By Christie Tetreault, NUI Galway and Elizabeth A. Bates, University of Cumbria

We've all seen or heard about bitter custody battles where children get caught in the middle. Many studies have demonstrated that children who have contact with two loving parents during and after divorce have better long-term psychological and social outcomes. So what happens when one parent purposely turns the child or children against the other parent? This is called parental alienation.

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation is defined as "the psychological manipulation of a child by a parent or main carer [alienating parent] following separation or divorce, which is intended to disrupt and ultimately sever the child's attachment bond to their other parent [alienated parent] without justification." Parental alienation is a repetitive routine of manipulative behaviour, not one offs. It’s crucial to highlight the difference between parental alienation and estrangement. Again, parental alienation is an unjustified rejection of a parent; whereas, estrangement is a justified rejection due to a parent’s deficient parenting style, neglect, or abuse.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, solicitor Catherine Ghent and psychotherapist Brian O'Sullivan discuss parental alienation

Can parental alienation be used to abuse a partner?

Ultimately, in parental alienation situations, the children become the weapons that the alienating parent uses to abuse the other parent. Parental alienation has been described as an often unacknowledged form of family violence and is not always considered within the context of domestic violence. The alienating behaviours are control tactics that are used to coerce and manipulate the target parent.

Research shows evidence of this in victims' accounts of domestic violence; men describe the end of the abusive relationship being followed by their ex-partner withholding contact or turning the child against them by various means. These behaviours can also occur during the relationship and be used as a threat against the other parent to get them to adhere to the abuser’s demands to stay in the relationship. For instance, threats such as "if you leave me, you will never see your child(ren) again," exemplifies this type of coercive, controlling abuse. This type of abuse can often be heightened in relationships with international couples.

How can a child be alienated?

There are various tactics that an alienating parent can use to manipulate the child(ren) against the alienated parent. For example, they can withhold or control contact, badmouth the other parent, lie to scare the child (eg 'Mum/Dad wants to hurt us'), call the parent by their first name and a new partner by 'Mum' or 'Dad' or use guilt to convince the child to avoid seeing their other parent.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, psychotherapist Brian O'Sullivan on how parental alienation situations develop

Some say that parental alienation is used by fathers to abuse their former partner and mother of his children. However, this is not evidence based, as parental alienation disproportionately affects fathers, though not exclusively, as mothers are still most likely to be given custody.

What are the effects on children?

There are numerous effects on alienated children beyond the loss of a loving relationship with a parent, and these effects have been shown to last well into adulthood. Low self-esteem, difficulties trusting others and becoming independent, substance abuse issues, depression, and anxiety are a few of the negative outcomes associated with being alienated from a parent. Due to the physical and psychological effects of parental alienation, the American Psychiatric Association includes parental alienation as a severe form of psychological child abuse in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5, the current manual that is used to diagnose psychological disorders.

What are the effects on the alienated parent?

The majority of the research to date has focused on the effects on children of parental alienation. But more research is now emerging of the financial, physical and psychological effects on the alienated parent. The financial strains that often occur from being an alienated parent regularly result from lengthy legal battles to regain custody of/visitation with their child(ren).

There is much work to be done regarding custody and parental alienation in the legal systems the world over

Alienated parents report more suicidal ideation and are at a much higher risk for suicide attempts. In one study, 23% of the participants of alienated parents reported attempting suicide at least once due to the alienation. Alienated parents also report more frustration, isolation and difficulty coping with the loss of their child(ren). These effects are severe and have the potential for life altering consequences that need more focus and attention.

What is being done?

This are significant variations on how countries approach trying to solve parental alienation. In Denmark, for example, there are laws that aim to protect the child’s right to have access to both parents, thus, diminishing the potential for parental alienation in theory. However, what organisations are discovering in practice is that courts overrule this if the parental interactions become too adversarial, usually awarding full custody to the mother even when she is the alienating parent.

The Hague Convention deals with international custody disputes, and it focuses on what is best for the child(ren). However, it does not consider nor address what happens if one parent is using the Convention as a form of coercive abuse. There is much work to be done regarding custody and parental alienation in the legal systems the world over.

According to the Irish Department of Justice, there has been an increase in citations in the Irish courts regarding parental alienation, though there is no official definition in Ireland’s legal system. The Irish Department of Justice sought consultation with the public on this matter, and the results are forthcoming (neither author was affiliated with this consultation process).

Christie Tetreault is a PhD candidate in the School of Psychology at NUI Galway. Dr Elizabeth A. Bates is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the Institute of Health at the University of Cumbria


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ. If you have been affected by issues raised in this article, support information is available online