Navigating the Complexities of Parental Alienation in Child Custody Cases

By Camille Boyer, Alberta Family Lawyer

In a landscape already fraught with contention, recent calls from the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL) to ban the use of the term "parental alienation" add another layer of complexity to an already challenging issue. The coalition urges the federal government to exclude parental alienation arguments from family law cases, citing concerns about its potential misuse and detrimental impact on survivors of family violence.

Family lawyers and the court often hear allegations of parental alienation. At its core, the concept of parental alienation refers to the deliberate and sustained effort by one parent to estrange a child from the other parent, typically following a separation or divorce. This phenomenon manifests through various tactics, such as vilifying the targeted parent, undermining their authority, and manipulating the child's perceptions to foster resentment or fear.

The Controversial Nature of Parental Alienation

Proponents of “parental alienation” argue that it sheds light on a pervasive issue, recognizing the detrimental impact of manipulative behaviors on children's emotional well-being and family dynamics. They also emphasize the importance of identifying and addressing these dynamics early on to mitigate long-term consequences.

Divorce and separation are an emotionally devastating time for parents and their children. Unfortunately, it is relatively common to see parents engage in inappropriate behavior with their children during this time, such as placing them in the middle of their conflict, discussing court matters or finances with the children, and speaking negatively about their ex-partner in the presence of or directly to the children. This conduct is widely regarded as harmful and unacceptable.

The concept of parental alienation takes this type of conduct a step further, as the hostility and manipulation would need to be extreme, longstanding, and effectively sway the children’s opinion of the targeted parent. This is different from what might be a justified or reasonable estrangement between a parent and child. Parental alienation assumes the children would have a healthy and close relationship with the targeted parent, but for the conduct of the alienating parent.

However, critics caution against the indiscriminate use of the term, citing its potential for misuse as a strategic tool in custody battles. Skeptics contend that the concept of parental alienation is overly broad and lacks empirical validation, raising concerns about its reliability and potential for biased interpretation.

Anecdotally, it is common to see allegations of parental alienation raised loosely in response to the other parent making poor decisions about their conduct with the children (i.e. bad talking the other parent, etc.), appearing restrictive or engaging in gatekeeping behaviours, or even in response to another parent simply not agreeing to a certain schedule or regime for the children. For example, if one parent seeks shared parenting and the other does not believe this is best for the children, the use of a parental alienation allegation is frequent, but inappropriate in the circumstances.

Further, and perhaps most concerning, are scenarios where one parent alleges family violence and asks the court for protective measures or supervision, aiming to address the impact of such violence on the children and parents. These scenarios frequently lead to retaliatory accusations of parental alienation, which is discussed further in my earlier blog Separating from an Abusive Partner: DARVO Tactics. If the concept of parental alienation is misused or applied liberally in these circumstances, the risk is substantial and potentially even grave. A parent seeking to protect themselves or their children because of a history of family violence may feel obligated to concede on important safety measures or other factors due to the threat of a parental alienation finding. They may even risk a change in custody to the abuser or an adverse inference against them for being uncooperative, unwilling to co-parent with their abuser, or an otherwise “unfriendly parent”.

Examining Recent Caselaw and News Stories

Recent legal decisions, like the case of FB v GM, [2023] ABQB 701, underscore the judiciary's recognition of alienating behaviors and their detrimental effects on children. In this case, the court acknowledged the mother's systematic efforts to undermine the father's relationship with the child, ultimately ruling in favour of interventions to restore and safeguard the parent-child bond between the father and the child.

It is clear that the court is willing to intervene to limit the harm children may endure when parents involve them in their adult matters or seek to destroy their relationship with an otherwise healthy and loving parent. In the most extreme cases, the court can and will remove the children from the care of a parent who is unjustifiably and inappropriately attempting to impair their bond with the other parent. It is harmful and unfair to rob children of the opportunity to have a strong and loving relationship with a caring, healthy, and involved parent.

Conversely, a recent CTV news story highlights the call from the NAWL feminist coalition to ban the use of parental alienation arguments in family law cases. The coalition argues that such arguments are often wielded to discredit allegations of family violence, perpetuating a cycle of victim-blaming and undermining survivors' credibility.

This highlights the risk of over-using the term “parental alienation” or accepting such allegations at face value or without consideration of the nuances of family violence. This criticism by the NAWL raises the valid and compelling concern with treatment of family violence within family law and the risks of abuse. If the concept of parental alienation is allowed to continue to be used liberally and indiscriminately by litigants, the result is almost certainly going to harm families, survivors, and children.

Finding Common Ground

Amidst the polarizing debates surrounding parental alienation, there exists a common ground on both sides rooted in the shared goal of promoting children's best interests. Regardless of one's stance on the issue, it is imperative to prioritize the holistic welfare of children, safeguarding their emotional health and preserving meaningful relationships with both parents whenever possible.

Parental alienation is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that warrants careful consideration in child custody matters. While acknowledging the genuine concerns surrounding alienating behaviours, we must also remain vigilant against the potential for misuse and abuse of the concept, particularly in cases involving allegations of family violence.

Moving forward, the judiciary, legal practitioners, mental health professionals, and policymakers must collaborate to strike a delicate balance between addressing legitimate instances of parental alienation and safeguarding against its misuse. By prioritizing the well-being of children and integrating a nuanced understanding of family dynamics, we can strive towards equitable and child-centered outcomes in custody disputes.

Navigating these turbulent issues demands a nuanced understanding of family dynamics and a commitment to the holistic well-being of all involved. Whether you're facing allegations of parental alienation, concerned with your child’s well-being, or seeking to ensure your voice is heard in the face of family violence, the experienced family lawyers at Crossroads Law are here to empower you with the knowledge, strategies, and support you need to move forward confidently. Schedule a free 20-minute consultation with a Crossroads Law family lawyer today and take the first step towards navigating these challenges with clarity, confidence, and the right legal support by your side.

The information contained in this blog is not legal advice and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject. The information provided in this blog is for informational purposes only.