Parental alienation is a syndrome that occurs when a child is influenced or manipulated by one parent to have unwarranted feelings of fear, anger and/or disrespect towards the other parent.
Parental alienation typically results in the child ultimately refusing to see or speak to the alienated parent. This syndrome, unfortunately, is a common theme in numerous family law cases.
When a family unit breaks apart or deteriorates over time, children often suffer as a result. Emotions can run high between parents in a divided family, with children feeling torn in their emotions to not disappoint either parent by choosing sides. Most parents would say with confidence their child is the most important person in their life, yet many lose sight of that fact during a divorce or separation. The pain of rejection, betrayal or failure can consume a parent and cause backlash towards the other parent — through their child.
In these cases, a parent will try to manipulate the love and affection of their child through guilt, subtle comments and even purposeful, disparaging remarks about the other parent. This is not only detrimental to the targeted parent but the child as well. This manipulation can result in the child’s rejection, contempt and even lack of empathy toward the other parent. The narcissism of one of the parents is oftentimes the culprit behind parental alienation.
Parental alienation: how to deal with an alienating parent during divorce.
In determining parental alienation, some of the signs to look for include:
Emotional withdrawal of the child from a parent,
The child displaying overly protective behavior towards the manipulating parent,
The child exhibiting separation anxiety at custodial exchanges,
The child repeating the negative or derogatory comments spoken by one parent about the other and the child refusing to spend time with the vilified parent.
Another telltale sign is the child asking about matters related to the court case and details they would otherwise not be privy to unless they heard them from the other parent.
In order to deter one parent from alienating the other parent, the court can make orders requiring parents to communicate directly with each other on matters concerning their children and not use the children as messengers between them.
In California, for example, the court has the authority to appoint an attorney for a child, called “Minor’s Counsel,” to interview the child, present their preferences and advocate for what is in the child’s best interest. The California court can also order a child custody evaluation to address allegations of parental alienation and emotional abuse. Custody orders can ultimately be changed if an alienating parent does not curb their emotionally damaging conduct.
For parents who find themselves in this situation and are dealing with a narcissistic parent, it helps to understand that they do not have a “typical” situation on their hands. In family law cases, it may be necessary to take legal action to prevent a parent from engaging in alienating conduct. Parental alienation is serious and can have a lasting negative impact on the parent-child relationship if not addressed promptly and properly.
Ashley C. Sedaghat is a partner of Orange Coast Family Law, APC. She focuses her practice exclusively on family law.