This syndrome is when one parent attempts to turn the child(ren) against the other parent or to keep the child away from the other parent. Attempts to alienate the child can be done in many different ways: from moving far enough away (though legal) to make it terribly inconvenient for the parent who may not have physical custody, to making overt/covert statements (better known as “bad-mouthing”) about the other parent. Some of these statements can be as direct as “Your dad is a lousy father,” to “Too bad your mother’s work schedule makes it impossible to show up for most of your Little League games.” There are other statements, too, like “venting” comments made in the presence of the child like: “Your mother/father is such an idiot,” to “Now you know why we got a divorce.” (You may recall the highly-publicized airing of actor Alec Baldwin’s statements on a voicemail message to his daughter, degrading both her and her mother.) Other statements may be more covert, but still designed to alienate the child from the other parent. They might include comments like: “I really wish you could go skiing with me, but that is not my weekend, and I don’t think your mother would switch visitation with me,” to “If he gets that look on his face, call me. I don’t want you to be in any danger.”
Parents use other tactics to alienate the child from the other parent as well, such as guilt trips; one parent trying to outdo the other parent by lavishing gifts and excursions (the “Disneyland” parental syndrome) on the child; or changing the rules from home-to-home. In other words, one parent may allow the child to choose his/her own bedtime, knowing full well that the other parent has tried very hard to keep the bedtime specific and consistent, thus “discrediting” that parent’s household rules. Also, there are strategies to keep schedules so crazed that one parent may miss out on his or her time with the children.
Ultimately, Parental Alienation is designed to keep the child away from the other parent time-wise or through psychological game-playing. Keep in mind, however, that accusations about Parental Alienation Syndrome are often overdone and overplayed. It is usually a matter of one parent having differences about when/where/how the children should be raised — an ongoing fight over control and gaining it may mean turning the child against the other parent.
In my practice over the years, I have found that parents who engage in Parental Alienation Syndrome are playing a game of “Psychological Warfare”. As I describe in my book, Divorce: It’s All About Control — How to Win the Emotional, Psychological and Legal Wars, this type of divorce war can be the most devastating of all divorce wars because it leaves permanent scars. Also, while the parents use the children as pawns to act out their frustrations, the children feel torn between the parents because they view themselves as half-mom, half-dad. If mom thinks something is wrong with dad, the child takes that to mean something is wrong with him or her. What is most destructive (and sad) about Parental Alienation Syndrome is that the parent trying to alienate the child against the other parent will have his or her comeuppance. He or she may have been successful in turning the child against the parent during the child’s formative years, manipulating the child into regarding him/her as the “favored” parent, or creating physical distance in some way, but once that child becomes an adult, he or she will see both sides. Not always, but often, that is when there is hell to pay!
(Read more about psychological warfare in Stacy Phillips’ book.)
Stacy D. Phillips is a co-founder of Blank Rome LLP, which specializes in high-profile family law matters. She is a Certified Family Law Specialist by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization.