The expression “parental alienation” triggers numerous emotions. Many in the psychological and legal communities absolutely reject the phrase. In some situations, judges who refuse to accept the terminology side with the parent who doesn’t use it. Whether or not you believe in parental alienation, it is important to recognize that in many divorce cases involving children, there is some form of “alienating behavior” carried out by one parent toward the other—and the psychological consequences on the children are often irreparable if not addressed.
Attorneys should be aware that they can help families avoid or minimize the effects of parental alienation. To do this, an attorney needs to understand what parental alienation is, what it does, who can be an alienator, what the consequences are, and what he or she can do to stop it.
What is Parental Alienation?
According to the late Jayne Major, PhD, author of Breakthrough Parenting, parental alienation occurs “any time one parent communicates in a derogatory way about the other parent in a manner that affects their child or children
emotionally, psychologically or even physically.”(1)
In the legal system, “parental alienation is a social dynamic, generally occurring due to divorce or separation, when a child expresses unjustiﬁed hatred or unreasonably strong dislike of one parent, making access by the rejected parent difﬁcult or impossible.”(2) Regardless of the deﬁnition, what is important to know as a lawyer is that if you or your client engages in any type of alienating behavior or if the other parent and his or her counsel does so, such behavior creates a conﬂict within the child and thus “removes” the child’s voice to like or love the criticized parent.(3) The results are damaging and, many times, permanent.
Examples of Parental Alienation
Parental alienation can take the following forms:
- Direct verbal communication between the parent and the child. A mother might tell her toddler, “You are losing all your friends from school because your father is a bad man. He met another woman and now we have to move away from your friends.” Such communication blames the other parent and makes the child hate that parent.
- Indirect communication. An example of indirect communication might be the following comment made by one parent to the other in a telephone conversation, overheard by their children: “If you loved your children you would not have left us.” The children are led to believe that the other parent does not love them. Or one parent might say something like the following to the grandparents in front of the children: “I know he is a loser; I know I made a mistake.”
- Misleading communication. One parent might show the children a text message from the other parent without allowing them to see the entire thread. For example, let’s say the alienating parent has been texting the other that he hates her and she texts back, “I hate you. I wish I had never met you.” The message shown to the children is cruel, but the children are not seeing all the messages that led to this explosion. So the alienated parent looks mean, while the alienating parent looks like the victim.
- Malicious communication. As an illustration of malicious communication, the father might use a computer program to alter an image on a porn site to look like the mother and present this to the children as the reason he had to ask her to leave the home.
- Hidden and/or nuanced communication. An instance of hidden or nuanced communication might be, “Don’t tell Daddy that we bought the new toy because he will get mad. This is our little secret.” Such a statement leads the child to believe that the other parent is not generous.
- Social media communication. One parent can use social media to coerce a child to alienate the other parent through “likes” or negative comments on Facebook, disparaging “tweets” on Twitter, or inappropriate photos posted on social networking sites, to name a few.
What Types of Parents Can Be Alienators?
Research and personal observations have revealed two kinds of alienating parents: narcissistic and rejecting/abusive.
Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a mental disorder in which an individual is excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity.(4) According to developmental psychologist Amy Baker, PhD, there are three observed types of parents who try to alienate their children from the other parent.(5) Two of these types of parents are narcissists. Baker identifies them according to two patterns. Pattern one is a narcissistic mother in a divorced family. Pattern two is a narcissistic mother in an intact family.(6) In these cases, the parent seduces, charms or persuades the child that the other parent is stupid, useless, bad or even evil.
Narcissistic fathers who have custody of their children and are divorced are equally capable of alienating behavior. With the rise in the number of stay-at-home dads and the growth of same-sex parenting, there is also an increase in the incidence of divorced male parents engaging in behavior that alienates the other parent so as to control the outcome of a divorce or separation. Alienation is gender neutral.
Regarding the third type of alienating parent, Baker explains that rather than portray or create a “close relationship” with the child as the narcissistic parent tries to do, the rejecting/abusive parent engages in a campaign of fear, pain and denigration that leads the child to reject the other parent.(7) Unlike the narcissist, this type of individual usually has a history of being sexually and/or physically abused by a parent or caretaker.
Attorneys can help break the cycle of alienation by simply discouraging their clients from engaging in alienating behavior. More importantly, an attorney should never encourage a client to ﬁnd ways to alienate his or her children from the other parent in order to win full custody.
The Importance of Addressing Parental Alienation
Sixty-six percent of all divorces in the United States involve children.(8) Half of all divorces involve minor children.(9) Although children of all ages are affected by divorce, those under ﬁve are especially vulnerable. Infants cannot survive on their own and dependency on a caretaker or parent is crucial for toddlers. In these early years, trust and bonds are created. New studies show that if trust and bonding are lost during this period, they will most likely never occur—and the ramiﬁcations are sad and permanent.
Allowing parental alienation to occur can result in the following serious consequences:
- Parental alienation can lead to trust issues in adulthood. When a separated or divorced parent criticizes the other, he or she creates an image in the child’s mind of danger or unhappiness. Because the courts eventually want children to spend time with both parents, the alienating parent (the one that the child is supposed to trust) sends the child to spend time with the “dangerous” parent! He or she portrays the other parent as evil and then delivers the child to the monster. The message is, “Daddy is a monster but today I am letting you spend time with him.”
- Parental alienation can create poor self-esteem or even self-loathing in children and adults. When one parent repeatedly criticizes the other biological parent, he or she unknowingly criticizes ﬁfty percent of that child’s genetic composition. Consciously or unconsciously, the child is getting the message, “Fifty percent of me is bad” or “Fifty percent of me is stupid.” As adults, these individuals frequently have extreme personality disorders or issues with self-esteem or self-loathing when something goes wrong in their life. They come to think, “I am just like my stupid father.”
- Parental alienation creates a cycle of alienation. Continuously criticizing or blaming the other parent for the problems in a child’s life teaches the child to blame others for his or her shortcomings rather than take responsibility for his or her actions. While the behavior of one parent may have instigated the breakup of the family, how both parents handle this misfortune provides an important lesson for the children. If divorcing or separating parents treat each other with respect and civility, they will avoid raising their children in an environment of hatred and alienation.
How Attorneys Can Address Parental Alienation
Before discussing what attorneys can do to help, the function of attorney’s fees should be considered. The family law court system is erroneously based on a “win or lose” platform. This is especially unfortunate when children are involved. The more contentious a divorce is, and the more the parents hate each other and ﬁght over child custody, the more billable hours may exist for attorneys.
Because so many divorces today involve children, attorneys should help their clients prevent alienating behavior. Law ﬁrms should offer their partners a brief introduction to parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome.(10) Lawyers should refrain from encouraging parental alienation (at the cost of billable hours) and should even identify this behavior in their clients. If a client is engaging in alienating behavior, ask him or her to stop because it is causing harm to the child or children.
If lawyers see the other side engaging in alienating behavior, they should identify it and bring it to the attention of the judge. If the judge cannot see it or cannot believe it, the attorney should suggest requesting a psychological evaluation of the child by a psychiatrist or therapist who understands parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome. If the pattern continues, the attorney should request a 730 evaluation by an evaluator who believes in and understands parental alienation.
If an attorney does not recommend the proper evaluator, the damage to the child could be worse. In traditional therapy, the therapist is trained to be empathetic with the patient. Unfortunately, in parental alienation syndrome cases, the child is not speaking in his or her own voice. The experiences he or she describes to the therapist or evaluator may actually never have occurred. Therefore, the evaluation or the therapy cannot be properly carried out. Lawyers must obtain proper referrals every time they consider a psychological evaluation, especially a 730 evaluation.
Parental alienation is not a tool by which to win a custody battle. In custody cases, there usually are no winners or losers. Using a child’s emotions to gain custody—and the money associated with that custody—is never a winning strategy. The children in a divorce just lost the family unit; they should not also lose a parent—or their self-esteem. Moreover, the alienating parent most likely requires therapy to stop the cycle of abuse, neglect or alienation.
If parents focus on what is best for the child—not what they think is best but what they know is best—everything else should fall into place. When children are involved in divorce, everyone, including the attorneys, should put the children’s well-being ﬁrst. In the end, the client will be grateful.
(1) Jayne Major, “Parental Alienation (PA) &(PAS)” (Major Family Services, 2010)
(2) R. A. Warshak, “Bringing Sense to the Parental Alienation: A look at the Disputes and the Evidence,” Family Quarterly 37 (2003). 273-301.
(3) Richard A. Gardner S, Richard Sauber, and Demosthenes Lorandos, The International Handbook o f Parental Alienation Syndrome (Springfield: Charles C. Thomas Publisher, Ltd., 2006).
(4) American Psychiatric Association, “Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” in Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) (American Psychiatric Publishing 2000).
(5) Amy J. L. Baker, Adult Children o f Parental Alienation Syndrome : Breaking the Ties That Bind (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007).
(8) Johhn E. Desrochers, “Divorce: A Parents’ Guide for Supporting Children,” National Association of School Psychologist, Bethesda, MD, 2004., accessed April 16, 2013, www.nasponline.org/resources/parenting/divorce_ho.aspx
(9) Sanford M. Portnoy, “The Psychology of Divorce: A Lawyer’s Primer, Part 2: The Effects of Divorce on Children,” American Journal of Family Law 21(4), 2008:126-134
(10) Parental alienation syndrome occurs when, through the efforts of one parent, children lose their own voice in how they view and love their other parent. According to Richard Gardner, parental alienation syndrome occurs when one parent in a post-custody arrangement successfully manipulates the child or children to turn against the other parent.