5 Signs of Parental Alienation
Divorcing parents must remember that their children need both parents.
Posted April 21, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Parental alienation is when one parent is actively working toward alienating the child against the other parent.
- Some parents use alienation to gain an edge in litigation or to curry favor with a child to gain custody.
- If you are divorcing and find yourself being alienated from your child, it is important to address this issue in court.
I write frequently about the importance of each parent fostering a relationship with their co-parent. Courts have consistently ruled that one of the most important factors in determining which parent is more suitable to have custody of the children is a parent’s ability to encourage and enhance the other parent’s relationship with the children.
But sometimes I work with cases in which a parent is actively working toward alienating the child against the other parent. This is referred to as “parental alienation,” and, as you might imagine, it is devastating for the targeted parent.
It is important to note that it is not unusual for the children of divorced and divorcing parents to have a “primary parent,” sometimes known as the primary caregiver or the psychological parent.
This is the parent with whom they spend most of their time and/or whom they turn to for much of their routine care and to share their concerns, fears, and feelings. It also may be the parent who they wish to spend most of their time with on a regular basis.
Sometimes the child’s need to spend more time with one parent versus another is related to the age or sex of the child, which parent has traditionally spent more time caring for the child, or whether one of the parents has re-coupled.
Other times, it may have to do with which parent has the laxer rules at home regarding bedtime, homework, curfew, cell phones, or even screen time. It is well known that parent–child relationships can be damaged over differences in parenting and boundaries around video games and cell phone usage.
But parental alienation is different. Some parents use alienation to gain an edge in litigation or to curry favor with a child to gain custody. They may do it to settle the score with a parent who has had an extramarital affair or to avoid paying child support.
Whatever the reason, parents must remember that their child is a product of both parents and that their children need both parents. And for those parents who are attempting to gain control of the children for purposes of avoiding support, they should also consider that the cost of therapy for their children could run high, as could the cost of therapeutic boarding schools.
Signs of Possible Parental Alienation
Here are some of the signs that might indicate parental alienation:
- A stark reaction to each parent: In other words, one parent is perceived as “good” and the other as “bad.” This lack of nuance in the interpretation of a parent’s behaviors can be indicative that the other parent is painting the alienated parent as “bad” to the child. When a child cannot think of anything good to say about a parent who has been a positive force in that child’s life, that is reason for concern.
- Parroting the other parent’s descriptions of the alienated parent in adult language: In this case, the child uses the alienating parent’s language or key phrases verbatim to describe the other parent’s behavior, personality, etc.
- Lack of rationale: If the child is asked why they are uncomfortable with the other parent, and they are unable to provide any examples of behavior, incidents, or reasons that account for their negative feelings toward a parent, it could indicate parental alienation. Examples could include the child complaining about his or her bedroom or rejecting favorite foods that the alienated parent cooks.
- Sudden change in relationship: Sometimes a parent will start to speak ill of the other parent in the context of a certain event that is real or contrived. This could manifest in a change in the relationship between the child and the alienated parent, seemingly overnight, as a result of being “coached” and encouraged to take sides between the parents.
- Lack of ability to reason with the alienated parent: In every situation, the child “sides” with the alienating parent, under virtually all circumstances, and despite logic.
What Can You Do?
- It is important to understand if your child’s behavior is a result of alienation as you work through custody issues with your co-parent.
- Talk with your attorney about the issue. They may recommend working with a reunification psychologist to repair the relationship between the parent and child.
- If you are divorcing or working through custody matters or support matters and find yourself being alienated from your child, it is important to address this issue in court.
- Important: Keep in mind that if you litigate the issue of custody and your child is being alienated, an attorney for your child might be appointed by the court. And if your child favors the other parent, the attorney for the child will need to advocate for your child’s wishes.
As I often say, if you are feeling overwhelmed, reach out to friends and family, or a therapist or attorney. Please do not burden your children with your concerns. Children are not your friends—they depend on you to be their parent, particularly in the unsettling environment that tends to surround divorce and custody matters.
Please remember that taking care of your own and your children’s mental health and physical health should be a top priority during this incredibly stressful time.
Note: These opinions should not substitute as a diagnosis or as legal or mental health advice, as each case is unique. If you are facing a similar situation, please contact a mental health professional or family law attorney in your area.