Cases where children are resisting or refusing spending time with a parent
When a child is resisting or refusing time with a parent/carer post-separation, there may be a number of causes for this.
Our structured guide describes the range of potential causes for the resistance and/or refusal of contact, and supports exploration of the impact on the child of adult behaviours, including:
- appropriate justified rejection, for example where the child has been harmed by the parent or is frightened of them because of domestic abuse or other harmful parenting, such as neglect or substance misuse
- parental alienation (see information below)
- harmful conflict.
It also provides guidance on children’s wishes and feelings and making recommendations to court in these circumstances.
All case analysis begins with and follows what is happening for each child, considering any risk posed to them and the impact of parental behaviour and their wider experiences.
If appropriate justified rejection does not appear to be a factor in the assessment of the reason for the child’s resistance or refusal, our Family Court Advisers will proceed to assess the other possible reasons for this.
For a long time now, those charged with looking after children’s welfare have been aware of parental alienation in family law proceedings. However, growing interest and concern among the public, the courts, the social work sector and other key stakeholders has brought it to the fore in recent years.
We understand that cases where parental alienation features are complex, requiring finely balanced assessment and decision-making, and that the impact of any final decision made by the courts can be life-changing for the parent and child subject to alienating behaviour.
Our role is to establish the impact of alienating behaviours on the child concerned, where these are present, and to recommend to the courts what referrals, intervention or support is needed to end or lessen any harmful impact.
What is parental alienation?
The definition of parental alienation itself as a concept in family court cases, its surrounding terminology and its scale remain under debate, meaning there is no clear data as to its extent.
While there is no single definition, we recognise parental alienation as when a child’s resistance or hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent. It is one of a number of reasons why a child may reject or resist spending time with one parent post-separation. All potential risk factors, such as domestic abuse, must be adequately and safely considered, reduced or resolved before assessing the other case factors or reasons.
Alienating behaviours present themselves on a spectrum with varying impact on individual children, which requires a nuanced and holistic assessment. Our role is to understand children’s unique experiences and how they are affected by these behaviours, which may differ depending on factors such as the child’s resilience and vulnerability.
Both men and women can demonstrate alienating behaviours. While alienation can be demonstrated solely by one parent, it is often a combination of child and adult behaviours and attitudes, with both parents playing a role, that lead to the child rejecting or resisting spending time with one parent.
While not restricted to alienation, behaviours and indicators can include: a parent constantly badmouthing or belittling the other; limiting contact; forbidding discussion about them; and creating the impression that the other parent dislikes or does not love the child.
They can also include spurning, terrorising, isolating, corrupting or exploiting, and denying emotional responsiveness. These tactics can foster a false belief that the alienated parent is dangerous or unworthy. Children may adapt their own behaviours and feelings to the alienating parent to ensure that their attachment needs are met (Baker, 2010).
It is worth noting that even the most alienated child will hold strong views of their own in addition to those they may have been coached to hold. Where a child is being alienated, it may be in their interests for the authority of the court to be used to work towards restoring the relationship, although we are aware of how difficult this can be. The court must carefully balance its decisions to ensure that both children and adults are kept safe, and ensure that children are able to maintain relationships with both parents where this is safe and in the child’s best interests.
How do we deal with parental alienation?
Building on existing guidance, the Cafcass Child Impact Assessment Framework has been developed to help our Family Court Advisers (FCAs) identify how children are experiencing parental separation and to assess the impact of different case factors on them, including parental alienation.
All of our assessments focus on what is happening for each child. In our work, we try to help parents and the court understand the impact of the separation and adult behaviours on individual children and what they need to recover. This requires the support of both parents, who are encouraged to exercise their parental responsibility wherever safe and beneficial for the child.
The starting point of assessment is always the identification of risk, which includes risk of emotional harm, which may amount to a child protection issue. We recognise that exposure to alienating behaviours can be emotionally harmful to children.
Where alienating behaviours feature in a case we are involved with, our practitioners will use their professional judgement to assess whether it is safe and in the best interests of the child to have contact with one or both parents, taking into account risk factors, evidence-based assessments, diversity issues, and the child’s resilience and vulnerabilities. We then report our recommendations to the court for the judge to consider before they make their final decision about what contact the child will have with either parent.
I have concerns that parental alienation is happening to my child, who do I speak to about this?
If Cafcass is involved in your case, please discuss your concerns with the allocated FCA so that these can be considered as part of their case assessment. It is also important that you raise any concerns with the court so that the judge can take these into consideration when reaching a final decision about the child’s future care.
If Cafcass isn’t involved in your case, we are unable to advise you or undertake any work on your case without direction from the court. You may find it helpful to visit our resources for parents and carers page, which includes a list of organisations who support children and families.
If you have serious safeguarding concerns for the welfare of your child outside of family proceedings or after our involvement has ended, it is important you raise these directly with the local authority, or the police if there is an immediate risk.
I have concerns about how parental alienation has been handled in my case; who do I speak to?
Although we try hard to provide high quality services to children and their families, we know that sometimes service users might be unhappy with the way we have worked. If you are unhappy with our conduct or handling of your case, please tell your allocated FCA or their manager as soon as possible so that they can quickly understand your concerns and try to put things right.
If you would like to make a complaint you can find further details about our complaints procedure on our website. In line with our complaints procedure, complaints should be raised during our involvement or within six months of this ending.
Please note that where we have been ordered by the court to write a report and you do not agree with our recommendations or professional opinions, you must raise your concerns at court where they can be explored. These types of concerns can only be dealt with by the court, not as part of the Cafcass complaints procedure.
I’ve been a victim of parental alienation; will Cafcass reopen my case?
Cafcass is unable to reopen cases and can only undertake further work with a family when ordered to do so by the court. If you have concerns about the current order in place you may wish to seek legal advice about the steps available to you. You may also find it helpful to visit our resources for parents and carers page, which includes a list of organisations who support children and families.