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.