Parental alienation happens when one parent seeks to alienate the child from the other parent. Often, this behavior is the result of some underlying mental health issue. And while the other parent is the intended target of the behavior, children are its collateral damage. This article was written to offer some general information on parental alienation, how to recognize it, and how a parent dealing with such an unfortunate situation can respond.
While there might be any number of different ways to examine parental alienation — whether from a psychological, sociological or academic perspective —those who work in the family law profession also have plenty of experience with the behavior, and have plenty to say about it. It’s important to keep in mind that parental alienation is an abusive practice that serves to disrupt divorce proceedings and hinder the settlement process.
It’s important, that whenever possible, efforts are made to curtail the alienating behavior as quickly as possible.
This page is meant to be informational, and is not intended as legal advice. Remember, every divorce case is unique. If you have a specific question about family law, contact our office to see how we can help.
What is Parental Alienation?
In simple terms parental alienation occurs when one parent seeks to negatively influence (or poison) a child’s view of the other parent. This is often done with the intention of limiting visitation or custody with the other parent, hence alienating that parent from their own children.
There are a number of behaviors that qualify as parental alienation. These include one parent disparaging the other in front of the child, telling lies about the other parent, using a psychological technique known as gas lighting, leveling false accusations of abuse at the other parent, putting the child in a situation beyond their maturity level (known as parentification), parental substitution and more.
Disparagement isn’t some fancy psychological term. Simply put, it happens when one parent makes negative comments or statements about the other parent in front of the child. In order to qualify as disparagement, the comments don’t necessarily have to be made directly by the parent to the child. The following list includes some of the situations that qualify as disparagement:
- Allowing other people to make negative comments about the other parent in front of the child. Other people in this scenario could include: grandparents, aunts or uncles, family friends, and siblings.
- Involving the child in the divorce or custody case more than is necessary. The alienating parent might share details with the child, true, false or distorted, about the case that the child doesn’t need to hear. The purpose of doing this is to influence the child against the other parent. This could have the effect of making a custody proceeding more difficult.
- In the most basic example of parental alienation, the alienating parent might make disparaging comments directly in front of or to the child in an attempt to alienate the child from the other parent.
Using false accusations in an attempt to alienate the other parent is a dirty trick that can, in worst-case scenarios, be devastatingly effective.
When a parent levels an accusation of domestic violence at a former spouse, and the court believes this accusation, whether true or not, it can hamper the other parent’s ability to obtain full or even partial custody of the child. A parent who has limited access to their child is more likely to become alienated and estranged from that child.
Family Code § 3044 states that if the court finds that a parent committed an act of domestic violence within the previous five years, then a rebuttable presumption exists that suggests sole or joint custody may not be in the child’s best interest. What this means is that the assumption is made that the child’s time with the abusive parent should be limited, unless the accused parent can prove this is not in the child’s best interest — often an uphill battle.
In 2011, in a two-part series, the Los Angeles Times reported on the extreme story of a custody case involving severe and false accusations. The story detailed the case of an estranged couple named Luis Gonzalez and his ex, Tracy West.
On February 1, 2008, while Gonzalez was a few blocks away from West’s home visiting his five-year-old son’s Montessori school, West’s then husband, Tim Geiges, placed a call to 911. He told the dispatcher that he had come home to find his wife bound, naked and beaten in a bedroom of their Simi Valley home. Police soon arrived, and West told them that she had been beaten and sexually assaulted by her ex, Luis Gonzalez.
Police quickly made contact with Gonzalez outside of his son’s Montessori school, where they handcuffed and arrested him. He was locked in a cell, and denied bail. Gonzalez would spend the next 83 days in jail, despite the fact that he was innocent.
A police detective, initially believing Gonzalez was guilty, was aware that there had been custody issues between the suspect and his ex girlfriend. The Times article mentioned that the detective was well aware that some custody cases were capable of breeding “a special sort of derangement.” Gonzalez told reporters about his ex’s frustration at having to share custody of their son, who would spend time with his father for two weekends a month.
During the initial custody case, which the Times referred to as an “interminable gantlet of judges, mediators and psychiatrists,” the boy’s mother claimed the child experienced separation anxiety when with his father. Gonzalez denied this was true.
After his ex’s false accusation of sexual assault, Gonzalez’s custody issues took a back seat as he faced spending the next several years behind bars. It would ultimately take the diligent efforts of his attorney, a private investigator, and even the police to interview witnesses and comb through surveillance footage before the ex-girlfriend’s story crumbled.
Though Gonzalez was finally freed and the charges dropped, the damage was done. Even after returning to work, he was unable to see his son. The family court judge, uncertain whether or not Gonzalez might still face criminal charges, withheld visitation rights.
It wouldn’t be until eight months after his arrest that Gonzalez was able to see his son again. Even then, it was at the office of a family reunification specialist. While a judge awarded Gonzalez $55,000 in legal fees, by that time, his ex had filed for bankruptcy. The purpose of sharing this story isn’t to create unnecessary fear for those who may be dealing with parental alienation. Remember, cases like these are incredibly rare.
However, such stories are illustrative of the lengths that some parents will go in order to alienate a child from another parent, and the devastating effects such alienation can have.
Because of the complicated nature of child custody issues, it is recommended that any parent who is struggling with custody of their child and has been falsely accused of domestic violence, contact a lawyer for assistance.
Putting the Child in Situations Beyond Their Maturity Level
The technical term for this type of behavior is known as parentification. Generally speaking, this is a process in which the alienating parent emotionally elevates the child to a parental role. This can be done in an attempt by the alienating parent to fulfill the emotional void left by the former spouse.
While the child typically put in this situation is the eldest child, younger siblings can also find themselves in this position, depending on family dynamics. Add this type behavior to a situation where disparaging comments are made about the other parent, and a powerful formula is created for parental alienation.
An article written in Psych Central by Doctor of Psychology Sharie Stines discusses how damaging parentification can be to a child. Stines writes,
“Children’s sense of value is diminished because they believe the targeted parent is unworthy of being identified with. If the children have any interests or traits similar to the rejected parent then the children will be forced to reject those aspects of themselves as well.”
What this behavior illustrates is how parental alienation isn’t only harmful to the alienated parent, but harmful to the child as well.
This type of situation occurs when the alienating parent substitutes another person for the other parent. This is done with the intention of convincing the child that another person, not the alienated parent, is in fact the child’s parental figure.
Obviously, there are situations following a divorce when one or both parents meet someone new and get remarried. This in and of itself is not parental substitution — although depending on how the parent handles it — it could be.
Parental substitution means that, despite the biological parent’s continued efforts to remain involved in the child’s life, the alienating parent attempts to convince the child that a stepparent, significant other or family friend is in fact the child’s parent.
This is a psychologically abusive technique named for a play originally produced in the 1930s. The story is about an abusive husband who uses deception and trickery to make his wife believe things she experienced weren’t true, ultimately leading her to question her own sanity.
Abusive people in any number of situations, including a parent-child relationship, can apply this psychological tactic.
Gas lighting can be used to manipulate a child into believing a situation they witnessed was either more positive or more negative than they remember, and can be very effective in polluting the child’s perception of the alienated parent.
How To Deal With Parental Alienation
If you are dealing with a former spouse or ex who is actively trying to alienate you from your children, it’s important that you take steps to resist this behavior.
This starts by recognizing the characteristics associated with parental alienation. If you are reading this article, hopefully you have come to understand a little more about this issue. Perhaps you have related to some of the examples highlighted on this page.
It’s important that when it comes to developing a strategy for dealing with parental alienation you discuss your options with a lawyer who has some understanding of this behavior.
There are a number of different ways to proceed with a custody case when it comes to dealing with parental alienation, all of which depend on the specific situation at hand.
It might be necessary to seek psychiatric evaluation of the other parent, or request a parental coordinator. You might need to seek sole or partial custody of the child, as well as fight for a judgment of legal fees and expenses.
Remember, California law seeks to promote settlement of divorce cases. California Family Code § 271 allows parties involved in divorce cases to seek the recovery of legal fees if the other party frustrates settlement of the case.
Whatever your particular situation, it’s important you discuss the options with your attorney.
Consulting a Family Lawyer
Family law is complex. But when dealing with a difficult former spouse who is actively trying to alienate you from your children, the situation can become significantly more complicated. This is why it’s important you seek the help of a excellent family attorney.
If you recognize any of the behaviors outlined in this article, or perhaps are dealing with some other family law issue, it’s important that you don’t delay in sharing your observations with your attorney. Doing so could have an effect on the outcome of your case.
A good family lawyer, in addition to being an excellent communicator, should also have at least a basic understanding of some of the psychological issues that arise during divorce and custody proceedings. By understanding these issues, your lawyer can tailor the best strategy to help you obtain the ideal outcome in your case.
If you have questions about a specific family law issue, contact our office to schedule a consultation. Find out how we can help.