The issue of parental alienation and all its complexities was in the spotlight recently when researchers gathered in Hobart for ‘The Parental Alienation - Family Violence Lost in the Fog Conference.’
Experts from around the globe, including University of Tasmania’s Psychology lecturer Dr Mandy Matthewson, presented the latest in this often controversial field arising when one parent behaves in ways to damage the relationship of their child with the other parent – causing the child to reject the targeted parent.
Parental alienation is distinct from enstrangement where a child rejects a parent for legitimate reasons such as the parent being neglectful or abusive or where a parent is acting protectively by keeping the child safe from another parent.
Describing the conference as ‘an inspiring blend of research, professional practice presentations and lived experience discussion,’ Dr Matthewson said continued education and research about parental alienation was important to further understand the phenomenon and develop assessments and interventions for it.
The University of Tasmania’s Division of Psychology has the first Australian laboratory, The Family and Interpersonal Relationships Lab, dedicated to research on parental alienation.
“Parental alienation has been extensively researched largely in the US and to some extent in Europe and Canada, however it is a relatively new area of research in Australia,” Dr Matthewson said.
“While it is difficult to get precise figures on the number of people targeted by parental alienation, an Australian online support group set up by the Eeny Meeny Miney Mo foundation already has several thousand clients including targeted parents, children who are now adolescents or adults and grandparents.”
Dr Matthewson said research had shown parental alienation to be far more common and impactful than people realised.
“Through our research we found a very distressed group of people grieving for their children, who work very hard to try and have a relationship with their children,” she said.
“In some cases, they have spent a lot of money to try and get that relationship with their children back by going through Family Court to get appropriate custody arrangements.”
“And it doesn’t just affect the immediate family, it also affects grandparents and other relatives.”
Research produced by The Family and Interpersonal Relationships Lab uncovered many similarities between targeted parents including: consistent stories about the nature of the alienation tactics used by alienating parents; a feeling of dissatisfaction with the health and legal system services available; negative effects on their mental health and wellbeing and feelings that more research and recognition was needed on this issue.
Dr Matthewson said the Lab was currently undertaking research into the experience of adults who were alienated from a parent as a child.
“We have started recruiting targeted adults who have reunified after a period of parental alienation and grandparents who are alienated from their grandchildren,” she said.
“We hope to have some results from this study by the end of the year.”