Allegations of domestic violence or child abuse can be devastating in a child custody battle. Increasingly, accusations of “parental alienation” can sway custody proceedings the other way.
Experts disagree on whether Parental Alienation Syndrome is a bona fide psychological condition. But some parents do actively undermine the child’s relationship with Mom or Dad. Some family court judges will even reverse custody when there is evidence of intentionally sabotaging that sacred bond.
What is parental alienation?
Parental alienation can refer to any tactics used by one parent (often the custodial parent) to interfere with the child’s relationship with the other parent. Typically it refers to an intentional and ongoing campaign of manipulation to cast the other parent as evil, crazy, criminal or unfit. Your mom is on drugs and she steals. Your dad told me he doesn’t love you and never wanted you.
The purpose of alienation is to drive a wedge between parent and child. It may be a spiteful attempt to punish the co-parent for past misdeeds. It may be a calculated play for sole custody. Alienating behaviors include:
- Badmouthing the other parent, including outright lies
- Having the child spy or snoop on the co-parent
- Sharing adult conversations or tawdry details of the divorce with the child
- Skipping visits or barely complying with custody orders
- Being inflexible with schedules and activities, but blaming the other parent
- Interfering with or intercepting communications with the child
What is Parental Alienation Syndrome?
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) is a twisted psychological mindset that a young child or teenager has adopted toward the other parent. PAS is the manifestation of successful “brainwashing.” The child may be hostile or unresponsive to the alienated parent, or fearful to be alone with them. It can permanently poison a once-healthy relationship.
PAS is not a recognized disorder under DSM, the bible of the mental health field. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a real phenomenon, but it does make it harder to bring parental alienation claims into family court. Each side may hire expert witnesses to prove alienation or debunk it, or the court may appoint an impartial child psychologist to interview the child.
Most commonly (but not always), it is fathers who assert they are estranged from their kids by Parental Alienation Syndrome. Judges are leery. Just as allegations of domestic violence can be wielded as a weapon to get favorable custody terms, parents can fabricate stories of alienation to make a good parent look like "the bad guy.”
Can Parental Alienation Syndrome be reversed?
Both the child and the estranged parent may need counseling to undo the damage. It may take a long time to re-establish a trusting and loving bond again. The child may harbor strong resentment against the alienated parent if the court has removed him or her from the care of the manipulative parent.
Whether or not you believe Parential Alienation Syndrome is “real,” the narrative can play a very real role in divorce and custody litigation. If you believe your child is being pried away from you, or if you are falsely accused of parental alienation, you need experienced legal representation to protect your parental rights. Ideally, you should find a lawyer who will actively pursue sensible solutions but who can forcefully advocate for you if court proceedings becomes necessary.