Parental alienation: The big impact of term you’ve never heard.

Anthony Thomas had been married to his wife for 20 years.

He has two beautiful children, Wendy* and Nick*, and has fond memories of the times they used to spend together, whether that be going to Disneyland or doing fun activities with his daughter on the weekends.

“We used to go ice skating every Saturday, and then we’d go shopping afterwards [and] buy seafood. We’d have seafood [for dinner] on Saturday night,” the 51-year-old said.

Although Anthony admits that he knew his marriage was starting to break down, one day in 2018 started a chain of events involving an intervention order, the family court and parental alienation. These events would ultimately change Anthony’s life.

A 2016 study done in the US suggests that 19 per cent of children going through separation and divorce are affected by parental alienation. Based on these figures, the Eeny Meeny Miney Mo Foundation (EMMM), an organisation dedicated to raising awareness of parental alienation, have estimated that over 900,000 children in Australia are alienated. The 2016 study reported that 39.7 per cent of the participants had never heard of the term before, but over two thirds of them did report knowing someone who was being alienated from their children.

Dr Mandy Matthewson, a clinical psychologist and leading expert in parental alienation is not surprised that so few people know what parental alienation is.

“Parental alienation is much more prevalent than we know,” she said. “So many people, I think, are experiencing it in one way or another and have no idea, they don’t even know what it’s called. They just know they’re going through something that’s really horrific that they don’t understand.”

So, with that being said, what exactly is parental alienation?

It was the last day of school holidays in 2018, when Anthony and his ex-wife had the final argument that would end their marriage. After the verbal disagreement took place, his ex-wife went to the police and made a series of allegations against him.

“Basically she said we had an argument which we did, and she felt threatened by the fact that we had an argument and that I had said numerous things, which I had,” Mr Thomas said.

“She doesn’t allege that I hit her or punched her or whatever, she just said we had a verbal argument.”

But because she had stated that she felt threatened, the police served Anthony with an interim intervention order. Not only did she obtain an intervention order for herself, but also for their two children despite them not being involved in the argument.

An intervention order differs from an apprehended violence order (AVO), where the latter is used when an act of violence has occured. An intervention order is used to help protect someone from somebody that is violent or makes them feel unsafe.

Anthony maintains he never made any threats of violence during the argument. Before he had a chance to give his own evidence or side of the story, he was served with the order which meant he wasn’t able to see or contact his children. Even the smallest, most harmless interaction with his children would result in a breach of the order, as he would soon find out.

The Eeny Meeny Miney Mo Foundation have estimated over 900,000 children in Australia are alienated.

“Wendy, my youngest daughter… was at a cheerleading competition. I happened to see her through a glass panel…..and I mouthed to her, ‘I love you’,” Mr Thomas said. “She obviously told my ex-wife after the cheerleading competition [and] she went to the police and I was charged for saying I love you to Wendy.”

Anthony believes his ex-wife was trying to paint a less than pleasant picture of who he was, both as a person and as a father. “Basically what my ex-wife was trying to do was build up a case that I’m this monster if you want to put it in such a way,” he said.

Anthony and his ex-wife went to the family court in December of 2018, and the judge decided that he would be able to see the kids on Wednesday nights, but with the presence of a carer. Anthony recalls after the decision, his children still wouldn’t speak to him. “They had clearly been worded up by their mother not to cooperate.”

But when the children would eventually go and see Anthony on the allocated Wednesday night, it was clear that his ex-wife had been telling the children things about him that were either upsetting or frightening them.

“Wendy arrived at my place and she was shaking,” Mr Thomas said.

“[She] was still quite young, only 12, so she might’ve been terrified if she said the wrong thing and it got back to mum,” he said.

Unfortunately, Anthony’s ex-wife had a history of using their children as leverage against him, and what was happening to him echoed an all too familiar incident which had occurred years prior.

“We separated in 2010 for a week, and she wouldn’t let me speak to the children in that week even though Nick was only about three. He didn’t eat that week and asked where dad was,” Mr Thomas said.

“That incident gave me a real insight into what she was really like as a person.”

But, Anthony recalls the moment when his children wouldn’t even open the Christmas presents he had got for them as a real “eye opener” to the kind of alienating behaviour his ex-wife was using.

Dr Matthewson says that parental alienation can have immense and serious mental health impacts on affected children. “What I’m seeing is presentations that are consistent with complex PTSD. So they have trauma responses, they experience quite intensive episodes of depression [and] anxiety,” she said.

It’s also common for children to experience severe mental health issues long into adulthood.

“Some people can go on to have difficulties with substance abuse issues as a way of trying to cope with some very intense emotions and difficult experiences,” Dr Matthewson said.

A parent who has been the target of alienation also experiences similar severe mental health issues, Dr Matthewson says, as well as experiencing an unimaginable sense of loss.

“There’s this intense grief, so they are really experiencing what’s called disenfranchised grief from an ambiguous loss. So basically they are grieving for a lost child that’s not acknowledged or recognised or sanctioned by society. They kind of have to do that grieving alone.”

Sometimes the mental effects experienced by targeted parents can result in tragic consequences.

“We did some research a couple of years ago that was only recently published, and we found that 23 per cent of our samples had attempted suicide, and some of those people had attempted suicide more than once, so that’s the level of distress they are experiencing,” Dr Matthewson said.

While he didn’t register it at the time, Anthony realises now that he probably was struggling mentally during this ordeal with his children. “I think at the time, now looking back at it, I think I was depressed,” he said.

“I remember one summer sitting in the lounge room the whole day [and] I pretty much didn’t do anything, I didn’t get motivated to do anything. Apparently that’s a sign of depression.”

Many still believe parental alienation is a debunked term.

Entwined within the concept of parental alienation is the debate around gender bias, particularly within the family court. Some argue that parental alienation is a debunked term used by men in court as a way to discredit their partners by insinuating they have lied about claims of domestic violence in order to deny fathers access to their children.

At the latest parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s family law system, Susan Price, director of an organisation called the Men’s Rights Agency, told the committee she believed the family law system had deteriorated in recent years because of the “increasing number of false allegations” and the “incompetence of some family experts”.

“Society in general has been subjected to a hate campaign led by determined groups of women focusing on removing fathers from their children,” she said.

Retired family lawyer Paul Godfree says while false domestic violence allegations are unfortunately common in the family court and can be used as a tool to obtain primary care of a child, these days the courts are quite aware of the issue and take a much harder approach.

“It’s really got to be corroborated in the end and the complainant really needs to have been consistent and kept diary notes and [have] gone to the GP,” he said.

“I see biases everywhere,” Dr Matthewson says about whether women are treated differently in the family court.

Dr Matthewson doesn’t believe the family courts favour women over men, saying that through her clinical experience and research, she sees both men and women who think the courts are biased against them.

“I see biases everywhere, and when we interviewed mothers and fathers who were alienated they both believe that the court was stacked up against them anyway.”

Anthony does agree that there is an “unhealthy bias” towards women in court, however he doesn’t believe that the system failed him, but rather his children.

“The whole system fails children. And to me it’s like, I’ve had my childhood, and my ex-wife had her childhood, but my children haven’t had their childhood. So the system fails children, that’s who the system fails.”

Anthony hasn’t seen his two children since December of 2018. He was only able to see them during a two week period before the judges’ order to allow him to see his kids on Wednesdays was revoked.

He decided to stop fighting to see them because he knew even if he was able to see his children, his ex-wife would do everything in her power to make sure the time they spent together was not fun for either him or his kids.

“What’s the point. When you see them, they come with a whole lot of baggage from the last two weeks of dealing with mum. So you’re not gonna have any enjoyable time with them,” Mr Thomas said.

He doesn’t know what the future will hold for him when his children turn 18 and the intervention order expires, but he is going to take it slow reconnecting with them.

“It’s Nick’s 18th birthday next year. I’ll probably text him on his birthday and just say happy birthday. Or [I’ll say] if you need anything feel free to call. I’ll put it out there for him.”

Dr Matthewson says for anyone going through parental alienation, the best thing to do is get “armed up with information” and make sure you have a good support system.

“Get support. I think support is really important. So find yourself a really good psychologist or counsellor who knows about parental alienation who can support you through this process of understanding and coping with it.”

For anyone in a similar situation, Anthony says the most important thing is to work out what you’re trying to achieve and what is most important.

“Ultimately if you have children it’s all about them, it’s not all about you, it’s all about them.”

“You’ve gotta rise above it and say well I’d really like to [fight back] but is it in the children’s best interest for me to do it?”


*The children’s real names have been swapped with pseudonyms to protect their identity.