Alienation Awareness in the UK

Hot on the heels of the article by Francesca Wiley QC in Family Law Week, comes a short but to the point article in the Sunday Times about the issue of parental alienation.  The news in the article is about the issue of development of a protocol for working with such cases in the legal system.  This wording is reproduced from the print version and the article is written by Nicholas Hellen.

Leading family lawyers and therapists have warned that children are being affected by a disorder known as parental alienation.

They develop a phobic attitude to one of their parents, which can lead them to cut off all contact and fabricate wild allegations against them.

One mother who blames her former husband for loss of contact with her alienated child said this weekend: “It feels like a bereavement. It is almost unbearable.”

Now a group of QCs, leading psychiatrists and psychotherapists are to set up a working party to draw up new guidelines for the management of these cases through the courts.

Michael Gouriet, a partner at the law firm Withers, said the current system was not equipped to deal with these cases because it led the court to take a non-interventionist approach.

He said: “Cases involving parental alienation . . . require much greater judicial and professional involvement from the earliest stage.”

The working group is likely to include Withers, the barristers’ chambers 1 King’s Bench Walk and therapists such as Karen Woodall of the Family Separation Clinic.

Children involved in custody battles can become affected by the disorder from a combination of brainwashing by one parent seeking to “weaponise” them and the children joining the vilification.

The phrase parental alienation syndrome was coined in 1987 by the American child psychiatrist Dr Richard Gardner. It has been given credence in Canadian and, to a lesser extent, American courts. However, experts in Britain remain reluctant to use the term.

Nick Woodall, a partner at the Family Separation Clinic, said: “It is an extraordinary phenomenon when you see it.”

He contrasted it with the high-profile custody battle between Madonna and Guy Ritchie over their son Rocco, 15, who refused to return to New York to see his mother.

“It is not about a 15-year-old who is a bit fed up and thinks he will enjoy life better with his Dad because he has a bit more freedom in London than he would get in New York with his Mum. That was not parental alienation: he was simply voting with his feet for a period of time.

“The children we meet are phobic. They think the parent they are rejecting is the devil. At one extreme you will find some children will make the most appalling allegations of abuse against their parent.”

At the other end of the spectrum, he said, were children who gave extremely frivolous reasons, such as disliking the smell of the parent’s dog.

Woodall, whose clinic has dealt with approximately 40 cases of the disorder in the past year, said children who felt forced to chose between parents would construct their own reality to justify the decision.

“Rejecting their attachment produces huge amounts of guilt and shame, so to suppress the guilt and shame they have to find a reason . . . not just to convince you [the professional] but also to convince themselves.”

He said the current system of resolving disputes put too much onus on the child, at a point when they are in no state to make the right judgments.

“There is an over-reliance by court reporting officers and the courts in general on the children’s wishes and feelings. That leaves children who are in crisis determining what is in their best interest.”

One parent who has no contact with her child agreed: “The courts assume the child understands their own mind, yet they don’t at that age. They are prey to emotional manipulation.”

Although the article is short it is to the point and offers a clear picture of the reality of parental alienation and the impact upon children of it over their lifetime.  As such it is a first step to raising awareness in the wider society, of the problems being faced by a parent when children reject them unjustifiably and the impact of that upon children which is damaging in the long term.

Following on from the Withers/1KBW seminar and the article in Family Law Week, it seems that the topic of parental alienation may indeed be coming into sharp focus in the UK.



  1. Great to see that recognition is slowly building, and the right professionals are involved. If only CAFCASS would listen too.


  2. I’m curious about the use of disorder and syndrome in this piece. My understanding is that parental alienation is not a disorder in the child (and that this is why the PAS theory has been discredited) but is a normal response to a disorder in the alienating parent.

    That said, it is very good to have these articles being published and I hope it does make an impact in the family courts.

    There is much criticism of the courts being slow to act in potential cases of PA and I wonder how much the fact that NRPs are often strongly advised against saying the words “parental alienation” in court. Surely it should be the case that a parent should be allowed to raise their concerns and have them investigated rather than being advised to quietly “play the long game” and waiting until it becomes “obvious” that its a case of PA/Implacable Hostility – which can take years!


    1. Whirlgirluk

      “My understanding is that parental alienation is not a disorder in the child (and that this is why the PAS theory has been discredited) but is a normal response to a disorder in the alienating parent.”

      I understand your train of thought and clearly in order to alienate a child from their parent requires a disorder. However I don’t imagine you would say that the anxiety or suffering expressed by a victim of abuse were non existent. This phenomenon is absolutely real, absolutely soul destroying and a living nightmare for the alienated parent. To witness the rejection of you by your own child as though they have received abuse from you is devastating. If you haven’t been aware of it previously hopefully you are now. PAS exists.


      1. The disorder(s) the child presents with IS the normal response to the alienating parent’s disorder. Understanding the term “Parental Alienation” as an action rather than a label could help to move the discussion to address the cause of the problem and towards suitable remedies, in my opinion. The very fact there is a budding discussion apparent, is wonderful news for all affected – first and foremost for the children, but also for society in general, as eventually a generation of children might evolve to grow up not broken and damaged. Imagine the wonderful people they can become. Imagine how much better off the world can be with them in charge one day.


      2. I am very much aware of it – I am witnessing the effects of it on a weekly basis!

        I don’t deny the very real response in the child at all. However, to call it a disorder in the *child* is not something that sits comfortably for me. There’s nothing wrong with the children in my situation – they are reacting as anyone would expect a person to react given the intense manipulation they are experiencing. The disorder is in the alienating adult, not the child.

        I also think that arguing that Parental Alienation *Syndrome* exists is particularly tricky in the legal world. I cannot see that the family courts will respond well to a syndrome that simply isn’t recognised in the world of psychology/psychiatry.


  3. The Courts should recognise that PAS definitely does exist and it is an extremely powerful weapon in the hands of a determined parent. I never believed my eldest grandson could be alienated from his dad. Although it was fairly apparently over a number of years that my ex. dil was consistently trying to reduce the importance of my son in the lives of the children, I thought it was too late for alienation to take place, as the bond between my son and the boys seemed a very strong one. Not so, he was totally turned against his dad at 15 and a half and we have not seen our grandson since. I would imagine the normal reaction on the breakdown of a marriage is that the children need both of the parents irrespective of the relationship between those parents. When one parent tries to sever the relationship between the children and the other parent, then I would say there is something amiss with that parent.


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