What is “Parental Alienation”? And What Do Ontario Courts Do About It?

February 16, 2014
Ron Shulman

Article written by Ron Shulman

“Parental alienation” is not a term many of you may have heard of, but it is a concept that most separated and divorcing parents may have personally experienced – at least to some extent.   It arises most often in high-conflict separations and divorces in connection with custody arrangements and access rights to children.

The concept of “parental alienation” involves the idea that one parent, through his or her conduct or negative feelings towards the other parent, has influenced their child to the point that the child actually rejects the other parent.   For example the parent may expose the child to persistent, unreasonably negative feelings and beliefs about the other parent – such as blaming, anger, hatred, rejection, exposure to derogatory comments etc. – which do not correspond with the child’s own experiences with that other parent.   Less directly, it may involve the alienating parent simply failing to support the other parent’s attempts or right to have access to the other parent.

Essentially, it involves one parent deliberately or indirectly “brainwashing” the child away from having a normal parent-child relationship with the other parent, or orchestrating situation where a normal relationship will not thrive.  The effect is that the child may resist or even outright refuse to have contact with the rejected other parent, or may express dislike or even intense hatred toward him or her.

Needless to say, this is not a healthy situation from the child’s perspective.   But it also poses great difficulty for those judges who are called upon to settle high-conflict family law issues between separated parents.

Judges will often tackle these unfortunate situations by collaborating with mental health professionals who will assess the extent of any alienation problem within the family, and see whether a child’s reluctance or refusal to be involved with a parent is due to any inappropriate influences by the other.  This may involve the calling of expert evidence, soliciting input from the parents, and – with the appropriate level of caution – obtaining the wishes of the child, too.   The judge will then try to ensure that any court-ordered resolution will minimize the harm to the child.

Since Canadian family law operates on the principle that it is in the child’s best interests to have maximum ongoing contact with both parents, a court’s attempt to resolve a situation of parental alienation may take different forms, depending on what is needed.  For example, a court may:

  • order the parents and the child to participate in therapy,
  • order the parents to participate in parenting / educational sessions,
  • order supervised access, or
  • take additional, harsher steps to ensure that its prior orders relating to access to the child are enforced and respected by both parents.

In more rare cases, courts may address the problem of parental alienation by one parent with a simple solution:  they order transfer custody of the child to the other, rejected parent.   Since this may naturally be disruptive to the child (since he or she has had his perception of the other parent “poisoned” through the alienation process), and is usually a last-resort option.  As always, the court’s decision will be governed by the best interests of the child in the particular circumstances.

Are you involved in a situation that might involve parental alienation of your child?  Contact us for a consultation.