Estrangement vs parental alienation: A legal professional explains the difference

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Parent alienation is often a by-product of parental conflict
Parent alienation is often a by-product of parental conflict

Parent24 is sharing a series of articles on the contentious topic of parental alienation. Here, local legal firm SD Law South Africa helps us unpack the difference between estrangement and parental alienation.  

Parental alienation is a sad by-product of divorce or other breakdown between parents. It is, unfortunately, usually the result of deliberate sabotage by one parent against the other.

It is very rarely an organic response by the child, provided there is no physical or emotional abuse present.

According to clinical psychologist Dr Marilé Viljoen, "Parental alienation is a set of processes and behaviours conducted and enacted by a parent to deliberately and knowingly damage or sever the relationship between a child and another parent with whom the child enjoyed a prior loving relationship."

A child may express "disapproval and even hatred toward a parent they loved and respected before the separation or divorce".

Also read: Reader shares heartbreaking story of parental alienation

Estrangement vs. parental alienation

It is important to differentiate between estrangement and alienation, SD Law South Africa explains. 

Estrangement is sad and all too common but it does not arise from the same vindictive motives as parental alienation.

Estrangement refers to the breakdown of the relationship between a parent and child, which may come about because of the parent's:

  • Inadequate treatment of the child
  • Abuse or neglect of the child
  • Poor parenting behaviour
  • Low insight into parenting behaviour
  • Inability to understand the child's world or to place themselves in the child's shoes
  • The struggle to take responsibility for their own emotions and behaviour

Some of these factors can be blamed on the parent; some are unconscious behaviours. 

None are driven by the other parent, as is the case with parental alienation.

Read: This is how you know if your ex is turning your child against you  

Pre-divorce signals

Although we talk about parental alienation as a consequence of divorce, the roots of it can often be found in the family dynamics before the marriage ends.

It can be argued that the dying days of a relationship when the couple still inhabits a common home can be more damaging to a child than the divorce itself.

Where children are used as emotional bargaining tools they are often manipulated into a situation where they side with one parent or the other.

When the relationship between the parents is resolved, even if that is via divorce, children are often relieved of the triangulation and harmonious relations with both parents can be restored.

Learn more about this issue here: #NoOneWins: Everything you need to know about Parental Alienation

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