In a paternity or divorce case where custody is in dispute, it is not uncommon for the parents to have differing opinions and/or negative opinions of one another. It is inappropriate for these feelings and opinions to be expressed to, in front of, or around the child or children. This is something that a majority of parents are aware of and try to constrain because they are aware it is hurtful and harmful to the children. However, in some instances, these negative and toxic feelings are expressed to the children. While this is not ideal and is harmful, it happens. Worse than this is that there are instances in which such toxic and vile things are said and even done by one parent, it imparts great fear, anger and even hatred in the child or children by the alienating parent’s acts or omissions toward the alienated parent. This is commonly referred to as parental alienation, and the keys you need to know about parental alienation and legal redress are addressed in this blog.
What is Parental Alienation? – Parental alienation began to be acknowledged, discussed and looked at both legally and psychologically in the 1980s. The term “parental alienation syndrome” was coined at this time by Dr. Richard A. Gardner.1 Parental alienation occurs when one parent turns the couple’s children against the other parent. This differs from bad-mouthing the other parent and questioning their parenting decisions in front of the children. Parental alienation is extreme and systematic emotional trauma inflicted upon the children that causes extreme and true fear of the child toward alienated parent. Whether parental alienation is a syndrome may be up for debate between the psychologists, it is a real and extreme problem in the legal context as courts act to protect children’s best interests.
Methods of Alienation– The alienating parent will use excessive, extreme and untrue statements about the other parent in the parental alienation process. Sometimes physical abuse is part of the alienating tactics. The alienating parent will manipulate information to make their accusations and disparagements seem true to the child. Things such as missing visits and phone calls that the alienating parent does not allow to happen are told to the child in a way that makes them fearful of the other parent. It is not uncommon for the alienator to even tell the children that the other parent does not want them, has never wanted them and so on, using the lies about missed visits to back up such claims. This is extremely harmful to the child’s mental health both in the present and as they grow into adults. Over time the emotional manipulation, possible physical abuse and the actual lack of time spent with the alienated parent amount to the child no longer trusting the alienated parent and often feeling fearful and even thinking they hate them or their lives are in danger should they come into contact with the alienated parent. Is this occurring in your case?
What Type of Person Does this to Their Child – Alienating parents have a few things in common. Generally, the psychological testing and clinical interviews of alienating parents establish that they have narcissistic and/or borderline tendencies. Narcissistic parents often have trouble listening to other opinions, are self-absorbed and are focused only on themselves, their wants, feelings and their own desires. This is often also the root of their divorce. They are comfortable using the child as a weapon and only see the child as a means to destroy the other parent, unable to see the harm this practice causes. There is little to no consideration of the child and the effect that they are having on them. An alienating parent who has a borderline personality disorder may be hyper-reactive. These intense emotions, mainly anger, at the other parent are what drives them. They are so emotionally unstable and highly stimulated they reach the point of having no ability to control their alienating behaviors. In this, they become the victim. They sit in the role of victim to the point of needing to victimize the one they feel has harmed them, namely the other parent. In this, they then turn to destroying the relationship between the other parent and child. Again, they lack any ability to see that they are harming the child. In essence, an alienating parent is in a tunnel and only sees the goal of destroying the other parent.
Effects on the Child – The child is the helpless victim of parental alienation. Typically, children thrive and need both parents in their lives to have a good chance of being healthy, stable adults. There is no benefit to a child having a true belief that one of their parents is evil, doesn’t want them or even wants to cause them harm. Depression, anxiety and low self-esteem are the most common effects on the child noted in the psychological literature where parental alienation is at play. These psychological conditions follow the children into adulthood and they have an elevated risk of suicide. Further, in adulthood, it is also often the case that the child will fail to thrive in relationships and struggle with education, employment and have an increased risk of suicide. Thus, an alienated parent must act through the legal system to protect their child.
Courts and Parental Alienation – So even if you know about parental alienation, the vexing question is what can be done in court? Things get tricky in a courtroom with trying to prove abuse by parental alienation in original custody proceedings or modification actions. In custody actions, the evidence will turn largely on the factor of the alienating parent’s mental health, although manifestations of parental alienation may be seen in the children, such as their relationships with others (they have rocky relationships, act out, et cetera).2 This is where good lawyering and use of the legal tools available to litigants under the Divorce and/or Paternity Acts come into play. For example, parental alienation is likely best identified and plan to reunify put forth through a forensic custody evaluation. But you have to ask for a custody evaluation for one to occur. In these cases, the custody evaluator is hired to make a recommendation to the court as to what is in the children’s best interests; they are trained to help identify and explain parental alienation for the judge and, where identified, provide recommends for a reunification plan for the child with the alienated parent so the judge can consider this as part of a custody order. This is quite complicated because an alienated child normally cannot just be immediately returned to the alienated parent. They are fearful of that parent.
Parental alienation is a significant legal issue and is problematic if it is operational in your case. If you fear parental alienation is something impacting your children and yourself in your divorce or custody situation, it is imperative to seek educated and experienced counsel to address this matter. Your children’s future depends on it. Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. advocates handle domestic cases of all types throughout the State. This blog is written by advocates at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. This blog is written for general educational purposes only. It is not intended as legal advice or a solicitation for services. It is an advertisement.
- There is not agreement parental alienation reaches the level of being diagnosed as a syndrome.
- Ind.Code 31-17-2-12 (investigation and report concerning custodial arrangement conducted by an expert and report).