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Article by listed attorney: Fawzia Khan

After getting divorced, most people are able to move on in their respective lives, some more quicker than other but often forging loving relationships with new partners and leading healthy stable lives. More often than not, they’re able to learn from their past experiences and overcome whatever negative impact plagued their previous relationship, going on to remarry and be reasonably happy in subsequent relationships.

Although it may not be easy in the beginning, children too, also adjust to the new family dynamics very quickly when parents are no longer living together, and are accepting of their parent’s new partners and even perhaps new families. There are however those instances where the breakup of a marriage is so acrimonious that a parent may actively brainwash a child and encourage the child to reject and emotionally distance himself or herself away from the other parent. Eventually causing the child to hate the other parent. The consequences of this conduct is tragic and heartbreaking, not just for the parent who is reviled by the child but also for the child who is being manipulated by the other parent. Psychologists call it “parental alienation”.

According to Professor Edward Kruk, from the University of British Colombia, who specializes in child and family policy, he says “parental alienation" involves the “programming” of a child by one parent to denigrate the other “targeted” parent, to undermine and interfere with the child's relationship with that parent. The other parent is demonized and seen as evil.  Parental alienation is seen as a serious mental condition as it’s based on a false belief that the alienated parent is a dangerous and unworthy parent.  Kruk says that hatred is not an emotion that comes naturally to a child and has to be taught. Thus a parent who would teach a child to hate or fear the other parent represents a grave and persistent danger to the mental and emotional health of that child. Some of the things which fall under the category of parental alienation include persistent belittling of the other parent, refusing or limiting contact with that parent and that parent’s family or extended family, removing all evidence of the other parent from the life and mind of the child, forcing the child to reject the other parent, creating the impression that the other parent is dangerous, forcing the child to choose between the parents by means of threats of withdrawal of affection.

(See also: Helping children get through a divorce )

According to Kruk, parental alienation is more common than is often assumed. In addition alienation can sometimes extend to grandaparents after a divorce. He says that the tactics of alienating parents are tantamount to extreme psychological maltreatment of children. One of the tragic consequences is the effect parental alienation has on the child. These range from the child suffering from low self esteem, self-hatred, lack of trust or depression. Substance abuse is another common consequence as well as other forms of addiction. Prof Kruk says every child has a fundamental right and need for an unthreatened and loving relationship with both parents, and to be denied that right by one parent, without sufficient justification such as abuse or neglect, is in itself a form of child abuse. Since it is the child who is being violated by a parent's alienating behaviors, it is the child who is being alienated from the other parent.

Needless to say parental alienation by one parent against the other, violates both the Children’s Act 38 of 2005 as well as the Constitution of South Africa Act. It goes against the principle of “the best interests of the child”. Our courts are aware of the toxic nature and effect that parental alienation has on children, where custody and access is brought under the court’s spotlight.

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