How to Recognize Parental Alienation

By: Russell J. Frank, Esq.
Last Update: February 13, 2018

In last month's blog, I explained how reunification counseling can be utilized in divorce and family law cases and this month, it may be helpful to understand some of the ways in which this counseling becomes necessary in the first place. It is an unfortunate part of divorce and separation that sometimes parents can intentionally, or sometimes even unintentionally, behave in certain ways that work to alienate the other parent from their children. Parental alienation is a very serious concern for many divorcing and separating parents, so this blog's aim to give you a better understanding of what parental alienation is and how to recognize when it is occurring.  

Parental Alienation Creates Loyalty Conflicts

Parental alienation generally occurs when one parent sways a child into disengaging with the other parent, usually by speaking negatively about the other parent and/or refusing to permit or coordinate contact and timesharing between the child and that other parent. It can also occur when one parent does not fully engage in co-parenting or when a child is regularly questioned about the personal life of the other parent. This results in creating a moral dilemma within the child, as many children, in the face of divorce or separation, will want to try and remain as loyal as they can to each parent, particularly the younger they may be. For example, if a parent reacts with sadness or even disappointment when the child reports they've had fun while with their other parent, then it can likely lead to negative feelings within that child, including guilt and overall confusion about their relationship with both parents. 

Other behaviors that lead to parental alienation include actions such as:

  1. Listening in on phone calls or monitoring text messages from the other parent.
  2. Excluding, withholding or even purposely providing wrong information to the other parent related to a child's activities and appointments.
  3. Casting blame on the other parent for their own financial woes.
  4. Refusing to be reasonable with requested changes in visitation schedules, using the children to spy or report back on the other parent.

There are also more obvious behaviors such as denying access, contact and timesharing, or even permitting the child to determine when such timesharing should occur. The latter example can be extremely detrimental to the child, as it forces a child to choose between parents – something that no child should have to do, as these types of decisions are better left to the adults and/or the Courts. 

TMI! One Parent Shares Inappropriate or Misleading Information with the Children

Perhaps even more concerning is when a parent decides to begin discussing, directly with the children, the actual details related to the breakdown of the parents' marriage and the ensuing legal battle. This is often done as a defense mechanism by the alienating parent as a way to curry favor with the children in an effort to further justify their alienation, but the truth is that these types of discussions and providing this type of information to children can be very destructive emotionally and psychologically.  

Many times, the alienating parent will justify their behavior by telling the other parent that the children do not want to see them, something that will, inevitably, become a self-fulfilling prophecy if not addressed in a timely manner. Parents must try to always remember that they are the parent and they must remain in control of making timesharing decisions. In reality, up until about the time a child enters high school, and ideally after they become teenagers as well, parents should still be able to determine timesharing issues on behalf of their child, while not permitting their children to dictate timesharing terms and conditions.

Parental Alienation Creates a Physical, Emotional, and Psychological Divide

Typically, as a result of these alienating behaviors, a physical, emotional and many times psychological divide is created between that parent on the outside and their children. This is where reunification counseling may come in as an effective tool in helping to restore bonds previously lost due to parental alienation. In these situations, the use of a child psychologist or counselor would be required in order to assist the child and parent in redeveloping their relationship. Such a counselor may believe that reunification counseling could be beneficial to help restore the relationship between the parent and child, as discussed in last month's blog.

If you have additional questions or concerns about parental alienation and its effects on your children, it's important to seek professional advice with a licensed therapist and perhaps even speak with an experienced family law attorney to discuss your specific case and circumstances.

Attorney Russell J. Frank is a partner at CPLS, P.A. and focuses his practice areas on family and marital law.

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