A Google search on Parental Alienation will quickly reveal the heated debate that has erupted around the proposed addition of Parental Alienation Syndrome to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health. Both sides of the debate are hot under the collar to defend their stance, as is evident in the comment section under any web article that addresses the topic. Regardless of whether or not PAS is included in the forthcoming edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health, parental alienation is a topic that frequently arises in divorce cases involving children.
There is a very specific definition and diagnosis process outlined for Parental Alienation Syndrome, but for the purposes of this article we will focus the behavior and the legal impact —and save the diagnosing for the medical community.
During the divorce process, parental alienation is used as a blanket term to describe the behavior of negatively influencing the child to reject the other parent and impacting the relationship. In this use of the term, the severity of the influence can range from the occasional negative remark to the child about the other parent or it can be an intentional and ongoing attempt to degrade the relationship out of spite. Divorce coach Nancy Kay defines parental alienation as: “when one parent unduly influences the child to respond to the other parent in a consistently negative manner despite there not being evidence of abusive, destructive or harmful parenting behaviors.”
In either situation, the relationship suffers at detriment to both the child and parent. Unfortunately for those in the throes of divorce, proving parental alienation can be difficult, costly and frequently results in the need for additional litigation.
The court’s primary interest in divorce and custody cases is protecting the welfare of any children that might be involved. So parental alienation will be factored into the custody decision in so much as the targeted parent can show evidence that the alienating parent is obstructing the relationship with the child.
Kay identifies some of the signs that indicate parental alienation:
- The child views the alienating parent as the good and honest parent and expresses only negative feelings toward the target parent who is seen as all bad. This black-and-white thinking is consistently reinforced by the alienating parent until the child expresses hatred, contempt and fear regarding the target parent while not showing any guilt or remorse.
- The child denies being coached or influenced by one parent. “Mimics accusations and opinions of the alienating parent yet insists they have formulated ideas about the target parent on their own,” explains McGhee.
- The child’s negativity extends to the targeted parent’s extended family. The child begins to refuse visits or contact with relatives of the target parent, even if they had a warm and interactive relationship prior to the alienation.
- The child’s contempt, hatred and rejection toward the target parent are based on frivolous and unwarranted reasons. The rejection is not based on personal experiences that are justified by abusive, harmful or destructive behaviors.
- The child consistently rejects one parent and refuses to have contact with them. “Many parents describe having a formerly loving and close relationship with their children only to become completely leveled by the fact that their children no longer want to have any contact with them,” explains McGhee.
The court disfavors attempts by one parent to undermine or damage the other parent’s relationship with the child. If you suspect that you are the target of parental alienation there are a few actions you can take to start to establish the history of interference by your ex. First, speak with your family law attorney. It is essential that your lawyer have current and accurate information about your situation. Second, keep track of the comments your child makes regarding what the child has disclosed. These notes can be reviewed with a parenting evaluator as part of an investigation into the person perpetuating the alienating behavior.