Schools, safeguarding, emotional abuse, and parental alienation

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Department of Education Guidelines on Emotional Abuse and Parental Alienation

In April 2016 Derek Thomas, a Conservative MP for St Ives asked the Secretary of State for Education, whether the Department of Education issues guidance to schools on how to identify and manage incidences of parental alienation.

Edward Timpson the Minister of State (Department for Education) responded as follows:

Protection from abuse and neglect is a fundamental right of all children and young people, regardless of their family situation, and the government will continue to review how schools, police, social services and other agencies work together to protect all children.


The Department published updated statutory guidance in 2015 on Keeping Children Safe in Education and Working Together to Safeguard Children. Schools and colleges must have regard to this guidance when carrying out their duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.


All school and college staff should be aware of the various forms of abuse, including emotional harm, so that they are able to identify children in need of help and support and know what action to take. This would include recognising where children are suffering as the result of family relationship breakdown.

A PDF document entitled “Keeping Children Safe in Education and Working Together to Safeguard Children” was published in 2015 and has since been updated in 2017 to include: “Minor amendment to the guidance to add the definition of child sexual exploitation.”

The subtitle of the guidance is “Statutory guidance on inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children” which is particularly relevant in the wake of the recent highlighting of another failure in inter-agency communications.

The guidance comes with this note:

This guidance is for:

  • local authority chief executives
  • directors of children’s services
  • chairs of local safeguarding children boards (LSCBs)
  • teachers and education staff
  • social workers
  • health service professionals
  • adult services
  • police officers
  • voluntary and community sector workers in contact with children and families

It applies to:

  • local authorities
  • all schools

This replaces ‘Working together to safeguard children’ (2013).

It goes on to specifically state:

Statutory guidance is issued by law; you must follow it unless there’s a good reason not to.

The guidance is specific again in the very first section where it states:

This guidance covers:


  • the legislative requirements and expectations on individual services to safeguard
    and promote the welfare of children; and


  • a clear framework for Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) to monitor the
    effectiveness of local services.

It is important to note the reference to the Local Safeguarding Children’s Boards (LSCBs) as this is a subject we will be returning to in future posts.

The full guidance PDFs are available here:

Signs and symptoms of emotional abuse in children

The guidance is clear: professionals of any description or role must be able to recognise signs of abuse (physical, sexual, and emotional) in children and must follow clear pathways to act on this. It is not sufficient for them to ignore it or to say that they didn’t recognise the signs.

According to the Department of Education’s own guidance each school should have a lead Safeguarding person who is responsible, along with the Headteacher, for the safeguarding of children in their care, and that these safeguarding people must be trained and experienced enough to recognise these signs.

The NSPCC also provide clear guidance on the signs and symptoms of emotional abuse in children. You can read the NSPCC guidance here:

Even Cafcass define the risk factors of emotional harm in their “Emotional Harm Knowledge Bite” as being:

Serious inter-parental conflict


Especially when this is in the presence of the children. This threatens the emotional security of the child and can influence their views about family structure and relational commitment.


Destructive, unresolved inter-parental conflict can be extremely damaging, particularly if the child witnesses conflict and subsequently gets caught up in conflicts of loyalty.


Lack of parental cooperation


Emotional problems can be exacerbated by the unreasonable behaviour of a parent e.g. implacable hostility towards the other parent, or the child being directly hostile to the non-resident parent.


Parental mental health problems


Maternal mental illness in particular, can adversely affect the child’s emotional stability

“Child psychological abuse” is defined as “non-accidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child’s parent or caregiver that result, or have reasonable potential to result, in significant psychological harm to the child.”

NICE was asked by the Department for Education and the Department of Health to produce information for professionals working with children across a range of settings including social care, schools, early years settings, medical centres or custodial settings.

NICE’s Guidance says adults working with children should be alert to abuse and neglect if a child displays behaviours that are not normal for the child or for their age.

Professionals should look out for signs like:


  1. Low self-esteem
  2. Wetting and soiling
  3. Recurrent nightmares
  4. Aggressive behaviour
  5. Withdrawing communication
  6. Habitual body rocking
  7. Indiscriminate contact or affection seeking
  8. Over-friendliness towards strangers
  9. Excessive clinginess
  10. Persistently seeking attention.


The Guidelines say that some signs are a matter of such concern that social services should be contacted straight away.

What does the criminal law say about psychological and emotional abuse?

Section 66 of the Serious Crime Act 2015

Cruelty and neglect of children is covered by Section 66 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 where it amends Section 1 of the Children & Young Persons Act 1933 to specifically include psychological and emotional abuse.

Where an organisation or an individual suspects the abuse of a child they have a duty and a responsibility to report it, not only to social services but also to the Police.


Next Steps

We are now investigating how much training is available to school and other education professionals from Local Authorities across the UK, obtaining copies of their safeguarding policies and procedures, and establishing how cases are escalated upwards to get children the support and help they need.

We will update this post with any updates as we receive them.


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