Cases of children resisting contact with a parent post-separation are often complex and dynamic, with multiple interacting factors that are likely to be changing over time. Almost all of these cases involve children who are experiencing a parental separation characterized by significant conflict. While many of these cases need court involvement, for some, with the help of skilled professionals, mediation may be the most appropriate response. 

Some of these children are “alienated,” as they are resisting contact or rejecting a parent in a way that is disproportionate to the child’s experience with that parent and inconsistent with the previous relationship of the child with the parent, primarily though often not exclusively, due to the influence of the favoured parent.  Other children may be “realistically estranged,” reacting primarily to abuse, exposure to partner violence or significant parenting deficiencies of the rejected parent.

Controversy and concern over cases where children resist contact with a parent has grown, not only in Canada, but around the world.  In many countries there have been increases in the number of reported cases. In 2013, the American Psychiatric Association rejected a proposal to include “parental alienation syndrome” as a mental disorder of children in the 5th edition of its highly influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM 5).  While the “syndrome” was not included in DSM-5, the concept of “alienation” is now used by many courts and professionals. 

Parents experiencing high conflict separations, after getting some information from the Internet, come to see professionals and into the courts raising issues about “alienation,” invariably to describe the conduct of the other parent or the reactions of their children.  Some of these cases may indeed involve alienation, but there is also potential for improper identification of these cases. There are researchers and professionals who reject use of the label or concept of “alienation,” arguing that it lacks a proper scientific basis and that its use in the legal process potentially endangers children and victims of domestic violence.   In our view, it is important to recognize that there are parents who engage in “alienating behaviour” and that there are children who have become “alienated” in the that their rejection of a parent is not based on their actual experience with that parent. These children may begin to play an “independent role” in the situation.  However, it is also necessary to recognize that there is no standardized measure for establishing whether a child is alienated: rather it is a question of clinical judgement and a judicial determination.

Younger children may be able to transition between parents who have high levels of hostility, but as children start to reach adolescence (9-13 years), they may, in response to parental conflict, start to be become “aligned” with one parent. Many cases of children resisting contact are “hybrid,” and are a manifestation of problems in each parent’s parenting style and capabilities or the relationship between the parents. Children may be attempting to cope with the distress associated with the coparenting conflict and loyalty conflicts by aligning with one parent and rejecting the other.  

These cases can often best be understood as involving a family system problem, that can only be effectively addressed if the children involved, and both parents, are helped to change.  While some parents involved in these cases may have significant emotional issues or personality disorders and may be strongly resistant to change, others can be helped by good family justice professionals to see the value of addressing the issues through mediation and appropriate referrals for family-systems based counselling for all family members.  

For cases where parents are more resistant to change, or where there are allegations of domestic violence or serious parental alienating behaviour, early resort to the courts may be essential.  Early single judge case management and assessment by a skilled mental health professional are very important for these cases. Judges can play a critical role in helping parents to understand the harm their conflict is inflicting on their children. Court mandated counselling, with reporting to the court, may be essential to ensuring meaningful engagement by parents. The support of the favoured parent, often a result of judicial encouragement or pressure, is usually essential for child engagement in counselling.  Parents need to know there will be consequences for violation of court orders (for counselling or parenting time), including the possibility of loss of parenting time or even a suspension of contact.  

In more severe cases, parents engaged in alienating behaviour may not respond to court orders or counselling, and judges may face the conundrum of reversing custody arrangements or ceasing to try to ensure the child’s relationship with a rejected parent.  While the transition to the care of a rejected parent can be stressful in the short term, if a child is truly alienated rather than responding to deficit parenting, most children respond positively and quickly to such a change, especially if there is appropriate counselling. 

Although there is clearly a need for more research about the best methods of intervention and response to cases of children resisting contact with a parent, there is a growing body of literature that documents the short and long-term emotional harm to child from being alienated from a parent.  Family dispute resolution professionals need specialized knowledge and support, and must appreciate the value of multidisciplinary collaboration and perspectives for these very challenging cases.

Nicholas Bala has been a Professor of Family Law at Queen’s University since 1980, and is the Chair of the AFCC-O Task Force preparing the Parenting Plan Guide  and Template. He has written and presented extensively about the experiences of children in separated families. 

Barbara Jo Fidler is a clinical developmental psychologist in private practice and has worked with separating and divorcing families for over 35 years. Her practice includes mediation, arbitration, parenting coordination, clinical consultations,  legal-litigation expert services (testimonial and nontestimonial) and therapy with adults, children, couples and families. 

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