Parental alienation: Time to make a difference

Sue Whitcombe calls for psychologists to be more proactive.

05 January 2017

In January 2014 my ‘New voices’ article was published in The Psychologist.  ‘Time to notice; time to intervene’ considered the issue of parental alienation – the unwarranted or seemingly unjustified rejection of a good-enough, loving parent by a child. In November 2016, the issue was aired on the Victoria Derbyshire Show. Are we now ‘noticing’ parental alienation? Are we, as psychologists, ‘intervening’ appropriately and effectively?

The Victoria Derbyshire feature focused largely on pure alienation – the deliberate behaviours of one parent to turn a child against the other parent – amidst calls for this to be criminalised as in other jurisdictions. Sir Anthony Douglas, CEO of Cafcass, identified the complex psychological existence of alienated children, likening it to living in a cult. He reported that Family Court officers are knowledgeable about alienation and outlined their role in exploring the often ambiguous ‘facts’ in family cases to arrive at a safe and rounded analysis of the needs, wishes and feelings of a child.  Douglas also acknowledged a key factor in any alienation case as the time-frame for the child. The alienated position correlates with the length of ‘no contact’ time with a parent.

I am regularly instructed by solicitors in family law proceedings to conduct an assessment where a child is refusing contact, a parent is frustrating contact or where there is suspected parental alienation. Unfortunately, my experience is that these cases have often been in the family court arena, usually with no meaningful contact, for three, four or even five years before they are ‘identified’ by an aware guardian. The case documentation suggests a failure to identify early alienating behaviours, inadequate exploration of children’s expressed wishes and feelings and insufficient analysis of collateral information. In the majority of these cases the child is experiencing psychological distress; often they have experienced significant emotional harm and sometimes there is evidence of child psychological abuse.  These are child welfare issues, not child arrangements issues, yet they are being dealt with in a private family law framework whose adversarial nature often exacerbates the alienation process.

Parental alienation is not yet universally well understood across the UK. The complexity of post-separation conflict and acrimony can rarely be synthesised into only one parent behaving badly. This pure, severe parental alienation is often related to underlying psychopathology. In order to ensure that the full spectrum of alienation cases is correctly identified and that appropriate, targeted interventions are offered at the earliest possible opportunity, is it time for us as psychologists in the UK to be more proactive?

Protocols for assessment exist (Fidler et al., 2012). There is an increasing evidence base of appropriate legal and therapeutic interventions (Templer et al., 2016). In answering Sir Anthony’s call for improved guidance for Cafcass, does the British Psychological Society not have a duty to lead on such guidance in line with our specialist knowledge and strategic goal of  maximising the impact of psychology on public policy?  The Society recently brought together a multiprofessional group in a facilitated workshop on parental alienation. I strongly believe that the time is right to collaborate on guidance, assessment and provision of services for these children and families where they are urgently needed, throughout the UK.

Dr Sue Whitcombe CPsychol AFBPsS
Family Psychology Solutions CIC


Fidler, B.J., Bala, N. & Saini, M.A. (2012). Children who resist postseparation parental contact: A differential approach for legal and mental health professionals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Templer, K., Matthewson, M., Haines, J. & Cox, G. (2016). Recommendations for best practice in response to parental alienation: Findings from a systematic review [Advance online publication]. Journal of Family Therapy. doi:10.1111/1467-6427.12137