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Family Law

When children ‘play’ their parents

By August 1, 2021February 23rd, 2024No Comments

Claims of parental alienation loom large in the family courts. Typically, cases involving genuine parental alienation have an element of malice on the part of the alienating parent. And the alienating parent’s behaviours are seen to be deliberately intended to “turn a child against” the other parent. But parental alienation can also occur in cases where a parent has unwittingly alienated their co-parent, without it being apparently purposeful. In such cases it is usually because the alienating parent lacks insight into the effect of their behaviour or their own attitude on the children. Sometimes it’s also because the children are contributing to the situation through their own manipulative behaviours. Let’s take a look at a recent family court case where twin girls aged 14 have had their residence switched from mum to dad because of suspicions of this form of parental alienation.

[Parental alienation…continued]

When children turn against a parent with whom they had a previously loving relationship, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason behind the estrangement, it can often turn out to be a case of parental alienation. It can involve an alienating parent actively trying to destroy the children’s relationship with their other parent. But sometimes, there doesn’t appear to be the usual motivated, deliberate behaviours aimed at keeping an ex from their child.

When those kinds of cases proceed through the court system, courts have been less likely to view the alienating parent as harshly, and often recommend therapeutic interventions to assist the alienating parent in gaining insight and making changes to their behaviour. The recent court matter given the pseudonyms Noble & Noble is one such case. In the matter, the judge did initially order therapy for both the mother and the children. But going further, the children were then removed from the mother and placed with the father until the next court hearing in three months. They also have a moratorium on contact with her during this time.

Case background

What seems to have been a once very loving relationship between a father and a set of twins has been damaged since the twins started rejecting him. The judge noted a cautious approach is always needed on an interim basis before a final hearing can test all the evidence. The aim at the interim hearing is to reduce risk to the children in the meantime. In this case, the judge found the father wasn’t any risk of harm to the girls ‘at all’, neither physically or mentally. However, the judge found the kids were ‘at a form of risk of emotional harm’ from the mother. The drastic action of switching residences was necessary to prevent the “real risk they will lose the relationship with their father which they seek and which they will obtain benefit”.

Note those words “which they seek”. They are critical because as the judgment reveals, despite these relatively mature aged girls being vocal with strong wishes not to see their father, they have also demonstrated to experts in the case (and to the satisfaction of the judge) that deep down, they do want their dad in their life.

What were the children’s manipulative behaviours?

In their active rejection of the father, the twin girls told lies, which led to the mother accepting them “without any form of questioning, filtering or adult reflection”. This led to the mother acting on the basis as if they were true, with various consequences. The girls made joint efforts to ‘entrap’ their dad or gather evidence for the family court hearing. They were inexplicably hateful to him, including in one particularly aggressive phone call they recorded. The girls would give totally different versions of events to their mother and to independent third parties.

The mother now acknowledged the girls have “become manipulative” but it seems the court found her newfound insight to be a little too late. The judge said:

“I have little confidence that she truly accepts that her children have been ‘playing’ her.”

Why do children sometimes behave this way?

Children aren’t necessarily doing this because they are being naughty. As the expert told the court in this case, it’s “not unusual in high-conflict families for children under the stress of such conflict to align with a primary carer so as not to disappoint them”. In this case, the alignment was found to be “extreme”.

The expert thought the kids had “formed the view that the mother holds the belief that the children are unsafe with the father and, either directly or otherwise, the children had adopted that belief for the mother’s benefit“.

In essence, they’re trying to please their caregiver. And it’s on the caregiver to realise this and deal with it. However, as we see in this case, the mother’s ‘passive parenting style’ means she believes ‘whatever they say to her’. And they know this and take advantage of it. All of this is forming an unhealthy co-dependent relationship which makes them more at risk of developmental problems.

Sometimes, of course, children’s manipulation can also be self-serving. For example, in this case, the judge noted the twins also take advantage of the mother’s parenting style, which they perceive as more lax than their father’s more disciplined environment.

Criticisms of the mother’s parenting

There was apparently no overt or covert parental alienation by the mother in this case. But this judgment shows alienation doesn’t have to consist of active, motivated behaviours by the alienating parent. A parent’s passive indifference to a child’s alienating behaviours is still causing a risk of harm to the child.

Here, there didn’t appear to be a motive of revenge nor did there appear to be any deliberate, vindictive conduct by the mother. The court couldn’t be satisfied that she knowingly coached the girls. Instead, her parenting style of “passive indifference” is what led to the findings of significant concern about the mother’s insight. It was just that the girls wanted to help the mother’s litigation, and the mother turned a blind eye.

Her focus on her needs as opposed to the children’s made them ‘adopt the narrative that she wants to hear, and this puts the children in an unsafe situation’.

“The mother’s approach to parenting is such that she has passively, at least, contributed to the children’s attitude to the father and this has been an important factor.

“Because of the mother’s beliefs and parenting style, any reunification therapy where the children are living almost exclusively in the mother’s home is, in my assessment, doomed to fail. The chance for some successful therapeutic intervention is, in my view, enhanced if the children live with the father – albeit temporarily.”

You can read this judgment in full here.

To get advice with a parenting or other family law matter, please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400.

Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Family Law.

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