Anthony Douglas, chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass), warned against the danger of "parental alienation".
He said the deliberate manipulation of a child by one parent against the other has become so common in family breakdowns that it should be dealt with like any other form of neglect or child abuse.
According to Cafcass, parental alienation is responsible for around 80 per cent of the most difficult cases that come before the family courts.
Alienation can include a parent constantly badmouthing or belittling the other adult, limiting contact between the child and the targeted parent, forbidding discussion about them, creating the impression the parent does not love the child and forcing the child to reject the parent.
“It’s undoubtedly a form of neglect or child abuse in terms of the impact it can have," said Mr Douglas. “I think the way you treat your children after a relationship has broken up is just as powerful a public health issue as smoking or drinking.”
One mother, who wants to remain unnamed, described how she was cut off from her son two years ago by her ex-husband.
She said her former partner made “false and fabricated allegations” against her in order to gain custody and “manipulate my son so deeply that he now has no memory of his loving childhood with me”.
Now her contact with the 14-year-old is limited to Skype conversations and visits once a month.
“If I had been sent to prison I would have been able to see my son more than I do now,” she said.
“My son is brainwashed - he is emotionally dependent on his father and behaves as if he were in a cult. My son has no idea what is going on, only that he feels angry at me.
“The more parents who stand up to this and say it is unacceptable the better. Emotional abuse is just as horrible and controlling as physical abuse. It’s unacceptable and things need to change in the way it is dealt with.”
Read more on this story here.