Jail time for parental alienation not in best interests of children

Court could direct parents to take parenting course, says head of Ag Eisteacht charity

Criminalising a parent would create a “lose-lose situation” for the entire family, said Ag Eisteacht chief Maeve Hurley. Photograph: Getty Images

Criminalising a parent would create a “lose-lose situation” for the entire family, said Ag Eisteacht chief Maeve Hurley. Photograph: Getty Images


Jailing a parent for trying to turn a child against against the other parent after separation would not be in the best interests of the child, according to the head of the Ag Eisteacht charity.

Dr Maeve Hurley said criminalising a parent would create a “lose-lose situation” for the entire family.

Her remarks come after the Parental Alienation Awareness Association called for alienation to be made an indictable offence.

Parental alienation involves the unwarranted rejection of one, previously loved, parent by a child following a separation or divorce. It is associated with high-conflict splits and involves the child focusing undeserved and disproportionate anger toward the rejected parent, which is fed by the behaviour of the aligned parent, who most often has greater custody.

Dr Hurley said labelling a child’s behaviour as alienation is unhelpful. She said children needed to be able to express how they feel and needed to be heard and that questions should be asked about why a child was behaving in this way. “We need to look at the family as a system,” she said.

Penalising one parent would have the potential to make a child very distressed. “There has to be a better way of doing it,” she said.


If a child is encouraged to take sides and align themselves with one parent, that is a form of triangulation, Dr Hurley said. One parent becomes over-involved in an inappropriate and unhealthy way and the child is drawn in. Sometimes a child becomes the confidante or friend of the parent.

“That’s not the child role: the parents need to be helped to coparent that child, that is their responsibility, and it is difficult,” she said.

She said children exposed to destructive conflict, with intense arguments or maybe long periods of silence, are at risk of poor physical and mental health.

“I do agree there needs to be increased understanding of the impact of destructive conflict on children,” she said.


“Parents may be very stressed and hurt and angry themselves . . . but most parents are motivated to do the best for their children, and if they have the appropriate information and opportunity to think about what is the best approach, they will.”

If a parent is prosecuted, a child may well blame himself or herself, she said.

She suggested a judge could direct parents to work through a programme together, such as Parenting Plus: Parenting When Separated, which offers support for families going through separation.

Ag Eisteacht, a registered charity, provides practitioners in health, education and justice with training to provide support for people when they are distressed.

Dr Hurley said the adversarial approach in courts works on a “fight fight” model: “Who is the winner and who is the loser?”

She said professionals need to learn to look on people with compassion, because they are distressed, they are angry and they are hurting. “They may not be able to be compassionate with each other, but I think if you are modelling compassionate behaviour, then people will pick up on that.”