Parental alienation
: An exploratory study of legal professionals’ views and experiences in Northern Ireland

  • Mairead McCormack

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctorate in Childhood Studies


Parental alienation is a term that is used to refer to an estrangement between a child and one of their parents, and sometimes that parent’s extended family. It is perceived as unjustified by the alienated parent and follows the alleged formation of a coalition between the parent thought to be carrying out the alienation and the child. This estrangement is classified as unjustifiable where the estranged parent and professionals involved with the family can identify no plausible reason to explain the estrangement, such as neglect or abuse. It occurs, mainly, when parents are engaged in high conflict divorce or separation with the child appearing to align him or herself to one parent and rejecting the other as a result of the alienating influence of the aligned-with parent. Parental alienation, while contentious, is increasingly being recognised across the world, and the topic is gaining recognition in Northern Ireland. Worldwide there has been limited research from the perspective of legal practitioners, despite parental alienation typically manifesting itself within contested and difficult divorces and separations.

The study explores the perspectives of legal professionals on the nature and presentation of parental alienation in private law proceedings in Northern Ireland and draws on feminist theory to understand these perspectives. Twenty legal practitioners who work in family law in Northern Ireland participated in the study; interviews were conducted with solicitors, barristers and judges in order to hear their views and experiences of parental alienation in their working lives. Using an exploratory, qualitative approach to gather the data, in-depth, semi-structured interviews were conducted with solicitors (12), barristers (6) and judges (2). The professionals who took part practice in rural and urban settings and included equal numbers of men and women.

This research provides an analysis of the accounts of a small number of legal professionals. It contributes to the research on parental alienation by providing insight into how lawyers perceive, describe and explain the phenomenon within Northern Ireland. It looks at the subtle form of control which the alienating parent is perceived as exercising over the child. It considers this as a form of coercive control, fortifying a child’s refusal to engage in a relationship with the alienated parent. This paper has identified how this behavioural dynamic is facilitated through many subtle facets. It also produced interesting findings in respect of the role which the legal professionals may play as agents of the phenomenon and how drivers for power, money and status may also contribute to its manifestation in Northern Ireland. The role of money having been identified as a conceivable contributor to the alienation of children within Northern Ireland – either as a tool by which to influence the child or as a driving force in the alienation of the child when in the pursuit of a beneficial financial settlement. The link with money was also identified with legal practitioners being accused of seeking greater remuneration by prolonging cases and potentially contributing to parental alienation because of a correlation between protracted court cases and parental alienation.

This study is positioned within a feminist legal theory framework, drawing primarily on the work of Judith Butler, Catharine A MacKinnon and Katharine T. Bartlett. The feminist framework was used to consider legal professionals perceptions of differential treatment of mothers and fathers during contested contact and residency proceedings and how the gender dynamics of power and control influence all levels of relationship within this context – parents’ relationships with each other, parent/child relationships and those of client/legal representative. It has identified how support is offered to fathers to maintain their relationship with the child whilst children are removed from mothers without any support offered to the mother to assist in re-establishing her relationship with her child as a result of Fathers’ Rights groups having established the “essentialness” of the father, without mother’s similar “essentialness” to the child being acknowledged.

This thesis presents findings that show gendered perceptions of parenting roles, unfavourable descriptions of women and a lack of empathy toward maternal mental health. It reports lawyers’ perceptions of gender bias within court proceedings and gender dynamics involved in the representation of mothers and fathers. It contributes to research within the field of feminist legal theory suggesting that the established processes and systems in place within Northern Ireland’s legal system may continue to replicate and represent men's methods of problem solving rather than incorporate women's solutions and thinking.
Date of AwardDec 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorMandi MacDonald (Supervisor), Laura Lundy (Supervisor) & John Devaney (Supervisor)


  • Parental alienation
  • divorce/separation
  • Northern Ireland
  • legal professionals
  • coercive control
  • Stockholm Syndrome
  • power and control
  • unjustified
  • influence
  • estrangement
  • feminist theory
  • feminist legal theory
  • solicitors, barristers and judges
  • power, money and status
  • gender dynamics
  • gender bias
  • differential treatment of mothers and fathers
  • unfavourable descriptions of women

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