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Parental alienation: What does it mean and how can it affect child custody?

UPDATED: July 23, 2013

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Family law attorneys are sometimes placed in a difficult situation when a prospective client indicates that they want sole custody and that the other parent should have as little contact as possible with the minor children. In most situations, courts prefer child custody arrangements that allow the child to spend as much time as possible with both parents. While developing or approving a child custody plan, the family law judge tries to determine the best interests of the minor child. The judge takes into account which parent is more likely to encourage frequent and ongoing contact with the other parent.

Parental Alienation

When parents fight over child custody in high-conflict cases, the impact on their children can be profound. Many times, parents do not even realize the impact that their comments and animosity have on their children. Studies suggest that children who have been through high-conflict child custody cases have an increased risk of mental health and addiction problems. Because of the extremely negative impact on the children, the family court will sometimes order a change of custody if it is established that the custodial parent is engaging in attempts to alienate the children from the other parent.

There are sometimes situations where a parent poses a genuine risk to the minor children and thus contact between them is justifiably limited (these cases may involve drug abuse, domestic violence, or child abuse). Parental alienation, on the other hand, is a child’s unreasonable or unjustified dislike or rejection of one parent. Although parental alienation often results from the deliberate actions of one parent, it can also be helpful to look at other factors, such as the interactive dynamics of the family and the impact of the wider social sphere. These factors may help to explain the behaviors in any given case.

Parental Alienation: Damaging Behavior

A custodial parent's attempt to alienate a child's affections can include making derogatory comments about the other parent, attempts to interfere with the other parent's visitation, comments to the child suggesting that the other parent has abandoned the child or does not care about the child, or other similar attempts to drive a wedge between the non-custodial parent and the minor child. Family law attorneys sometimes file a motion for a change of custody based entirely on the custodial parent’s alienation of the minor children from the other parent.

Parental alienation varies in severity and is measured by the behavior and attitude of the parent and the children. The severity can amount to nothing more than referring to the other parent by a derogatory name, or it can be as devastating as an intentional campaign to destroy the child's relationship with the other parent. Though most children are able to disregard an occasional derogatory comment about the other parent, serious long-term damage may result from a parent's persistent campaign of hatred and alienation.

If you are involved in a child custody dispute, the more you exhibit a supportive attitude toward the other parent's relationship with the child, the more likely you are to experience a positive outcome, both in terms of custody orders and your child's well-being. An experienced family law attorney can also help you communicate your concerns to the court if you believe your children are being coached toward parental alienation.

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