Parental alienation is becoming more prevalent with today’s complicated family structures and growing financial pressures, says family therapist Nicole Armstrong Lourenco. The syndrome has always been around, however, and it is an important issue which family law practitioners need to be aware of, Mrs Armstrong Lourenco added.
Legalwise News Editor Caroline Tang interviewed the Sydney-based therapist and family dispute resolution mediation practitioner following our newsletter’s case note last week on the Full Court’s decision in Lankester & Cribb  FamCAFC 60. The court case demonstrated the grave ramifications of parental alienation.
How Parental Alienation Arises
Mrs Armstrong Lourenco’s practice is 70 percent family therapy – the lawyers send her their clients when they become unable to move forward or address the underlying issues themselves – and about 30 percent is Family Dispute Resolution (FDR), commonly referred to as mediation.
She said parental alienation appeared in a range of forms, from the unintentional and subtle to purposeful, overt “campaigns” against the other parent.
“Parental alienation is when one parent, to put it in everyday terms, sways or influences the child or children against the other parent, as an emotional manipulation and, the child is generally not aware at all,” Mrs Armstrong Lourenco said.
“A child could be of any age, from the quite young to adult. I see it often and it’s not necessarily purposeful. I most often see it when there has been a difficult separation or a divorce. They’re never easy, but some of them are particularly difficult situations.
“Both parents are hurt, distressed and often unable to cope with their own emotions. In those instances, where it’s not purposeful, it can often be an unfortunate and destructive by-product of their own hurt or distrust, or whatever the circumstances are that’s caused the breakdown of the relationship or marriage that they deflect onto the child in varying degrees. So, sometimes it is a purposeful campaign, but most often it’s not.”
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) on the Increase
The term, Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), originated in the United States when it was first used by a child psychiatrist in the mid-1980s. The psychiatrist saw PAS as a psychological behaviour in a child or children during the period of a difficult custody or divorce situation. PAS, however, is not recognised in the authority on psychiatric diagnoses, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
But Mrs Armstrong Lourenco said the Australian courts certainly recognised it as a syndrome which came into play in family disputes and sometimes, the syndrome was acknowledged in how the courts awarded custody – as Lankester & Cribb illustrated.
“PAS is widely recognised, particularly through the family courts in Australia and by therapists and mediators, because it’s present in varying degrees in many difficult separations and different situations,” she said.
“Today, I think, there are more divorces, more separation of families, more stress and financial pressure and, in a lot of instances the stakes are higher.
“There are many different multi-layered step families and re-partnering, so families are certainly more complex than they were say, 50 years ago or even 30 years ago. I suppose in the old days it was called ‘taking sides’, but today there are many more sides to take.
So, parental alienation is more prevalent and, we are more aware of it.”
Collaboration is Key
Mrs Armstrong Lourenco works in a consultative way with other professionals and said the best results came from a collaborative approach which addressed what was in the best interests of the child and ideally also, what the parents can cope with. If the parents can cope with agreements that they have made together, PAS will likely naturally decrease or become absent altogether.
“The best results I see are when family lawyers, therapists like me, and our clients, all try our absolute utmost to achieve the best outcome for the whole family,” she said.
“Because the parents are the best people to make decisions for their own family, as long as it’s a safe, good decision for the children and within the law.
“Family lawyers often send their clients to me if familial issues need to be addressed when it is seems unlikely or impossible that any agreements could be reached. Often acrimony, distress and anger between the parties precludes any reasonable agreements being able to being met. If all parties (this may sometimes include step-parents too) are able and agreeable to Family Therapy, they may not have to go to mediation and ultimately Court and the threat of a Court hearing is off the table.
“Some do go to mediation, and this can be a necessity or suit many separated families for a variety of reasons. For others, the more inclusive Family therapy with no time constraints is more effective long term in addressing issues, past and present and ultimately how to move forward. Agreements can be made in both formats with their respective lawyers involvement providing guidance, legal security and safety to both parties. PAS is an issue that is often addressed in therapy and discussed with both parties.
“Family Dispute Resolution, is a series of three sessions, one with each parent, then a joint session if possible, but it doesn’t solve the problem of parental alienation – they might reach an agreement, for example, on how to share the children, or guidelines on how to better communicate – but it doesn’t fix the underlying problem, therefore the alienation likely continues. It is not the role of FDR to delve as thoroughly into the past and present relationships as Family Therapy does, nor is there the time. Both or either can be appropriate, dependent on the family involved.
“Some parents can use the threat Court action as a weapon to try and push the other party into accepting what is probably not in anyone’s best interests, particularly the children’s. Alienation can often be reinforced as the pressure is increased on either or both parents when Court is threatened or pending.”
An Inter-Generational Problem
Mrs Armstrong Lourenco parental alienation could also become an inter-generational problem. “It’s very important to note, that if parental alienation is not addressed, if it’s allowed to continue into adulthood, it can affect relationships in that family for the rest of their lives and how they parent; I often see that,” she said.
“A recent case where the father walked out on a young family is history repeating for the third generation in a row under marital stress. The hurt and distress caused by both grandparents actions was never addressed and these effects are being felt 50 years later. The actions occurring today in this family, I see as a reinforced belief in the behaviour by the now adult grandson of inter-generational Parental Alienation.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s the mother or father and sometimes both; the alienation of the other parent can be threaded all the way through every family and extended family relationships. If the cause of the problems can be addressed in a supportive therapeutic environment for all parties involved, it can result in a more peaceful, encouraging and supportive extended family – where the pattern is broken and everyone thrives – especially the children.