toxic interparental conflict due to child-related disagreements appear to be the most harmful to children and parent-child relationships. The Canadian and Ontario Governments were so concerned about that harmful effect that they placed a legal duty on separated parents to shield their children from conflict after separation. An important consideration is that litigation over parental alienation allegations exacerbates the very parent-child relationship problems these cases try to address. Court cases make parent-child contact problems or parental alienation worse. Whether in the end, those cases fix parental alienation problems is also controversial. There is nothing that courts have ordered that always restores all children’s relationship with both parents.

Sometimes, avoiding, or ending intense conflict and litigation over alienation can eliminate the major wedge between a parent and child, especially where the child feels that one parent needs protection or support to avoid being victimized by the parent aggressively asserting his or her rights. In other circumstances, only immediate, drastic intervention will prevent a deliberate strategy of alienation from being successful. In that latter situation, it is necessary to request the use of the coercive enforcement powers of the court to preserve the parent-child relationship.

Situations of parent-child contact problems after separation are not the only ones where going to Family Court may be a bad way to fix things. However, situations where one parent is actually alienating the children from the other parent, are situations where the Family Court has a clear mandate to intervene. When deciding what parenting order to make, Family Court judges, and Family Arbitrators, must look at several specific factors, set out in the law, to decide what parenting situation is in the child’s best interests. Of those factors that judges must consider, two of them relate to the ability of each parent to support the children’s relationship with the other parent and only one relates to what the child wants (and the court does not have to do what the child wants). Essentially, the law makes supporting the children’s relationship with the other parent twice as important as things such as each parent’s plan for raising the children, family violence or the history of who has cared for the children. Allegations of parental alienation can take over and become more important than anything else in Family Court proceedings. Then the judge (or family arbitrator) must make difficult decisions about what to do when children have a poor relationship with a parent, even when the best solutions are not legal ones.

How best to fix parent-child relationships is also a very controversial topic. Not only are the “treatments” controversial, with none of them being subject to the same level of research and clinical trials required for medical treatments to get regulatory approval, but what treatment would work best likely depends on the specific circumstances of the family. There are no fixed criteria to measure the success of the treatment programs. Some programs consider themselves successful if an “alienated child” can sit in the same room as the estranged parent without insulting that parent. Others consider the program a success if the child willingly participates in regular parenting time with both parents. Some programs boast success when a child rejects the previously alienating parent and will only have a relationship with the parent the child previously despised, even though such a situation likely only exacerbates the negative effects of parental alienation that are despaired by proponents of anti-alienation psychoeducation programs.

Further, there remain no standards or best practices for conducting reunification therapy and there are many different models have been developed, each claiming success based on anecdotal evidence or weak methodological evaluations. These remedies cost tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars. In some cases, it may not be in the child’s best interest to repair the relationship as doing so may be too traumatic or harmful for the child. Parents involved in these cases must research the potential solutions to the problem thoroughly. If they are in court, the parents must be able to explain to a judge why they feel a certain course of action is most likely to be successful. Where both parents legitimately want to repair a child’s poor relationship with one parent, the best solutions involve avoiding court altogether in favour of working with respected parenting professionals.

Cases where children have a poor relationship with a parent are all difficult cases, full of traps and minefields for both parents. A parent who makes an alienation allegation but does not convince the judge may find that, in addition to losing the family court case, the litigation he or she caused has further irreparably damaged their relationship with the child such that the connection is permanently severed. A well-meaning parent who does not know how to correct a child’s defiant attitude toward the other parent can find him or herself not only cut off from the child for treatment purposes but labelled as a pariah in court and unable to obtain any relief from the judges who have condemned him or her. An alienating parent can lose everything – including contact with a child forever. The assistance of an exceptional family law lawyer with experience in alienation cases is critical for parents on both sides in these cases. Those lawyers can direct the family down the right path to solve the problem, but that path does not always involve the court.

To get the best advice, specific to your situation, you should speak to a family lawyer. Certified Specialist in Family Law, John Schuman, is known for his concern for children in separation and divorce and has won many parenting cases. To contact John call 416-446-5847, email him, or fill out the form below. You can use the same form to comment on this page. 

John Schuman Guide to the Basics of Ontario Family Law book cover

You can get a lot more information about Ontario Family Law issues, including a comprehensive explanation of parenting cases (parenting time and decision making), child support, spousal support, property division, and most other common family law issues by downloading this $9.99 Kindle eBook, Kobo eBook, or iBook for your iPad or iPhone or ordering it from Amazon as a paperback. But to understand how the law works precisely in your situation, it is always best to speak to a good Family Law Lawyer.

To comment on this article, or to contact John Schuman, please use the form below.