When a parent manipulates their child: parental alienation

In recent years, parental alienation has been getting a lot of traction in the media. In the last year, MPs, women’s rights groups, and the UN have raised awareness about the use of parental alienation as a tool to counterclaim in cases relating to domestic violence, but also the issues around its definition. The purpose of this article is to understand what parental alienation is, to highlight its impact on the family and the duty of the family court to address allegations of alienation. 

There is no universal definition for parental alienation, however the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS), defines the term as ‘the unjustified resistance or hostility from a child towards one parent as a result of psychological manipulation by the other parent’. The Court of Appeal in Re S (Parental Alienation: Cult) [2020] EWCA Civ 568 has further expanded the definition to include that the manipulation of the child need not be malicious or even deliberate.

Signs of parental alienation

Typically, these behaviours include:

  • Negative comments about the other parent;
  • Encouraging disrespect or defiance towards the other parent;
  • Blaming the other parent for their own feelings of loss;
  • Being unable to separate their childs needs from their own;
  • Manipulating a child into unquestioning loyalty for one parent, to the harm of the other;
  • Isolating, corrupting, exploiting, or denying emotional responses to create a belief that the other parent is dangerous or untrustworthy.

The Court’s standpoint

There is currently no provision in UK law for the Courts to specifically deal with parental alienation. However, under Section 8 of the Children Act 1989 (CA 1989), the courts have wide ranging powers to make arrangements designed to meet a child’s welfare needs, which is paramount, whilst at the same time attempting to draw the balance between hearing the voice of the child and protecting the function of the family.

Whilst the presumption that it is in the child’s best interest for the child to have a relationship with both their parents (Children Act 1989 (CA 1989) and Children and Family Act 2014 (CFA 2014)), there must be compelling reasons given for the courts to reach a determination against contact (direct and indirect) between a child and a parent.

The loss of the relationship with one parent can cause significant emotional harm to a child and have a long-term impact on their mental health.

It was noted in the cases of Re A (A Child) (Parental Alienation) [2019] EWFC B56 and Re H (Parental Alienation) [2019] EWHC 2723 the Courts stressed the importance of early intervention to address parental alienation, highlighting the detrimental impact that alienation has on a child’s emotional well-being and ordered therapy to support a positive relationship with the alienated parent.

Why are parental alienation cases difficult?

It is noted that this is a complex issue with substantial consequences. To establish parental alienation, a party must present compelling evidence to substantiate their claim. Family courts rely on a comprehensive examination of the facts and evidence presented by both parties. There are also issues centred around the need for a standard approach to tackling alienating behaviours and creating a shift in emphasis from the definition to the behaviours themselves.  

Sir Andrew McFarlane in Re C (parental Alienation; instruction of expert) [2023] EWHC 345 (Fam) at para 103, stated:  

‘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 […] What is important, as with domestic abuse, is the particular behaviour that is found to have taken place within the individual family before the court, and the impact that behaviour may have had on the relationship of a child with either or both of his/her parents. In this regard, the identification of ‘alienating behaviour' should be the court’s focus, rather than any quest to determine whether the label 'parental alienation’ can be applied.’


It is globally recognised that hostility between parents is detrimental to children and therefore it is of importance that signs of parental alienation need to be addressed at the earliest possible stage in a family breakdown. If a parent feels that the relationship with their child is affected due to excessive behaviours of the other parent, then advice should be sought from a specialist family lawyer.

Written by: Naomi Douglas (Paralegal) 

For further information and advice on this and other family law issues, please contact us on 020 8290 0333 or email info@judge-priestley.co.uk for a free initial consultation with one of our family experts.

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