Parental Alienation: Fact Or Fiction?

Parental alienation is one of the most difficult issues in custody and parenting time cases. Many mental health professionals disagree on the extent and even the existence of parental alienation as a syndrome. It is not recognized by the American Psychological Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual [used to categorize psychological illnesses and disorders].

In family law cases, the existence of or lack of parental alienation remains one of the most difficult to effectively address. Parental alienation is often used to describe a situation in which a child refuses contact with one parent. Some experts identify the parents as the “favored parent” and the “rejected” or “disfavored” parent.



There are multiple reasons why a child will favor one parent and reject the other parent. Sometimes this occurs when a parent makes an extremely poor parenting decision. This can involve an incident in which the child becomes severely frightened by that parent’s behavior or actions. It might include the use of inappropriate corporal punishment, a parent’s intoxication, a mental health issue, or a pattern of ongoing negative interaction or similar event. When a child reports a frightening or upsetting event to the other parent, that parent often will react to protect the child. This protection effort can occur without any communication between the parents to check out the child’s story. What is problematic is that while most conscientious parents can and do discuss their children regularly, certain incidents do not comfortably allow for mutual discussion.

A tragic example occurred when a four year old girl reported that her dad had “peed on her pee-pee.” The mother, believing that the child was describing an incident of sexual abuse, immediately filed a motion to restrict the father’s rights. This restriction went on for more than three years, during which time, the child went through two custody evaluations and only saw her father in a therapeutically supervised setting. Tens of thousands of dollars were expended in attorney’s fees and on mental health professional evaluations. After several years, the child’s language skills grew and she was able to explain the event by telling her therapist that after she had urinated, she didn’t flush the toilet. Her dad had also used the toilet and had “peed on her pee-pee.” The family never recovered from an issue that could have been resolved if mom and dad had retained an ability to communicate with one another after their divorce.

This writer has observed anecdotally that in very high conflict post-decree cases, the likelihood of parental rejection increases dramatically. Children often grow tired of the constant bickering and high level of tension between their parents. As they reach early teen years, they often feel the need to take greater control of their lives. One way many children do this is by creating predictability in their lives as to where they will sleep and who will take care of them by eliminating one parent from their lives. If the parents have not been able to manage and resolve conflict over a period of several years, the child will find his or her own way to control the situation. The child’s control arises through the alignment with one parent and the rejection of the other parent.

Parental alienation refers to the idea that alienation of the child or children from one parent is due to intentional or unintentional influence of the other parent – the alienating parent. Whether you believe that alienation is occurring or not, what is clear is that there are no easy answers to tackle the problem of fractured parent and child relationships which occur as a result of a custody or parenting time dispute. 

Judges, therapists, attorneys and parties involved in the case do not have easy answers when alienation is raised as an issue. While some argue that reunification therapy works in more straightforward cases, the complex cases often have very few options. The success of the reunification process is significantly dependent upon the ability of the aligned parent to support the child through the process.  There are also reunification specialists who are simply not trained for the work they are performing. These people do great harm, often at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars.

The causes of parental alienation are also in dispute. Some argue that children may choose to reject one parent for various reasons, whether it is physical or verbal abuse, differing parenting style, trauma as the result of the divorce or because choosing one parent over the other allows them needed stability after a destabilizing event. Proponents of parental alienation as a syndrome argue that in many cases one parent deliberately sets the children against the other parent through consistent manipulation.  All of these possibilities are probably accurate descriptions of what happens when a child aligns with one parent and rejects the other.

Because this is a difficult issue to tackle and even more challenging to prove or remedy, courts are left with few options to address parental alienation allegations. A recent article in the Washington Post exposed some concerning examples which lead to questions about the efficacy of certain family reunification programs around the country.

In addition, the article causes great concern for the well-being of the children subjected to various reunification programs. In parenting time disputes, it is generally believed that it is in the best interests of the children to have a relationship with both parents. However, the question in many of these cases is – at what point are we doing what is best for the children or what is best for the alienated parent? 

The article covers some shaky ground when it comes to the intersection of family law and mental health issues. Ultimately, these cases must be handled delicately and only truly experienced family law professionals can help guide parties through the difficult terrain.

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