What is Parental Alienation and What Can You Do About it? – Part I

What is Parental Alienation?

What is parental alienation and what can we do to help? Contact us today.

What is parental alienation? If you asked a psychologist, therapist and family law lawyer, you may get different definitions. Our California child custody lawyers have seen our share of parents attempting to alienate a child or children from the other parent. Our lawyers have successfully represented parents who fought against alienation of their children and have, on extreme cases, secured court orders to take custody completely away from the alienating parent.

What has that experience taught us about parental alienation?

Quite a bit actually.

Alienation, by definition, means to isolate one thing from another. In the case of parental alienation, it means steps (often planned and malicious ones) a parent takes to isolate the child or children from the other parent through words and conduct and to create a division, estrangement and even hostility between the victimized parent and child.

Our child custody lawyers have learned to see the warning signs of parental alienation and have developed a sound strategy to combat it by not only guiding our clients through communication and documentation of the alienation but also to persuade the court that parental alienation is taking place and the court needs to make proper orders consistent with the children’s best interest and California child custody laws.

Over the years, our law firm has developed a five-part strategy on how to fight against parental alienation. In this article however (part one of a two part article), we are going to share with you the warning signs we have seen that should alert a concerned parent that parental alienation may be taking place. At the end of the article, we are going to discuss what you can do about it.

If you feel your children are being alienated from you, stop and consider for a moment whether you would act if you knew your children were being abused. You would, right? In our view, parental alienation is abuse. Just because it doesn’t leave physical wounds or scars does not make it any less serious. Parental alienation can cause a lifetime of psychological harm to a child and not only alienate a child from a parent but cause to suffer that same child’s future relationships as he or she grows older and well into adulthood.

If you are a parent, dealing with alienation by the other parent and need help, please don’t hesitate to contact our family law firm. We will evaluate your case and, together and as a team, put a strategy customized for your facts in place for you.

Parental Alienation and Disparagement

Of the five we have listed, disparagement is generally the starting point of parental alienation and the first warning sign that alienation is taking place.

Disparagement is negative comments about the other parent . It is not limited to direct parent to child comments. Disparagement can come in the following forms:

  • Parent to child comments that insult, scorn or otherwise speak negatively of the other parent. The topics can include the reasons for the separation or divorce (blaming the other parent for it), stating the other parent doesn’t love the child or family, of just open and inappropriate criticism of the other parent’s actions.
  • Allowing others (generally planned) to make disparaging comments about the other parent in the child’s presence. Grandparents and siblings are most often the vehicle for this type of disparagement.
  • Entrenching the child into the divorce or custody case. This happens by the alienating parent sharing details (often distorted or false ones) of the child custody case, the parents’ respective positions and statements in the divorce. The purpose of this entrenchment is to influence the child against the other parent by portraying one parent (the alienating one) as the “good” parent and the other as the “bad.”

Parental Alienation and Undermining Authority

Parental alienation occurs when one parent undermines the authority of the other. In an ideal custodial arrangement, the parents (though living separate and apart), are a united front when it comes to the children’s education, safety, welfare and activities.

Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case and, in alienation cases, one parent influences the child to believe the other parent’s authority is not important and can or should be disregarded.

Undermining authority is a form of alienation because, over time, the perpetrating parent has the child believe that there is a right way of parenting and a wrong way and the “wrong way” by the parent being alienated makes that parent less capable of parenting, the subject of ridicule and far less important in the child’s life. The end goal is simple – If children are made to believe one parent does not act in their best interest, they will often rebel against that parent. Bonding and respect are lost and the result can be disastrous if allowed to fester.

Parental Alienation and Parentification

Parentification is not a word you hear often. I am not sure we invented it but the concept is simple. The alienating parent places the child into a position (and influences the child as a result) of making decisions the child does not have the age or maturity to make. These aren’t just every day decisions but those that are set to undermine or alienate the other parent.

The two most common examples of this within the context of alienating the other parent are:

  • Making decisions as to whether or not the child wants to visit with the other parent: This is part of the parental alienation process because once the disparagement and/or undermining of authority has taken place, the alienating parent then uses the results of his or her misconduct to create the illusion the child can make up his or her mind on whether to see the other parent. The illusion results from the fact the child is not making that decision but has been unduly influenced to do so.
  • Letting the child decide what is his or her best interest: Homework, bed time, creating, once again, an illusion that the child has more “freedom” at one parent’s house versus another and using that rouse as a means to influence the child to believe it is in his or her best interest to spend more time with the alienating parent.

Parental Alienation and Parental Substitution

Parental substitution is exactly what it sounds like. Replacing a parent with another, giving the child the impression (and ultimately, if allowed to go on long enough, the conclusion) that someone other than the child’s parent is really the parental figure.

Before we go further with parental substitution, let’s be clear on what we are not stating. There are unfortunately parents who have abandoned their children and, in such situations, the other parent will eventually bring a significant other into that child’s life.

There is nothing wrong with that. That is not alienation.

That is simply moving forward where the child does not have two parents in his or her life and the involved parent has the good fortune of finding love again and a paternal or maternal figure to help raise the child. Sometimes, it’s not a romantic relationship that causes this. It is perfectly acceptable (and common) for a grandparent to step into that secondary role. Grandfathers and grandmothers can make excellent role models so long as they have the child’s best interest at heart and one parent has been willfully or negligently uninvolved in the child’s life. Under certain situations, Grandparents even have custody rights in California.

Back to improper parental substitution, let me give you an example. Let’s say a mother with the aid of her boyfriend has influenced the child (a son or daughter) to believe he has two dads – her boyfriend and the boy’s biological father. Let’s further assume in our hypothetical this parental substitution has gone on for many years before the biological father got our law firm involved, even though he was actively (though not equally) involved in the child’s life and even though he was weary of what he saw.

Is that improper parental alienation? Yes. Has the biological father waited too long? No, but it will take a lot of hard work to fix the situation.

I bring up this hypothetical because it is not an unusual one and when any parent, father or mother, sees him or herself being replaced in the child’s eyes, that parent must take action and get an experienced child custody attorney involved.

Parental substitution, like other forms of alienation, takes place in many ways. The most common are:

  • Telling a child to call the alienating parent’s significant other “Dad” or “Mom”, depending on which parent is doing the alienating.
  • Allowing the belief that the child has two dads or two moms to become ingrained in this child. This is done by using others (including the supposed second father or mother) to perpetuate this influence on the child.
  • Allowing the non-parent to take on parental roles and functions in various aspects of the child’s life. This includes socialization, activities, education, discipline, etc.
  • Persuading the child that the substitute parent has a greater love for the child than the biological parent.

If parental substitution is allowed to continue, it can become like a virus and even if you are able to show in court that this form of parental alienation is taking place, it may be too late to persuade the child (especially as he or she gets into the teenage years) otherwise.

Parental Alienation and False Allegations

This may surprise you but making false allegations of domestic violence and/or child abuse is often motivated by parental alienation. How?

False allegations are intended to gain more custody time. For example, a finding of domestic violence creates a rebuttable presumption in the law that the parent found to have committed the domestic violence should not have joint legal and physical custody. As another example (I hope an obvious one), false allegations of child abuse are intended to get an order that keeps the alleged abusive parent from spending time with the child.

False allegations of abuse in custody cases are serious and if you don’t take them seriously and intelligently and aggressively challenge them (including asking the court to order the parent who is making the false allegations to enter into counseling, take parenting classes and even obtain an order to take his or her parenting time with the child away), you may find yourself being found to have committed the false acts levied against you.

Don’t think that will happen to you?

Each month, I get at least 1-2 calls from parents who tell me they have been falsely accused and the court has made orders against them, finding them to have committed the abuse. By the time the court has made its orders and the time to appeal has expired, it is very difficult to undo what has been done.

What Can You Do About Parental Alienation?

First, take it seriously.

Second, hire an experienced child custody attorney who has handled such cases successfully. Our custody lawyers fit that mold.

Third, set a specific strategy to combat the parental alienation. You do this with your lawyer.

Parents who engage in alienation too often believe they can get away from it. With the help of our child custody lawyers, we can work hard to keep that from occurring.

For additional reading, check out our articles on father’s rights in California and how to get custody as a father.


  1. Amy Haimovitz says

    My children are now 29, 26, 23, and 18. My relationships with them have been forever ruined by my family’s parental alienation and undermining, in cooperation with my ex-husband. It’s too late for an attorney to help (In fact, my oldest is an attorney, practicing criminal defense now. She’d be the first to defend against my complaints, as she is the most alienated and estranged from me.) I am isolated, depressed, and helpless at this time due to disability. My children are not even there to care and support me- I never deserved this! No parent ever deserves this PUNISHMENT for giving birth to children they love. The level of disrespect was so ingrained in them, by all surrounding them as children, that I have been unable to get them to even give me a chance to show them who I really am. I am not the person I was made out to be, and never was! My family abused me since I was a child, and their abuse continued in the form of parental alienation, with my ex a willing participant in their games. Their goal was simply to hurt me, by taking away the things that meant the most to me.. My children! I feared this since the day I gave birth to my first- because they had done it all my life, with anyone or anything that gave me pleasure or positive attention. My fears were realized! Any advice you can offer now, besides praying to God (God has sustained me through the loss, when I wanted to give up.)? I am so sick of feeling the sadness and emptiness, which creep back into my mind regularly…..I can’t accept it and I can’t change it- I’m powerless!

    • says

      Amy, I assume your case was in CA because we are licensed here. I cannot give you any legal advice. If the children are all adults now, I don’t think there is anything family court could really do. Sometimes, as children grow older and especially when they become parents, themselves, they start to realize the alienation they were subjected to. Don’t give up hope. With some adult children, it just takes longer.

  2. Sandra says

    If I didnt list the father as the biological father on the birth certificate should i be the first to file for full custody or wait t be served?

    • B. Robert Farzad says

      I am sorry Sandra, I don’t understand what one has to do with the other or if you mean something else. We don’t give advice in comment section of an article. If you are in Orange County, CA, and you are looking to file a paternity or divorce, please call us. Otherwise, please consult with an attorney in your area.

  3. kara says

    A long story short i was taken out of my childrens life cut completely out no reason just that he met someone who couldn’t have children. I trusted him we had a agreement outside of the courts so i never changed my address he filed for full physical legal custody without me knowing and by the time i knew what to do and what papers to file. (I was young couldn’t afford a lawyer) it had been almost two years. Well ive fought tooth and nail for my visitation and im now at the point that i get a nice amount of time. My problem is this he continues to make my children refer to me as kara and his girlfriend as mom they get in trouble if they call me mom instead of kara. I have asked about why he does this and he said because shes their mom i have thos in text messages. We have been in and out of court counless times for his contempt and im just to the point that i keep asking when is it going to end my girls are going to be destroyed by him and he doesn’t even care. Last problem i have my daughter has a eye infection the doctor prescribed eye drops he refused to send them she complained the hole visit that she was in pain all i could give was Tylenol i feel hopeless and lost. Im from Michigan and ive researched layers i don’t feel any understand the severity of this case.

Leave A Comment

Comments are displayed publically and are not confidential, including the name you enter. Comments do not form any attorney-client relationship.