In family law disputes, parental alienation is often of the most critical concern, as it has the potential to invoke severe long-lasting consequences on the child and one of the parents. This term describes the act of one parent manipulating or coercing a child to reject or distance themselves from the other parent, often causing considerable emotional and psychological damage to the child.
Various behaviours by a parent can contribute to parental alienation, such as speaking in negative light of the other parent, restricting communication or contact between the child and the other parent, or making false domestic violence or abuse allegations. These actions can lead to the child’s skewed perception of the other parent, causing the child to display fear, hostility, or rejection towards that parent.
Let’s take an example for illustrative purposes. Peter and Kate are separated. Their 6-year-old child Nathan now lives with Kate and has been spending time with Peter during every second weekend. After separation, the child has become progressively more withdrawn and distant with Peter, ultimately refusing to spend time with him. Peter has reasons to believe that Kate has been coercing and putting pressure on Nathan to stop all communication with the father. What can be done in this situation?
The primary consideration should always be best interests of the child, Nathan. Since Kate's actions seem to be causing emotional distress and harm to Nathan, it is essential to take appropriate steps to address this. Here are some possible actions that Peter can take:
1. Open and Respectful Communication: Peter should first try to have an open, respectful, and honest conversation with Kate regarding Nathan's well-being and the importance for a child of maintaining a healthy relationship with both parents. It may be helpful to openly discuss the negative impact of some of Kate’s behaviour on Nathan's emotional and psychological development.
2. Seek professional help: If communication with Kate is not effective, Peter can seek professional help, such as a family therapist, to address the issue. Peter can provide Kate with a list of three family therapists and Kate can elect one or vice versa, to avoid any suspicions of the therapist not being impartial. A family therapist or child psychologist may help both parents understand the consequences of their actions and provide guidance on how to work together for the benefit of their child.
3. Engage in mediation or family dispute resolution: Peter can also consider engaging in family mediation or dispute resolution services. These services can help both parents find common ground and develop strategies for effective co-parenting, which may prevent further alienation. Obtaining a section 60I certificate at mediation is an important requirement before commencing any non-urgent family law litigation, so this step should be taken by Peter as soon as possible if Stage 1 and 2 are unsuccessful or can even be undertaken simultaneously with the above steps.
4. Legal intervention: If all other options have been exhausted, and Kate continues her harmful behaviour, Peter may need to seek legal assistance. He can consult with a family lawyer to better understand his options and potentially file an application with the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia, provided he has obtained the section 60I certificate (although it may be possible to commence legal proceedings without a section 60I certificate in certain urgent circumstances). The court can then consider the child's best interests and make appropriate orders, such as ensuring Nathan has meaningful contact with Peter, requiring Kate to participate in therapy or parenting programs, or even modifying existing parenting arrangements.
Throughout any of the above stages, Peter should carefully document any evidence of Kate's alienating behaviour and its impact on Nathan, as this information would be extremely important for any legal proceedings. Examples of such evidence can include. but is not limited to: text messages, emails, or social media posts, in which the alienating parent speaks negatively about the other parent, makes false allegations, or tries to manipulate the child's feelings about the other parent, statements from friends, family members, teachers, or other individuals who have witnessed the alienating parent's behavior or the child's reactions to that behavior, any reports from health professionals, such as the child's psychologist or therapist, records of missed visitations, and even changes in the child's school performance, attendance, or medical issues, which may indicate the impact of parental alienation on the child's well-being.
You should note that each family's situation is unique, and the most appropriate course of action may vary depending on the specific circumstances. Ultimately, the goal should be to protect the child’s best interests with a view of maintaining a meaningful relationship with both parents in so far as it is practicable.
If you are a parent affected by parental alienation, you should contact our office as soon as possible for a free initial consultation. Parental alienation cases can be extremely complex and nuanced and it is vital that you obtain legal advice as soon as possible to understand how to address this situation and to minimise any psychological and emotional impact on the child.