When parties separate, especially in high-conflict situations, children too often get caught in the middle. Children, even very young ones, are remarkably perceptive and sensitive to their parents’ conflict. While most parents would agree that it is important to shield their children as much as possible from the drama embroiling their relationship breakdown, the reality of separation and divorce is that very often children end up being exposed to adult issues and situations where they might feel that their loyalties to each parent are put to the test.
Perhaps one of the more difficult issues in family law is when children are being alienated from one parent through the actions of the other parent. While alienation can be blatant, such as one parent explicitly keeping the child from seeing the other parent, it can also take on more subtle and nuanced forms. Alienation can occur when a child overhears one parent saying negative things about the other parent to a third party. It can even occur when a child is empowered to make choices that are not appropriate for their age, such as allowing the child to believe they can chose whether or not they have parenting time with the alienated parent.
Parental alienation can result in a spectrum of behaviours; with a child refusing to see or spend time with the alienated parent on the more serious end of the spectrum.
While it is undoubtedly easier said than done, separating parents should endeavor not simply to avoid speaking disparagingly about each other; they should encourage their children to maintain positive and healthy relationships with each parent.
Notwithstanding the above, not all children who are resisting or rejecting visitation with one parent have been subjected to parental alienation. As Dr. Joan Kelly points out in her article, “The Alienated Child: A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome”, children resist contact with a parent after separation for many reasons. Determining whether parental alienation is at play is often very challenging for the courts, as well as for lawyers. As a result, when parties believe that parental alienation is present, the situation should be addressed as soon as possible and parties should consider having their child assessed by a psychologist or a psychiatrist. Section 211 of BC’s Family Law Act enables a court to order a Needs of the Child Assessment. Parents can agree to having a report prepared, however if they are unable to reach agreement, one parent can apply to the court for an order that a report be prepared.
If you believe that parental alienation is present, it is a good idea to speak to a family law lawyer as soon as possible.