There is much being said about parental alienation in the UK at the moment and  professed practice is erupting everywhere.  Yesterday’s taboo is today’s big thing it seems, which results in us seeing thoughts about parental alienation being promulgated which are unrecognisable in terms of internationally recognised standards of practice.

Whilst I have no problem at all with the growth of interest in the issue,  I do have a problem with the way it is constantly linked to the belief that a change in the law to presumption of shared care will eradicate the risk. I also have a problem with the way in which parental alienation as an issue is at risk of being seen only as a parental rights issue or reformulated as being something which only happens in high conflict family separation.  Both of these themes are being seen in discussion about the issue in the UK currently and both are in danger of reducing the reality of parental alienation as a serious mental health issue to simply that of a  contact dispute.  It is not.

One of the biggest problems about treating parental alienation or raising awareness of the reality of what it does to children, is that it is too often treated by the reductivist approach. This consists of severing contact with the rejected parent on the basis that it is conflict which is harming children and to get rid of the problem one simply gets rid of the potential for conflict.  This completely misses the reality of what parental alienation is and conflates it with  every difficult separation and every highly conflicted family. This does great harm to the alienated child because it misrepresents the issue. Research based on self referred cases of parental alienation adds to this problem, leading  to a situation where everyone and anyone who is not seeing a child for whatever reason, to believe that they are the victim of parental alienation. Which in turn forces some children who are not alienated into a position where their parent considers that they are, to their detriment.  In reality it is far more complex a problem than that of conflict or difficult separation and it deserves proper and full consideration and debate from the perspective of expertise in both theoretical knowledge and practical experience in working with families affected by it, rather than it constantly being claimed or portrayed from the perspective of parental rights.

Parental alienation is not a dispute about contact, it is not about high conflict either although high conflict can result from it. Put simply, it is not even about a child not seeing a parent at all although this is the sad outcome of the dilemma facing the child. Parental alienation is the use by the child of a coping mechanism which allows them to deal with the most impossible situation that any human can find themselves in and a child who has entered into this state of mind, in which they divide their feelings into wholly good for one parent and wholly bad for the other, is suffering badly.

Many people claim that parental alienation is about children not seeing a parent after family separation but fail to understand that in reality, many children living in separated family situations will go through periods of time in which they are more strongly aligned to one or the other parent and will, at times, struggle to maintain a relationship with both of their parents at the same time. Despite the claims by parental rights groups that a change to the law to a presumption of shared care would resolve the problem of parental alienation, the truth is that such a change would simply escalate the numbers of families where children become resistant to a relationship with a parent. And contrary to the belief that shared care will eradicate parental alienation, in families where children are at risk of an alienation reaction, it will simply speed up the route into alienation for the child in too many cases.  This is because the triggers which cause parents to adopt alienating strategies lie within the mental health landscape of the parent at risk of manipulating the child.  Thus, whilst many children’s relationships with their mother or father in an ordinary setting, may be protected by a change in the law, the relationships that a child who is vulnerable to alienation has with a mother or father after separation, depends not upon the law but upon their ability to resist the dynamics caused by one parent and the responses to these by the other.

Parental alienation, as Johnstone and Kelly told us,  is a combination of the alienating strategies of one parent, the responses from the other and the vulnerability of the child to the use of psychological splitting as a coping mechanism.  This triangle, which is the starting point for analysis of a case of parental alienation, demonstrates the way in which an alienation reaction can occur even in a child who lives in two homes in a fifty/fifty arrangement.  If the child is vulnerable and one parent decides to manipulate the child, the other parent is going to be either a) helpless to do anything or b) forced into a conflicted position in which they are portrayed as the cause of the problem if they do not do as the manipulating parent demands.  The key is the vulnerability of the child not the status of their parents in law.  Add into this a mental health problem or a generationally learned set of behaviours in one parent and a few adverse responses from the other and you have yourself a case of severe parental alienation regardless of what the law says.  This is because parental alienation is a mental health issue not one which is located in the legal landscape, although to resolve the problem the legal and mental health interlock has to be relied upon to force dynamic change.

As the increased interest in parental alienation pushes the issue to the fore in the UK, more informed debate is needed which focuses upon the issue as it really is, not what it is claimed to be by those who represent the needs of one parent or the other.  Focus and understanding of the vulnerability of children to the dynamics around them is required and reality based responses to treating the problem are required.  Until and unless the issue is recognised as being a serious mental health issue and until or unless the impact on children is fully recognised, there will be a continuation of the belief that parental alienation is all about contact with a parent after separation rather than the pernicious and deeply concerning issue that it really is.  Without the knowledge and expertise of practitioners who properly understand that not all children’s resistance is down to parental alienation, the issue will be used as a political football by the parental rights campaigners on both sides and will be diminished in its importance in terms of recognition of the serious harm it does to children.

Now is the time to put parental alienation where it properly belongs, in the realm of mental health and into the hands of people who are capable of delivering successful outcomes for children suffering from it.  Working with the legal and mental health interlock in which cases of parental alienation are properly identified, differentiated, treated and managed, is the right way forward.

The Family Separation Clinic will be offering a one day practitioner training on 29th June 2017 at 50 Liverpool Street, London, EC2M 7PY.    Only ten places are available for this entry level training in theory and practice with alienated children and their families which will be delivered by Karen Woodall and Nick Woodall.  Cost £295 plus VAT.  For details please email 

Please note that this training is for practitioners such as social workers, therapists and counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists working with separated families. The training is focused upon the translation of international standards of practice into a UK setting and the mental health and legal interlock in case management. Practitioners will learn how to assess, analyse and prepare and deliver successful interventions in cases of parental alienation.  Case studies from successful practice will be used to demonstrate practical delivery and opportunities to consider development of individual practice will be made available throughout the day.

Practitioners who attend this training will be invited to join the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners which convenes on July 11th in Prague and which will provide support to individual practitioners as well as collective commitment to delivery of recognised standards in practice with alienated children and their families across Europe.