Parental alienation explained: FAQs, terms and concepts

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What is parental alienation? A list of terms and concepts
What is parental alienation? A list of terms and concepts

Parental alienation occurs when one parent attempts to poison a child’s mind against another parent, through words or actions or inactions. 

It is recognised in South Africa, and has been regarded by the court as a form of child abuse, but it's still a minefield for many who might not even realise what is happening until it's too late. 

Parent24 spoke to advocate Riani Ferreira of Circle Chambers to provide us with answers to some of the more frequently asked questions on the issue.

Frequently asked questions

"Unfortunately," Ferreira tells us, "parental alienation features in almost every custody dispute."

She explains this is because parents struggle under emotional stress to separate their own bitterness from the best interest of their children, and wish consciously and unconsciously to form an alliance with the children and involve them. 

Parental alienation might not be that well known in South Africa, and she says that judges would not refer to the "syndrome" but to the facts indicating parental alienation, which are highly relevant and entrenched in the Constitution, as well as the Children’s Act. 

Does parental alienation apply to children over the age of 18?

"The major child has a choice and a say in the matter, and therefore if such a major child resists contact, there is not much the rejected parent can do.

"I would suggest that the rejected parent attempt to convince the major child to attend bonding therapy, and need not obtain the permission or co-operation of the defiant parent," Ferreira says.

She says that there is a difference between an alienated child and an estranged child, and the causes differ.  

How to recognise it?

According to the book Children Who Resist Postseparation Parental Contact, typical behaviour exhibited by the children, or children, in question include the following examples: 

When a child's opinion of a parents is one sided, all good or all bad, and the the child idealises one parent and devalues the other, this could be a sign of parental alienation.

The vilification of the rejected parent is often vicious, and could be called a campaign of hatred.

The reasons for the rejection are often trivial, false, and irrational, and the child's reactions and perceptions appear unjustified or disproportionate to the rejected parent’s behaviours.

For more on this, read: This is how you know if your ex is turning your child against you 

Is parental alienation limited to parents? 

Parent24 asked Ferreira if parental alienation is unique to biological parents, or if it occurs with other relatives such as grandparents, uncles, step parents and so on? 

"It's definitely not limited to parents, often extended family members will make themselves guilty of this form of abuse of children in our country," Ferreira revealed.

"Especially grandparents will often what I refer to aptly as "hijack" their grandchildren, and might even attempt to alienate minor children from one or both their parents," she added. 

What is the punishment for this?

So is there a penalty or punitive recourse for perpetrators of parental alienation?

Yes, Ferreira assures us.

"If there is non-compliance with a court order, a prison sentence might even be imposed. There are various other remedies available to the rejected parent," she says. 

What if it's not?

But what happens if a child refuses to see the other parent of their own accord – is it possible to  defend oneself from an accusation of parental alienation and how would one do that?

"Depending on the facts, the court might change the primary residence," Ferreira explains.

"However, in certain instances the court will not force the child, as it might actually be to the prejudice of the child, regardless of the reasons why the status was reached."

She strongly recommends that rejected parents should act speedily, as the longer it takes, the more difficult it becomes to restore the relationship. 

Common terms and concepts

Minor child

In terms of section 17 of the Children’s Act a minor child is a child under the age of 18 years.

Major child 

In terms of section 17 of the Children’s Act a major child is a child who has reached the age of 18 years. 

Rejected (alienated) parent

A child who shows resistance or refusal to have contact with that parent, as a result of estrangement or alienation, will render that parent to be the rejected parent. 

Defiant (favoured/alienating) parent

This is a parent who will deliberately expose a child to denigration of the other parent, to the extent that the child resists contact.

Alienated child

Where a defiant parent successfully denigrates the other parent to the child, to the point that the child resists contact with the other parent.  The child has become alienated from one parent, because of the other parent’s influence.

Estranged child

This is a child who has a justified reason (or realistic estrangement) for rejecting a parent, as result of neglect or abuse by the rejected parent.

Primary residence

Where the child predominantly resides, visiting the other parent (in the past referred to as the custodian parent’s home).

Secondary residence

This is not a common term, and it is not defined in the Children's Act, 38 of 2005, but this would likely refer to the residence of the parent where the child has contact but does not ordinarily reside.  


Read more in our series: #NoOneWins | Everything you need to know about Parental Alienation


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