Parental Alienation in Child Custody Cases

Following a divorce or custody dispute, it's common for parents to feel anger and resentment toward each other. Most parents make a sincere effort to keep the children out of their conflict.

In some contexts, a parent's inability or unwillingness to keep those feelings in check can cause the children to feel pressured to share similar negative thoughts, or to reject the other parent. In severe cases, a parent's alienating behaviors may make it difficult, even impossible, for a child to maintain a positive relationship with the targeted parent.

Parental Alienation Behaviors

Although it's possible to look at specific behaviors or actions, parental alienation behavior is best viewed as falling on a spectrum:

  • Low Alienation: At the mild end of the spectrum, a parent displaying alienating behaviors may find fault with the other parent over minor issues or behaviors, and make comments in front of the children that reflect those negative feelings. The parent making the comments may be acting out of anger or fear, and may not have any intent to alienate the children. This level of alienation may resolve itself, and can often be addressed by educating the parent about keeping the children outside of the conflict.

  • Moderate Alienation: A more pronounced case of parental alienation might involve a parent losing his temper when speaking about the other parent, an unwillingness to hear anything positive about the other parent, and imposition of psychological pressure on the children to express agreement with the parent's negativity. The children are likely to become reluctant to say anything positive about the other parent, and are likely to find approval if they join in the negativity. As these behaviors grow more pronounced, the more likely it becomes that effective intervention will require the involvement of a mental health professional to educate, counsel and advise the parents.

  • Severe Alienation: At the severe level, a parent's alienating actions are intended to undermine the relationship between the children and the other parent. The parent engaging in the alienating behaviors may believe that the actions are justified. For example, the parent may believe that the other parent abused a child, even though the child has no memory of being abused and an investigation found the accusation to be unsubstantiated. The pressure upon children to give in to the pressure from the alienating parent, including the fear that their continued relationship with the other parent will cause the alienating parent to reject them, can be extraordinary.

Behaviors that are commonly associated with parental alienation include:

  • Blocking Access: Efforts to keep the child from having contact with the other parent, be it in person, by phone, or through other forms of communication

  • Negative Commentary: The parent engages in frequent negative commentary about the other parent in the presence of the children, and dismisses any positive information offered in response.

  • Unfounded Abuse Allegations: An alienating parent may insist that the other parent abused the children, even in the absence of evidence, or normal acts of parenting may be exaggerated into accusations of abuse or neglect. (Note, some abusive parents have used accusations of parental alienation in response to accurate descriptions of their past actions.)

As a result of alienating behaviors, a child may become fearful of or hostile toward the targeted parent. The child may become very protective of the targeting parent. It can become difficult to get the child to participate in visitation, and visits themselves can grow tense and difficult. A child can feel uncomfortable, even guilty, about having a good time with the targeted parent.

Parental Alienation Syndrome

Starting in the 1970's, the concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) emerged. Efforts were made to enumerate alienating behaviors and then, if a parent engaged in a defined number of those behaviors, to argue that the parent was displaying Parental Alienation Syndrome and that strong action, often a change of custody, should result. This effort to turn alienating behaviors into a formal diagnosis faltered due to the difficulty of achieving agreement on diagnostic criteria, including what behaviors belong on the list, what degree of conduct is sufficient to demonstrate a given alienating behavior, and what subset of behaviors would justify attaching that label to a parent.

With no accepted definition, diagnosis, or treatment, the concept of a "syndrome" is of little use in custody cases and a PAS accusation has potential to backfire. When a parent is displaying alienating behaviors, rather than referencing PAS, lawyer involved in custody litigation will typically focus on the behaviors and how they affect the children's welfare. That approach allows a custody dispute to proceed within the existing legal framework, with reliance upon accepted psychological concepts and diagnoses, and without mention of the controversial and potentially inflammatory concept of PAS.

Responding to Parental Alienation

  • Keep the Kids Out of the Middle: Avoid making negative comments about the other parent in the presence of the children, even when you believe that they can't hear you. Don't question or challenge a child's devotion to the other parent, or interrogate the child about events at the other parent's house. If your case is in litigation, keep the court materials away from the children and don't discuss the case with them.
  • Don't Use the Children as Messengers: Find ways to communicate with the other parent that do not involve the children. For example, you can subscribe to software that allows you to communicate with the other parent about custody and scheduling issues, maintaining a clear record of the communication and of any agreements you reach.
  • Keep Your Emotions in Check: A child may make statements that are unfair, or even that are meant to hurt your feelings. Even when alienation behaviors are not involved, divorce is difficult for children. When it is involved, keep in mind how the other parent's actions are influencing the child's behavior. Don't misdirect your anger at the child.
  • Reassure Your Children: Your child may be concerned by statements made by the other parent, such as the suggestion that you don't love them. Don't dismiss those questions or use them as an opportunity to strike back at the other parent. You can respond with a gentle assurance that you have always loved your child and will always love your child, no matter what happens. Don't tell your children that their feelings are wrong or bad, even if they're expressing emotions that you find hurtful.
  • Involve a Professional: When necessary, you should consider looking for a family counselor to help you work through your own emotions and to advise you about your interactions with the other parent. A good counselor should be able to suggest some effective techniques to reduce hostility from the other parent, and how to respond to statements or behaviors that have become a problem. It may also be beneficial to place the children into counseling, although it may be necessary to go to court if the other parent won't agree to counseling.

It's important to remember that, for most people, the hardest feelings associated with divorce and custody fights will ultimately pass, and life will return to normal. Mild alienating behaviors borne of those hard feelings will often dissipate during the first year after divorce or separation. In more severe cases, more time and a greater degree of intervention will usually be required.

The best thing any individual parent can do is to try to make themselves the best parent that they can possibly be, no matter what the other parent may be saying or doing.

Copyright © 2014 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 8, 2018.