What is parental alienation? Usually occurring after a bitter divorce, it is when one parent’s behavior damages, and in some cases destroys, the relationship between a child and the child’s other parent. In a severe case, the alienating parent and child work together to vilify the other parent—according to one definition, alienation “results from the combination of indoctrinations by the alienating parent and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the alienated parent.” It can cause long-term, serious ruptures in family relationships, and significant heartache for the parent who is alienated from the child because of such conduct.
Parental alienation syndrome
The clinical term for alienation of a parent from a child is Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), but experts in the field differ slightly in their definitions. In 1985, Dr. Richard Gardner identified these characteristics:
1. The alienating parent engages in a campaign of denigration against the targeted parent.
2. There are weak or absurd reasons for such denigration.
3. The alienating parent lacks ambivalence toward the targeted parent (wages a constant battle, instead of moments of anger followed by reflection or regret).
4. The child comes up with negative thoughts about the targeted parent on his/her own.
5. The child is reflexively supportive of the alienating parent.
6. The child has no guilt for the way he/she treats the targeted parent.
7. The child adopts stories as his/her own that the alienator tells about the targeted parent.
8. The child rejects the targeted parent’s family and friends as well.
Another definition of PAS
According to Gardner, not all of these characteristics must occur for a case to be Parental Alienation Syndrome. Another expert, Dr. Richard Warshak, has identified three components of alienation:
1. The alienator engages in a campaign of rejection or denigration of the targeted parent.
2. This campaign is not justifiable or reasonable.
3. The child rejects the parent in whole or in part as a result of this campaign.
There are also differences in degree. Sometimes the offending parents are unaware that their behavior can cause damage to their children. On the other hand, some alienators are so obsessed that they believe they must protect their child from a monster (the other parent), and might disobey court orders for access or visitation, regardless of the consequences.
Legal remedies for parental alienation
Courts generally look with great disfavor on parental alienation. A judge may impose sanctions on the offending parent, reducing that parent’s custodial access to the child. A court may order therapeutic visitation (visitation supervised by a therapist) or direct that the children and one or both parents participate in therapy to correct the problem. In severe cases, the court might transfer custody from the offending parent to the parent who was the victim of parental alienation, but it could face a “Hobson’s choice”: Changing custody may cause even greater hostility between the child and the alienated parent, and that parent may be ill-equipped to deal with the backlash of negative feelings that the child displays toward him or her.
In extreme cases, the court may impose economic penalties, such as vacating a court order of child support: The targeted (usually noncustodial) parent is told not to pay child support as long as the offending behavior continues.
When is it parental alienation?
However, it can be difficult for a judge—or even the attorneys involved—to know exactly when parental alienation is occurring. At our initial consultation about divorce, a former client told me that what was most important to her was that her husband’s visitation with their son be supervised. Although she did not share her motivation for this request, the father agreed to the provision. The mother said that a relative of the father’s had sexually abused their child sometime in the last few years, and although the father was reportedly reluctant to acknowledge the abuse, he did agree that his relative would be strictly prohibited from any visitation. My client reported that their son became stressed when the father called or came to see him, and he sometimes sent texts to his father saying that he didn’t want to see or talk to him at all.
The question is, was parental alienation taking place or was the estrangement between father and child due to something else, such as the father’s reluctance to acknowledge the sexual abuse? Claims of abuse—sometimes false—are a hallmark of an alienating parent’s campaign to gain custody, to deny visitation, or to punish a spouse for the divorce. Yet a parent and child can be estranged for reasons unrelated to alienation, such as a child’s separation anxiety when leaving the primary caretaker, mental or physical illness, absent parenting, addiction, and child abuse or neglect. As months passed in my client’s case, it appeared not to be parental alienation: The son and father’s interactions went more smoothly and the parties engaged a parenting coordinator to help them compose a coparenting plan.
In another case, a client had not had visitation with his children in more than two years because, according to his ex-wife, they refused to see him. What seemed like a clear case of parental alienation from my client’s perspective was portrayed by his ex-wife as an angry, out-of-touch father not understanding how to relate to his children.
Long-term solutions are difficult
There is no easy solution or answer to cases involving parental alienation. Courts are not equipped to work out long-term solutions, although they may be necessary to provide judicial orders and penalties for noncompliance. A therapeutic setting for all parties, with a therapist or therapists skilled in this subject, offers the best setting for addressing parental alienation.
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