If you are in a situation where the other parent has turned your child against you, you may feel helpless and worry that the relationship has been damaged beyond repair. Your child might act like they want nothing to do with you because the other parent has brainwashed them into thinking untrue things about you. This is called parental alienation. It’s incredibly painful and difficult to experience, but there is legal help available.
Understanding Parental Alienation
Parental alienation syndrome was first described in the 1980s by psychologists and is an ongoing situation in which one parent (the alienator) creates an ongoing, constant campaign against the other parent (the alienated parent) by purposely and incorrectly making their child believe that the alienated parent is dangerous, mean, cruel, unloving, unworthy, uncaring, uninvolved, or otherwise not worthy of being involved in the child’s life. The alienator’s goal is to get the child to reject the other parent in order to hurt them and/or to eventually result in the alienated parent having no role in the child’s life.
Signs of Parental Alienation
In addition to simply outright rejection of the alienated parent by the child, these are some key signs of parental alienation:
- The child actively says bad things about the alienated parent
- The child always takes the alienator’s side in any disagreement against the alienated parent
- The child believes they decided these things on their own
- The child has no guilt about the way they feel about the alienated parent
- The child has no realistic proof or evidence of anything they claim about the alienated parent
- The child not only feels negatively about the alienated parent, but anyone associated with them including friends, family, and even pets
- The child strongly sees one parent as good and one parent as bad with no gray area
- The child’s explanation for why they feel this way is a repeat of the alienator’s words or reasoning
Behavior that Leads to Parental Alienation
Parental alienation is not something that just spontaneously happens. It is the outcome of specific, targeted, bad faith behavior by the alienator, including:
- Telling the child secrets or made up stories about the alienated parent to paint them in a negative way
- Rewarding the child for rejecting the alienated parent
- Refusing to allow contact between the child and the alienated parent by canceling, withholding, or avoiding visits and impeding communication such as calls and texts
- Proactively telling the child the alienated parent does not love or care for them
- Making the child feel guilty for spending time with the other parent
- Keeping the alienated parent in the dark about things happening in the child’s life
- Encouraging the child to view someone else as filling the alienated parent’s role in their life (such as a stepparent or family friend)
- Emotionally punishing the child for spending time with the other parent or showing any affection for them
- Depending on the child for companionship and emotional support, so they feel responsible for the alienator’s happiness
- Blaming the alienated parent for everything unpleasant or unhappy that happens in the child’s life
- Badmouthing the alienated parent to the child
- Asking the child to conspire against the alienated parent by spying on them or sharing information
Parental Alienation is Damaging
Parental alienation not only hurts you as a parent, but it has long-term negative impacts on the child. Children who are intentionally alienated from a parent can experience educational problems, behavioral problems, self-esteem issues, relationship issues, substance abuse issues, and emotional problems which can last into adulthood.
What the Court Can Do About Parental Alienation
The good news is that courts and judges are well aware of parental alienation and have experience recognizing it and dealing with it. The judicial response to parental alienation is to reduce the time the child spends with the alienator and increase the time the child spends with the alienated parent. In extreme situations, it can be the impetus for a complete change in physical custody, removing the alienator from the child’s life completely. Courts also can order parents not to behave in ways that create or support parental alienation.
When the Court Will Intervene
New York courts make custody determinations based on what is in the best interests of the child. If there is an existing custody order in place and a parent wants to modify it, there must be a change in circumstance since the order was created for the court to consider altering the order. Parental alienation is considered in the best interests analysis and is considered to be a change in circumstances.
New York courts have developed a four-part test for determining if parental alienation has occurred and warrants intervention by the court:
- There must be alienating conduct by one parent directed against the other, without any legitimate reason;
- The alienator must have behaved in this way with the intention of damaging the alienated parent’s reputation in the eyes of the child or behaved in a way that created a substantial possibility that this could happen;
- The alienating behavior must have led to the child having a reduced interest in wanting to spend time with the alienated parent; and
- The result must be that the child refuses to spend time with the alienated parent or communicate with them.
What You Can Do
If you believe the other parent is trying to alienate you from your child, there are a number of things you can do to protect yourself. The first and most important thing to keep in mind is that the behavior and feelings your child is exhibiting is not their fault, so try not to be angry or upset with your child. Think of it as if they have been brainwashed. They had no control over this, and there was no way they could have stopped it. So, as hard as it might be, continue to treat your child in a loving, considerate, and kind way at all times, even when they are saying cruel and hurtful things to do. Stay engaged and don’t give up no matter how hard it becomes. Continue to call, visit, give gifts, be involved in their activities, and parent them.
Do not fight back. Your impulse might be that if the other parent is going to play dirty, then you are too, but this will simply complicate your case. Do not denigrate the other parent to your child.
You also should document everything that is happening. Keep a journal and write down everything your child says to you – every refusal to see you, every accusation, every name they call you, and everything that happens. Be detailed about when and how these incidents happen. For example, if your child is especially hostile immediately when you pick them up for your parenting time, but seem to thaw the longer they are with you, this is significant and indicates influence by the other parent. You can videotape or audio tape your child, but you need to be careful that doing so does not impact how they feel about you.
Document everything the other parent says and does. In New York, you can legally audio tape or videotape the other parent without them being aware you are doing so. Keep texts, emails, and voicemails from the other parent.
Talk to a therapist who can help you process the difficult emotions this situation will likely cause and who can help you navigate the situation to the best of your ability.
Then bring all of this to your attorney. They will create a convincing case for the court and may wish to involve experts who can evaluate your child and both parents. Ultimately it will be up to the judge to intervene and stop the damaging behavior by the other parent.
Parental alienation is difficult and painful, but there is hope. Never give up.