Father's Day Message on Parental Alienation

Father's Day Message 2019

It’s Father’s Day again. A day to celebrate fatherhood, but a day too, on which many of us may not have the good fortune to be with our fathers or our children. One of the reasons for this may be that Parental Alienation (PA) has affected your life and relationships.
But you’ve probably heard the good news. PA has been recognised by the World Health Organisation at last. It's about time...

PA was first identified in the '70s and the debate has continued ever since. Some people, notably some latter-day feminist activists, continue to deny its very existence (Just for the record, we support egalitarian feminists, but we are less open to those who campaign in the name of equality for special treatment of women and girls). Others see PA as very widespread in separated families. Some, myself included, have even observed it in un-separated families.

Naturally there are a spectrum of views held by PA experts and other practitioners, as to exactly what constitutes PA. But even Cafcass, at long last, not only admits to the existence of PA, but is now on record as equating PA with (child) abuse. They don't quite walk the talk yet, but this is a significant step forward, and one which we have been advocating to Cafcass for some years.

The term PA can be split into two very separate concepts. One is the suggestion that PA is a pattern of behaviour carried out by a parent, targeting the other parent as well as the child. The purpose of this type of behaviour is generally to airbrush the target parent out of the child's life by de-legitimising that parent in the child’s eyes. This behaviour can take many forms. It may be calm and ruthless, relentlessly pervading the child's life despite the pain it obviously causes. Or, it may be attitudinal - a deep and sometimes almost unconscious hostility towards the targeted parent, which consequently rapidly drives the impressionable child to reject that parent. So however intentional, premeditated and deliberate – or not, the results can be similar - eventually, unable to sustain trying desperately to be on-side with both the parents they love, the child sinks into a cult-like and often fierce endorsement of the more dominating parent’s views. The child usually aligns with the parent they most depend on, namely the "parent with care" (a divisive legal term, one of many, implying the other parent has lesser or no importance). This alignment, if not treated, can last a lifetime.

The other meaning of PA relates to the condition of the child. As in a response to the question - Is the child alienated? This question revolves around the behaviour of the child, not that of the parents. A child can be said to be alienated if they begin to reject one of their parents with whom they used to be very connected and have a healthy and loving relationship. Curiously, the rejection usually also applies to grandparents and the wider circle of family and friends of the targeted parent.
Having outlined two different perspectives of the term, let’s consider them in a wider context. The context of abuse, and in particular, of the new offence of Coercive Control. Coercive Control (CC) has a great deal in common with PA behaviour. Similarly, what is experienced by victims of CC has points in common with the experience of alienated children and alienated parents.

So what do PA and CC have in common? One answer is that both relate to dramatic shifts in what is considered acceptable behaviours. Both involve our society adapting to pressure in the form of evolving human rights considerations as regards what constitutes acceptable family/domestic behaviour.

Incidentally, there is a gendered component to all this, but I am going to deliberately steer clear of that because it is divisive, and more to the point, it diverges from the human rights principles driving these changes, because human rights apply to everyone, regardless of gender, etc. The clue is in the name.

What has fundamentally changed is the role of power in determining how differences are resolved within couples – including separated couples who have children. In the past, the more powerful partner could overrule the weaker one. Nowadays, we expect a more civilised approach – based on mutual respect and collaboration and consent. And the law is changing to encourage this. Or is it?

CC, despite being quite controversial (hard to define, hard to prove, etc) is a good way to describe what happens when one parent tries to alienate and exclude the other from a child’s life when there is no good reason to do so. CC is expressing something we all agree with in principle: bullying is wrong, especially in couple relationships, particularly when it is repeatedly a part of a long-term relationship, when it may deserve to be treated as a criminal offence under certain circumstances.
Now Cafcass's early and frankly simplistic reaction in acknowledging PA was to say: Yes, it exists, but it's rare and only occurs in very extreme cases - often called implacable or intractable hostility. So they set up a pathway to "triage out" those cases and put them through a different process. Women's rights activists (WRAs) took a different tack, clearly wanting to strangle ever-wider acceptance of PA at birth: they said PA was an invention allowing men to abuse women in the courts. Well here's the thing - both approaches are profoundly misguided.

This brings me to the heart of the matter. CC has become a part of our legislation, and sets a new and relatively different standard in the way that couples past, existing, or prospective, must now show respect for each other's wishes and feelings. On the one hand, today, this kind of behaviour is taken for granted. On the other hand, say 40 years ago, it was not a legal requirement. PA, however, is still catching up, in the public and the law’s perception in the UK.

In Sweden, for example, a local social researcher recently said: "If one of my friends did not share parenting equally after separation, I would find that weird". For the Swedes, attempts by a separated parent to make life difficult for the other parent (obviously allowing for any proven safeguarding issues) is a form of Coercive Control – and bad parenting.

Even in the UK, who would disagree with the statement that conspiring to exclude a parent from its relationship with a child or to brainwash a child into hating a previously loved and dedicated parent is a terrible and cruel abuse against the child, parents, and humanity in general? But that in a nutshell is PA. And the real horror is that it is not limited to just high-conflict terminal cases of hostility. It leads to them. In fact, from the very first moment a parent starts to undermine the other parent in the eyes of the children, the fuse of PA has been lit. The ravaging flame of PA, given enough fanning by our adversarial family law system, will eventually burn out everything the parents ever loved in each other. And that can include their children’s future.

So let’s start calling a spade a spade. PA exists. And PA can be stopped. But only if we acknowledge right now the damage it does to our children’s futures. Can we resist any urge to put down the other parent, telling porkies about them and generally trying to change a once loved parent into a figure of hate?

The key is not to deny PA. And not to make shared parenting into a gendered issue. Do we not already have enough examples of the poisonous effect of polarisation in society? Gendered politics is a giant red herring, involving attempts to take self-righteous gendered sides in every discussion.

They answer is to be constructive and to condemn the practice of alienating behaviours – even before separation takes place. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s essential. The aim should be for us all to converge on trying to improve society and children's lives in particular. When the relationship of a couple with children goes sour, let's remember that the most important parts worth saving and developing collaboratively, are the children. We owe that to our children, and they will be happy and love us for it if we can achieve it by being honourable, tolerant and wise parents – irrespective of gender.

I wrote this for Father’s Day, but of course it applies every day of the year. As a father, sometimes I just want to be a good father – at other times I merely want to change the world. But all of the time, being a good father means helping our children and our children’s children to make a better world for their future. Wherever you are, whatever your circumstances, if you’re a dad – or have a dad,

Happy Father’s Day 2019 from all of us at FNF – Because both parents matter!

Best wishes

Jerry Karlin - FNF Chair and Managing Trustee