When children are involved in a divorce or break-up, one parent’s communications and actions may work to undermine the other parent’s relationship with the child, so much so that the parent-child relationship is harmed. In some families, the damage caused by parental alienation may permanently affect the bond between parent and child. Consequently, the courts are quick to address such behavior by a party when disclosed and brought to light. Parents should understand the problem, should themselves avoid all incidences of that negative behavior, and should learn to recognize indicators of alienation in the child’s behavior.
Defining Parental Alienation
Child Custody Evaluators and judges search out the parent who tries to promote the relationship between both parents and the child. Therefore, a parent should never appear vindictive, or retaliatory, or mix financial issues in with child custody matters.
Parental alienation occurs when a parent negatively influences their child toward the other parent. There is no bigger mistake than to engage in this type of damaging conduct. Evaluators are trained to identify parental alienation as a form of negative behavioral manipulation of a child. Whether intentional or unintentional, the conduct interferes with the child’s relationship with the other parent. And parental alienation is not gender specific, either parent could be capable of this destructive behavior.
Parent as Target of Alienation
Manipulation of the child in an effort to alienate the other parent can be accomplished in obvious ways or in very subtle ways. The result, of course, is to emotionally separate the target parent from the child. Perhaps the parent makes negative comments in the child’s presence: “He never could hold a steady job” or “She is so stupid.” The child is influenced and becomes programmed by these negative comments through shear repetition and reinforcement. Before long, the child starts viewing the parent exactly as projected — someone of lesser importance, someone not to be trusted, someone to be avoided.
Other family members may negatively socialize and influence a child against the target parent as well. And in highly contested cases, the behavior of both parties can alienate the child from one parent or the other — they become their own worst enemy. Verbal attacks on a parent are easy to recognize and identify as alienating the child. But parental alienation may also be very subtle. Because of its subtlety, the manipulation can be even more damaging because it is so influential and so difficult to identify. The pattern may be alienating, but no single act is obviously negative.
Look for Clues in Your Child’s Behavior
We look for any indication that the child is being manipulated and negatively socialized in such a way that a parent’s relationship with the child is interfered with. Although no single factor is determinative, parents need to heighten their awareness of any change in a child’s behavior toward them. You need to understand that either parent can be equally guilty of alienating the other from the child’s society. While the clues that we give may seem innocuous when taken individually, some alienation tactics are very harmful. Particularly, any false accusation of criminal activity, spoken in front of the child by one parent to alienate the other, is a very serious matter and should be dealt with immediately.
Here are some behavioral indicators to watch for in your child:
- Has your child stopped using an endearing name for you?
- Has your child’s attitude toward you changed from loving-child-happy-to-see-you, to angry-child-wanting-to-go-home to the other parent?
- Does your child seem uncomfortable around you?
- Does your child give you only short answers to your inquiries, is rude, or won’t talk at all?
- Does the other parent show up to rescue the child when there is no danger, either real or imagined? The implication being that one parent can save the child from the other’s incompetence
- Are you blamed for the other parent’s financial problems?
- Is the other parent creating a situation where the child misses a fun activity which seems to occur only during your visitation time?
- Does the other parent display hurt feelings when the child talks about the good time spent with you?
- Does the child know the legal details about the divorce, matters not appropriate for a child’s concern?
- Are you missing your child’s extracurricular activities because you never get notice of the upcoming event?
- Does it seem that your parenting time is consistently late to start, early to end, or missed entirely?
- Does the other parent verbally reaffirm and reinforce the child’s anger with the changes and new lifestyle?
- Does the other parent interrogate the child about your personal life after each visitation?
Sometimes children are just being children, moody one hour, fine the next, and nothing is wrong. And sometimes children are being manipulated to alienate a parent, and something is very wrong. To deter alienation, consider including specific prohibitions in the parenting plan, such as a prohibition on any open criticism of the other parent when in the child’s presence, and a prohibition on questioning, or interrogating, the child about the other parent.