Alienation rarely exists in isolation

Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive

Recently in public we have been talking about the negative impact of parental alienation on children. I am glad we have brought this pernicious issue to the surface more. Many of our private law cases feature alienating behaviours in some form. They can cause significant emotional harm to children. However, I am worried that public debates can easily over-simplify a complex issue. Alienation is one type of adult behaviour which causes adverse childhood experiences. At worst it is emotionally violent. This is why I have suggested that alienation is a form of child abuse. It can have as devastating an impact as physical abuse and can lead directly to child or adolescent mental health problems and other impacts like disturbances to learning, such as not being able to concentrate in class.

But alienation rarely exists in isolation. It is more usually one set of behaviours among many and is best seen on a spectrum. In a high conflict post-separation family, every transaction within families starts from a premise of conflict. A simple neutral remark causes offence. A small and relatively insignificant action is misinterpreted as hostile. The post-separation environment can be deeply toxic, even if contact is occasional. That level of toxicity means that an exchange or transaction lasting seconds can cause days, weeks or months of heartache.

Yes there are perpetrators who family members need protection against adults who threaten, abuse, coerce or tyrannise innocent family members. But more commonly, everyone in the post-separation family feels victimised to a greater or lesser extent. Poly-victimisation rules. Similarly, harm can be omni-directional, rather than simply being harm caused by one family member to another. Alienation is often multi-directional rather than one-way. It is our role to make sense of what has been happening in terms of its child impact and to differentiate between alienating behaviours on the one hand and when rejection of a parent by a child is more understandable due to the child being genuinely scared or deeply apprehensive about contact.

These complex private law cases have sometimes been called ‘intractable’ but this is only because the emotional environment inside these families is so overwhelming. Powerful emotions like this can rarely be successfully channelled into linear case outcomes in court.  It is why we need a problem-solving court and a model of therapeutic jurisprudence. Our domestic abuse pathway and our high conflict pathway aim to give Cafcass practitioners and courts a stronger framework for assessment and intervention when either abuse or high conflict are the primary problems.

There are no easy answers. However, I am confident that the frameworks we have in place and are developing, plus the Positive Parenting Plan we are now piloting as an intensive therapeutic social work intervention in high impact cases, will help a greater number of children and their families.


Please note that our blogs provide individual views on a subject and are not intended as guidance for practitioners.


I believe caffcass encourage alienation route even if the non resident parent, is coercive and encourages conflict. It is not clear how personality disorders are managed in cases for court. They appear unclear of future harm. There is always going to be harm, that’s why most teens /adult end up in counselling or worse. Future harm is a loose description.

I think the proposition that ‘Alienation rarely exists in isolation’ is the problem here. What CAFCASS is doing is conflating low level Parental alienation perpetrated by parents in a toxic breakup, with the much more damaging and abusive type of Alienation that is perpetrated by parents who have personality disorders. Until CAFCASS separate these two things, this latter type of abuse will continue, and the abused child and alienated parent will be forced into an impossible framework that undermines, and delegitimizes their reality.

“differentiate between alienating behaviours on the one hand and when rejection of a parent by a child is more understandable due to the child being genuinely scared or deeply apprehensive about contact.”

What concerns me about this statement is it doesn’t show that a child can be genuinely scared of the alienating parent, not the rejected parent – and they are left with that scary alienating parent! To me the system is completely failing children who are basically being kidnapped by an alienating parent and have no power to see the other parent. Alienation is vicious and evil and children don’t naturally reject a parent they have had a loving relationship with for years.

“It is our role to make sense of what has been happening in terms of its child impact and to differentiate between alienating behaviours on the one hand and when rejection of a parent by a child is more understandable due to the child being genuinely scared or deeply apprehensive about contact.” These may be one and the same.

Cafcass is not able to provide case advice unless ordered by the court to do so. Every child and case is unique, our ‘child resistance/refusal to spending time with a child guide’ provides guidance to our practitioners on the case factors of alienation and coercive control. It states ‘Children may be subject to coercive and controlling behaviour as a means of alienating them from a parent as part of a longer history of the alleged perpetrator controlling the victim and continuing this abuse through family court litigation.’ Please view the guide for more information around alienation and coercive control which can be found here:

I would like to understand the relationship between coercion and parental alienation. The control on the other parent by the mother or the father, who will be taking decisions on children contact, and as long as it is not dictated by the court, should be considered as alienation.
Should encouragement from either parents be done, if the child is refusing to spend time with the other parent? This can be run in a safe environment such as a councellor, but at least encourage and discussed. Again, does this constitute a form of alienation?

Our role is to represent the best interests of children within family court proceedings. We do not monitor or counsel children. In child arrangements cases that continue past the first hearing, the Family Court Adviser (FCA) will decide how best to work with the child, taking account of the child’s needs and any directions from the court. We say in our Operating Framework that the FCA ‘should see the child alone on a sufficient number of occasions, proportionate to the issues in each case, to ensure they have heard and understood the child’s needs’.

The FCA will work with the parents to ensure the child is being provided with appropriate support during the proceedings. If there are concerns, the court may ask the FCA to assess how the child’s mental and emotional needs are being met.

Our child protection policy sets out the processes we follow where there are significant concerns about a child’s safety:

How many times throughout a long court battle are the children monitored and counselled? Just an initial interview? Then nothing til the very end? That seems like child abuse being allowed to take place when the children have no support during the process, no one to talk to, understand why? etc etc etc. Is this standard in the best interest of a Child? I and all going thru this terrible long drawn out process will think it is appalling. These poor babies with no one looking out for their mental and emotional well being during what can be months and years before they may be lucky enough to be allowed to make memories with their alienated parent.
Our children should be counselled through out. Its all very one sided.

There seems, to be next to no help or advice on what to do as an alienated parent.
When there is no safe-guarding issues, why don’t we have a more robust system to ensure no lapses in contact at an early stage? Rather than allowing years of brainwashing, because it does go on! I’m not sure it can be reversed and that is a worrying thought for the future of our children. Not all parents are fair minded, reasonable or are able to detach their personal negative feelings about an ex from their children. Children are perceptive and are emotionally rich, and it is the responsibility of a parent to see that they develop their thinking and personalities without bias. Until they can form opinions based on their own experiences. Brainwashing is prevalent. It can be rendered a powerless tool if court earlier and I believe more can be done very early on with Court Orders that do have bite.
Positively SPIP, should be part of the process of every divorce and responsibility of a parent highlighted again and again. Some parents need more education when going through a divorce. We all know the pain involved. Why let our children feel that pain in any form?
[Edited by moderator, comment contained information about an individual case]

I think this article shows that Parental and Grandparental alienation is still not being recognised as the academic it is within the family court arena. Reports suggest that over 80% of Cafcass workers have received training in there expense claims but only a fraction has received training to spot high conflict pathways and alienation. The high conflict pathway is not be rolled out at any pace.

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