In a perfect world, parents separating or divorcing would work together to support their child and their relationship with their other parent. In many cases, this works out. As time goes by, moms and dads learn to co-parent effectively while considering their child’s needs to spend time with each parent. In some cases, however, parental alienation can occur. This can detrimentally affect a child’s self-esteem and can even lead to the offending parent losing custody of their child. Read on to find out what parental alienation is and how you can tell if it’s happening to your child.
What Is Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation is when one parent encourages the child to turn away from the other parent, usually with manipulation. The specifics can vary quite a bit: Sometimes, the manipulation is quite blatant, and other times it is more subtle. Over time, the child’s mind poisons against the other parent. The relationship between the child and the alienated parent becomes strained or, in some cases, non-existent.
It often happens when one parent (it can be either the mother or the father) is more concerned about hurting their ex than helping the child find his or her place in their relationship with their other parent. They might make up lies, such as saying that the other parent left because they no longer wanted to live with the child. It might include going into age-inappropriate details about why the couple split up.
For example, they might share with a young child that the other parent cheated on them. Or they might make comments like, “your father/mother never shows up on time,” or “he/she cares more about their new baby than they do about you.” It can even go as far as encouraging the child to tell their other parent that they don’t want to spend time with them or outright lying to the other parent and saying that the child is sick or cannot go to their scheduled visitation.
Courts do not look kindly upon parental alienation. In some cases, parents who engage in this type of behavior might lose custody of their children. It is essential to be careful not to bad-mouth your ex to your child. If you are experiencing anger against your child’s other parent, venting to a friend, adult relative, or therapist is appropriate, but talking to your child about these issues is not and can be considered parental alienation.
Warning Signs of Parental Alienation
If you suspect that your ex is engaging in parental alienation, there are some warning signs to be aware of. Here are some of them:
- Your child is making excuses about why they cannot attend visitation. This does not always mean that parental alienation occurs; particularly when they get into their pre-teen and teen years, children will often want to spend more time with their friends than with either parent. But if it is a younger child or if contact drops off significantly and suddenly, it could be an alienation situation.
- The child is asking you not to attend activities. Maybe they do not tell you about their upcoming games or request that you not bring them to their friends’ birthday parties.
- Your ex is not notifying you of doctor’s visits, plans for summer camp, school issues, and so on. If you share joint legal custody, you are entitled to know about these things and help make these decisions. If not, you should know about upcoming plans and anything affecting your child, such as medical or school problems.
- Using language that repeats from your child’s other parent. Suppose your child is insulting you in ways that they would not develop on their own or know about marital issues that are not appropriate for their age. In that case, they are likely repeating what your ex has been saying.
- Sudden or escalating anger issues in your child when they are with you. Of course, this can be a sign of various other problems, including depression, oppositional defiant disorder, or merely going through the usual mood swings of pre-adolescence and the teen years. It could be something to investigate, however.
- A lack of understanding that they under manipulation. Some parents are very good at leading their children to incorrect conclusions without letting on that they are the one who is manipulating the situation. If your child with whom you have had a good relationship shows signs of alienation and insists that it’s their idea and not your ex’s, they might not be aware that they’re being manipulated.
What You Can Do
It is essential to understand that parental alienation is a form of child abuse. It might seem harsh to put it that way, but children do not naturally turn away from their parents. A brief period of anger following divorce is expected, as is lingering sadness. Unless there have been severe relationship issues in the past between you and your child, it is improbable that they will suddenly decide that they no longer want to spend time with you without someone else’s interference.
And if that “someone else” is their other parent, that sets up a paradigm of abuse and manipulation. Your child may need counseling to get past these feelings. Also, you should consult with a legal resource group to find out your options. You might need to go back to court if a custody change is necessary. You might have a parenting evaluator or guardian ad litem involved with the case to figure out what is in your child’s best interest. Contact National Family Solutions to learn more about what you can do if you are stuck in a case of parental alienation.