As a divorced parent, you worry when the other parent makes nasty remarks about you in front of the kids. Your ex might blame you for all of your family problems and say terrible things about you to your children. At what point do mere derogatory remarks turn into what some legal and mental health experts call parental alienation syndrome?
What Is Parental Alienation Syndrome?
The American Psychiatric Association doesn’t recognize parental alienation syndrome as a mental disorder. According to Dr. Darrel Reiger, vice chair of the APA task force that drafted the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), PAS can’t be defined as a mental disorder because it's not a mental health issue contained within one individual; Instead, it's a relationship dysfunction, between the parent-parent and child-parent.
Parental alienation may occur when a child is influenced by one parent (Parent A) to reject the other parent (Parent B). For example, Parent A may tell the child that Parent B doesn't want to visit, when in reality, Parent B is working. Or, Parent A may say that Parent B doesn't really love the child, or want to support the child, or say other negative things about Parent B that may harm the parent-child relationship. In severe cases, the negative influence results in the child refusing to see or speak with the alienated parent.
It's important to be aware of an ongoing debate about the validity of PAS and the real danger of abusive parents falsely claiming PAS in custody battles. Many experts and organizations, including the National Organization for Women, argue that PAS is a dangerous legal strategy, which harms abuse victims. Many children who have suffered child abuse or witnessed domestic violence may naturally reject or refuse to see the abusive parent. If the abusive parent successfully claims PAS, the children may be forced to spend additional time with the abuser, which could pose a threat to their mental health, safety, and welfare.
Signs of Parental Alienation
If parental alienation is indeed occurring, there are some warning symptoms described by Dr. Douglas Darnall, Ph.D, including the following:
- Telling the child details about the marital relationship or reasons for the divorce is alienating. The parent usually argues that they "just want to be honest" with their children. This practice is destructive and painful for the child. The alienating parent's motive is for the child to think less of the other parent.
- Denying that the child has property, and demanding that the child's possessions be moved between homes
- Denying the other parent access to school or medical records and schedules of activities
- Blaming the other parent for money problems, splitting up the family, or having a new romantic partner
- Refusing to be flexible with the visitation schedule, or over-scheduling the child with activities, so the other parent isn't given time to visit
- Asking the child to choose one parent over the other
- Encouraging the child's anger toward the other parent
- Having a stepparent adopt the child and suggesting a name change
- Using a child to spy or secretly gather information for the parent's own use
- Arranging temptations that interfere with the other parent's visitation
- Reacting with hurt or sadness to a child having a good time with the other parent
- Asking the child about the other parent's personal life
- Making demands on the other parent that are contrary to court orders
- Listening in on the child's phone calls with the other parent
What Causes Parental Alienation?
Why would a parent want to damage the child's relationship with the other parent? Intentions differ from one parent to the next, but psychologists say the following could be motivators:
- An alienating parent may have unresolved anger toward the other parent for perceived wrongs during the relationship. They may be unable to separate those issues from parenting issues.
- An alienating parent may have unresolved childhood issues that they project onto the other parent.
- Some alienating parents may have a personality disorder, such as narcissism or paranoia, which makes them unable to empathize with their child's feelings or see the harm they're causing to the child.
- Some alienating parents may be so wrapped up in their children's lives that they have no separate identity; So, they view the child's relationship with the other parent as a threat.
- Sometimes new spouses or grandparents push the alienating parent into inappropriate behavior for their own wrong reasons, and the alienating parent isn't strong enough to resist.
How Does Alienation Occur?
The alienating parent may use a number of techniques. These may include:
- Encouraging the child to pretend the other parent doesn't exist. Not allowing the child to mention the other parent's name or refusing to acknowledge the child has fun with the other parent
- Attacking the other parent's character or lifestyle, such as job, living arrangements, activities, and friends
- Putting the child in the middle by encouraging the child to spy on the other parent or deliver messages
- Emphasizing the other parent's flaws, such as being unprepared for the child's activities.
- Discussing the parents' court battles with the child and encouraging the child to take sides
- Making the child think there's a reason to fear the other parent
- Lying about how the other parent treats the child
- Suggesting the other parent never cared for the child
What Does an Alienated Child Look Like?
A child who's been successfully alienated:
- Will bad-mouth the other parent with foul language and inaccurate descriptions of the other parent
- Offers only weak or frivolous reasons for their anger toward the targeted parent
- Claims to have only hatred toward the targeted parent and can't say anything good about them
- Doesn't show any empathy or guilt about hurting the targeted parent's feelings
- Doesn't want anything to do with the targeted parent's friends and family
- May not want to see or talk to the alienated parent
How to Deal with Alienation
Experts on alienation suggest the following ways to cope with the problem:
- Try to control your anger; Stay calm and in control of your own behavior.
- Keep a log of events as they happen, describing in detail what happened and when.
- Always call or pick up your child as scheduled, even when you know the child won't be available. This can be painful, but you must be able to document to the court that you tried to see your child and were refused.
- During time spent with your child, focus on positive activities. Reminisce with your child about the good times you had together.
- Never discuss the court case with your child.
- Try not to argue with or be defensive with your child. Talk openly about what your child is actually seeing and feeling, as opposed to what the child has been told to be the truth.
- Work on improving your parenting skills by taking parenting courses and reading parenting books, so that you can be the best possible parent to your child.
- If possible, get counseling for your child, preferably with a therapist trained to recognize and treat parental alienation syndrome. If it's not possible to get your child into counseling, go to counseling yourself to learn how to react to and counteract the problem.
- Don't do anything to violate any court orders or otherwise be an undesirable parent. Pay your child support on time. Fulfill all your parenting obligations to the letter.
Don't react to the alienating behavior by engaging in alienating behavior toward your ex. This just makes things worse and further harms your child.
- If you're not getting court-ordered time with your child, go back to court and ask that the parent violating the court order be held in contempt of court. The sooner you contact the court about the violation of the court order, the more likely it is that the problem can be stopped before it becomes permanent and irreversible. If your custody order isn't specific as to exact times and dates you're to be with the child, ask the court to make the order very specific so that there's no doubt about what is required
- Don't blame your child; Instead offer your child extra support. Your child didn't create the situation and desperately needs your love and affection.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Is it okay to say negative comments about the other parent in front of my children?
- What if my children say negative comments about the other parent? Should I try to stop them?
- How can I stop the other parent from saying negative comments about me?
- How can I gather evidence of parental alienation?