Most of us have seen a friend or family member’s marriage go bust in a bitter divorce. Sometimes the couple’s children are victims in their parents’ ongoing conflict long after the break-up. One parent, often the primary caregiver, may influence the kids to take sides and subtly turn them against the other parent.


Undermining the kids’ relationship with the other parent, even unintentionally, damages children’s emotional and psychological well-being and is contrary to the Family Law Act. This phenomenon is called “parental alienation” and may lead to children not wanting to see or have anything to do with that other parent. When a child’s previously close relationship with both parents turns sour with one parent without good reason, that’s a hallmark of parental alienation.

Our B.C. Supreme Court recently had to deal with parental alienation. Colin and Claire (all names changed) had two kids, Mary and Becky, born in 2000 and 2002. The couple separated in 2008 and divorced three years later. Both parents were intelligent and capable individuals who loved their children, and they agreed to equal parenting arrangements. The court subsequently gave them joint custody and joint guardianship of the kids and ordered a three-day alternating parenting schedule, later changed by Colin and Claire to a five-day alternating schedule.

These arrangements worked well initially, but over time the kids became increasingly reluctant to spend time with their dad. One example: in late 2011 when Claire dropped Becky off to see Colin, Becky ran back to her mom’s car, buckled herself in and refused to come out for half an hour despite her dad’s pleading. By 2013, when Colin was to pick the girls up from a church drop-off, or was to take them after school, he couldn’t because they ran away. They also refused to see him during a court-ordered holiday access. When interviewed by a psychologist, both children expressed strong negative views of their father, but positive ones of their mother.

Colin thus asked the court for a “custody reversal order” and other orders to help resolve the problem.

The court concluded the children were a product of parental alienation – their negative feelings and rejection of their dad was significantly out of line with their actual experience with him. Both Mary and Becky suffered from emotional and mental health problems – the older girl from depression and suicidal thoughts, her younger sister from an anxiety disorder and anger issues.

The focus in such cases is on the best interests of the children long-term. The court intervened in an effort to undo the girls’ alienation from their dad, to foster their future relationship with both parents and to minimize emotional damage.

Colin got sole guardianship, interim custody and primary residence of the two girls for the time being, and Claire was to have no direct or indirect access to them. Claire, Colin and the children also had to enroll in a family reunification program for a year (the program’s director would make regular progress reports to the court).

Parental alienation situations are complex, and each case requires a unique solution. It’s important you act quickly and get legal and other help promptly if you’re caught up in such a conflict-ridden situation.


Written by Janice and George Mucalov, LL.B.s with contribution by COBBETT & COTTON. This column provides information only and must not be relied on for legal advice. Please contact COBBETT & COTTON for legal advice concerning your particular case. Names of the parties in reported cases have been changed or removed to protect their identity. Lawyer Janice Mucalov is an award-winning legal writer. “You and the Law” is a registered trade-mark. ©Janice and George Mucalov.

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