Publish date

28 February 2023

What is parental alienation?

In recent years, parental alienation has become a phrase heard more regularly in legal disputes about the arrangements for children.

When a child expresses negative views about a parent, or a wish not to see them with no reasonable explanation, that parent may accuse the other parent of intentionally alienating the child against them, by manipulating the child’s feelings. In response, the parent with whom the child lives may seek to blame the non-resident parent for the child’s negative views, especially in cases where that parent has behaved in an abusive way towards the other parent in the past.

How can you identify parental alienation?

There is no set definition of parental alienation, or a standard test to identify it. Indeed, some professionals do not accept that there is such a thing as parental alienation at all; suggesting that making an allegation of parental alienation is another way for previously abusive parents to continue to abuse the other parent.

Sarah Keily from our family team has recently been involved in a case where parental alienation was considered. In that case, the court found that there had been alienating behaviour by a mother to her children, resulting in the children showing negative feelings towards their father and expressing a clear wish not to spend time with him. As a result of the finding of alienation, the court ordered that the children should move to live with the father so that they could re-establish a relationship with him, whilst also having regular contact with the mother.

The case led to an appeal, considered by the President of the Family division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, whose judgment published in Re C (‘Parental Alienation’; Instruction of Expert) [2023] EWHC 345 (Fam) provides guidance to legal professionals about the instruction of experts, and in particular the instruction of experts in cases where parental alienation is alleged.

Within his judgment, the President commented that the following statement from the Association of Clinical Psychologists-UK (the ACP-UK) deserves to be widely understood and, he would strongly urge, accepted:

‘Much like an allegation of domestic abuse; the decision about whether or not a parent has alienated a child is a question of fact for the Court to resolve and not a diagnosis that can or should be offered by a psychologist. For these purposes, the ACP-UK wishes to emphasise that “parental alienation” is not a syndrome capable of being diagnosed, but a process of manipulation of children perpetrated by one parent against the other through, what are termed as, “alienating behaviours”. It is, fundamentally, a question of fact.’

This is in line with the approach of Cafcass – the advisory and support service who independently advise the family courts about what is safe for children and in their best interests. Cafcass use the term ‘alienating behaviours’ rather than parental alienation, to reinforce that there is no single definition of parental alienation or a checklist of standard behaviours which constitute a finding of parental alienation.

What does parental alienation look like?

Alienating behaviours can take many different forms and in some cases, can be exhibited by a parent unconsciously. Where parental alienation is alleged, there needs to be a careful and nuanced assessment of the particular case, taking into account all relevant factors. The court must approach each case individually and consider all of the evidence before determining, as a question of fact, whether alienating behaviours have been exhibited by one parent.

If you have any questions about parental alienation or disputes involving children, please contact Sarah Keily at or by telephone on 01892 510000.

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