BBC drama Dr Foster, the stormy story of a couple navigating a painful divorce following the husband's affair, has in its second series, touched on a phenomenon that in recent months has begun to gain much greater and much needed attention; parental alienation.
Many parents experience parental alienation, but few have heard of it; one parent mentally manipulating a child to make them fear, disrespect or even hate the other. It is a hotly debated legal topic, particularly around how it should be monitored and governed, and it is an issue which is destroying families every day, across the UK.
But Simon and Gemma Foster's story demonstrates how parental alienation is rarely clear-cut.
From undermining authority, using subtle bribery and manipulative brainwashing, it takes experience to see where a parent's frustrating behaviour is an indication of something more sinister. However, by bringing to light such issues in a mainstream drama, Dr Foster can potentially offer great lessons for families going through a break-up.
Knowing the signs of the phenomenon could help parents address destructive behaviour before it gets out of hand.
Five signals that could suggest parental alienation
1. Making plans behind backs - Simon invites Tom to his wedding reception without Gemma's knowledge.
An invitation to a significant family event is to be expected - and indeed could be welcomed in a bid to normalise the new dynamic. Maybe this is a faux-pas rather than a planned tactic of alienation. Simon does not need agreement to invite his son, but ought to have communicated with mum. My advice to families is that all behaviours must be considered together, not in isolation.
2. Undermining set rules and boundaries - Simon encourages 16-year-old Tom to drink alcohol despite Gemma expressly forbidding it.
By going against Gemma's wishes, Simon could be deliberately undermining her authority and encouraging Tom to disrespect her. Or, he could be exercising parental responsibility, as he is entitled to. Such issues are always difficult to clarify, but Simon's decision could show a lack of concern over the child's welfare and should raise alarm bells.
3. Bribery - Simon renovates Tom's room with expensive gadgets and new clothes.
Gemma might struggle with her ex's improved financial position, but this could just be dad treating his son. On the other hand, as part of a pattern these gestures could symbolise something more manipulative.
4. Brainwashing - Tom says he doesn't love Gemma after his dad told him "the truth".
In such an instance I would immediately be advising Gemma to seek professional support for Tom, who is likely to be suffering the effects of divisive behaviour. It might be Tom's father airing his frustration without agenda, or he could be actively spinning 'fake news' to turn his son against his mother. In either case I would advise intervention.
5. Removing the child from their 'safe spaces' - Tom is expelled and his father Simon suggests a school closer to him.
Simon trying to widen the gap between Tom and his home could be a pattern of behaviour that seeks to distance Tom from Mum in a bid to punish her and control Tom. By moving closer to dad, Tom will be more reliant on him, away from established relationships. Dramatic changes of behaviour shouldn't just be put down to teenage hormones. This is where professional support for the child, and the parent, is vital.
Dr Foster shows that seemingly manipulative behaviours can be innocent, but manipulation can be subtle. None of Simon's actions taken in isolation prove he is intentionally manipulating Tom. Without professional support and investigation, there is no clear answer. What is clear is that Tom is suffering as a result of the poisonous parental relationship.
It takes expertise and experience to recognise and seek to remedy cases of parental alienation. More training is needed for professionals assessing complex family dynamics. There are a limited number of lawyers who specialise in this area. My caseload is ever increasing.
Anyone in this difficult situation would benefit from specialist advice - namely an expert with the experience to ask the court to make specific directions for each individual case. This is an issue I am passionate about, having lobbied MPs to introduce a Private Members' Bill designed to make the issue part of the Children Act 1989. I'll keep campaigning, and as long as powerful dramas portray these difficulties, I'll watch with one eye on the law.