What Is Parental Alienation?

Many parents notice a deterioration in the quality of their relationship with their children when going through a divorce, even if they previously maintained a healthy bond. Often, this kind of parental alienation is encouraged or instigated by a soon-to-be ex-spouse. The family law attorneys at the O’Mara Law Group explain what you need to know about parental alienation, including how it may impact your divorce.

For many people, divorces are some of the most difficult experiences they go through in life. In many cases, the conflict between two spouses pours over into their respective relationships with their children. The strain sometimes even leads to intentional parental alienation, which occurs when a divorcing spouse tries to turn their children against their other parent. 

They may do so for strategic reasons in the hope of securing a better divorce outcome for themselves, or it may simply be their way of exacting a kind of vengeance on their soon-to-be ex-spouse. Either way, this kind of behavior can profoundly impact the targeted parent’s relationship with their children and deepen the emotional wounds caused by the separation. 

If you are the target of a parental alienation campaign orchestrated by your ex-spouse, the O’Mara Law Group is here to make sure you know your legal rights and options. We have many years of experience helping folks throughout Florida navigate the legal and interpersonal complexities of divorce. Contact us today to learn how we can help.

What Is Parental Alienation?

The idea of parental alienation in divorce was first articulated by Dr. Richard A. Gardner in 1985. Parental alienation occurs when a child takes the side of one parent in a divorce with little to no justifiable reason for doing so. Unsurprisingly, this usually arises in highly-contested divorces. Viewing the other parent as “all bad,” the impacted child may grow to hate the targeted parent, even if they previously had a healthy relationship. 

The instigating party is sometimes referred to as the “alienating parent,” who unfairly piles criticism on their divorcing spouse to drive a wedge between them and their child. Sadly, this kind of smear campaign is often effective. Over time, the child may adopt the alienating parent’s point of view as their own. Some examples of parental alienation include:

If you are the victim of parental alienation, you may be struggling with a significant deterioration in your relationship with your child. If there is little to no reason for the soured relationship outside of your divorce, the newfound distance between you and your child can be the source of significant emotional anguish and trauma. 

Importantly, parental alienation can negatively impact both the alienated parent and their child. Each person is mutually deprived of what could have been a deep and nurturing bond. In many cases, this can feel akin to a premature death. If the child is young, it can also be developmentally detrimental, contributing to black-and-white thinking, lowered empathy, and other maladaptive social behaviors.

How Common Is Parental Alienation?

Accurately determining the statistical prevalence of parental alienation is difficult, if not impossible. However, an important university study estimates that 35.5 percent of U.S. parents (approximately 22 million individuals) feel that they have been victims of parental alienation. 

This is an astonishingly high number. Therefore, it is worth emphasizing that the effects of parental alienation on parents and children can have long-term consequences for their psychological and interpersonal well-being. Where possible, it is best to take action sooner than later if you believe this may be happening in your family. 

However, it is also important to do so cautiously and, in many cases, with professional counseling from therapists. It is also wise to enlist the help of an attorney. This will ensure that you know your full legal rights and options, as well as that you do not get into trouble by violating the rights of others.

Signs of Parental Alienation in Children

Parental alienation often starts long before a divorce because, in many cases, friction between parents may go on for years before they legally separate. When either spouse finally moves for a dissolution of their marriage, ties within the family may already be very strained. Here are a few signs of parental alienation to look out for:

1. Divulging Marital Problems

Individuals in a marriage often serve as each other’s closest confidantes. However, this dynamic is normally lost in a divorce. When this happens, one or both spouses may turn to their children to fill the void, venting to them about the deteriorating marriage, including the other parent’s alleged transgressions and shortcomings.

2. Preventing a Child from Talking to or Seeing a Parent

The alienating parent may take extreme measures to stop their child from seeing or talking to their other parent. For example, they may intercept phone calls or letters, withhold gifts, or tell the parent the child is busy with other activities when they are not. They might even mislead the child by telling them that their other parent has no interest in seeing them.

3. Breaking Custody Arrangements

If a custody arrangement already exists, the alienating parent may attempt to violate its terms or bend the rules. For instance, if it is the other parent’s weekend to see the child, the alienating parent might suggest doing a fun activity with themselves instead, such as going on a weekend trip to an amusement park, to deprive their ex-spouse of parenting time. They might also refuse to compromise when making adjustments to a joint custody arrangement for special occasions, such as vacations, birthdays, and graduations.

4. Unwavering Support for the Alienating Parent

The child may take sides in the divorce and unwaveringly support the alienating parent, even in situations where the other parent’s position is clearly more reasonable. The child might start making unfounded accusations against the alienated parent, refuse to see them at all costs, and exhibit fear or distrust when around them.

5. Rampant Gossip

The alienating parent may use the child as a tool to learn more about their ex-spouse. For example, when the child returns from a visit to their other parent, the alienating parent may inquire about their lifestyle or new relationships.

They may then use the information against their ex-spouse. For instance, if the alienated parent is in a relationship with someone new, the alienating parent may make disparaging remarks about how their ex-spouse’s relationships “always fail.”

Can a Parent Lose Custody for Parental Alienation?

Depending on the severity of the alienation, a parent can lose custody. In minor cases, a judge may simply order both parents to abide by custody rules and refrain from talking about one another in the child’s presence. 

However, if the parental alienation is more severe, a judge may suggest counseling or therapy for both parents and the child. For counseling to be successful, both parents must be willing to address the underlying problem and make changes. If the alienating parent is uncooperative, the judge may transfer full custody to the alienated parent if their psychological manipulation is deemed to undermine the child’s best interests. 

In all cases, the goal of both parents should be to provide a safe environment for their child to grow up in. If you see signs of parental alienation, you should seek professional help. For example, consulting a child custody attorney or a family therapist can help.

How To Prove Parental Alienation

Proving parental alienation can be difficult, especially when the impacted child is unwilling to divulge what has been said or struggles to understand what is going on. And if there is no evidence available to substantiate accusations of intentional alienation, a judge may struggle to make a decision.

If you believe you are the victim of parental alienation, there are a few ways to build up your case. For example:

1. Text Messages and Emails

If you have any written evidence of a smear campaign conducted by your ex-spouse to influence your children, such as emails or text messages, gather them in a file. Likewise, if you have access to similar evidence from your children, try to collect it, especially if it includes direct remarks made by your ex-spouse against you.

2. Witness Testimony

If others witnessed your ex-spouse’s efforts to alienate you from your child, you can ask them to provide their testimony. Witnesses may include people like friends, family, school officials, or extracurricular activity leaders.

3. Psychologist or Therapist Evaluations

You and your child can meet with a psychologist or family therapist to have your situation professionally evaluated and determine whether parental alienation occurred. Experienced doctors and counselors can also suggest ways to repair the relationship between you and your child.

Trust an Orlando Parental Alienation Lawyer at the O’Mara Law Group

The legal team at the O’Mara Law Group has extensive experience navigating the complexities of high-conflict divorces, including those involving parental alienation. Our divorce and family law attorneys include Mark M. O’Mara and Mark Rabinowitz. Over the years, all three have developed a solid reputation in the legal community and among our many clients for the high quality of their services. Contact us today to schedule your consultation with a skilled parental alienation lawyer.

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