When Mount Royal University
professor Christine Giancarlo, a PhD
in human services, began to study the
phenomenon of parents alienated from
their children, she had no difficulty
finding research subjects.
Parental alienation is when one
parent deliberately poisons a child’s
relationship with the other parent. It’s
a frequent and unfortunate result of
high-conflict divorces and separations.
“I included 28 alienated parents in
the study but I easily could have had
5,000,” Giancarlo says. “This is a huge
issue and it has terrible consequences,
both for parents and children.”
Children who are turned against
a parent can experience toxic stress,
which can lead to poor self-esteem,
anxiety and depression, anti-social
behaviour and a number of other
For example, as adults they can
abuse substances, have trouble forming
secure, intimate relationships and be
When high conflict
Families can pay the price
Keep in mind
low achievers. They are also more likely
to divorce and separate and become
alienated from their own children.
“To grow up and be emotionally
well, children need loving, supportive
relationships with both parents—even
when they’ve separated,” Giancarlo
Alienated parents also face problems.
Giancarlo’s study specifically looked at
what happened when alienated parents
used the courts to gain access to their
“One of the saddest findings was
that most participants said they lost
their homes or had been bankrupted
because of the legal costs they incurred.
They turned to the justice system as
a last resort and said it failed them
miserably,” she says.
Parental alienation appears to be on
the rise, Giancarlo says. One estimate
says 13 per cent of all divorces are high-conflict, with the children caught in the
But divorce and separation needn’t
be so financially and emotionally
costly or turn into a court battle. One
alternative is collaborative practice,
which focuses on helping couples and
families “restructure” by encouraging
mutual respect, emphasizing the needs
of children and adopting a problem-solving approach.
Ultimately, prevention is the best
strategy. “The key is for parents to rise
above their broken relationship and
commit to their children’s well-being
by cooperating as parents,” Giancarlo
— Greg Harris
For more information about avoiding
conflict during divorce, see
Co-parenting Through Divorce in the
Winter 2013 issue of Apple.
For more information on collaborative
practice, visit collaborativepractice.ca.
In divorce and separation, parents need to rise above their broken
relationship and commit to their children’s well-being.