19th Apr 2022

Children and Divorce: What happens when parents sabotage relationships?

By Rory Collett

Children and Divorce: What happens when parents sabotage relationships?

When parents separate, children are particularly vulnerable to what happens next. This is especially the case when one parent, either intentionally or unintentionally, sabotages the ongoing relationship between the child and the other parent. This interference leads to a parent becoming ‘implacably hostile’ or ‘obdurate’.

Every year in Britain around 280,000 children experience parental separation. Unsurprisingly, studies show that frequent, intense, and poorly resolved parental conflict is harmful to child development and could potentially have life-long consequences. Thankfully, there are very few cases (as little as 4%) where a parent can be classed as acting obdurately. In this blog I will examine how this can arise and how this behaviour is treated by the family courts.

An obdurate carer is a parent who will go to any lengths to prevent or sabotage their children from having a meaningful relationship, or any relationship, with the other (usually, non-resident) parent. There is no clear way to resolve these situations and when they arise, they are incredibly difficult to manage. An obdurate carer isn’t an individual who is just difficult or challenging, but rather someone who will create circumstances (deliberately or unconsciously) where no real relationship can be sustained between the co-parent and their child.

Obdurate behaviour often arises as a result of deep distrust between the former partners. The children are never the reason why these situations occur, and they evolve purely because of unhappy relationships crystalizing between parents; in other words, unhappy children are the symptom of this problem and never the cause.

Obdurate parenting often leads to a concept called parental alienation. Specifically, alienation arises where children become obsessed with the denigration and criticism of the other parent. This negative view will always be completely unjustified and exaggerated. The family courts have started to recognise that this denigration of a parent by a child is a clinical issue which develops because of the psychological manipulation by one parent, who will attempt to devalue the relationship the other co-parent has with the child.

The roots of alienation can often be traced back to the very early stages of a child’s development when the parents are still in a relationship. The obdurate parent is likely to display extreme traits, such as viewing the world in all-or-nothing terms, or being extremely fearful of experiencing new behaviours – these tendencies will then be absorbed by the child and unconsciously learned. If the parents later separate, the child can be highly sensitive to the obdurate parent’s extreme mode of thinking and will project an all-or-nothing perspective on the separation by viewing one parent as all-good or all-bad.

For alienation to be present, the negative view of the other parent held by the child cannot be due to the past behaviour of that adult; the view must be completely unjustifiable and disproportionate to the relationship. If the child has been harmed by the alienated parent or is frightened of them because of domestic abuse or other harmful parenting behaviours (such as neglect or substance misuse), then the rejection can be viewed as a justifiable reaction. Common actions which lead to a child becoming alienated can be: (i) an obdurate party demeaning or making distasteful remarks in order to undermine the child’s relationship with the other parent; or (ii) the obdurate party encouraging the child to make misleading allegations of neglect or abuse.

Significantly, one way the family courts are looking to resolve situations where a parent has been acting obdurately, is to rapidly reintroduce and increase the time the alienated parent has with the child. This is a new approach, as previously the family courts would look to gradually reintroduce the ostracized parent back into the child’s life in stages. This could lead to the courts transferring where the child lives, suspending the child’s time with the alienating parent and ordering extensive therapy for the parents. Often such circumstances would be led by a Reunification Worker, who would work with the obdurate parent to guide them and the child with reintroducing the alienated parent back into their lives. This is an extremely powerful tool of the court.

When the family court looks to find a resolution, timing is absolutely critical to overcome the child’s hostility. In some circumstances, the child’s distrust of the other parent can be so deeply entrenched by the obdurate parent that the court deems the relationship irreparable, and it is viewed to be too late to “unscramble the omelette”. It appears the judiciary is now leaning more towards ordering CAFCASS co-parenting programmes, which would be led by specialist officers who are trained towards unravelling parents’ attitudes and finding suitable, therapy-based solutions to the underlying issues.

So, what can be done to help families where there may be an obdurate carer present? Our advice would be to seek specialist family law advice without delay. Experienced family lawyers will be able to make referrals to expert professionals including counsellors and therapists who can provide help and support. At FLiP we have our own specialist in-house counsellors and family consultants who can provide help and support in this area.

All in all, it is important for parents to recognise any obdurate parenting and alienating tendencies, and for family solicitors and other specialists to move quickly to protect children from completely losing one parent from their lives.

This blog was written by FLiP Associate Rory Collett after attending the White Paper Conferences, with special thanks to Christopher Miller at Fourteen Chambers.

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