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What is parental alienation?

An image depicts a child custody dispute. Stock photo by Getty Images

The legal definition of parental alienation is when one parent denigrates the other, either consciously or unconsciously, to extent that the same negative behaviour is adopted by the child toward their parent.

This most often happens in bitter custody battles.

Globally, courts now recognize the destructive impact parental alienation can have on children and the parents who are targeted. In extreme cases, it can be viewed as child abuse and dealt with as a criminal offence.

Some of the ways a parent can try to manipulate the child’s affections, include:

  • making endless promises to the child;
  • showering the child with gifts;
  • making negative comments about or criticizing the other parent.

In Canada, the legal term has been cited in more than 6,300 cases. The most recent is the Alberta case Angebrandt v. Shaw, where a father, claiming parental alienation, sought to wrest primary custody of his three children away from his former wife.

The judge, however, suggested it was the father who was guilty of the alienation, saying he inappropriately discussed court details and coached his children to tell psychologists they were unhappy living in Calgary with their mother.

“This manipulative behaviour, combined with his inflexibility and very poor communication skills has created a climate of uncertainty, anxiety, and stress for the children and Ms. Shaw and, possibly unintentionally, undermined her authority as the children’s primary caregiver,” said the judge.

Some provinces have amended their family law acts to acknowledge the effect parental alienation can have on children, expanding on what constitutes a wrongful denial of access.

When your child exhibits behaviour consistent with parental alienation, you have some legal options, including:

  • Sending a demand letter to your ex asking them to stop.
  • Explaining the situation to a judge.
  • Asking a judge to order your ex to stop criticizing you in front of your child.
  • Asking a judge to order supervision when your ex is with the child.
  • Requesting the judge let you spend more time with your child to protect them from your ex’s manipulation.

In most cases, it’s the parent who has primary custody — usually the mother — who is guilty of alienating their children from the other parent. It’s often difficult to prove and involves having lawyers cross-examine young children.

A 2009 Ontario Superior Court case saw a mother’s custody of her three daughters revoked after the justice ruled the mother staged a “consistent and overwhelming” 10-year campaign to alienate the kids from their father.

Ultimately the judge must take into account what’s in the best interest of the child. That doesn’t mean, however, she is forced to rule based off the child’s desires. If the child has been brainwashed by a parent it can be assumed they don’t know their own mind and their wishes are no longer sacrosanct.

Transferring custody is usually a last resort and only used in extreme cases of parental alienation.

Read more:

Angebrandt v. Shaw

A Child’s Preference About Custody