Although Australian Family Law professionals are starting to recognise the prevalence of parental alienation and the consequence of this dynamic in the post-separation space, it is clear there are many other reasons why children may not have contact with a parent following parental separation. It is important to acknowledge these reasons if we are to find ways to address the issues and facilitate a functional and loving relationship with both parents. Importantly, even if there are elements of alienation, it can be the case that the so-called targeted parent has engaged in problematic behaviour that has contributed to a lack of contact.
Some reasons why there is limited or no contact between a child and his/her parent:
The behaviour of the rejected parent
A child may be fearful of and so reject a parent who has used physical or other excessive forms of discipline or has been violent toward them or the other parent.
Intense marital conflict before and after the separation
A child may perceive that one party is the instigator of the conflict so seeks to avoid that parent.
Lack of functional co-parenting
A child may perceive that a parent is “difficult” around such issues as extra-curricular activities, electronic devices, social activities so they reject that parent.
Divorce conflict and litigation
A child may perceive that a parent is prolonging the litigation process and is subjecting them to practices such as family reports, family therapy or other psychosocial assessments.
The personality of the favoured parent
Some children simply get on better with one parent over the other. They readily share the same interests and values.
The personality and/or values of the rejected parent
Some children do not want to engage with parents who are, say, overtly racist or homophobic. Some children do not subscribe to the same religious views as one of their parents. Some children do not want to engage with a parent who has a string of relationships immediately following separation or has an expectation that the child accept a new partner within weeks of separation. Some children do not want to visit a parent when they spend a significant portion of the visitation drinking alcohol, working, socialising with adult mates or watching sport on television.
A humiliating separation
The parents may have separated due to a well-publicised extra-marital relationship, or criminal activity. The child may reject a parent who causes them to feel embarrassed.
Some children do not like their parent’s new partner’s children. Or they may feel their feelings and thoughts are usurped by their sibling or step-sibling.
Incarceration, Institutionalisation, Addiction issues, Mental Health issues
The child may not wish to continue contact with a parent who is in prison,
institutionalised for whatever reason, is suffering with a destructive addiction or has
significant mental health issues.
Paternity issues/Parental choice
Some children are not raised by their biological father; they may not have been aware
of this reality. Some parents simply reject the role of parenthood; for a period of time
The child’s own vulnerability
Some children suffer with extreme separation anxiety and may take a long time before they feel comfortable spending time away from their primary attachment figure.
Family Law in Australia is underpinned by a child’s right to have a relationship with both parents, notwithstanding issues of safety and risk. Nonetheless, it is clear that there are circumstances where this does not occur. When a parent seeks to reinstate contact or ensure that they have an opportunity to form a relationship with their child, this ought to be done with care, forethought and sensitivity to the needs of the child.
Reunification therapy is a complex process that should be facilitated by a highly experienced professional who has the opportunity to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the situation and guide everyone to an outcome that is in the best interest of the child.