Coles Solicitors supports Family Dispute Resolution Week running from 23 to 27 November 2015
The theme this year is putting children first.
More information can be found on the Resolution: first for family law website
As a family lawyer, a significant part of my work involves dealing with difficult issues relating to children following a relationship breakdown. Whilst I find that the vast majority of parents are eventually able to reach an agreement between themselves, which works for them and their children, some parents for all sorts of reasons simply cannot agree.
There can, of course, be good reasons for this, perhaps there has been violence in the relationship, drug or alcohol abuse or other behaviour which causes the parent with whom the child lives with (the “resident parent”) to want to sever all ties with the other parent. Whilst it may generally be possible to do this with each other, the starting point in law is that a child has a right to a relationship with both of their parents. In the circumstances, these types of cases have typically ended up in Court proceedings where the Court can use its powers to try to preserve some form of relationship between the parent and child whilst still protecting the child.
Increasingly however, I am seeing cases which involve the resident parent behaving in a hostile manner towards the other parent with the ultimate aim of cutting them out of their child’s life completely. This type of behaviour is known as parental alienation and often involves the resident parent verbally or non-verbally manipulating their child into believing that the other parent does not love or care about them and they should avoid them or even be frightened of them.
There can be many reasons for this, one of the most common I find being, the start of a relationship with a new partner by either the hostile or alienated parent.
According to the Parental Alienation Awareness Organisation, some early signs of Parental Alienation include the following:
- hostile parent undermines the other parent or speaks disparagingly about other parent in the presence of the children
- child shows sudden negative change in their attitude toward a parent/guardian
- child appears uneasy around target parent – they resort to “one word” answers and fail to engage openly in conversations as they previously have done
- child is uncharacteristically rude and/or belligerent to target parent
- contact time is not occurring as agreed upon or Court ordered – arrangements are unilaterally cut back by the other parent
- allowing child to choose whether or not to visit a parent, even though the Court has not empowered the parent or children to make that choice;
- setting up temptations that interfere with visits to the other parent;
- rigid enforcement of the contact arrangements for no good reason other than getting back at the other parent;
- giving the child the impression that having a good time on a visit will hurt the parent;
- asking the child to choose one parent over the other;
- asking the child about the other parent’s personal life;
- telling the child about why the marriage failed and giving them the details about the divorce or separation settlement;
- Reminding the child that they have good reason to feel angry toward their other parent;
- blaming the other parent for not having enough money, changes in lifestyle, or other problems in the child’s presence;
- refusing the other parent access to medical and school records or schedules of extracurricular activities;
- hostile parent starts making reference to other parent as being abusive and a risk to the child with no apparent good reason
- false allegations of sexual abuse, drug and alcohol use or other illegal activities by the other parent;
- ‘Rescuing’ the child from the other parent when there is no danger.
For the alienated parent desperately wanting to have a normal relationship with their child it can be extremely distressing and frustrating. However, what is not often realised by the hostile parent, and sometimes the other people involved in the child’s life e.g. family, GP, teachers at school etc. is that by depriving a child from a relationship with their other parent and manipulating them into hating or not wanting to see their other parent, is in fact, incredibly damaging to that child’s mental and emotional development.
Children caught up in this type of abusive behaviour can react differently. Younger children generally internalise the problem by blaming themselves and this can often show as becoming quiet and withdrawn. Older children may become rebellious and aggressive – lashing out. This damage can have long-term consequences for the child – even into adulthood, causing difficulties within their own future relationships.
What needs to be recognised by everyone involved is that these manipulative and damaging behaviours by the hostile parent upon their child are a form of emotional child abuse which should not be permitted to continue.
At the end of the day, children should feel loved by both of their parents and be permitted to freely love both of their parents back. This is important when the family unit are together but perhaps even more so, when it has broken apart.
All of the Solicitors in the Coles family team are members of Resolution and are committed to helping resolve disputes in a non-confrontational way.
By Elizabeth Matfin