Divorces and separations sometimes turn ugly. When that happens, some people turn to manipulation and bad-mouthing to turn their kids into weapons against their former spouses. Here’s what to watch for in a high-conflict breakup:
- Parental Alienation, a controversial yet common tactic in divorce and separation;
- The eight signs, and how to identify the start of parental alienation; And
- Is parental alienation happening? – What parents can do to stop it or prevent it from worsening.
What Is Parental Alienation?
Parental Alienation became a term in 1985 when child psychologist Richard Gardner used it to characterize a child’s unique behaviors when exposed to alienating conduct from one parent. The concept is based on mental health but not recognized as a syndrome or disorder. It is often a tactic used in high-conflict divorces and separations.
During these divorces, one parent decides to use the children as a weapon to destroy the relationship between the child and the non-alienating parent. For our discussion in this blog, we will call the bad-mouthing parent, “alienator,” and the parent who is subject to criticism as “alienated.”
The child hates and rejects the alienated parent because the alienator uses lies and manipulation to discredit them. The hatred displayed by the child towards a parent is unjustifiable, as there is no actual reason for the behavior, such as abuse. The alienator manipulates the child for custody and visitation purposes or out of spite.
Parental Alienation affects not only the parent but the child. The alienated parent loses out on a relationship with their child as they distance themselves and deny contact due to the alienator’s interference in their relationship. A child’s mental health and well-being suffer from feelings of neglect and anger.
Imagine constantly being told, “dad doesn’t love you as I do, that’s why he’s not here,” or “your mom is a no-good lying cheat, and it’s her fault we’re not a family.” Eventually, those lies and allegations heard repeatedly lead the child to believe they are valid and develop into parental alienation behaviors.
A parent’s manipulations develop into behavior patterns ranging from mild to severe. Spotting the early signs of parental alienation is key to correcting the behavior before extreme mental damage occurs. Once parental alienation behavior takes root and grows, it is hard to overcome, often resulting in the end of a parental-child bond.
The 8 Signs Parental Alienation Is Taking Place
Every parent going through a messy divorce needs to be aware of how their children react and handle their breakup. A child’s best interest includes a relationship with both parents, no matter how they feel towards each other. Remember, the divorce’s reasons and causes are between the parents and do not involve the kids.
Alienators use a range of strategies that include bad-mouthing, constant interference with visitation and communication, and emotional manipulation to choose the alienator over the alienated.
Red flags of parental alienation include the following eight symptoms:
- Denigration Campaign: A child will deny all past positive experiences with the alienated parent and become consumed with hatred for that parent. The child will also reject contact and communication with the alienated parent.
- Irrationalizations: When questioned about their hatred of one parent, the child has no rational explanation. Children will use reasons like they can’t stand how a parent chews their food. Often, a child will make wild accusations about the alienated parent that are not true.
- Lack of Ambivalence: A child finds no fault with the alienator. They are “perfect” in their eyes. The alienated parent, on the other hand, is wholly flawed. This behavior contrasts with typical children’s thoughts about their parents, as most kids have mixed emotions regarding their parents. Kids tend to see both good and bad qualities in their parents.
- Becomes an “Independent Thinker”: Children refuse to recognize they are being influenced by the alienator and believe they have come up with reasons to hate the alienated parent all “on their own.”
- No Guilt Displayed for Alienating Parent: A child exhibiting this behavior shows no remorse for the alienated parent’s harsh treatment. Usually, a child will appear rude, ignorant, or cold toward the targeted parent. They believe the alienated parent owes them something.
- Compulsory Support of the Alienator: The child will fully support the alienator. All families deal with disagreements, but they are more prevalent during a divorce. During these disagreements, the child sides with the alienator, and nothing the alienated can do or say will change their mind. It doesn’t matter how baseless the alienators’ position is; a child refuses to see the alienated’s point of view.
- Borrowed Scenarios: Accusations from children against the alienated “borrow” phrases or words used by the alienator. Often, these scenarios use language or ideas the child does not understand.
- Rejection of The Alienated’s Extended Family: The hatred a child displays toward the alienated parent bleeds into their extended family. The child no longer wants to see or associate with cousins, uncles, aunts, or grandparents on the alienated parents’ side.
When a child displays any or all these signs, you can bet that parental alienation is happening. Although the more severe the symptoms mean, the harder it is to overcome the alienation, but there are options to end the behavior before it gets worse.
How Can Parental Alienation Be Dealt With?
As is with any divorce or custody matter, each case is unique and requires an individualized solution. There is no one size fits all quick fix to parental alienation. The earlier you can spot parental alienation signs, the better chance at reversing the ill effects.
Since parental alienation is not a recognized mental health syndrome, it is tough to prove in a court of law. Recently, Maryland courts were recommended to stop accepting parental alienation claims.
One way to stop parental alienation is through a custody evaluation. This assessment is where an independent licensed clinical social worker or mental health professional evaluates the interaction between parent and child individually. These evaluators may be court-appointed or chosen by the divorce’s disputing parties.
Because parental alienation is common in high-conflict divorces, the court likely will order an evaluation as parents often cannot agree on custody terms.
The evaluator aids the court and parties involved with custody matters and issues involved with custody, like parental alienation. The evaluator’s job is to be a neutral and objective fact finder. They do not advocate for either party or child. An evaluator’s only concern is the best interest of the child.
Mediation, parenting plans, or custody modifications are other ways to deal with parental alienation. Divorcing parents often find it challenging to communicate with each other, and mediation offers a facilitated conversation that focuses on the issues causing the problems.
Again, a neutral third party plays a part in this scenario, guiding conversations over several sessions to help understanding and compromise so the parents, not the courts, can make a solution.
Often, in mediation, parents produce a parenting plan that serves as a guide on how the couple will parent the children moving forward. When issues arise, the parents can look at the plan to resolve the problem best.
If the parental alienation begins after completion of the divorce and custody orders, then custody modification is a choice to pursue. Taking on this course of action brings a custody evaluation back into play. The alienated parent will have to show the alienator is violating the current order, like evidence proving visitations are being missed regularly without valid reasons.
The hope in modifying the order of custody is to give the alienated parent more time with the child to rebuild the parent-child bond. Changing the arrangement to spend more time with a child is looked upon favorably as it shows a willingness to be an active parent in your child’s life. Maryland courts pursue the child’s best interest, and relationships with both parents are considered just that.
When you suspect parental alienation having a good family lawyer on your side helps to stop the alienation from occurring to protect the bond between child and parent. Contact JC Law for a free initial consultation to discuss how we can be your legal champion when parental alienation is present.
Don’t let an ex’s behavior lead to losing the relationship between you and your kids. Each case is different, and we’re prepared with various options to help your case.