Parental Alienation: Everything You Need To Know
Recently I spoke to Charlie Jamison on my radio show, Divorce Dialogues. Charlie is a Board-certified Marital and Family Law attorney with the Florida Bar. He has had a long and distinguished career and has received the Job Advocacy Award from the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County twice. Charlie is also an expert in the developing field of parental alienation.
What is Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation is a circumstance or a dynamic in which a child in a highly contested divorce case aligns himself or herself strongly or, in many cases, is complete with an alienating parent and rejects the relationship with the targeted parent. This is without legitimate justification for the rejection, and it typically occurs in a high-conflict, highly litigated divorce.
There is a variation of types of alienation: mild, moderate, or extreme. In extreme cases, alienation might manifest with a child saying: “I don’t want to have anything to do with you, Dad. I hate you.” The child doesn’t remember any positive relationship with her dad. They hide or even run away when in the targeted parent’s custody.
Parental Alienation in New York
In New York, parental alienation in divorces is extremely frowned upon. It is a high-stakes game; if the parent is found to have committed parental alienation, particularly if it is moderate or extreme, it is very difficult to treat the child successfully in a traditional therapeutic model. That often means the child has to be removed from the alienating parent and placed into the custody of the targeted parent. You can lose custody of the child, and you can lose your relationship with the child. If the court doesn’t pull the trigger and give the necessary remedy to cure the issue, then the targeted parent will lose the relationship with the alienated child.
Parental alienation is dangerous to a child because it alters their fundamental sense of reality. Typically, a child’s sense of reality is one where the child has a good relationship with both parents, but now the child is alienated and has been taught, brainwashed, or programmed to believe that the child is at risk of harm or danger from the other parent. It can also create serious anger in a child, which is judgmental at any age, causing trust issues that can follow and haunt the child throughout his adult life, teaching a child to see the manipulation in the normal parts of a relationship.
Why Does Parental Alienation Happen?
I asked Charles why a parent might alienate their child so aggressively. Charles informed me that this might happen in several ways: a personality disorder with an alienating parent or marriage issues that have led to extreme hate from one spouse to the other. Ultimately, however, we have basically the parent having an agenda against the other parent, using the child as the pawn. The child is used by saying, if I get the child to hate dad or to hate mom, then I’m exacting some revenge–whether it’s real or imagined–on the other parent.
The actions that one sees then are the denigration of the target parent. The child is often encouraged or programmed to present complaints in sort of rote matters, sometimes trivial, but many are false or irrational. The child often denies ever having a good experience with the targeted parent. One of the ways professionals and targeted parents can defend against these things is to go back early in the relationship with the child and pull out the home videos that show a relaxed, loving interaction between the child and the parent. If the child doesn’t recall that, then we know this is more of the result of programming than the result of any reality.
Other frivolous rationalizations exist for the child’s criticism of the targeted parent. For instance, the child’s hatred or disdain is unjustified and disproportionate to what happened. So, they may say, “I don’t like daddy at all because daddy yells at me,” or, “I don’t feel safe with daddy because daddy yells at me.” There’s not a parent on the planet that hasn’t yelled at some point in time with their child and then probably at times inappropriately. But it doesn’t justify the child’s total rejection of a relationship with the other parent.
However, there is a certain difference here between alienation and estrangement. Estrangement refers to some warranted rejection or backing off of a relationship from a child from a parent. Alienation refers to an unwarranted rejection. For instance, we may have estrangement occurring where a child has witnessed domestic violence between the parents. That’s a warranted backing away. But sometimes we have a parent who is in the middle of a highly contested divorce case and may be using what Charles calls “brittle parenting,” in other words, not doing the best parenting job that they can, and there is estrangement happening from that.
Again, it is not quite warranted, but there’s a reason for it. But that can be fixed with a combination of some parenting coaching for the parent who is not parenting correctly and the child who is backing off a bit. But you have a more serious problem if it is warranted, where there may be some abuse that’s occurring to the child, maybe abuse that’s occurring between the parents. So, we have estrangement that’s warranted, estrangement that’s unwarranted, which is sort of in the middle, and then we have alienation, which is estrangement or that difficulty in the unwarranted relationship.
Another possibility, not as extreme as alienation, is alignment, wherein a child (particularly teenagers) will align themselves with one parent or another. This can get worked through in therapeutic situations. However, there are also situations where families get stuck in this phase, and the dynamics between parents and children can worsen. In these situations, it takes a knowledgeable divorce attorney (and judge, if you go through litigation) to know where to direct the divorcing parents and how.
How Children React
Charlie explained that once the parties start litigating, the tensions and emotions escalate, and then the mom or dad starts thinking ill of the other parent. There is generally, some child abuse allegation erupts, potentially because one of the parents has been over-vigilant and over-reactive. Then there’s the separation of time while the allegation is being investigated. Over this time, the child develops a fear of the other parent. The accusatory parent–who we now call the alienating parent–reinforces that fear, whether or not the allegation is established. In those cases, we can also see parental alienation becoming involved because of the highly contentious nature of the divorce.
All of these steps escalate into a dangerous and traumatizing conflict because of the stress of the initial conflict: the divorce. While one parent’s accusations might be misinterpretations of what’s being said or over-interpretations of what’s happening, they go off and get a domestic violence injunction against the other parent. Then the conflict escalated to a whole other level of complexity. The judges want to be very careful when a child abuse allegation has been raised, justifiably so. They must make sure that they are making the right decision at the end of the case.
The child or children are in a very tough position in these cases. They often say to each parent what they think that parent wants to hear. Accordingly, they might say whatever will draw them closer to the parent, not because they are bad kids, but because this is just part of this phenomenon. Unfortunately, that impulse can rise to the level where a parent interprets something the child says as meaning something bad was happening with the other parent. Sometimes, these abuse allegations can come to light in these cases because a young child believes that’s what the parent wants and needs to hear. But sometimes, an older child will say what they need to remain emotionally safe within that family unit because they see who they will end up with. Allegations are much worse in this latter case.
These false allegations arise because the child fears that if they do not say what the parent that they see as being in charge, in control, or what Charlie calls the victor parent, they don’t tend the party line or follow the party line, life can be a living hell for them. Ultimately for the child, this is all about the withdrawal of love. It’s conditional love. The child perceives that they will be loved if they do and say what victor parent wants. If they don’t, they’ll be abandoned.
In divorce cases where a parent perceives this kind of alienation may arise, Charlie recommends taking as much time as possible with your child regarding contact and visitation. This provides the child with a reality, proof that who you are is completely different from the reality that the alienating parent is painting out for the child.
Sometimes, some parents blame their children. It is crucial that this is not something to blame the kids for. You’ve got to understand that your children sometimes say things, not because they’re real, but because they need to or have to. In these cases, even though it might feel emotionally better to retreat and worry, the thing to do is to become more active and push for more time, even though that could be painful and difficult. Even if it’s emotionally, financially, or legally difficult, find indirect ways to be in your child’s life, such as sponsoring some athletic team or showing up at sports practices, recitals, or games. The child has to know that you have not given up, even if it’s only on a subconscious level. There have been studies on adults who were alienated as children from one of their parents, and that’s one of the things in retrospect that they talk about, which is the parent never gave up on them. That was the bridge that they could use later in life to reconnect.
Quick Recap & How To Reverse Parental Alienation
High-conflict divorce can be emotionally devastating to a family, particularly when parental alienation occurs. Named by child psychologist Robert Gardner in 1985, parental alienation is a situation where a child grows to hate and completely reject one parent in favor of the other without legitimate justification, such as abuse. This behavior is seen most often in bitter divorce and custody battles.
If you’re in a high-conflict divorce and believe that your child is becoming alienated from you, it’s important that you take steps to prevent or reverse it as quickly as possible. Reversing parental alienation can be tough once it’s entrenched. Here’s what you should know.
How Does It Occur?
Parental alienation after divorce usually develops when one parent intentionally encourages or pressures the child to turn against the other parent. The alienating parent may achieve this by persistently denigrating the target parent in front of the child, magnifying their shortcomings, discouraging contact with them, fabricating stories of neglect or abuse, and more.
Mental health community professionals recognize Parental Alienation Syndrome as a mental disorder, although it is not listed as a separate diagnostic category in the DSM-5. Many psychologists consider alienating a child from their other parent to be a form of psychological child abuse.
What Are The Signs?
It’s important to recognize signs of alienation so you can start counteracting it as soon as possible. Psychologists look for these eight potential symptoms:
- A campaign of denigration. Despite having a previously healthy and loving relationship, the child suddenly becomes consistently hostile with the targeted parent due to the alienating parent’s persistent denigration.
- Absurd excuses for hostility. The child offers ludicrous, untrue, or weak rationalizations for their hostile behavior (e.g., “I hate the way you cook,” “You’re ugly,” “You abused mom/dad,” etc.)
- Lack of ambivalence. The child can find no redeeming qualities in the alienated parent.
- Insistence on “independent thinking.” The child insists that their reasons for hating the targeted parent are their own and have nothing to do with the alienating parent.
- An absence of guilt. The child feels no remorse about their hostile attitude toward the alienated parent.
- Reflexive support for alienating parents. The child always sides with the alienating parent and refuses to see the targeted parent’s perspective.
- Borrowed phrases and scenarios. The child uses adult language borrowed from the alienating parent or makes accusations about the alienated parent that aren’t true or haven’t been witnessed.
- Rejection of extended family. The child no longer wants to see formerly beloved family members from the targeted parent’s side.
How To Reverse It?
The treatment of parental alienation depends on the severity of the condition.
Mild. A child with mild parental alienation may resist spending time with you but ultimately enjoy your company once you’re alone. In such cases, it may help to ask the family court judge to order the alienating parent to stop denigrating you in front of the child. You might also ask a parenting coordinator to help you and your ex-spouse communicate and co-parent better.
Moderate. In moderate cases, your child may strongly resist contact with you and remain hostile throughout your time together. Under these circumstances, it’s essential to work with a therapist who can help improve communication between the parents. The child may also benefit from individual therapy.
Severe. When a child has severe parental alienation, they may resist contact with the alienated parent to the point where they run away or hide to avoid spending time with that parent. In such cases, the court may remove the child from the alienating parent’s custody and establish boundaries with the alienating parent. However, this course of action can also be dangerous, as the child may feel traumatized, guilty, and feel they’re being punished, and may further act out as a result.
No matter the degree of alienation, it’s crucial that the alienated parent:
- remains patient and calm. No matter how tested you feel by their behavior, control your emotions. If you don’t, your child will feel further justified in their rejection of you.
- listens empathetically to their child. Ask their opinions, and give them options about how you spend your time together.
- maximizes their time with the child. The more time you spend together, the more opportunities you’ll have to show them through your actions that their hostility is unjustified.
Get help with Parental Alienation
Sadly, parental alienation cannot always be reversed. The keys to successfully treating the condition are catching it early and containing alienating parents’ behavior. If you see signs of parental alienation, speak with an experienced psychologist and divorce lawyer immediately.
To learn more about parental alienation or get answers to your divorce questions, contact Miller Law Group for a consultation today.