Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Tell-Tale Signs of Parental Alienation


Parental alienation is sadly not all that uncommon in high conflict separated and divorced families.

In the first of our two-part blog series on this topic, we will begin by setting out what parental alienation is, and how best to recognize the early signs of such behavior. Next week, we will be turning our discussion to how the family courts may choose to address this issue.

It is imperative to have a strong understanding of what parental alienation is as well as what it is not. Unfounded allegations of parental alienation can be just as damaging to your child(ren) (and not to mention, your position before the Courts), so this issue should be broached carefully, with due consideration and caution. Where possible, you should consult with a lawyer and/or a medical professional to help you determine whether there is an issue of parental alienation presented.

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation is the acts of a parent or family member to psychologically manipulate a child(ren) to harbor feelings of hostility, anger, fear and / or disrespect towards the other parent or family member. The objective of course is to alienate the child(ren) from the other parent, and to discourage the fostering of a meaningful relationship with the other parent.

This is a largely overlooked form of child abuse and family violence. It can often result in long-term estrangement issues, and put the child(ren) at risk of both mental and physical illness, in what has come to be known as "Parental Alienation Syndrome".

The Parental Alienation Syndrome Controversy:

The concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome ("PAS") is not without its own controversy. PAS was first developed by psychiatrist and Columbia University Professor, Richard Gardner, well over twenty years ago, in the context of trying to explain a trend of what he believed to be false accusations of child sexual abuse in child custody cases. Mr. Gardner went on to develop the "sex abuse legitimacy scale", which as you can imagine, made him quite the controversial figure.

His position that parental alienation could be characterized to be a "syndrome" with distinctive signs and symptoms caused by a particular pathological condition or disorder is quite contentious among fellow psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists as well. An interesting read on Mr. Gardner's perspective of PAS can be found here.

While the question of whether or not parental alienation is a syndrome remains controverted, the more important fact for our discussion is that parental alienation is recognized by the Courts as being a form of abuse.

What are early signs of parental alienation?
  • The child(ren) shows a sudden negative change in attitude towards a parent or guardian
  • The child(ren) perceives one parent as causing the financial problems of the other parent
  • The child(ren) appears to have knowledge of details relating to the legal aspects of the divorce or separation
  • The child(ren) appears uneasy around target parent, perhaps resorting to "one word" answers, and failing to engage openly in conversations as was previously the case;
  • The child(ren) is uncharacteristically rude and/or belligerent towards the target parent
  • Access time is not occurring as agreed upon or court ordered - visitation is being unilaterally cut back by the other parent
  • The alienating parent undermines the other parent or speaks disparagingly about other parent in the presence of the child(ren)
  • The alienating parent starts making reference to other parent as being abusive and a risk to the child(ren) with no apparent good reason
  • Allowing the child(ren) to choose whether or not to visit a parent, though not an appropriate decision for him or her to be making, particularly in the case of younger children;
  • Disclosing to the child(ren) why the marriage supposedly failed and giving the child(ren) the details about the divorce or separation settlement;
  • Refusing the other parent access to medical and school records or schedules of extracurricular activities;
  • Blaming the other parent for not having enough money, changes in lifestyle, or other problems in the child(ren)'s presence;
  • Refusal to consider routine requests for scheduling changes, for no reasonable justification, to obstruct the access of the other parent to the child;
  • False allegations of sexual abuse, drug and alcohol use or other illegal activities by the alienating parent;
  • Putting the child(ren) in a position wherein he or she is asked to choose one parent over the other;
  • Encouraging the child to harbor anger or resentment towards the other parent;
  • Setting up temptations to to interfere with the child(ren)'s visitation with the other parent;
  • Giving the child(ren) the impression that having a good time on a visit will hurt the alienating parent;
  • Interrogating the child(ren) about the other parent's personal life;
  • 'Rescuing' the children from the other parent when there is no danger.

What are the statistics related to Parental Alienation?
  •  Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 1988: A child who was separated from his or her father for a period of three (3) months or longer while between the ages of 6 months to 5 years old, suffered a 2.5 to 5 times higher risk of conduct disorder, emotional disorders and hysteria than a child that did not go through the same period of separation.
  •  Bron, Strack & Rudolph, Univ. of Gottingen, Germany, 1991: Drastically increased suicidal tendencies were found in people who had experienced the loss of the father.
  • American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 1990: Children showed the most behavior problems if their parents were in a legal conflict and the visitation was not frequent or regular with both parents.
  • Acta Psychiatrica, Scandinavia, 1990, 1993: Scandinavian research found a significantly higher number of attempted adult suicides for people who, in childhood, had lost a parent through parental separation or divorce.
  • British Journal of Psychiatry, 1989: British researchers found that adults who suffered the loss of a parent because of separation or divorce have a significantly higher risk of developing agoraphobia with panic attacks and panic disorder
Going through a divorce or separation can be one of the most trying times of your life, particularly when it involves high conflict custody disputes. As you ride the emotional roller coaster that comes with this, it is so important that you remain as neutral and level-headed about your family situation as possible for the sake of your child(ren).
Next week, we will discuss the Court's recent position on the issue of parental alienation. Stay tuned!
- Rachel Spence, Law Clerk, Toronto
- Simran Bakshi, Associate Lawyer, Toronto

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