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Parental alienation: why a better understanding is needed in the British family justice system

09 July 2014 British Psychological Society (BPS)

Parental alienation – a child’s unwarranted rejection of one parent and strong alignment with the other following high conflict family breakdown – leaves the alienated parent feeling powerless.  Despite recognition in recent high court judgements, it is poorly understood and rarely acknowledged in the British family justice system. 

That is the conclusion of research being presented today, Saturday 12 July, by Dr Sue Whitcombe to the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Counselling Psychology in London.

Dr Whitcombe conducted research with 54 parents (47 fathers and 7 mothers) who identified themselves as alienated parents. The study identifies these parents’ concerns for their children’s welfare and psychological well-being, and the lack of power they feel in being able to protect them from harm.  Forty two of the parents reported concerns about their child’s mental health.  For 36, a strong concern was evident. 

This powerlessness is evident in the findings related to the legal process and its personnel.  Fifty one of the parents had made representation to the family courts.  Orders for contact were repeatedly broken, and 42 parents reported no current direct contact; 30 have not seen their child in over a year.  

Dr Whitcombe found that 48 of the participants disagreed with the statement “I feel as though the authorities or legal system are fair, unbiased or supportive of me”, with 25 rating this as strong disagreement.  Thirty-nine participants also found the expert witnesses, Cafcass or the police to be biased by information given by their former partners. 

This sense of powerlessness also featured where false allegations are concerned, with 36 participants reporting that they had been subject to false allegations of violence against their former partner and 44 reporting false allegations of neglect or physical, sexual or emotional abuse against their child.

Dr Whitcombe will explain that the denigration and ultimate rejection of a parent in parental alienation is a psychological defence mechanism.  Unable to manage the cognitive dissonance of their positive experience of a loving parent and the explicit or implicit negative messages they receive from the other parent, the child’s immediate psychological distress is minimised by rejecting one parent.

Earlier research has found an increase in clinically significant symptoms and behaviours in children affected by parental alienation, as well as a greater incidence of clinical disorder, relationship difficulties, substance misuse and issues with identity and sense of self over the life-course.

Dr Whitcombe says: “My study suggests a lack of knowledge and understanding about parental alienation in the UK. This resonates with my own experience when raising the topic with professionals in psychology, education and social care.

“At this time of upheaval in the family justice system, it is imperative that parental alienation is given a place on the research and policy agenda to ensure the safety and psychological well-being of children, their right to a relationship with both parents and the eradication of social injustice.”

The Annual Conference of the Division of Counselling Psychology takes place at One Drummond Gate, London  SW1 on 11 and 12 July 2014. Around 235 counselling psychologists will be attending.

The programme includes keynote presentations by Baroness Sheila Hollins, Professor Paul Gilbert and Dr Paul Flaxman. Professor Tanya Byron will be giving a free public lecture during the event.

You can find full details of the conference at:

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