Child custody is an emotive and significant issue for separating parents. It can be complicated by conflicting work schedules and shift patterns, making it difficult to spend time with children in the time you are allocated; it can further be complicated by house moves and introducing new partners into the mix.
Yet parental separation can sometimes lead to parental alienation, when one parent tries to keep the other from seeing the children as a revenge tactic (but the alienated parent doesn’t pose a welfare risk to the child). This can lead to years of estrangement, with the child believing their absent mother or father is bad or irresponsible and may not love them at all.
Since October 2014, parental involvement has been implemented in the Children and Families Act, promoting both parents’ valuable roles in a child’s life (except in cases where one or both parents pose a risk to the child). At the time, Justice Minister Simon Hughes said: “No parent should be excluded from their child’s life for no good reason.”
Signs of Parental Alienation
Marking a parent as toxic, uncaring or irresponsible can take many forms, but may include:
- Suggesting a parent isn’t around because they don’t want to see their children any more, or don’t love them.
- Saying Mummy or Daddy is building a ‘new family’ with their new partner and won’t have time for their existing children.
- Telling children not to engage with a parent or accept presents from them.
- Hiding communication from the parent to the child, such as letters, text messages or phone calls (this is more common with younger children, whose parents may monitor their mobile phones and limit usage).
- Encouraging children to report back from their visits to the other parent and record evidence of the parent’s behaviour.
- Exaggerating reports of the other parent’s behaviour to influence a child’s perception of them: a car crash (which wasn’t the parent’s fault) morphs into ‘Mummy’s dangerous driving’; infrequent take-away meals as treats become a complaint that ‘Daddy only feeds us junk food’.
- Regularly changing times and locations of arranged visits at short notice, knowing the other parent won’t be able to accommodate them.
This can even extend to alienating grandparents, other relatives and close friends on that side of the family, damaging children’s relationships with even more people they once happily spent time with. When a child is struggling to cope with their parents being apart, it is cruel to cut off healthy pre-existing relationships, as this creates further instability and anxiety.
Of course, if a parent feels their children are genuinely unsafe or at risk in the other parent’s care, such as in cases of domestic violence, neglect or severe addiction, caution is justified and social services should be involved. They may also wish to seek help from charities such as Women’s Aid or Al Anon.
However, if a parent knows deep down that their behaviour is a way to get back at an ex-partner, and punish them by gaining full custody, it is time to stop and think about the life-long consequences of these actions. No game-playing or point-scoring scheme can be worth manipulating your children over and damaging their perception of a parent for years to come.
Resolution, a family law organisation, has drawn up a Parenting Charter that you can go through with your children. The charter emphasises the importance of safe contact with all parents and siblings where possible.
Mediation to Deal with Parental Alienation
Many parents resort to mediation during a separation or divorce where they can barely face to be in the same room as each other, and both parties are fighting for child custody. These days, we all know families shouldn’t stay together for the sake of appearances; when parents can no longer live in the same house for whatever reason, it is healthier for the family to be split than to subject children to endless arguments and upset. However, when one or both parents cannot be civil or adult about family matters, it is crucial to bring in external parties who can mediate and ensure the situation doesn’t deteriorate further.
There is a vast difference between a mother or father’s negative attitude to their ex-partner, such as not trusting them after an affair, and a mother or father’s belief that their ex-partner is a bad or dangerous influence on their child. You may not want to spend time with your ex-partner, but do you really want your child to be largely estranged from them?
Mediation will give both parents a mature and considered way to state their case and their ideal resolution. It is suitable for many divorcing or separating partners, except when the relationship has involved violence or major welfare concerns for partners or children. The discussions from mediation are not reported to the courts unless they become police matters.
If you do have to go to court, HM Courts and Tribunals Service has a guide on family court cases when parents are separated. It covers three main orders that the courts may be involved in:
- Child arrangements orders state where the child will be living and when they will visit each parent – for example, regular weekend visits for one partner, instead of sporadic contact.
- Specific issue orders are just that – relating to a particular childcare or child lifestyle issue you cannot agree on, such as private or state school education, religion, or health treatment.
- Prohibited steps orders ban a parent from certain actions unless they have the court’s permission, such as taking the child overseas or removing them from school.
In difficult circumstances, some people face going to court on their own and representing themselves. The Personal Support Unit, a charity based around England and Wales, can help navigate the legal system.
During divorce and separation, you may find talking therapy helpful, either for you or your children. Whilst many schools now have counsellors on hand, and your GP can provide a counselling referral, waiting lists can be long, and on-site school counselling may not feel enough for you, especially with breaks for the school holidays. Instead, a child psychologist is specially trained to work with children using a range of talking therapies; they can fit appointments around your child’s schooling and other commitments throughout the year.
Your own schedule of talking therapy gives you a safe and nurturing environment to talk about the relationship breakdown, your children’s wellbeing and any related issues, such as parental alienation, with professional help to develop solutions that work.
Written by guest contributor Polly Allen for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).