Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Dealing with divorce: parental alienation

Edited by Jill Wright,

Last week, on ABC Radio 774's Jon Faine Show, Melbourne family law expert Caroline Counsel mentioned the tragic phenomenon of parental alienation, in which one parent poisons a child (or children) against the other, with the aim of inducing the child to exclude the targeted parent from their life. She mentioned that in these situations, it is vital to consult a psychologist to work out what is going on before taking legal action.

Coincidentally, only days later, The Guardian reported that a parent alienating a child faces the prospect of losing access to the child themselves, under a process being trialled by the UK's Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass).

The tactics deployed in these cases can range from constant belittling, criticising and blaming the other parent, limiting or interfering with contact with the parent or insisting on personally supervising visits, destroying photographs, banning discussion and insisting that the other parent does not love or has failed the child, leading to the child resenting or rejecting the target. In some cases offending parents recruit a child to spy on the other parent. Some might make or encourage allegations of sexual misconduct.

The article highlighted just how prevalent these incidents are: in Britain, it is estimated that these attempts occur in between 11 to 15 per cent of all divorces involving children, with devastating effects for the other parent, to say nothing of the harmful effect on the child. 

An earlier Guardian article explored parental alienation in more depth, raising criticisms for instance, that claims of parental alienation are merely a tactic used by men to seize custody from wives alleging abuse.

The evidence of parental alienation suggests however that it is a real and increasing problem which is unfortunately not at all rare in Australia. Fortunately, the article reveals that once identified, the effects on children can be reversed quite quickly with psychological intervention.

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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.