Alberta custody: Parental alienation versus parental estrangement

On behalf of Gary Kirk of Kirk Montoute Dawson LLP posted in Family Law on Thursday, June 23, 2016.

In cases of divorce when there are children of the marriage, creating custody and parenting time arrangements that are in the children’s best interests is paramount to all involved. Often these child custody decisions can be negotiated between the parents as part of an agreement, but if not, the court must decide. When a child resists or refuses to spend time with one of the parents, the entire process is obviously more difficult and issues of parental alienation or estrangement may be raised. 

A three-part article published by LawNow provides an excellent overview of related legal and psychological research. Written by John-Paul Boyd, a former family lawyer from Vancouver and director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family, the piece explains the difference between parental alienation and parental estrangement, an important distinction.

“Parental alienation syndrome” is a relatively recent psychological theory that deals with family situations when one parent tries to inappropriately brainwash or poison a child against the other parent, possibly causing the child to refuse to visit or have a relationship with the other parent. 

Boyd references research that shows that children can be estranged from a parent for logical and justifiable reasons that do not amount to an attempt by the other parent to brainwash the child. For example, in extreme cases, the other parent may have been violent or abusive, or in less extreme (but still strongly significant) cases that parent may have been excessively strict, immature, emotionally distant, impaired by substance abuse or may have displayed a similarly negative trait or behavior at home. 

In such situations, the child may have the natural reaction of withdrawing from a parent-child relationship with the dysfunctional parent that is independent of improper interference by the other parent. 

It may be appropriate for parents and children in cases of estrangement to involve mental health professionals for the good of all involved, but especially for the children’s well being. Involvement of a child counselor or therapist or a parenting consultant during custody negotiations or a court trial, if it becomes necessary, can provide valuable information and insight.

A family lawyer can provide guidance to his or her divorcing client in situations when custody and parenting time is at issue. 

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