Parental Alienation: A Heartache for Parent and Child

What is parental alienation? Usually starting after a bitter divorce, it is when one parent’s behavior damages or 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. It also causes 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). Experts in the field have slightly different definitions. In 1985, Dr. Richard Gardner identified these characteristics:

1. The alienating parent continually badmouths the targeted parent.
2. There are weak or absurd reasons for the badmouthing.
3. The alienating parent has only negative feelings for 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 or 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 parts to alienation:

1. The alienator engages in a campaign to reject or denigrate of the targeted parent.
2. This campaign is not justifiable or reasonable.
3. The child rejects the parent partly or completely as a result of this campaign.

There are also differences in degree. Sometimes 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). They may disobey court orders and refuse to let the child have visitation with the targeted parent, regardless of the consequences.

Legal remedies for parental alienation

Courts generally look with disfavor on parental alienation. A judge may impose sanctions on the alienating parent, reducing that parent’s custody or visitation with the child. A court may order visitation supervised by a therapist. Or it may direct that the children and one or both parents go to therapy to correct the problem. In severe cases, the court might transfer custody from the alienating parent to the parent who was the victim of parental alienation. But it could face the dilemma that changing custody may cause even greater hostility between the child and the alienated parent. The alienated parent may not be prepared to deal with the child’s anger toward him or her.

In extreme cases, the court may impose financial penalties, such as vacating a court order of child support–meaning the court tells the targeted parent not to pay child support as long as the alienation 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 her most important wish was that her husband have supervised visitation with their son. She did not tell me exactly why it was important, but the father agreed. The mother said that a relative of the father’s had sexually abused their child sometime in the last few years. The father was reluctant to acknowledge the abuse, but he did agree that his relative would be allowed no contact with the son. Soon my client told me that their son became stressed when the father called or came to see him. Sometimes the son sent texts to his father saying 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 son due to something else, like the father’s reluctance to acknowledge the sexual abuse? Claims of abuse—sometimes false—may happen when an alienating parent wants to get custody, to deny visitation, or to punish a spouse for the divorce. There are also times when a court ignores claims of abuse, with tragic consequences.

On the other hand, a parent and child can be estranged for other reasons. Some children have separation anxiety when leaving the primary caretaker. There could be mental or physical illness, absent parenting, addiction, child abuse or neglect. As time passed in my client’s case, it seemed that it was not alienation. The father and son saw each other more often, the parents hired a parenting coordinator, and they came up with a coparenting plan.

In another case, a client had not seen his children in more than two years. According to his ex-wife, the children did not want to see him after she moved them away from where he lived. From my client’s perspective, it seemed like a clear case of parental alienation. But his ex-wife portrayed him as an angry, out-of-touch father who didn’t know how to relate to his children.

Long-term solutions are difficult

There is no easy solution or answer to cases involving parental alienation. Courts may be necessary to hand down judicial orders and apply penalties when parents do not comply. But courts are not equipped for long-term solutions to such complex problems. Therapy with a trained professional is probably the best setting for addressing parental alienation.


Copyright (c) 2016 Kelly & Knaplund

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