Parental alienation or acrimony? What’s the difference and why it matters

Natalya Evans

Last year, a number of rare and valuable letters were sold at auction. These letters were penned by the Nobel Prize winning, relativity-theorising Albert Einstein and addressed to his first wife, Mileva, following their divorce in 1919. These letters, which were sold for $90,000 US dollars, see Einstein accuse Mileva of ‘poisoning his children’s minds against him’. Einstein himself instructed that the letters should not be published for decades after his death ‘until society was advanced enough to accept’ its contents.

reflective boy thinking about his parents’ separation

So, despite its status as a ‘hot topic’ in the world of family law, parental alienation as a concept is really nothing new. It permeates all kinds of families and knows no social, economic or temporal bounds.

Definition of parental alienation

Today we benefit from strong judicial authority on parental alienation. In Re S (A Child : Finding of Fact) [2020] EWCA Civ 13 the Court of Appeal embraced the CAFCASS 2019 definition of parental alienation:

“when a child’s resistance/hostility towards one parent is not justified and is the result of psychological manipulation by the other parent.”

McFarlane expanded the CAFCASS definition in Re S, that:

The manipulation of the child by their parent “need not be malicious or even deliberate” because “[i]t is the process that matters, not the motive.”

The facts of the case were highly unusual, but essentially concerned a mother who had joined a cult that prohibited associations with anyone that did not follow the cult’s way of life. The factual matrix is unique, aside from one key element: that the mother’s staunch adherence to the beliefs of the cult and rejection of the father’s way of life alienated the child from the father.

Parental alienation is obvious in cases where one parent making unfounded allegations of abuse against the other. There are also more subtle, insidious examples, like excessively and unnecessarily reassuring the child about time spent with that parent.

Impact of parental alienation on children

The impact of parental alienation itself, and the decisions made by the court as a result, is life-changing for both children and parents.

·      The harm of alienating behaviours are immediate in that it blocks a child’s relationship with one parent and all the positive experiences which may flow from this.

·      The impact of these alienating behaviours can have a devastating impact on the social development of a child and may have enduring effects, leading to a child’s relationships being affected well into adulthood.

·      This may ultimately mean the complete loss of a relationship with the alienated parent beyond the child’s minority.

Understanding parental alienation

The title of this piece is ‘alienation or acrimony: what’s the difference and why it matters.’ The answer to those questions is simple: firstly, there is a difference between the two, and this difference absolutely matters, especially in a family law context. Parental alienation goes beyond the acrimonious bitterness or ill-feeling that is often experienced in the difficult circumstances of family breakdown. It is potentially a serious issue and must be treated as such.  

Critics of parental alienation argue that these types of allegations go towards silencing the voices of, typically, women and children resisting contact with abusive men. Indeed, some are not convinced that the concept exists at all (a discussion perhaps for another day).

The issue of parental alienation can arise in families whether the parents are married, or unmarried (

Peters May are happy to assist in children matters including parental alienation in either of these circumstances (please see for more information).

Please do not hesitate to get in touch.

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