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.