Even the most amicable divorce can be hard on the young children of the divorcing couple: routines get disrupted, there’s shuttling back and forth between two homes, and things just aren’t like they used to be. But when parental alienation enters the picture in your custody matter, the stress on the children can get much, much worse. What is parental alienation, and what should you do if it is happening in your divorce?
Parental alienation, also called parent alienation, is a syndrome first described in the 1980s. In a nutshell, one parent (the alienating parent) tries to turn the children against the other parent through repeated disparaging comments, false accusations, and blame. Initially the alienating parent may actively keep the children from seeing the other parent as much as possible. After a while, because of the statements they are hearing about the other parent, and their dependence on the alienating parent, the children themselves may refuse to see their other parent. The other parent may be reluctant to force the children to have parent time, especially if they are very vocal about not wanting parent time with the other parent.
As a result, the children have more and more exposure to the alienating parent and his or her accusations, and less contact with the other parent that might counteract what the alienating parent is saying. In some cases, the children’s relationship with the other parent is irreparably damaged.
Spotting parent alienation can be tricky. For instance, a child may not want to have parent time with an absent parent for a variety of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with how good a parent he or she is or with statements made by a co-parent. In other words, just because a child doesn’t want parenting time with one parent doesn’t mean that a parent is engaging in alienating behavior. If one parent is manipulating the child to reject the other parent, he or she may be crafty enough not to let the other parent know what is being said, so that the rejection appears to be all the child’s idea.
However, there are some ways to spot parental alienation. Alienating parents may have a history of certain patterns of behavior. Not everyone who engages in parental alienation will display all of these traits, but many of them may be familiar.
Parents who try to alienate their children from the other parent may have little or no empathy for other people’s suffering, and no remorse for their own wrongdoing. Everything is someone else’s fault, never their own. They may have a sense of entitlement to the things they want (such as more time with the children). They are often deceptive, and are so invested in their own lies that they appear to believe them wholeheartedly. They frequently project a persona that is the polar opposite of what they really are; for instance, a parent may project a public image of being totally nurturing and focused on the kids while they are, in fact, totally wrapped up in their own needs.
Alienating parents may crave attention and will do anything to get it. False accusations about the other parent may serve to get him or her sympathy from other adults while also keeping the children bound to them.
Another trait these parents exhibit is the appearance of being “emotionally hyperactive,” becoming emotionally aroused too easily and too intensely. Their intense emotions often manifest as anger. Children may do whatever the parent wants in order to placate them, including rejecting the other parent.
Bear in mind that just because your co-parent is angry at you, or even lets slip an occasional inappropriate comment, doesn’t mean they are manipulating the children to reject you. However, if you are aware of an ongoing pattern of behavior including repeated lies or false accusations against you, especially made to the children, parental alienation may be occurring.
If so, you are at a crossroads. Down one path lies the loss of a relationship with your children. Down the other lies a potentially difficult battle for that relationship. Fighting back against parental alienation can be exhausting and expensive, especially if the alienating parent has the resources to battle in court. But the alternative is letting his or her lies stand, and leaving your children exposed to a parent who cares more about his or her own well-being than theirs. The risk is that they would grow up as emotionally damaged as the alienating parent who raised them.
If you have concerns about parental alienation, consult with an experienced Utah family law attorney. We can advise you on what it will take to combat parent alienation and to protect your children, yourself, and your resources in the process. Please do not hesitate to contact our law office to set up a consultation.