Parents going through a separation or divorce are not always able to keep things civil. Ending a relationship is a high-stress situation in the best of circumstances, and the reason for the split may have a serious impact on a couple’s ability to maintain amicable interactions going forward. However, no matter how volatile the situation, it is always best for parents to maintain a degree of civility for the sake of the children. Of course, this is easier said than done.

Parental Alienation, Defined

While it may be common for a parent to occasionally express frustration to their child about their former partner, parental alienation is a more complex concept. It occurs when one parent uses manipulative techniques over time to deliberately create a rift between the child(ren) and the other parent. A parent who has deep resentment towards their ex over say, an affair or ongoing financial challenges, may be tempted to engender similar feelings in their child, as a way to ‘punish’ the other parent. With enough manipulation, the child will naturally start to internalize those feelings towards their other parent and will likely begin to resist visits with them.

According to Barbara Fidler, a clinical development psychologist in Toronto, behaviours that may indicate parental alienation include:

  • Denigrating the other parent
  • Encouraging the child to denigrate the other parent
  • Arranging conflicting activities when the other parent is supposed to have access
  • Inducing guilt in the child about visits with the other parent
  • Portraying the other parent as dangerous
  • Involving the child in spying on the other parent

Children will often being to repeat the behaviour and feelings of their favoured parent. Signs that alienation is taking hold can include:

  • Rejection and denigration of a parent for trivial reasons
  • Rigid refusal to consider alternative views or explanations
  • Repetition of the favoured parent’s words
  • Rejecting relatives or even pets of the other parent
  • Little or no regret or guilt regarding behaviour towards the parent being rejected

How Parental Alienation Can Impact Access and Support Decisions

Parental alienation can impact family decisions in multiple ways. Clearly, if a parent is found to be engaging in this behaviour, a court may find that a variation in the parenting plan is necessary to protect the wellbeing of the child and preserve their relationship with their other parent before it becomes too late to do so.

Under the federal Divorce Act, parents and courts are obligated to ensure a child has maximum contact with both parents. This can mean different things depending on the family circumstances involved, but within a given situation, all parties are expected to maximize a child’s relationship with each parent. When a parent is found to be deliberately standing in the way of a child’s relationship with their other parent, courts have not hesitated to vary custody and access arrangements in the other parent’s favour.

Child support obligations can also be affected. If a child has pushed their paying parent away due to the influence of their preferred parent, courts may find that the paying parent is no longer obligated to provide support, or that the support should be paid directly to the child.

While child support obligations will not be changed or thrown out for trivial reasons, in some extreme cases a court may find differently. In a 2017 Alberta decision, a 16-year-old girl resided with her father and had completely cut off all ties with her mother. The father requested retroactive child support for the time that his daughter had lived with him. The Court of Queen’s Bench found that the father had interfered with previously-ordered custody assessments and counselling for the daughter, which contributed to her poor relationship with her mother. As a result, the court ordered that the mother pay the support owed into court rather than to the father. The money would then be distributed to the daughter per court order. As the judge in the case said, this was an exceptional remedy ordered for an exceptional case.

Long-Lasting Effects of Parental Alienation

Parental alienation is more than just a family law complication, however. It is also increasingly being seen as a form of psychological trauma for the children involved. Over time, parental alienation can manifest in the form of mental health issues in the child, including:

  • Self-hatred and self-esteem issues
  • Higher rates and risks of depression, relationship difficulties and substance abuse
  • Loss of guidance and support of one parent
  • Loss of relationship with extended family
  • Inability to develop and sustain healthy relationships

To better protect children in cases of divorce and separation, the coming changes to the Divorce Act (previously discussed here) have also put more of a focus on these types of behaviours. The Act has clarified the concept of ‘the best interests of the child’ to include factors such as a parent’s ability to support the child’s relationship with the other parent. This will empower courts going forward to prioritize a child’s family relationships and mental wellbeing when making parenting orders.

The bottom line? No matter what bad blood exists between exes, they should do everything in their power to keep that separate from their relationships with their children. Failure to do so could not only impact their ability to care for their child, but it could have long-lasting harmful effects that their children will be forced to deal with for the rest of their lives.

The family law lawyers at Mincher Koeman are exceptionally experienced with respect to child custody and access disputes following the breakdown of a relationship. We will work with you to ensure a custody and access arrangement that fits your family’s specific circumstances. Contact our office today by calling us at 403-910-3000 or contact us online.

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