Legal and psychological experts agree that what children of divorce need is to continue healthy parent-child relationships. Contrary to this philosophy is a behaviour known as "parental alienation," in which one parent undermines an intact parent-child relationship, turning the child or children against the other parent. This results in what is called parental alienation syndrome.
What Is Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation occurs when one parent manipulates a child to reject the other parent, whether out of hatred, fear, or disrespect. Unfortunately, parental alienation is a phenomenon that can arise in custody disputes.
There are many forms of alienating behaviour, ranging from denigrating the other parent to interfering with or denying child access. In the most extreme cases, the alienating parent has fabricated allegations of abuse, causing the child to withdraw out of fear.
It is important to note that while parental alienation syndrome affects children, the driving force behind the behaviour is a parent’s misconduct.
How Federal Legislation & Case Law Address Parental Alienation
The Divorce Act stipulates a “maximum contact” principle, designed to ensure every child has access to both parents so long as it is in that child’s best interests. Further, a parent who ignores an access schedule outlined in a court order can be subject to penalties, including fines or a loss of custody.
The courts repeatedly noted the harmful psychological effects of interfering with an intact parent-child relationship. In Gordon v. Goertz (a 1996 Supreme Court decision) the court stated, “The importance of preserving the child’s relationship with his or her psychological parent has long been recognized by this Court … There is a growing body of evidence that this relationship may well be the most determinative factor on the child’s long-term welfare.”
Likely one of the more infamous parental alienation cases is Bruni v. Bruni, a 2010 Ontario decision. In this case, a mother damaged a father-child relationship beyond repair and was punished by having her spousal support amount reduced to $1.00 per month. The court condemned the mother’s actions, calling the parental alienation behaviour “evil.”
Protecting Children from Their Parents’ Conflict
The fundamental principle in separation and divorce in Canada is that children should not be involved in their parents’ conflict. If your children have become involved in the conflict, be conscious of any unwarranted changes in behaviour that may indicate alienation.
For example, many victims of parental alienation no longer want to spend time with the access parent and will withdraw from contact. Children may also reject all forms of affection or use derogatory language that is atypical for their age. Other emotional responses include anxiety, fear, or upset associated with visits to the access parent.
Much has been written about the negative psychological effects of parental alienation on children. As adults, victims of parental alienation may have emotional scars which can affect parental relationships generations into the future.
What You Can Do
If you are concerned that your former spouse or partner has interfered with your parent-child relationship, there are three important steps to take:
- First and foremost, contact a lawyer to initiate court proceedings. As noted in the above cases, the judiciary values all beneficial parent-child relationships and will take measures in an attempt to undo any alienation.
- The second step is to maintain contact with your child as much as possible. Keep the contact positive, and do not engage in a counter attack against the alienating parent, as this can result in further damage to the relationship.
- Finally, contact a psychologist or other counselling professional who specializes in parental alienation syndrome to initiate the repair process.
Take the first step toward reversing parental alienation. Call Feldstein Family Law Group P.C. at (905) 581-7222.