What is parental alienation?
Divorce is stressful for both parents and children. During this turbulent time, emotions run high and can cause people to act in ways that negatively affect others. Family law in Alberta recognizes the vulnerability of children in divorce situations and protects them from parental alienation.
When parents are making custody decisions, the best interests of the child must be the top priority. If parents can’t come to an agreement, the court must decide. When a child resists or refuses to spend time with one parent, it might mean parental alienation is a factor.
What is parental alienation?
Parental alienation happens when one parent manipulates a child to reject the other parent. The goal is to prevent access between the child and the alienated parent. The motivation behind this strategy is often a desire for revenge or financial gain, though reasons vary.
The alienating parent uses various methods to cause the child to refuse to visit or have a relationship with the other parent out of hatred, fear, or disrespect. When a child is subject to parental alienation, they tend to have strong feelings against the alienated parent, even seeing that parent as evil.
Some methods commonly used in parental alienation are:
- Constantly presenting the other parent in a negative light
- Discussing inappropriate details of their marriage or divorce with the child
- Fabricating allegations of abuse
- Rewarding the child for attacking the other parent
- Make the child feel guilty for spending time with the other parent
If a child has access to the parent regularly, parental alienation is not happening. Parental alienation is more than a rocky relationship between a parent and child.
Parental Alienation vs Parental Estrangement
Parental alienation is when a child rejects a parent because of manipulation by the other parent. But parental estrangement is when a child rejects a parent for logical and justifiable reasons.
Extreme cases of parental estrangement happen when a parent has been violent or abusive. But it can also happen in less severe circumstances, such as when a parent is excessively strict, emotionally distant, engaged in substance abuse, or displays other intolerable traits or attributes.
It’s a natural reaction for a child to withdraw from a dysfunctional parent with no interference from anyone else. In fact, it may be appropriate and necessary for the mental health and well-being of the child to do so.
Effects of Parental Alienation
Parental alienation is harmful to children and can cause irreparable damage to the parent-child relationship. Studies show that children who are victims of parental alienation carry emotional scars well into adulthood, which affects their other relationships.
Other negative effects of parental alienation can include:
- Up to 5 times more likely to develop conduct disorder, emotional disorders such as agoraphobia, panic attacks, and panic disorder
- Drastically increased suicidal tendencies
- Low self-esteem
The effects of parental alienation are serious. It’s important to be alert for signs of parental alienation in divorce and separation situations involving children.
Signs of Parental Alienation
How can you tell if parental alienation is happening?
There are visible signs of parental alienation. Pay attention to any unwarranted changes in the child’s behaviour, such as
- Rejecting all forms of affection with the parent (including gifts)
- Criticizing the parent in the same way the alienating parent does
- Unconditionally siding with the alienating parent, almost as a reflex and often based on minimal evidence
- Increased and irrational anxiety, fear or upset associated with interaction with the parent
- A complete refusal to attend visits or be in contact with the parent
- Uncharacteristic derogatory comments toward the parent
- A change in loyalty to the parent’s extended family (a broadening of the alienation from the parent)
- A lack of remorse over the loss of relationship with the parent
What You Can Do About Parental Alienation
If you suspect parental alienation, there are steps you can take to mitigate the effects, to put a stop to the alienating behaviour, and to work toward restoring that vital parent-child relationship.
If you’re concerned that your former spouse or partner has caused parental alienation between you and your child, you can:
- Maintain contact with your child as much as possible. Keep things positive, fun, and conflict-free. Even though this may be difficult, it’s critical for the parent-child relationship and can lessen the effects of parental alienation.
- Seek reunification therapy with a psychologist or counsellor who is familiar with parental alienation.
- Contact a lawyer. The law protects the health and welfare of the child, which includes parent-child relationships. You must act quickly to seek a court-ordered resolution that allows you access to your child.
Is parental alienation illegal in Canada?
Canadian courts have repeatedly acknowledged the harmful effects of parental alienation and emphasized the importance of preserving the parent-child relationship. Canadian family law is established on the “maximum contact” principle. It’s designed to ensure that every child has access to both parents as long as it’s in the child’s best interests.
According to Canada’s Divorce Act, a parent must adhere to custody arrangements or access schedules outlined in a court order. Failure to do so can result in penalties, including fines or lost custody.
If parental alienation is proven in court, the court may order reunification therapy.
How do you prove parental alienation?
It’s not easy to prove parental alienation. Courts require proof that the child’s natural response to the parent has changed. Parental alienation cases usually involve expert evidence of emotional harm to the child and third-party testimony as to the nature of the parent-child relationship before the alienation.
Parental Alienation Lawyers in Alberta
The damaging effects of parental alienation are life-changing. The parent-child relationship can be irreparably destroyed and the child can suffer well into adulthood.
If you suspect parental alienation, don’t wait! Contact a family law lawyer at Osuji & Smith to review your situation. If parental alienation is likely, we can help you prove parental alienation and talk to you about your options. These options might include:
- Helping you draft a letter to the alienating parent demanding them to stop the alienating behaviour;
- Presenting your case to a judge;
- Asking a judge to order the alienating parent to stop criticizing you in front of the children;
- Asking a judge for supervised visitation for the alienating parent;
- Asking a judge to give you more time with your children to minimize the alienating influence of the other parent.