One of the most heartbreaking aspects of high-conflict divorce is when the children of the marriage suffer. Although many people divorce without causing mental harm to their kids, some parents inflict serious trauma on their children by attempting to turn them against their other parent to the point where the child completely rejects that parent. This phenomenon is called parental alienation.
Parental alienation can have devastating consequences on the entire family. Children who have been alienated from a parent are at increased risk for depression, substance abuse, trust issues, and unhealthy relationships in the future. Alienated parents suffer excruciating grief at the loss of their relationship with their child and can become mired in anger and frustration at the parent manipulating the child. The alienating parent too can suffer consequences–they might lose custody of their child.
Once parental alienation occurs, it's extremely challenging to reverse. If you're in a New Jersey child custody case that involves parental alienation, it's essential to speak with an experienced family law attorney as soon as possible. A skilled lawyer can help resolve the situation before family relationships become irrevocably destroyed. If you're unsure whether your situation involves parental alienation, here's what you need to know.
What is Parental Alienation Syndrome?
The term “Parental Alienation Syndrome” was coined by child psychologist Robert Gardner in 1985. Gardner described parental alienation as a situation where a parent leads a “campaign of denigration” against their co-parent to manipulate their child into hating and rejecting the target parent for no good reason. They make frequent belittling or negative comments about the co-parent, fabricate stories about them, enhance their shortcomings, and find ways to keep the child from seeing the other parent. They also coerce the child to become an active participant in the estrangement by making it emotionally rewarding for the child to be disrespectful or hostile toward the co-parent.
Gardener found that children who had been alienated by a parent displayed a recognizable collection of symptoms. Among other things, he noted that alienated children show an irrational disdain or hatred for the targeted parent. At its most extreme, they deny having had any positive experiences with the parent and often repeat statements about the parent that are either demonstrably untrue or that obviously parrot the language of the alienating parent. These children are almost invariably involved in a high-conflict divorce or custody dispute.
Today, the vast majority of professionals in the mental health community recognize Parental Alienation Syndrome as a mental disorder affecting children, although it does not appear as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Many mental health experts consider it a cruel form of psychological abuse from which a child deserves protection. As Dr. Edward Kruk noted in Psychology Today: “[Parental Alienation] undermines a basic principle of social justice for children: the right to know and be cared for by both of ones parents.”
Why Does Parental Alienation Occur?
Parental alienation happens most often in highly contested divorces. The alienating parent seeks to use the child to hurt or “get back at” the other parent. The alienator may be motivated by anger, jealousy, hurt feelings, or simply spite. Sometimes, the alienating parent may engage in this behavior to extort the other parent–they try to align the child with them to gain more child support.
In most cases, there's more behind alienation than an irrationally disgruntled parent. Many alienating parents also have a serious personality disorder, such as narcissism, borderline personality disorder, or antisocial personality disorder. If you're getting divorced in New Jersey and your spouse has been diagnosed or shows signs of the following disorder, remain watchful for signs of parental alienation.
Narcissistic personality disorder
Psychology Today defines narcissistic behavior as “when a hyper-focus on ones own beliefs, desires, and preferences overrides hearing or responding to others concerns.” People with narcissistic personality
disorder are also likely to lack empathy, appear arrogant, self-centered and manipulative, and have difficulty accepting criticism or defeat. Some parents with narcissism can be so fixated on their own desires that they have no problem manipulating their child's mind and coercing the child to reject their other parent as long as it serves their ego and ends.
Borderline Personality Disorder
Persons with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) have trouble regulating their emotions. They are hypersensitive, experience exceptionally intense feelings, and struggle to calm down after an emotionally triggering event. They often act impulsively and recklessly, have poor self-esteem, twist reality, and deeply fear abandonment. This complex swirl of emotions often manifests as anger and self-victimization. Divorcing parents who suffer from BPD may be triggered by the overwhelming emotions that come with divorce. They may seek to alienate their child from their co-parent to “get back” at the other parent or because they can use the child to support their emotional needs.
Antisocial personality disorder
Antisocial personality disorder (also known as sociopathy) is a disorder in which “a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others.” People with this disorder often provoke, manipulate, or treat others with callous indifference. They lie habitually, may intimidate, charm, or act violently to fulfill their desires, and show no guilt or remorse for their behavior. Parents with antisocial personality disorder are usually unable to fulfill their responsibilities as a parent or a spouse. They would not hesitate to alienate their child from their co-parent to meet their needs.
Note, however, that the intense stress and emotion of divorce can drive some parents to alienate their , even if they have never appeared to have a personality disorder.
It's extremely difficult to deprogram a child once they have been alienated from a parent. This difficulty makes it crucial to determine whether you might be at heightened risk for parental alienation. If your ex-spouse regularly engages in any of the following seven behaviors, you might be at risk.
Your ex-spouse vilifies you. A parent who consistently insults, denigrates, blames, belittles, or otherwise badmouths their co-parent in front of their child may be seeking to alienate the co-parent. Be particularly watchful if your child disparages you with phrases, comments, or adult language that seem to parrot your ex-spouse. Such behavior suggests that your ex's attitude and comments are beginning to endanger your relationship with your child.
Your ex tries to prevent you from seeing the children. Alienating parents disregard the parenting plan and repeatedly find excuses to keep the children away from their other parent. They might keep the child involved in extra-curricular activities that disregard the visitation schedule or make exciting plans during your scheduled time so your child will balk at visiting you. If your co-parent denies you access to your child, speak to a family lawyer as soon as possible. The court is likely to grant an order that ensures access to your child.
Your ex is secretive about information concerning your child. Some parents try to alienate the co-parent from their child by resisting or refusing to share important information about the child. Be wary if your ex-spouse is unwilling to share medical records, school records, or even the dates of ballet recitals or soccer games. You have the right to know key information about your child and attend their events. Withholding this information is unfair to both you and the child and may cause your child to grow distant from you.
Your ex controls how your child communicates with you. An alienating co-parent may put obstacles in the way of your child communicating with you. They might refuse to schedule a regular time to speak or FaceTime with you or refuse to respect your routines and schedule by arranging for calls at inconvenient times. Some parents might closely monitor the child's calls and emails or never allow the child to speak with you in privacy. If your co-parent refuses to prioritize communications between you and your child, your relationship is at risk of being disrupted.
Your ex emotionally manipulates your child. Parents who alienate their children inevitably engage in a number of emotional games to tie their children to them. They may act unhappy or depressed whenever the child visits you or says something positive about you–or even tell the child that they're making them sad. In extreme cases, they may threaten self-harm if the child suggests wanting to spend time with you. Alternatively, they may offer encouragement and rewards whenever the child complains or makes disrespectful comments about you. Eventually, your child may not want to spend time with you because they feel too unhappy or guilty or get emotionally rewarded for not doing so.
Your ex tells lies about you. Some parents resort to fabricating stories about their co-parent to force a wedge in the child's relationship with that parent. They might say to the child that the other parent doesn't love them, or that parent is responsible for their poor financial situation, or any other falsehood that might cast the co-parent in a bad light. Some parents may even lie to others about the targeted parent, such as when they falsely accuse the other parent of physical or sexual abuse or list a stepparent as a biological parent on school forms. Your child may become alienated from you if they believe the alienating parent's lies.
Your ex has threatened parental abduction. It's illegal for one parent to hide a child from the other parent, and it's almost always illegal for a parent to move to another state or country with a child without the co-parent's permission. If your former spouse has threatened to run away with your child, has falsely accused you of abusing the child, appears to be planning to leave the state or country, or meets other risk factors for abduction, contact a family lawyer immediately.
When you're no longer living with your ex-spouse, it can be challenging to monitor their behavior and determine whether they're trying to alienate your child. You must also pay close attention to changes in your child's behavior that suggest alienation is occurring. Most psychologists still use the eight symptoms Dr. Gardner described in 1985 to assess whether a child is suffering from Parental Alienation Syndrome.
- Denigration. When a child becomes antagonistic with one parent for no apparent reason and completely disregards a previously loving relationship, they might be under the influence of an alienating parent. Examples of hostile behavior may include:
- Repeatedly criticizing the targeted parent for minor or non-issues.
- Refusing to say anything positive about the targeted parent.
- Threatening to harm themselves if they have to see the targeted parent again.
- Frivolous excuses for hostility. If someone questions the child about their persistent hostility, they will offer preposterous, weak, or false rationalizations for their hostile behavior. For example, they might claim to hate their parent for being a terrible cook, smelling bad, or disliking their bedroom in that parent's house. They might also accuse the parent of causing the divorce or having maltreated the alienating parent, despite having no basis for their claims.
- Lack of ambivalence. The child can't identify a single positive quality in the targeted parent. They view the parent as wholly bad, evil, or deceitful, even when the parent is objectively doing something positive or kind. Some may also idealize the alienating parent, seeing them as perfect.
- Insistence on “independent thinking.” The child spontaneously and repeatedly contends that their rejection of the alienated parent comes from their own observations and experiences, not the alienating parent's. This symptom tends to be a case of “protesting too much.”
- Automatic support for the preferred parent. When there's a family disagreement, an alienated child always sides with the preferred parent, no matter the issue. Moreover, they make no attempt to consider the rejected parent's perspective and disparage that parent's position even if it's logical and reasonable.
- Absence of guilt. An alienated child can be extremely nasty and emotionally cruel to the rejected parent, yet they will feel no guilt, shame, or remorse about their attitude.
- Borrowed scenarios/Parroting. The child borrows disparaging language and stories about the targeted parent from the preferred parent. They might make false accusations about the alienated parent or describe unpleasant scenarios involving the parent that they haven't witnessed as if they had been there. In these cases, the child's language mimics almost precisely that of the preferred parent.
- Rebuff of extended family. The child suddenly hates and rejects the targeted parent's side of the family, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins with whom they once had a loving relationship. In severe cases, they might even grow to hate the targeted parent's pet.
Remember that while these eight signs are symptoms of alienation, only a qualified psychologist can make the official diagnosis.
How to Treat Parental Alienation?
If parental alienation is underway it's urgent to stop it before it progresses too far. The method parents and psychologists use to treat this disorder depends on the degree of alienation.
Mild. Children with mild parental alienation are resistant to spending time with the target parent and undeserved hostility toward them. But they begin to enjoy that parent's company once they've spent time away from the alienating parent. In mild cases, regular sessions with a therapist who can help foster positive parent-
child relationships may help reverse the alienation. The targeted parent might also ask a family court judge for an order demanding that the preferred parent refrains from putting them down in front of the child.
Moderate. Children with a moderate case of alienation may vehemently resist contact with the targeted parent and stubbornly remain hostile throughout the visit. Here, it's essential to work with a therapist who can help improve communication between the child and the targeted parent, as well as between the co-parents. In some cases, the child might also need individual therapy.
Severe. Children with severe parental alienation might reject the alienated parent so forcefully that they run away, hide, or hurt themselves to avoid spending time with them. Because the alienating parent of a severely alienated child is also usually engaging in extreme behaviors, the family court almost certain must get involved at this point. The court may remove the child from the alienating parent's custody or prohibit the alienator from visiting or contacting the child with or without supervision. Meanwhile, the targeted parent and child will need intensive therapy to rebuild their relationship.
How to Fight Against Parental Alienation?
Therapy aside, a targeted parent can take steps to fight against alienation if they notice the phenomenon occurring. Among other things, you should:
Remain calm. A child being alienated will hurt your feelings and test your patience. But remain in control of your emotions, no matter what they do. If you lose your cool, your child is likely to feel justified in rejecting you.
Play with your child. Allow your child to organize games or activities that you can do together. Letting them choose the activity can help them to feel more in control of the situation and gives you the opportunity to show your interest in things they enjoy.
Listen to your child. During a calm moment, give your child a safe space to vent about whatever topic they want. Listen to them with empathy and without judgment. Don't offer solutions, pressure, or punishment.
Be positive and patient. Show your child through your actions that their professed hatred and hostility toward you is not justified. Even if they continue to resist spending time with you, continue to seek every legitimate opportunity to do so. Show them support and tell them that you love them unconditionally. Remember that in the alienating parent's house, they are barraged with negativity and are under intense pressure to please and emotionally support that parent. Let your home be a peaceful one where they can decompress and be themselves.
Seek legal help. If your ex-spouse is not adhering to the terms of the parenting agreement, you should contact a family lawyer. A knowledgeable lawyer can help obtain a court order that will demand that your ex comply with the contract or face consequences such as losing custody or visitation rights.
It's one thing to see signs of parental alienation in your ex-spouse and child's behavior, but it's another to prove it to a therapist or court. One of the most important things to do is keeping a detailed journal. Describe and date every incident that suggests your child's behavior is changing toward you and that parental alienation is occurring.
For example, note every time your child says they don't want to come over, whenever your ex makes up an excuse to keep the child at home, whenever your child is unreasonably hostile towards you or parrots information or scenarios they clearly heard from their other parent. You will want to be able to show that a pattern is occurring.
You may also want to speak with teachers, coaches, and other adults in contact with your child to find out whether they've observed any changes. They may be able to serve as witnesses in court, if necessary. You will also need to speak to a therapist who can diagnose the problem.
If you've been accused of parental alienation, you might feel stunned and frightened. But don't panic. Just because a child has withdrawn from one parent or aligned with another doesn't mean that parental alienation has occurred. A parent who feels alienated might think parental alienation is happening because they think that the preferred parent must have done something to cause their child to reject them, even if it's not the case.
Courts take parental alienation claims very seriously and will investigate the situation thoroughly. As noted above, true parental alienation only occurs when one parent is engaging in a campaign of denigration against the other parent, and the child's hostility toward the alienated parent is unreasonable and unjustified. It is your spouse who has the burden of proving the truth of these claims. Still, you will have some work to do in defending yourself. Here are five important steps to take:
- Talk to your lawyer immediately. Your lawyer can help you build a strong defense against charges of parental alienation. The earlier you speak to them, the more time you'll have to strengthen your case.
- Examine your actions honestly. You may not have intended to turn your child against their parent, but you might be guilty of some less-than-healthy behavior. Might someone reasonably interpret your actions as engaging in a campaign of denigration? Do you put your ex down or make sniping comments about them in front of your child? Do you frequently allow your child to skip visits with their parent or make excuses for disregarding the parenting agreement? Do you wear your hurt on your sleeve when your kid talks about doing fun things with their other parent? If you are engaging in any of the above behaviors, stop. It may not be an intentional alienation effort, but it is not beneficial for your child and will not look good before the court.
- Gather evidence of your co-parenting efforts. Start gathering evidence of your efforts to keep your co-parent involved in your child's life. For example, print up emails or texts you've sent to your ex raising essential issues concerning the children, such as their medical care, homework and report cards, music recitals, and sports tournaments. Look for proof that you regularly stick closely to the parenting plan. Also look for and take note of times where you've expressed positive support for your child's relationship with your ex.
- Gather evidence from your ex that counters their allegations. Your ex may have evidence that undercuts their own story. For example, if they've posted happy pictures of them with the kids on Facebook or Instagram, download those photos as proof of a positive relationship between the child and parent. Save emails and texts where they've admitted to having a good time with their children during their visit. Also look for evidence that shows how their behavior might have reasonably contributed to their child's alleged preference for you, such as if they use threatening or abusive language.
- Stay Calm. Even if you know the charge against you is 100 percent false, keep your calm when discussing the issue with your ex, their lawyer, or in court. Having a temper tantrum will not help your case. Instead, be ready to counter accusations with a cool head and plenty of evidence.
Need Help with Your NJ Child Custody Case? Call Attorney Joseph D. Lento Today
Parental alienation is a form of child abuse and should not be tolerated. Joseph D. Lento is a highly-experienced family law attorney who has dealt with countless cases of parental alienation. He understands how this phenomenon can destroy your relationship with your child and your custody case. To ensure your parental rights are protected and that your contributions are considered, contact the Lento Law Firm today at 888-535-3686.