What to Do About Parental Alienation

In child custody disputes, some parents go to the extreme of trying to permanently damage their child's relationship with the other parent. If this causes the child to become estranged from that parent, it may be considered parental alienation.

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Parental alienation (PA for short) is a controversial concept. Though most agree that a parent's attempts to distance their child from the other parent can be harmful, there hasn't been enough research to support the theory that it can cause the child to become estranged from a parent.

Before you build a case around your belief that your ex has alienated you from your child, gain a basic understanding of what parental alienation is, how to prove it and the controversy that surrounds it.

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation is when a child becomes estranged from one of their parents due to the other parent's manipulation (also called programming).

The parent who does the manipulating is called the alienator or preferred parent, while the other is the alienated parent or nonpreferred parent.

The alienator may badmouth the other parent in front of the child, accuse the other parent of abusing the child, etc. — until the child learns to fear, resent or disrespect the other parent.

The reasons for the child's feelings are often based on lies the alienator has told them ("Your mother doesn't love you."), personal information they shouldn't know ("You know your father cheated on me, right?") and constant criticism ("Your dad's a deadbeat.").

Some alienators go so far as to have their child testify in court, damaging the alienated parent's chances of getting custody.

The manipulation can occur even when both parents and the child all live together.

What is parental alienation syndrome?

Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is the change in a child's behavior that occurs because of the manipulation. The term is often used interchangeably with parental alienation.

Children affected by PA are said to have this condition — not either parent.

Parental rights groups believe it should be classified as a mental health disorder, but others disagree. (See "Controversy" below). Some consider PAS a form of psychological child abuse instead.

Types of parental alienation

There are three types of parental alienation.

  • Mild parental alienation: The child avoids contacting the alienated parent, but has a good relationship with them when the alienator is not around.
  • Moderate parental alienation: The child strongly resists contact with the alienated parent and is resentful when they do spend time together.
  • Severe parental alienation: The child insists on not having contact with the alienated parent. They may hide or run away to avoid being around the parent. In these cases, the alienator is determined to ruin the other parent's relationship with the child.

Signs of parental alienation

Five factors help identify PA.

  • The child actively avoids, resists or refuses a relationship with the nonpreferred parent.
  • The child and nonpreferred parent once had a positive relationship.
  • The nonpreferred parent displays no abusive, neglectful or bad parenting behaviors.
  • The child shows many of the behaviors associated with parental alienation (more below).
  • The preferred parent shows multiple alienating behaviors (more below).

Behaviors of a child affected by parental alienation

A child affected by parental alienation may show eight behaviors. It's important to note that these can also occur without parental manipulation.

  • Unfair criticism of the alienated parent (known as a campaign of denigration)
  • Unjustified harsh feelings toward the alienated parent
  • Exclusively negative feelings toward the alienated parent and only good feelings toward the alienator (known as a lack of ambivalence)
  • Insistence that all of their negative feelings and criticisms are their own (called the independent thinker phenomenon)
  • Consistent support of the alienator
  • Repetition of language and false stories told by the alienator
  • Lack of guilt about their hatred or mistreatment of the alienated parent
  • Extension of their dislike of the alienated parent to the alienated parent's relatives

Behaviors of an alienating parent

An alienator's behaviors may include:

  • Sharing personal information with the child (e.g., the other parent's infidelities)
  • Preventing the child from talking to or visiting the alienated parent
  • Planning activities that they know will interfere with the alienated parent's visitation time
  • Disobeying the parenting plan or refusing to negotiate a plan with the other parent
  • Hiding important information from the other parent (e.g., the child's report card or medical records)
  • Monitoring all contact between the child and the alienated parent

It has been suggested that parents with behavioral issues like narcissistic personality disorder are more likely to be alienators.

Though many people assume it's more common for a mother to use a child against a father, parental alienation against a mother can also occur.

What to do about parental alienation

If you suspect parental alienation, seek professional help. It's best to be proactive because the more severe PA becomes, the harder it is to treat.

A mediator, therapist, family counselor or child psychologist could help you figure out whether alienation is occurring and come up with a plan to improve your relationship with your child.

More research is needed to find a safe and effective treatment for PA. Current responses depend on the level of alienation.

  • Mild parental alienation: A judge could order parents to allow one another to have a healthy relationship with the child.
  • Moderate parental alienation: A parenting coordinator could help to reduce conflict and improve communication. Both parents and the child could also go to counseling. None of this will be effective if the alienator refuses to take part and continues alienating the child.
  • Severe parental alienation: The alienator might lose custody and only have supervised visits, while the child might have to attend reconciliation therapy with the alienated parent. This treatment may have negative side effects. (See "Controversy.")

Proving parental alienation

Focus on showing how your relationship with your child has changed and the ways the other parent has tried to keep the child away from you.

Find witnesses

Witnesses can make a big difference when it comes to proving the type of person and parent you are. Anyone familiar with your situation can testify, as long as it's relevant to the case. Some judges accept character reference letters, where the witness briefly explains their history with you and why they believe you a good parent.

Track your parenting time

An alienator will do what they can to distance you from your child. This usually involves not letting you see your child often — if at all. Track your parenting time to show how any interference caused by the other parent (e.g., if they schedule the child's activities during your parenting time).

Show that you were once close to your child

You'll want proof that your relationship with your child was once solid. Consider showing things like pictures of you spending time together and crafts they've made for you. Also, keep a journal to show the caretaking duties you fulfilled, as well as any changes in your child's behavior.

Gather documents

Exchange messages through a parenting app, text or email to keep a written record. These records can help you show how the other parent tried to interfere in your relationship with your child and used damaging language against you. Printouts of negative social media posts the other parent makes about you could also help.

Show how the other parent tried to push you out of your child's life. For example, if you were suddenly removed from the list of people who can pick up your child from school, your child's school may have documentation of it.

Reducing the risk of parental alienation

Parental alienation is less likely to be a factor if parents can negotiate a parenting plan together or through an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) method instead of going to court.

Legal proceedings often make parents feel the need to compete, which prompts some to try to get the child on their side. Meanwhile, negotiating encourages communication and cooperation.

Some ADR methods, such as collaborative law, can work even for high-conflict cases, as professionals involved look out for each parent's — and the child's — best interests.

Parents who co-parent or have equal shared parenting are less at risk for PA since they work as a team, get to spend substantial time with the child and each have a say in child-related decisions.

Controversy

A parent's efforts to keep their child away from the other parent or influence their child's opinion of the other parent can be mentally and emotionally damaging to the child and nonpreferred parent. However, research has yet to prove these actions directly cause parental alienation.

Parental alienation syndrome is not recognized as a mental health disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association or World Health Organization.

Due to this, diagnosis and treatment are difficult. Some argue that the models for identifying PA are too subjective. A child's genuine preference for a parent could be mistaken for a sign of parental alienation.

Also, treatment could have negative side effects. If the child is removed from the suspected alienator's home, a common treatment for severe PA, it could traumatize them. Reconciliation therapy might seem like a punishment. Some children who attended claim they had to deny their legitimate concerns about the allegedly alienated parent.

Abusers and bad parents could use allegations of PA to get custody, potentially putting the child in a dangerous living situation.

Parental alienation laws

Currently, no law directly addresses parental alienation.

Some courts consider a child's behavior as evidence of parental alienation. The judge may order a custody evaluation to confirm or deny alienation.

If a parent isn't allowing the other to take part in the child's life, it can hurt their custody case, regardless of whether it's PA. Whether a parent supports their child's relationship with the other parent is commonly a factor in custody cases.

Monitoring your parent–child relationship

Parental alienation is difficult to prove. But with the right evidence, you can show the court how the other parent has attempted to disrupt your relationship with your child.

The Custody X Change app has many features to help.

  • Track your parenting time to show changes in how much time you're allowed to spend with your child and any disruptions in the schedule.
  • Communicate with the other parent through a messaging program that lets you print out a message log to show the other parent denying you contact with the child or using hostile language.
  • Keep a journal to record the caretaking duties you fulfill, interactions with the other parent and any changes in your child's behavior.

Watching your relationship with your child break down can be devastating. Though it may be hard, you'll have to keep track of it as it happens to prove your case in court. It's pivotal that you have concrete evidence to prove you've been wrongfully pushed out of your child's life.

Custody X Change is software that creates professional parenting plan documents and parenting schedules.

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