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Parental Alienation: What is It and How Could it Affect your family?

Parental alienation is a term used to describe the problem that sadly occurs frequently in divorce or family law situations where one party or parent encourages the child to unjustly reject the other parent. The specific strategies that a parent uses to attempt to accomplish this agenda are referred to as strategies. One parent will engage in a systematic campaign to encourage and foster the child rejecting the other parent. Often, parental alienation occurs in divorced families or families going through a divorce or separation, but it can occur in other situations as well.

What Are the Strategies That a Parent Will Use to Alienate the Children from the Other Parent?

The general strategies that an alienating parent will use generally fall into the categories of poisonous messages to the child about the other parent being unloving, unsafe or unavailable; actively limiting or preventing contact or communication between the child and the other parent; erasing or replacing the other parent in the mind and memories of the child; weak, frivolous or even absurd reasons or motivations by the child to reject the parent; unrealistic favor and excessive glorification of the parent engaging in the alienation; encouraging the child to betray the targeted parent’s trust (generally without any remorse) and undermining the authority of the targeted parent. These strategies, often engaged in conjunction by an alienating parent are intended to foster conflict and psychological damage and distance between the other parent and the child. In its latter stages, a child will often, without warning or justification, reject all family members, friends and other people with ties to the alienating parent even if some of those people have been very bonded to the child. These behaviors when systematically engaged in by a parent are toxic and damaging to the child or children involved. If proven, some courts consider the systematic use of the strategies of parental alienation as being abusive to the child. 

If you have a case or situation involving a toxic former spouse or other parent of your child who is engaging in some or all of the behaviors outlined herein, it is essential that you engage a family law attorney who is familiar with these behaviors and Parental Alienation Syndrome to give you the expert guidance you need to navigate these difficult issues. Failing to address or deal with these important issues with an intentional legal strategy can make the difference between a close, bonded relationship with your children and a long-term distanced, damaged or strained relationship with your children.

Not all children who are exposed to parental alienation tactics and strategies by a parent succumb to the pressure and encouragement of the alienating parent. Some children resist the pressure applied to them by one parent to become alienated or to select one parent over the other. When a child is unable to resist the pressure of one parent, that child becomes alienated from the other parent. For some children, it is a gradual process. For other children, particularly if a parent targets the child aggressively with alienating tactics, the alienating process can occur relatively quickly without significant warning or other signs for the targeted parent. 

Research has overwhelmingly established that children exposed to the 17 parental alienation strategies and when they become alienated suffer in the long run. The parents also suffer a variety of negative consequences. Targeted parents living the nightmare of being alienated from their children need important legal and other professional strategic guidance to effectively combat the strategies of the alienating parent. When parents are already alienated, it is imperative that they obtain compassionate, knowledgeable and experienced professional guidance to combat the parental alienation they have suffered.

What Are Some Signs of Parental Alienation Occurring?

1. Your Spouse or Former Spouse Is Sharing Inappropriate Details of Your Divorce:

While your spouse may indicate he or she simply needs to be honest and open with the children and that the children “deserve” to know what is going on, the children are entitled to protection from adult issues. If you are experiencing a situation where your spouse is oversharing details about why the two of you are getting a divorce or other intimate details of your conflict and actions you took through the litigation process, this information could be perceived as very negative towards you by your children and could begin to shape a damaging picture of you to your children. In such a situation, it is likely that your children will begin to view you as responsible for the divorce and develop anger, resentment and distance from you. Often, oversharing details of your divorce is one of the earliest signs of parental alienation concerns. If this is occurring in your family, be sure to share this information with your family law attorney. Also, if you begin to suspect concerns or issues, begin keeping a detailed log or journal of what you are experiencing as some of the details of the information shared you’re your children, as well as the time line may be crucial to your family law professional helping to unwind or combat the alienation that you are a victim of.

2. Your Spouse or Former Spouse Makes False Allegations of Domestic Violence:

Often, as further elaboration of sharing inappropriate details of your divorce, the alienating parent will take things a step further and begin exaggerating and ultimately creating false narratives of what the history was. This sometimes starts with the alienating parent attempting to express or overshare with your children the reasons he or she is hurt and why the divorce is necessary. For some parents if they do not believe that their hurt or motivations for anger are fully understood and acknowledged by the child, the parent will continue to develop his or her concerns or even make false allegations of abuse to further damage the other parent’s reputation with the child.  A strong sign that parental alienation is present is if your child starts accusing you or abuse or other actions that you did not do. Often the initial allegations seem to come out of nowhere and are rather shocking to the targeted parent when expressed. The child, however, will express them as fact and in some situations even believe that they have recalled witnessing, experiencing or otherwise discussing the concerns in the past.

3. Your Spouse or Former Spouse Speaks Badly of You in Front of Your Children or Picks Fights with you in Front of the Children:

The other parent may inappropriately speak about you, complain about you or share allegations about you to third parties where he or she reasonably knows that the children will overhear the information. Also very common is if the targeting parent engages in behavior intended to get you upset or pick fights in the presence or hearing of the children. The targeting parent will say things that seem innocent to the children but the targeted parent will know that the other parent is trying to cast them in a negative light. Thus, often the targeted parent will react in some way or get upset and it will fall right into the targeting parent’s hand as he or she will discuss with the children how that behavior was unprovoked and indicative of how the targeted parent behaves. For example, the parent may share with your children in your presence, “We can’t have a family Christmas together because your father is busy spending his time with his new friend.” Naturally, you will react and get quite upset about the other parent making this statement and yet, if done in a targeted, intentional way, the other parent will use your reaction to further cast you in a negative light.

4. Your Spouse or Former Spouse Uses Negative Body Language Toward You:

When the other parent is targeting you, they will use as much body language as possible to facilitate and foster their agenda. This may include simpler things such as crossing their arms, rolling eyes, shaking their head or angry faces. It can also be more complex such as them acting out fear of the targeted parent or even in the right situation, an occurrence where the child thinks they have seen the aftermath of a parent being assaulted, or almost hit or touched by the targeted parent, even if nothing like this actually occurred.  

5. Your Children Are Unnecessarily and Disproportionately Angry with You:

It is natural for children to be frustrated, upset or angry with both parents that their family is changing and a divorce or other change to the structure of the family is occurring. However, if your children are disproportionately angry and even irate with you, it is likely that there is more occurring. Of course, if the other parent is routinely saying negative things about you or allowing your children to overhear criticisms of you to third parties, it is a natural effect that the negative attitudes the children are being indoctrinated with will be expressed by the children when they spend time with you. If your children are suddenly and routinely expressing excessively strong emotions such as that they hate you, they can’t think of anything positive about you (in spite of many years of happy memories and a strong relationship) and they can’t meaningfully express any indication of where these feelings are coming from, it is likely that your children are becoming victim to parental alienation.

6. Your Children Feel or Express Guilt During or Following Spending Time with You:

A central theme and focus of a parent engaging in alienating behavior is that he or she does not want the children to spend time with the targeted parent.  Thus, if your children repeatedly express feeling guilty while spending time with you and seem unable to enjoy themselves even during favorite activities, it is very likely that parental alienation is present. Often, one of the first signs will be a child who is laughing, having fun, engaging in enjoyable activities, but as soon as the child receives or makes a call to the other parent, the child’s entire demeanor changes, he or she reports that they are “doing nothing”, having “no fun”, they are sad, they miss the other parent and he or she may even tell the other parent that they feel guilty or express an apology for not being with the other parent. These are all feelings that should not be placed on a child. Sometimes these circumstances further manifest themselves with a child who does not feel free to speak with the other parent in the presence of the targeting parent or even will stay away or not acknowledge the other parent if both parents happen to be at an event such as a school or extracurricular activity jointly. Again, if your child is interacting with you dramatically different depending on whether the other parent is privy or not, this is an early symptom that parental alienation may be present.

7. The Other Parent Engages in Systematic Efforts to Pry Into Your Private Life:

After your parenting time, you may hear the other parent directly questioning the children about your private details or your children may confide in you that the other parent is questioning them. Another symptom is if your children start to ask you premediated questions about your private life that they should not know or even be concerned about, but for the oversharing of information by the other parent. The children may or may not know that they are being used as a tool in this fashion. Generally, if they know, they will appear awkward, uncomfortable or even upset about asking the questions. If the children are not aware that they are being manipulated they may ask you questions that they should feel very uncomfortable or awkward about very matter of fact. Some children will be put up to snooping and finding or digging for information at your home. If the other parent suddenly seems to have great detail about your life, the children are likely being alienated as part of a systematic plan to involve them in obtaining this information.

8. The Other Parent Actively Keeps Your Children Away From You Or Limits Your Participation in their Lives:

Your parenting plan may indicate that you can only see the children on limited days, but the other parent may also sign up the child or promise them participation in a significant activity on your limited time. For example, if you see your children every Wednesday and on the weekends, the other parent may tell your child that he or she can now do the horseback riding lessons the child has wanted for several years, but only on Wednesday evenings. This leaves the targeted parent the impossible situation of having to reduce already limited time with the child or upset the child by removing a long-awaited and greatly anticipated activity. From the other parent’s perspective, the less time the children spend with you, the less bonded they will be. Another common tactic is when the targeting parent does not tell the other parent about important events such as games, school happenings or similar things. The targeting parent then shares with the child at the event that the targeted parent chose not to be there or prioritized something else even though he or she did not even know the event was occurring.  

9. The Other Parent gives the Children Choices about Attending Visits or Otherwise Over-empowers the Child: 

In this occurrence, the other parent will tell or imply to the children that it is their choice to go or not go on visits. The targeting parent may ask the children their preference and then engage in a discussion with you, in the presence of the children, where they encourage you to respect, care about or allow your children’s opinions to matter. The children in this scenario may be over-empowered about a variety of other topics related to your interaction and relationship with the children.  By the time your visits are being denied or reduced or otherwise limited, often Parental Alienation is in more severe stages. If you are being prevented from having your parenting time, it is imperative to the preservation of your parent-child relationship that you obtain a consultation with a knowledgeable family law attorney and that you take significant, meaningful action to combat this behavior. Delaying addressing or directly confronting this type of behavior is only going to make the situation exponentially worse.

10. The Other Parent Asks Your Children to Choose Between Parents

This is another late-stage occurrence with severe Parental Alienation. Your children should never feel that they have to choose between their love for each of their parents. If the other parent tells or implies to your children that they need to make a decision between parents, it is crucial that you involve professionals who can work with you to systematically combat this damaging behavior. At this point, not only is the behavior harmful to your relationship with your children, but it is also psychologically damaging to your children.

What Should I Do If I Am Being Falsely Accused of Engaging in Parental Alienation? 

Knowing that if proven, these behaviors are looked at very negatively by the court, be extra cautious to not engage in any behavior that could be suggested or implied to be alienating behaviors. Only have discussions about the other parent, when necessary, at a location away from the children so that they cannot inadvertently overhear information. If the other parent is raising concerns, ask him or her to specifically describe the behaviors that he or she is seeing that causes the concern for parental alienation. After hearing the information, take some notes and process/think through the concerns. Ask yourself if you are engaged in behaviors to damage the other parent. If so, get into some therapy quickly to help you find more constructive ways to vent and process your anger. In many situations, when or if the children realize the actions you have engaged in to alienate them from the other parent, they will end up being angry at you. There are many situations where adult children are estranged or strained from the targeting parent as they came to realize the parent’s tactics when they grew up, became more mature or researched information shared by the targeting parent.  It’s not worth your long-term relationship with your child to engage in venting or trying to win your child to your side for the short-term. Give your children the gift of supporting their need for a positive relationship with both parents! Show the child that you support and encourage his or her relationship with the other parent: help the child put up photos of the other parent in his or her room, help him or her buy Christmas, birthday and Mother’s or Father’s day gifts for the other parent.

What Should I Do If I Am Being Alienated by the Other Parent? 

Early intervention to combat this occurrence is key. Obtain a consultation with a knowledgeable and experienced family law attorney. Begin documenting the behaviors, statements and other actions as they are occurring. Ask the other parent or file a motion with the court if necessary, to get the child enrolled in counseling or therapy to discuss and combat these issues. If the issues have been ongoing for a period of time, you may need to file motions with the court or seek a change to your parenting plan to protect your future relationship with your children.

How Do You Stop and Combat Parental Alienation? 

One of the best things is to continually maintain a positive, happy, loving and close relationship with your children. Make sure you are prioritizing their needs and ensuring that they always  feel safe with you. If the other parent is engaging in behaviors that concern you, document them through listing or writing them to the other parent and asking that they stop the behavior.  If the behavior continues after it has been raised to the other parent, they may need parenting classes, therapy or other court interventions.

How Do You Prove Parental Alienation Is Occurring? 

Parental Alienation can be very difficult to prove, but documenting actual things said, as well as  any significant changes in the child’s behavior will greatly help. You should communicate regularly with people who significantly interact with your child such as therapists, teachers and coaches to see if they have noticed changes. If so, ask them to document them. If they have not yet observed changes, ask them to be watching for them.  In some situations, proving parental alienation in court requires the assistance of an expert witness such as a therapist.

In conclusion:

Parental alienation cases are some of the most high conflict, difficult cases to address and deal with. The opportunity to combat and address the behavior is dramatically increased when there are early interventions with these actions and warning signs. Latter stage Parental Alienation cases can have many difficult components to address because (1) it is hard to prove the actions of the other parent when you are not around; (2) some of the allegations and statements of the children, particularly if they are claiming false memories or occurrences are difficult for the targeted parent to disprove and (3) even if proven, there are limited and complicated solutions to try to address the issues and concerns. 

Call Pingel Family Law today to schedule your consultation and case assessment if you have concerns or questions as to whether Parental Alienation is a concern in your case. Allow us to consult with you about what is occurring so that we can help skillfully combat the behaviors before the problems in your case become larger. Call today at (816) 208-8130.

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