What are alienating behaviours?
While there is no single definition, Cafcass uses the term alienating behaviours to describe circumstances where there is an ongoing pattern of negative attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of one parent (or carer) that have the potential or expressed intent to undermine or obstruct the child’s relationship with 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.
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 each child’s unique experiences, the potential contribution of these behaviours, and how they may be mediated by other factors such as the child’s resilience and vulnerability, other aspects of the co-parenting relationship, or the quality of parenting by each individual parent/carer.
Both men and women can demonstrate alienating behaviours. While alienating behaviours 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. The role of new partners/ step-parents also needs to be taken into consideration. These behaviours and indicators can include: negative attitudes, behaviours and beliefs that denigrate, demean, vilify, malign, ridicule or dismiss the child’s other parent. It includes conveying false beliefs or stories to, and withholding positive information from, the child about the other parent together with the relative absence of observable positive attitudes and behaviours (Johnston and Sullivan, 2020).
They can also include spurning, terrorising, isolating, corrupting or exploiting, and not responding appropriately to the child’s emotional needs. These tactics can foster a false belief that the parent who has been subject to the alienating behaviour 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).
Even in the most extreme cases where a child is subject to alienating behaviours, the child may hold strong views of their own in addition to those they may have been coached to believe. The rationale as to why a child holds specific views will be explored in our assessments. Where a child is subject to alienating behaviours, 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 Cafcass assesses alienating behaviours
Building on existing guidance, the Cafcass Child Impact Assessment Framework (CIAF) has been developed to help our Family Court Advisers (FCAs) identify how children are experiencing parental separation and to assess their impact, including the impact of any alienating behaviours as set out in the ‘children’s resistance or refusal to spending time with a parent’ guide. The first step in assessing the reasons for the child’s resistance or rejection of a parent is to consider whether domestic abuse or other forms of harmful parenting are factors, domestic abuse and alienating behaviours can co-exist.
The Domestic Abuse Practice Guidance in the CIAF includes the following advice:
“Ensure you have clearly distinguished between harmful conflict, domestic abuse and bond breaking or alienating behaviours which lead to resistance to contact.
Counter-allegations of alienating behaviours: perpetrators of domestic abuse will sometimes attempt to deflect blame, or reverse culpability, by making allegations that the victim is alienating the child against them. In these circumstances it is important that we are guided by the evidence/ findings and do not lose sight of the distinction between the child’s ‘justified’, or ‘appropriate rejection’ of a parent (as will sometimes be the case where the child has suffered domestic abuse) and rejection caused by deliberately alienating, or unjustified behaviours.”
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 the child needs as a consequence. This requires both parents to engage with our work, who are encouraged to exercise their parental responsibility wherever safe and beneficial for the child.
The starting point of assessment is always to identify 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 a child is experiencing alienating behaviours, our practitioners will use their professional judgement to assess whether it is safe and what is in the best interests of the child, taking into account any other identified risks, the child’s diverse needs, their resilience and vulnerabilities and where appropriate, the child’s views. We then report our recommendations to the court for the judge to consider before they make the final decision about whether a child should spend time with a parent.
Baker, A.J.L. (2010) ‘Parental alienation: A special case of parental rejection’, Interpersonal Acceptance, 4, pp. 4–5.
Johnston, J.R. and Sullivan, M.J. (2020) ‘Parental Alienation: In Search of Common Ground For a More Differentiated Theory’, Family Court Review, 58(2), pp. 270–292. doi:10.1111/fcre.12472.