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There is no single definition of ‘alienating behaviours’. We use the term to describe behaviours where one parent or carer expresses an ongoing pattern of negative attitudes and communication about the other parent or carer that have the potential or intention to undermine or even destroy the child’s relationship with their other parent or carer. These behaviours can result from a parent’s feelings of unresolved anger and a desire, conscious or not, to punish the other parent or carer. Alienating behaviours range in intensity and their impact on children.  

"These behaviours can include negative attitudes, communications 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). 

“Alienating behaviours 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). 

An FCA will be concerned when they identify these behaviours because they can damage the child’s sense of self-identity and self-worth, as well as their connection with someone who is important to them and will remain important to them for the rest of their lives. It can also damage the child’s connection with the ‘other side’ of their wider family. It is one reason why a child may reject or resist spending time with one parent or carer following their separation. 

FCAs are mindful that an allegation of alienating behaviour can be used as a counter-allegation to an allegation of domestic abuse. They are also aware that children can make their own minds up about what has happened and how their view about what has happened affects their attitude to living or spending time with one of their parents. Your FCA will explore this with a child who is refusing to spend time with one of their parents for no apparent reason and assess what impact this will have on their long-term welfare. 

While alienating behaviours can be expressed by just one parent, when it does exist it is often a combination of both parents behaving in ways that lead to the child developing a negative view of one of their parents and then rejecting or resisting spending time with that parent. Siding with one parent is one way of a child finding a way of coping and holding on to at least one parental attachment. Your FCA will also want to understand the role of new partners/stepparents in reinforcing or mitigating these behaviours. 

Even in the most extreme cases where a child is found to be subject to alienating behaviours, the child may hold strong views of their own in addition to those they may have been made to believe by one of their parents. The rationale as to why a child holds specific and strong views about the parent they are rejecting will be explored in the FCA’s assessment of your child’s welfare and best interests. 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 with the rejected parent. The court will carefully balance its decisions to ensure that the welfare of both children and adults are safeguarded as far as possible, especially when there has been domestic abuse. The court will look for ways for a child to maintain their relationship with both parents where this is in their best interests and their welfare is safeguarded. 

How an FCA assesses alienating behaviours

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. 

Building on our practice guidance, our Child Impact Assessment Framework (CIAF)  has been developed to help our FCAs identify how children are experiencing the separation of their parents/carers and to assess the impact on them, including the impact of any potential alienating behaviours as set out in the guide to ‘children’s resistance or refusal to spending time with a parent’ guide.

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.”

Perpetrators of domestic abuse will sometimes attempt to deflect blame, or reverse culpability, by making counter-allegations that the victim is alienating the child against them when in fact their child has come to their own conclusions based on their experiences. In these circumstances, FCAs 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 communications and behaviours. 

FCA assessments focus on what is happening for the individual child. In undertaking their assessment for the court, they try to help parents and the court understand the impact of the separation and adult behaviours on the child and what the child needs to safeguard their welfare. To be successful this requires both parents to engage positively and meaningfully with their FCA.  

Where a child is experiencing alienating behaviours, your FCA will use their professional judgement to assess what impact it is having on the short-term and long-term welfare of your child and what is in their best interests. They take into account any other identified risks, the child’s unique needs, their resilience and vulnerabilities, and the child’s wishes and feelings. Your FCA then reports their analysis and recommendations to the court for the judge or magistrates to consider all the evidence, including yours, before the court makes a final decision about who your child should live with and whether it is in their interests to spend time with the other parent. 

Further reading about 'alienating behaviours'

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