Parental alienation: ‘It’s emotional abuse at the highest level’

When one parent turns a child against the other, a childhood is lost

There is a campaign to get the Government to recognise parental alienation, with 18 county councils passing motions calling for the implementation of recommendation 36 of the Report on Reform of the Family Law System. Photograph: iStock

Like most other grandparents around the country, John and his wife, Anne, can’t see their grandchildren during the Covid-19 shutdown. But for them the pain of separation started long before the pandemic.

They are caught up in a “heartbreaking” case of what they have no doubt is parental alienation. They believe their former daughter-in-law has turned their grandson against his father and demonised all his father’s extended family too.

“If you were going to sit down and write the script for it, you couldn’t make it up,” says John. “The only thing that keeps us half sane is that when he does get to an age and sees for himself, he will realise there was nothing wrong with his father or us. Unfortunately, we will be too old then.”

The last time John saw his grandson, now aged 10, was at a public event about four years ago. “He wouldn’t even look at me or my wife, his granny. He bolted away like a frightened deer. It is fierce that a parent can do that and get away with it,” says John, who does not hesitate to call it “child abuse”.


Yet, the couple enjoyed what they thought was a good relationship with their daughter-in-law before the arrival of the baby. Afterwards, “it was as if her family decided there was going to be only one set of grandparents here”, says John.

Last May, the World Health Organisation officially recognised parental alienation syndrome for the first time, deciding to include it in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases, which comes into effect at the beginning of 2022.

The term was coined in the 1980s by the late Dr Richard Gardner, a US psychiatrist. He had observed, in some very acrimonious relationship break-ups, the ability of parents to manipulate a child to reject his or her other, previously loved parent.

It’s a controversial concept and not to be confused with estrangement that may develop in a child’s relationship with one parent due to abusive or neglectful parenting. The syndrome can be hard to diagnose in the toxic “he says, she says” fallout of some broken relationships. But being aware of the possibility and knowing what to look for would be a start, say those affected.

There is a campaign to try to get the Government to recognise parental alienation. Eighteen county councils around the Republic have passed motions calling on the Departments of Health, Justice and Equality, and Children and Youth Affairs, to implement recommendation 36 of the Report on Reform of the Family Law System published last October.

It urged that “consideration be given as to whether laws should be amended to take into account situations where one parent is wrongfully influencing their child or children against the other parent, thereby creating unfair and unwarranted alienation that can be destructive and life lasting”.

In reply to a written Dáil question from Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty last November, the then minister of state for mental health and the elderly, Jim Daly, pointed out that the American Academy of Psychiatry, a leader in the field of psychiatry, did not recognise parental alienation and, while the issue would require further clinical consideration by the HSE, there were no plans for a cross-departmental committee to look at it.

The in-camera cloak of privacy over the family courts means possible cases here go under the radar and there is no spotlight on the inadequacies of the justice system in dealing with them

Research in Canada published a decade ago by psychologist Barbara Jo Fidler and lawyer Nicholas Bala estimated that 11-15 per cent of children in divorcing families were alienated from one parent and aligned with the other. Family law judges in that country have to attend professional training to help them to determine, when hearing children's voices in cases, if there is a situation of estrangement, parental alienation or parental coaching.

The in-camera cloak of privacy over the family courts means possible cases here go under the radar and there is no spotlight on the inadequacies of the justice system in dealing with them.

John and Mary, having watched their son become “skint” in legal efforts to try to have his former wife forced to comply with court-ordered access, made their own application to the District Court for access as grandparents, under the Children and Family Relationships Act 2015.

But they’re not holding their breath.

“Family law is in disarray, and that is being charitable,” adds John. “It’s not the right instrument. In the meantime, the likes of my son just suffer on and on.”

A few years ago Jack and Anthony wrote a personal account which shined a light on the suffering of children who are enmeshed in parental alienation. They were those children.

The two brothers first sat down to compile an account of their childhood in an effort to figure out the web of lies in which they had grown up in Ireland. They went back through diaries to share perspectives on how their father had manipulated their mother out of their lives. "It wasn't until after we had written it that we discovered the term 'parental alienation'."

When their parents’ marriage broke up, another brother stayed with their father who remained in the family home, “even though he was having the affair”, while their mother moved out, with Jack and Anthony, into rented accommodation.

Their father had no interest in their lives, says Jack, until, about a year later, he wanted the two of them to move back into the family home. They have since concluded this was to save him paying maintenance to their mother, as he started afresh with a new woman who the boys were forced to call Mum.

“The parental alienation started to kick in shortly after we moved back in with our father.” Jack, who was about 10 at the time and Anthony, who was nearly 12, saw in hindsight how the process gradually escalated.

From the start, when they visited their mother, they were never dressed in clothes she had bought them; their hair would be brushed in a different way. Then they were warned not to take presents from her.

While she would send birthday cards, the boys would be told "don't mind her, she doesn't love you", to the point that they were no longer allowed to call her Mam

“She would buy us, say, a Beano comic, and we were told not to accept it and if you came home with it, you would be in trouble.”

They were warned not to hug nor kiss their mother.

“That meant the visits were uncomfortable and awkward for us,” says Jack. Their father started to say they weren’t to see her at all. “We weren’t too pushed because the visits were so awkward.”

From that it went to “she doesn’t want to see you anyway”. While she would send birthday cards, the boys would be told “don’t mind her, she doesn’t love you”, to the point that they were no longer allowed to call her Mam.

If she phoned the house, Jack says he’d hear a click on the line and know the call was being listened to. “If you talked in anyway nice to her, you’d be in trouble. Eventually, we were out of her life.”

Jack remembers one time tearing up a birthday card from her, and his father was delighted, rewarding him with lemonade and crisps. “I learnt basically that if I said my mam didn’t love me and wasn’t he great, I was actually a ‘good’ kid as opposed to being a ‘bad’ kid. That carried on and eventually you try to tell yourself that is true. I almost tried to brainwash myself after he had brainwashed me.”

He and Anthony began to see the light when their father filed for divorce after the introduction of divorce in Ireland in 1996. “That was the moment we realised he was a scoundrel, for want of a better word.”

He had called a family meeting to discuss what the brothers were going to say, if they were called up in court, about what a terrible mother she was. “He started making up stories and we were old enough at that stage to say that didn’t happen.”

They found out later that their father had rung their mother before the court hearing to say her sons were ready to testify against her. As a result, she decided to accept whatever he offered because she didn’t want her sons to do something they might regret.

Seeing him celebrate that "he had got one over our mother" made us realise "we were just pawns in his game"

“Even today, money means nothing to her; once she has her health, she is happy,” says Jack.

Their father was delighted she agreed to take what was a paltry sum of money, considering he had the family home. Seeing him celebrate that “he had got one over our mother” made us realise “we were just pawns in his game”, says Jack.

However, it took a few more years to get out from under the thumb of such a forceful, controlling figure.

“When you do, you get clarity and you’re not constantly listening to their take on things; you see, holy crap, just how bad a person they were. I remember thinking, well, I am not going to see him anymore and I don’t see my mother, so I effectively have no parents.”

Things are great but there are still so many years missing

He was 26 when he and Anthony went to see their mother again. First, they had reconnected with their brother, who they found in a hospital psychiatric ward, and he told them he was in regular contact with their mother and would bring them to her house.

“We were kind of fearful; would our mam want to see us? Would she be angry with us?” A year passed before the three of them finally made that visit and they have all been in regular contact since.

“Things are great but there are still so many years missing,” says Jack, pointing out that all three of them lost their childhood to parental alienation and their oldest brother has lost much of his adulthood too, having had intermittent psychiatric problems since the age of 17.

“You don’t get a second chance at childhood,” adds Jack, who doesn’t want to stand by and see that happen to other children. “It’s emotional abuse of the highest level.”