Going through a divorce or separation is often an extremely difficult process, and if parties have a child or children together, the situation can be even harder. Parents will need to discuss and hopefully agree on a custody schedule, whereby the child has a positive relationship and maintains contact with both parents. What if, however, the child resists or totally refuses contact with one parent while favoring the other parent? Is this normal behavior for a child given the often heavy emotional toll a divorce or separation can take on children? It is certainly possible for a child to feel one parent bears more responsibility than the other in causing the divorce, or that he or she is simply closer to one parent than the other. However, could one of the parents be instigating this conduct in the child?
Such behavior by a parent is often referred to as parental alienation, and is a situation whereby one parent uses strategies to distance or estrange a child from the other parent. The child’s estrangement may manifest itself as fear, resentment or contempt toward the other parent, and can encompass other extended relatives. The parent instigating such behavior in the child is often referred to as the alienator or favored parent, and the other parent is referred to as the alienated or rejected parent. If parental alienation does occur, it is usually between the ages of 9 to 18 years, and the father is more often than not the rejected parent.
Signs of parental alienation:
The following are some examples of typical behaviors of a child experiencing parental alienation. This list is not exhaustive, and not all of these behaviors will be exhibited in every alienated child:
The child displays inconsistent levels of resistance to the rejected parent in different situations.
The child makes allegations about the rejected parent which are inconsistent with his/her behavior with that parent.
The child idealizes one parent and demonizes the other; he/she refuses to consider any alternate views about the rejected parent.
The child provides trivial, illogical or fabricated reasons for rejecting a parent.
The child modifies accounts of past events to erase any positive involvement with his/her rejected parent.
The child has irrational reactions to the rejected parent’s conduct.
The child describes the rejected parent’s alleged failings without instigation, or describes events which the child could not possibly remember (i.e. events which would have taken place before
child was aged 3 or 4 years old).
The child states he/she is afraid of the rejected parent, but instead is aggressive and hostile towards that parent.
The child refers to the rejected parent by his/her first name.
The child makes disparaging remarks about the rejected parent’s new family.
The child makes disparaging remarks and displays hatred of rejected parent’s extended family and even pets.
The child has no remorse, or is indifferent about his/her unkind or cruel behavior towards the rejected parent.
The child has a deeper, and not necessarily healthy, psychological bond with his/her favored
The child displays anger at the rejected parent for his/her perceived abandonment, and blames
the rejected parent for the divorce.
The child appears anxious for the favored parent and desires to care for that parent.
The favored parent
The following are examples of behaviors exhibited by an alienating/favored parent:
He/she denigrates the rejected parent’s attributes, parenting abilities, and general involvement with the child.
He/she considers or depicts the rejected parent as unsafe.
He/she believes or states that the rejected parent never really loved the child, or wished to have the child.
He/she depicts him/herself as the only true or involved parent.
He/she does not consider that the rejected parent warrants any relationship with child.
He/she appears frightened or distrustful of the rejected parent in front of the child, thereby inducing fear and the rejection of other parent.
He/she depicts the rejected parent as having deserted the child, or having been unloving or uncaring towards the child.
He/she retracts love from and admiration of the child, and makes this conditional on the child not loving or favoring the rejected parent.
He/she requires the child to make decisions on whether or not to have contact with the rejected parent.
He/she discards any positive observations about the rejected parent, and portrays child’s good times with rejected parent as frivolous and insignificant.
The rejected parent
The following are examples of behaviors exhibited by an alienated/rejected parent.
He/she feels powerless when faced with the child’s changed attitude and conduct.
He/she fails to put the child’s needs before his/her own and sees nothing wrong in doing so.
He/she displays anger, loses temper and appears threatening.
He/she rejects the child in response to the child’s own rejecting behavior of that parent.
He/she starts to believe that nothing can change the child’s new behavior.
He/she does not have a resounding connection to child.
He/she does not display appropriate behavior when pursuing a relationship with the child (i.e. he/she makes unexpected or awkward appearances at the child’s school or activities, forcefully pursues telephone calls and letters).
He/she confronts the child’s views on rejecting that parent, and tries to persuade the child otherwise.
He/she accuses the child of echoing the alienating parent.
He/she trivializes the child’s negative views and opinions of that (rejected) parent.
He/she tries to prompt remorse and shame in the child.
These are just some of the forms parental alienation may take. A child may display alienating behavior resulting in a parent believing his or her former spouse or partner is alienating the child, or instead a parent him or herself may be accused of such alienating behavior.
Custody matters involving alienation are some of the most complicated and difficult cases for family law attorneys, and often require the involvement of mental health professionals and therapeutic intervention. The attorneys at MDMB are experienced in such matters and ready and able to provide
guidance to parents facing such situations.