Understanding Parental Alienation in Australia

Clarity Parental Alienation Main

In the family law world, few matters are as emotionally charged and distressing as parental alienation. Parental alienation involves the manipulation or undermining of a child’s relationship with one parent by the other.

This undermining can result in long-lasting emotional harm to the child. Yet, despite these consequences, parental alienation remains a complex concept that is difficult to understand and somewhat common.

In this piece, we’re going to shed some light on parental alienation in the context of Australian family law. Our aim is to not only help you understand parental alienation but to provide you with guidance in being able to recognise this issue and how to navigate it if you do encounter it.

Keep reading to learn more about parental alienation.

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation refers to a behavioural pattern that is very destructive in nature where one parent undermines or sabotages the relationship between a child and their other parent.

This behaviour is usually, but not always, intentional and involves manipulation of the child’s understanding of their relationship with the other parent, with the aim of alienating the other parent and have the child turn against the other parent.

The tactics the alienating parent may use in their bid to turn the child against the other parent include a wide variety of actions, such as making derogatory comments, providing false information to the child and/or limiting communication and contact between the child and their other parent. These behaviours can result in the child starting to display negative behaviours and emotions towards the other parent, including being hostile or indifferent towards them.

While a child may express negative feelings towards their parents from time to time or they have a legitimate fear of their parents, in cases of parental alienation, the child’s negative feelings and behaviours will not have a justified basis, instead, they have resulted from the manipulation and influence of the other parent.

Parental alienation typically occurs when a separation or divorce is high in conflict, often when there has been significant emotional fallout between the parents. Parental alienation can impact parenting arrangements and a child’s welfare, so being aware of the issue and how it can be handled is extremely important.

Is parental alienation child abuse?

As the effects of parental alienation can be very detrimental and long-lasting the question as to whether parental alienation is a form of a child abuse has been widely discussed, from both a legal and psychological perspective.

Parental alienation can be considered to be a type of emotional abuse as it is a behaviour that harms the psychological well-being and the development of a child that often results in long-term emotional scars.

When a child is subjected to ongoing manipulation and coercion, such as the kind that occurs in instances of parental alienation, it can lead to feelings of confusion and guilt. This can cause the child to experience anxiety, depression and damage their overall emotional development.

What are the effects of parental alienation?

Parental alienation has wide-ranging and profound effects on all parties involved, including children, parents, and even extended family members. Some of the effects include:

The effect of parental alienation on children

  • Emotional Distress: Children who experience parental alienation often endure significant emotional distress. They may feel torn, confused, and trapped in loyalty conflicts between their parents. This can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and a sense of isolation.
  • Damaged Parent-Child Relationship: Parental alienation can severely damage the relationship between the targeted parent and the child. The child may exhibit rejection, fear, and hostility towards the targeted parent, even when they have no real reason to feel this way.
  • Low Self-Esteem and Self-Identity Issues: Children who undergo parental alienation may experience a diminished sense of self-worth and struggle with their self-identity. The denigration and negative messaging from the alienating parent can erode their confidence and belief in their own abilities.
  • Difficulties in Future Relationships: The effects of parental alienation can extend beyond childhood. As these children grow into adulthood, they may face challenges in forming and maintaining healthy relationships due to trust issues and difficulties in navigating loyalty conflicts.

The effect of parental alienation on parents

  • Emotional Turmoil: The targeted parent, who is often on the receiving end of the alienating behaviours, may experience profound emotional turmoil. They may feel heartbroken, rejected, and unjustly portrayed as a villain, leading to anger, sadness, and frustration.
  • Strained Parent-Child Relationship: Parental alienation can strain the relationship between the targeted parent and the child, causing a sense of loss and disconnection. This loss can be particularly painful for parents who genuinely want to maintain a loving and nurturing bond with their child.
  • Legal and Financial Consequences: Parental alienation can also have significant legal and financial consequences. The targeted parent may need to engage in legal battles to protect their rights and the child’s well-being, resulting in emotional and financial strain.

The effect of parental alienation on extended family and others

  • Fragmented Family Relationships: Parental alienation can disrupt not only the parent-child bond but also relationships between the child and extended family members, such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles. The alienating behaviours may lead to estrangement and loss of connection with these relatives.
  • Emotional Distress: Extended family members who witness parental alienation may experience their own emotional distress. They may feel helpless, frustrated, and saddened by the impact on the child and targeted parent, as well as the family as a whole.

Some of these effects may only be short-term, however, in many instances, these effects can be very long-lasting and difficult to overcome.

What are the signs of parental alienation?

Parental alienation can take many forms and present in a variety of different ways, so it’s important to understand warning signs that may indicate parental alienation behaviours are occurring. Some behaviours and signs you can look out for include:

  • You may be prevented from talking to or seeing your child;
  • You may only be allowed to talk or communicate with your child a certain way, such as only via text messages;
  • The child’s other parent may purposely plan events or activities that clash with the times you were meant to spend with your child;
  • Your child may start expressing hatred, negative views or attitudes towards you;
  • Your child may display signs of fear towards or discomfort towards you without any cause;
  • Your child’s other parent may withhold information about your child.

These are only some of the potential warning signs of parental alienation.

If you do notice any of the above occurring or something unusual, while it could be parental alienation, it’s also important to ensure you consider factors that could contribute to this behaviour.

Why does parental alienation happen and is it always intentional?

Parental alienation can stem from a combination of factors and is not always intentional.

Where it occurs unintentionally, it can be driven by a combination of emotional and psychological factors. High-conflict separations or divorces can trigger intense emotions, causing parents to inadvertently engage in behaviours that contribute to the alienation process. These unintentional actions may include negative remarks made in the presence of the child, unintentional bias, or fostering an atmosphere of hostility and animosity.

Where parental alienation occurs intentionally, it is as a result of deliberate actions taken by one parent to undermine the relationship between the child and the other parent. Motivations behind intentional alienation can vary and may include feelings of anger, revenge, control, or a desire to exert dominance in the custody dispute.

Some factors that could contribute to parental alienation happening include:

  • Pre-existing conflict between the parents, unresolved grievances, or a contentious history can lay the groundwork for the development of parental alienation.
  • Inability to effectively cope with the emotional challenges of separation or divorce may lead to a parent resorting to alienating behaviours as a means of dealing with their own pain or insecurities.
  • The influence of family members, friends, or new partners can play a role in exacerbating or promoting parental alienation. These individuals may inadvertently or intentionally reinforce negative views or attitudes towards the targeted parent.
  • Certain personality traits, such as narcissism, controlling behaviour, or a strong need for power and control, can contribute to the development and perpetuation of parental alienation.

Every situation is unique and the factors contributing to parental alienation may vary. It is not uncommon for a combination of intentional and unintentional factors to be present.

Parental alienation and the Australian family law system

Parental alienation is a matter of increasing concern within the Australian family law system. The Family Law Act 1975, which governs family law matters in Australia, emphasises the importance of promoting the best interests of the child. The best interests of the child are based on a number of factors, including two key principles which are:

  • The right of a child to have a meaningful relationship with both parents; and
  • The right of a child to be protected from harm of any kind, including physical and psychological harm.

While the term “parental alienation” is not explicitly defined in the legislation, the concept is recognised and taken into account by the family courts when making decisions about parenting arrangements.

Are there any legal consequences for parental alienation?

Parental alienation can have significant legal consequences within the Australian family law system. While the primary focus is on protecting the best interests of the child and promoting healthy parent-child relationships, the court has mechanisms in place to address cases involving parental alienation and enforce compliance with court orders. Here are some of the legal consequences that can arise from parental alienation:

  • Variation of Parenting Orders: If parental alienation is found to be present and detrimental to the child’s well-being, the court may vary existing parenting orders to address and rectify the situation. This could involve modifying arrangements for the time the child spends with each parent, implementing supervised or supported contact, or imposing specific conditions to promote the child’s relationship with the targeted parent.
  • Breaching court orders: If you have court orders or parenting orders in pace and one parent is found to be deliberately interfering with the child’s relationship with the other parent this could result in penalisation. This may mean changes to the orders as well as leading to fines, community service, or, in severe cases, imprisonment.
  • Court ordered intervention services: The court may order the participation of the child, the alienating parent, and the targeted parent in therapy or counselling programs that aim to address the underlying dynamics contributing to parental alienation, facilitate communication, and promote the re-establishment or improvement of the parent-child relationship.
  • Loss of time with the child: In extreme cases where parental alienation persists and is severely detrimental to the child’s well-being, the court may consider modifying the care arrangements for the child. This could result in a change of primary residence, a shift in decision-making responsibilities, or even access to the child revoked from the alienating parent to protect the child from ongoing alienating behaviours.

While some of these consequences may sound severe it’s important to note that the Australian family law system emphasises the importance of the best interests of the child and aim to ensure that the child has the best chance to have a relationship with their parents and is able to develop healthily.

What if your child doesn’t want to see you?

If you suspect that your child’s reluctance or refusal to spend time with you is due to parental alienation, it is important to take proactive steps to address the situation. Some steps you can take include:

  • Documenting specific incidents that may indicate parental alienation.
  • Communicate as openly as possible with the other parent.
  • Approach your child in a positive and supportive manner.
  • Consider professional help such as therapy or mediation services.
  • Talk to a family law professional.

Addressing parental alienation requires persistence, patience, and a focus on the well-being of your child. By taking proactive steps, you can increase the chances of resolving the issue and promoting a healthier relationship with your child.

How can a family lawyer help you?

A family lawyer plays a crucial role in parental alienation cases, offering legal expertise and guidance to navigate the complexities of the legal system.

A family lawyer can provide you with a clear understanding of your legal rights, obligations, and options in cases of parental alienation. They will assess the specific circumstances of your case, review available evidence, and develop a strategic approach to address parental alienation effectively.

If the situation escalates and court intervention becomes necessary, a family lawyer can represent you during court proceedings. They will advocate for your rights, present evidence of parental alienation, and make compelling arguments to protect your child’s best interests.

As parental alienation cases often involve the preparation and filing of legal documents, such as applications, affidavits, and responses, a family lawyer can help guide you through the process, ensuring that all necessary documents are correctly completed, submitted on time, and in compliance with the relevant legal requirements.

Outside of the legal expertise that we can bring to these situations, as family lawyers, we also have access to a variety of different support networks and professionals that may be able to help resolve your matter without the need for legal action. We often collaborate with these other professionals to ensure we can provide the best outcome for our clients.

Talk to Clarity Lawyers today

When conflicts and disputes involving or affecting your children arise, we understand how important it is to understand all of your options, rights and responsibilities. At Clarity Lawyers, we pride ourselves on providing our clients with easy to understand, no-nonsense advice so that they can make the right decision for them.

If you’re involved in a dispute involving your children or experiencing parental alienation, talk to us today. We’re here to help you.

Call us on 02 4023 5553 or book online here.

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Rli Samantha@2x
Samantha Miller

Samantha has been a lawyer since 2001 having followed in the steps of her father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather. No one can say she didn’t know what she was getting into!

Initially admitted in 2001 as a solicitor in NSW and Australia, Samantha moved to the UK where she was admitted as a solicitor in England and Wales in 2002. After working in several different areas of the law in large London firms, she determined that family law was her calling and hasn’t looked back.


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