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A recent Court of King’s Bench decision explored the topic of parental alienation vs parental estrangement in some detail.

In LS v MK, 2023 ABKB 487, Justice Feasby explains parental alienation as being a breakdown in the relationship between a child and the unfavourable parent primarily attributable to the conduct of the favoured parent. He then goes on to juxtapose estrangement as being a breakdown in the relationship between a child and the unfavoured parent that is primarily caused by factors other than the conduct of the favoured parent.

Justice Feasby goes on to identify a grey area between alienation and estrangement where the breakdown between the child and the unfavoured parent is the result of both alienating behaviours by the favoured parent and the child’s rational aversion to the conduct of the unfavoured parent.

Both British Columbia and Ontario courts have opined on the issue of parental alienation and estrangement.

In Williamson v Williamson, 2016 BCCA 87, the British Columbia Court of Appeal identified the difference between estrangement and alienation being the cause. Namely, that estrangement occurs when the child understandably refuses contact with a parent because of that parent’s behaviour, and there is a logical and rationale reason for the child’s rejection of the parent. Whereas in the case of parental alienation, there is little or no objectively reasonable cause for the rejection of the parent.

In LS v MK, Justice Feasby held that expert evidence was not required for a court to determine if alienation or estrangement existed.

Parental alienation or “parental alienation syndrome” is not a mental health diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders. Justice Feasby went on to find that parental alienation is a legal concept as opposed to a mental health diagnosis and a court is well placed to find parental alienation on an assessment of the facts of a case. Justice Feasby caveated his comments by identifying the expertise that a court-appointed expert can offer in parental alienation cases. He found that court-appointed experts are in a better position to observe and comment on the behaviour of the parties. Correctly, Justice Feasby pointed to the “curated” evidence that parties often bring to family law matters. Parents tend to provide a “shaded” account of their interactions with the child and the interactions with the other parent. And lay witnesses tend to provide less than helpful evidence that is geared to assist the party they are testifying for.

Notably, Justice Feasby pointed to Family Practice Note 7 and Family Practice Note 8 as being tools for the parties and the court to obtain objective expert evidence of the parties’ parenting. Justice Feasby held that a Practice Note 8 Assessment was the better tool in the context of a parental alienation case.

Justice Feasby offered an extensive list of parental alienation factors:

List of Behaviours Observed in Cases of Parental Alienation

Child Behaviours

  • View of parents one-sided, all good or all bad; idealizes one parent and devalues the other
  • Vicious vilification of target parent; campaign of hatred
  • Trivial, false and irrational reasons to justify hatred
  • Reactions and perceptions unjustified or disproportionate to parent’s behaviours
  • Talks openly to anyone about rejected parent’s perceived shortcomings
  • Extends hatred to extended family and pets (hatred by association)
  • No guilt or ambivalence regarding malicious treatment, hatred, etc.
  • A stronger, but not necessarily healthy, psychological bond with alienating parent than with rejected parent
  • Anger at rejected parent for abandonment; blames him/her for divorce
  • Speech is brittle, a litany; obsessed; has an artificial quality; affect does not match words; no conviction; unchildlike, uses adult language; has a rehearsed quality
  • Stories are repetitive and lacking in detail and depth
  • Mimics what siblings report rather than own experience
  • Denial of hope for reconciliation; no acknowledgement of desire for reconciliation
  • Expresses worry for preferred parent, desire to care for that parent; or, defensive denial that child is indeed worried about parent

Alienating Parent Behaviours

  • Allows and insists that child makes decisions about contact
  • Rarely talks about the other parent; uninterested in child’s time with other parent after contact; gives a cold shoulder, silent treatment, or is moody after child’s return from visit
  • No photos of target parent; removes reminders of the other parent
  • Refusal to hear positive comments about rejected parent; quick to discount good times as trivial and unimportant
  • No encouragement of calls to other parent between visits; rationalizes that child does not ask
  • Tells child fun things that were missed during visit with other parent
  • Indulges child with material possessions and privileges
  • Sets few limits or is rigid about routines, rules and expectations
  • Refuses to speak directly to parent; refuses to be in same room or close proximity;
  • Does not let target parent come to door to pick up child
  • No concern for missed visits with other parent
  • Makes statements and then denies what was said
  • Body language and nonverbal communication reveals lack of interest, disdain and disapproval
  • Engages in inquisition of child after visits
  • Rejected parent is discouraged or refused permission to attend school events and activities
  • Telephone messages, gifts and mail from other parent to child are destroyed, ignored or passed on to the child with disdain
  • Distorts any comments of child that might justify accusations
  • Doesn’t believe that child has any need for relationship with other parent
  • When child calls and is quiet or non-communicative, parent wrongly assumes pressure from target parent, or that child is not comfortable with target parent; evidence of bad parenting; does not appreciate that child is uncomfortable talking to alienating parent about target parent
  • Portrays other parent as dangerous, may inconsistently act fearful of other parent in front of child
  • Exaggerates negative attributes of other parent, and omits anything positive
  • Delusional false statements repeated to child; distorts history and other parent’s participation in the child’s life; claims other parent has totally changed since separation
  • Projection of own thoughts, feelings and behaviours onto the other parent
  • Does not correct child’s rude, defiant and/or omnipotent behaviour directed towards the other parent, but would never permit child to do this with others
  • Convinced of harm, when there is no evidence
  • False or fabricated allegations of sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse
  • Denigrates and exaggerates flaws of rejected parent to child says other parent left “us,” divorced “us” and doesn’t love “us”
  • Over-involves child in adult matters and litigation
  • Child required to keep secrets and spy or report back on other parent
  • Child required to be messenger
  • Overt and covert threats to withdraw love and affection from child unless other parent is rejected
  • Extreme lack of courtesy to rejected parent
  • Relocation for minor reasons and with little concern for effects on child

Parental Behaviours of Target Parent that Make Alienation More Likely

  • Harsh, rigid and punitive parenting style
  • Outrage at child’s challenge to his/her authority
  • Passivity or withdrawal in face of conflict
  • Immature, self-centred in relation to child
  • Loses temper, angry, demanding, intimidating character traits, but not to level of abuse
  • Counter-rejecting behaviour
  • Lacks empathic connection to child
  • Inept and unempathetic pursuit of child, pushes calls and letters, unannounced or embarrassing visits
  • Challenges child’s beliefs and/or attitudes and tries to convince them otherwise
  • Dismissive of child’s feelings and negative attitudes
  • Induces guilt
  • May use force to reassert parental position
  • Vents rage, blames alienating parent for brainwashing child and takes no responsibility