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Identifying and Addressing Parental Alienation in Your Child Custody Case (Part 1)

brick-wall-1175940-300x200By: Michelle L. Searcy

As a family law attorney who has been practicing for more than ten years, I hear a lot of allegations made between parties.  A particularly difficult dilemma for parties and their attorneys arises when someone is actively involved in alienating children from the other parent or when a party believes the other parent is alienating them from the children.  Because the legal impact of alienation can be severe, it is important to distinguish alienation, which is a form of child abuse, from other bad behavior on the part of parents.

Psychiatrist Richard Gardner first coined the term parental alienation syndrome and stated, “Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification.  It is caused by a combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrination and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the targeted parent.”   If you are reading this article because you fear the other parent may be alienating your children, it is important to note the two primary aspects of parental alienation: (1) that the child denigrates the targeted parent and (2) that there is no justification.  

Therefore, if the other parent makes derogatory statements to the child but the child continues to have a loving relationship with the targeted parent, there is no alienation.  This is not to say that badmouthing the other parent to the child is acceptable.  Courts do weigh each parent’s ability to encourage the child’s relationship with the other parent heavily.  However, if such efforts by the parent attempting alienation have not impacted the child’s relationship with the other parent, it is not parental alienation syndrome, yet it is still wrong and action can be taken.

If the parent-child relationship has been impacted, it is important to note that if the targeted parent has engaged in some negative behavior that has caused the breakdown of the relationship, it is not parental alienation syndrome.  For example,  if a child does not want a relationship with a  parent who was verbally or physically abusive to the child or the other parent, it is not parental alienation syndrome.  Thus, there must be an impact on the relationship that is not the result of bad behavior by the alienated parent.

John M. Gohol, Psy.D. identified eight symptoms of parental alienation syndrome:

  1. A campaign of denigration;
  2. Weak, frivolous, and absurd rationalization for the deprecations;
  3. Lack of ambivalence in the child;
  4. The “independent thinker phenomenon;
  5. Reflexive support of the alienating parent in the parental conflict;
  6. Absence of guilt over cruelty to and/or exploitation of the alienated parent;
  7. Presence of borrowed scenarios;
  8. Spread of animosity to the extended family of the alienated parent

Dr. Gohol notes that in mild cases, lack of ambivalence and the absence of guilt over cruelty to the alienated parent may not appear while the other symptoms will.  As the alienation becomes moderate, those two symptoms appear.   Where there is severe alienation, all of the symptoms are present and the child loses the ability to empathize with the alienated parent.

While knowing the symptoms may be helpful, a local parental responsibilities evaluator, Joe Peraino, Ph.D., identified sixteen alienating behaviors by parents: 

  1. When a parent demeans the other parent in the child’s presence, criticizing the other parent or their friends or their family;
  2. A parent tells the child that the other parent is to blame for the divorce or breaking up the family;
  3. Discussing any aspect of child support in front of the child or directly with the child, the amount, the payment history of the other parent, the speaking parent’s disdain of having to pay child support;
  4. Preventing the child from speaking with the other parent by blocking phone messages, not returning phone calls or not delivering email messages, letters or gifts. Preventing the child’s access to their cell phone or computers to allow communication with the other parent;
  5. Eavesdropping on the child’s communication with the other parent, whether it is over the phone, email, Skype, or in person;
  6. ….

In Part 2 of this article, I will continue the list and the parental alienation discussion.  If you believe you are the victim of parental alienation or your court ordered parenting time is being denied, you should consider consulting with a child custody attorney.

Michelle Searcy