Divorces are never easy. But when children are involved, emotions run hot, and it’s not unusual for one parent to inadvertently attempt to turn the child against the other parent. But sometimes these attempts are malicious, deliberate and meant to alienate the other parent completely. The motivation behind this behavior varies, but typically it is the result of pain caused by the divorce or separation (especially one with intense conflict) and is sometimes used as a type of revenge.
Parental alienation is an attempt by one parent, typically the one with whom the child (or children) resides, to isolate the other parent from the child using words or actions. One parent will often “bad mouth” the other parent to the child or other family members in an effort to make them look bad or create hostility.
This can drive a wedge between the child and the non-custodial parent. In severe cases, it can make the child not want to participate in the court-ordered parenting time of the targeted parent. This can be detrimental to the child psychologically, leading to a lifetime of emotional and relational difficulties.
Originally identified by a psychiatrist by the name of Richard Gardner, MD back in the 1980s as parental alienation syndrome, Gardner found that the desired end result of this behavior was a rejection of the targeted parent by the child. He described three levels of the syndrome as mild, moderate and severe, and found that in severe cases of parental alienation children were essentially brainwashed into believing the propaganda by the alienating parent.
There are warning signs that your ex-spouse is attempting to alienate you from your children, and there are several ways to handle the situation. But it’s important to call a San Diego Family Law Attorney right away if you think you are being alienated in order to deal with the situation effectively.
The Warning Signs
One of the first warning signs that your ex-spouse is trying to alienate you from your child is disparagement. This means that the other parent is making negative or insulting remarks about you to the child or allowing others to do the same. These comments can include:
- Telling the child that you are to blame for the separation or divorce
- Telling the child you do not love him or her, or that you do not care about the child’s welfare
- Making inappropriate comments about you or your lifestyle to the child or other family members
- Allowing other people, such as family members like grandparents and friends, to make disparaging comments about the other parent in front of the child
- Attempting to influence the child to believe that the custodial parent is the “good” parent and the other parent is “bad,” especially during the divorce proceedings
- Limiting contact with or preventing the child from communicating with the other parent
Disparagement can be emotionally and psychologically damaging to the child and can lead to the child having problems developing good relationships in the future. Making disparaging comments can be considered a type of verbal abuse. Although it does not leave physical scars, it can be just as traumatizing as physical abuse.
In many cases, the custodial parent will attempt to undermine the other parent’s authority, leading the child to believe that your rules and parenting style are inconsequential. Over time, this can cause the child to think that the non-custodial parent is not capable of raising the child, or that they are raising them the wrong way.
Once the child believes the other parent is incapable of making decisions about their welfare, they lose respect for that parent which can lead to permanent damage to their relationship and eventually alienation.
Another way the alienating parent can manipulate the child is by allowing them to believe they can make decisions that they are not mature enough to make yet. For example, allowing the child to decide whether or not to go with the targeted parent for court-ordered visitation, or allowing the child to decide their own bedtime.
This type of behavior gives the child the illusion of more freedom with the alienating parent, making them seem like the better parent and also undermines the authority of the targeted parent. But unbeknownst to the child, they are being influenced to make a specific decision such as not going for visitation with the targeted parent, meaning the decision is not truly theirs.
In some cases, the custodial parent attempts to replace the other parent with someone else, either a grandparent, significant other, or friend. This can be done a number of ways, but typically the child is lead to believe that this new person is their real parent in an attempt to remove the noncustodial parent from their life. This is commonly achieved by one or more of the following:
- Depending on which parent is attempting to alienate the other, the child is told to call the replacement parent “mom” or “dad”
- Allowing the child to believe he has two moms or dads, usually with the aid of other people including the replacement parent
- Allowing the replacement parent to participate in the child’s life as a parent (for example, allowing them to discipline the child)
- Influencing the child to believe the surrogate parent cares for or loves them more than the child’s biological parent
- Preventing the child from talking about the biological parent or forbidding them to have pictures of them in an effort to erase the parent from the child’s mind and replace them with the substitute parent
This is by no means a comprehensive list of ways parental substitution can take place, but it does demonstrate ways substitution can be accomplished. If allowed to continue, parental substitution can irreparably damage any relationship the child has with their biological parent. It can also damage the child emotionally and psychologically, leading to problems with relationships in adulthood. If you suspect your ex-spouse is attempting to replace you, contact a knowledgeable and qualified attorney right away to put a stop to this unacceptable behavior.
It’s not unusual for the custodial parent to attempt to increase their custody time by falsely accusing the other parent of child abuse or domestic violence.
Allegations of abuse can be deadly to a custody battle, especially if the allegations are not challenged. The court system will attempt to protect the child by taking away any parenting time the non-custodial parent has if it is thought the child is being abused. This is why any allegations of abuse must be dealt with immediately and by an attorney who knows how to fight such claims. Your attorney can ask the courts to order the parent making the allegations to undergo counseling, take parenting classes, or revoke their custody.
Symptoms of Parental Alienation in Children
Although children are resilient, parental alienation can cause psychological damage that can lead to a lifetime of difficulty. Alienation, unfortunately, teaches children hatred, something they do not understand inherently. This hatred can make it difficult for a child to accept and give love as an adult.
Parental alienation teaches a child that he or she is dependent upon the alienating parent for their needs and love and that attempting to have a relationship with the targeted parent will jeopardize the child’s relationship with the alienating parent.
The effects of this parental alienation have been well-documented and can include:
- Low self-esteem
- Inability to trust
- Substance abuse
- Post-traumatic stress
- Inability to have long-term, trusting relationships
Children will carry this psychological pain into adulthood, which can lead to alienation of the child with his own children, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
Symptoms of Parental Alienation in Parents
Typically, the alienated parent is the non-custodial father. Not only do these fathers feel as if they are unworthy parents, they are also unable to see their children. This type of situation can lead to:
- Feelings of unworthiness
- Post-traumatic stress
- Low self-esteem
- Substance abuse
Unfortunately, these effects can lead to further alienation of the child and the targeted parent and eventually estrangement and an irreparable relationship. But there are ways for you to prevent this from happening to you and your child.
Dealing with Parental Alienation
In order to be able to deal with alienation when it appears, you need to be able to recognize the signs:
- Your child is repeating the other parent’s opinions of you, their irrational behavior and regularly takes their side
- The child refuses to spend time with you
- Your child no longer wants to have contact with you
- The child may have intense hatred for not only you but your extended family
- Your child is unable to justify their reasoning for not wanting a relationship with you
- The child blames you for the separation
If you suspect your ex-spouse is attempting to alienate you, it’s important to pay attention to your child’s behavior and what he or she says in your company. If you start to see any of the above signs in your child, you need to take action right away.
Do Not Ignore Lies and Insults
If your child accuses you of not loving them or divorcing your spouse because of them, address the issue immediately. These accusations typically come from the other parent, either directly (being told by the parent) or indirectly (overhearing the parent talking to someone else).
Make sure your child knows that these accusations are lies and reassure them of how much you love them. Be prepared to offer this reassurance regularly since the other parent will be telling the child you do not care on a regular basis.
Contact an Attorney
If you suspect you may be the victim of parental alienation, contact an attorney such as San Diego Family Law Attorney right away. Getting help right away will allow you to minimize the damage the other parent may be doing to your relationship with your child.
Make sure your child knows they can come to you about anything, including insults or accusations from the other parent. Encourage your child to talk to you and ask questions about anything the other parent has said. It’s important that your child learn to hear both sides of a story before making a decision that could harm your relationship. This will also teach your child to come to you with any problem they are having, regardless of what it is. Knowing they can talk to you about anything without the fear of judgment builds trust, which is often one of the first things affected by parental alienation.
Keep Your Emotions in Check
It’s tempting to get angry or frustrated when you realize you’re the target of parental alienation. But this is counterproductive and only serves to exacerbate the situation. Take the time to calm yourself before talking to your child, and remember that your child doesn’t have the emotional control that you do. You need to help your child work through what they are feeling and think about the situation rationally.
If you find it difficult to keep your emotions under control, seek counseling, write about it in a journal or learn to meditate to keep yourself from getting out of control. Never let your child see you react emotionally to the situation as this can confirm what your ex-spouse has been telling your child.
Never Give Up
Regardless of whether your child wants to talk to you, keep trying to connect with them. Call, text or email them regularly, show up for scheduled visitation even if the other parent refuses to let you see your child.
If your child tells you he hates you, realize that this may be an attempt to test your love for him. Don’t give up; your child needs you now.
If your relationship with your child has already suffered from attempted parental alienation, rebuilding the relationship will take time. Be patient and don’t expect to regain your child’s respect and love overnight.
If you or someone you know is being alienated from their child, contact San Diego Family Law Attorney today. We have the knowledge and experience you need ensure you and your child are protected from this kind of behavior. Call us today at 619-610-7425!