Courts throughout the United States generally believe that children should have a good relationship with both their parents. In order for that to happen, the child needs to spend quality time with each of their parents.  

But divorce can be ugly, and many times, parents let their anger and frustration enter the lives of their children, so it is important to recognize the signs of parental alienation in order to best combat it and do what is best for your child.

What is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation is when one parent psychologically manipulates their child by doing or saying things that cause the child to feel and/or act unfavorably toward the other parent. Essentially, it involves brainwashing a child, and it is a very real problem that courts are slowly starting to take seriously. 

How Parental Alienation Occurs

The main weapons one parent uses against the other when trying to alienate their child from their ex-spouse can include:

  • Talking Bad About the Other Parent: This includes badmouthing, criticizing, and belittling the other parent. The parent may tell their child that the other parent is crazy, dangerous, or not worth the child’s love and affection.
  • Interfering with Contact: The parent who is attempting to alienate your child from you may drop them off late or pick them up early from visitation. They may make excuses as to why your child isn’t visiting or refuse to let your child call you.
  • Causing Your Child to Reject You: Your ex-spouse may make your child feel guilty for loving you and create conflict between you and your child, which may force your child to choose between you and your ex-spouse. They may also talk to your child, inappropriately, about the divorce or other issues.
  • Undermining Your Relationship with Your Child: Your ex-spouse may interrogate your child about the details of your visitation or ask your child to spy on you.

Signs of Parental Alienation

Your child, like every other child, has a right and desire to have a loving relationship with both their parents. If your child has a forced separation from one parent, they may suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress. Children who have become victims of parental alienation often show certain signs of the emotional and psychological damage that has been inflicted on them. They include:

  • Anger: Your child may exhibit anger toward you. This is because they have been exposed to the accusations and criticisms of your ex-spouse toward you. This may cause your child to become completely stressed out, and they have no way of expressing that anger. They won’t be able to develop the skills necessary to handle emotional pain and could display a short temper.
  • Lack of Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem: Programmed into believing that you are bad, your child may start believing the same thing about themselves. This will manifest itself in low self-esteem, which may lead to some self-destructive behavior.
  • No Impulse Control: Children who are suffering from parental alienation may not have the control that is vital to summing certain situations up before choosing the action they need to take. They may exhibit anger or other impulsive behaviors such as throwing things, fighting, or making hasty choices.
  • Separation Anxiety: If your child is programmed by your ex-spouse to fear, distrust, or hate you, they often will exhibit anxiety about leaving your ex-spouse to spend time with you. They may choose not to participate in other activities such as summer camps or sleepovers with friends.
  • Phobias: In some cases, your child may become fearful of anything that takes them away from your ex-spouse, such as attending school. They may make up illnesses to stay at home and keep the parent who is programming them home with them.
  • Suicidal Thoughts and Depression: If your child is the victim of parental alienation, your divorce becomes a source of great pain for them that may lead to depression and, in some cases, suicide. 
  • Sleep Problems: Your child may find it difficult to sleep or have nightmares as they not only worry about the danger that you, as the alienated parent, cause them, but the guilt they feel over alienating you.
  • Eating Disorders: To try to get control of their life and how both you and your ex-spouse are behaving, your child may develop bulimia, obesity, or anorexia.
  • Problems at School: If your child is suffering from parental alienation, they may be having a lot of problems in school, such as not being able to concentrate and getting into trouble for misbehaving.
  • Alcohol and/or Drug Abuse: Even if your child is very young, they have a greater risk of turning to alcohol and/or drugs if they are experiencing parental alienation, which could lead to other illegal behaviors.

Parental Alienation Syndrome 

If your ex-spouse is constantly using tactics to alienate your child, serious damage can be done to your child psychologically. Because they are under constant pressure from your ex-spouse, they eventually may choose a side. This leads to irregular behaviors that are psychologically categorized as “Parental Alienation Syndrome.” These behaviors include:

  • Denigrating You: Once your child has chosen a side, they may start to target your faults and express hatred of you. This usually starts so fast that you may not see it coming and feel shocked when it happens. 
  • Weak or Frivolous Reasons to Denigrate You: The complaints made by your child when they are denigrating you are generally irrational, or not serious enough to normally cause your child to hate a parent. For example, they may express that they hate you for not letting them watch a certain movie, or play a specific video game, etc. 
  • Lack of Ambivalence: If your child is developing normally, they will normally express a certain level of uncertainty, or ambivalence, toward both you and your ex-spouse. It’s normal for your child to become frustrated with certain rules or limits both parents set. But if your child is being alienated from you, they might  start to automatically support your ex-spouse, showing no mixed feelings toward them, and push you away or hate you. If your child is suffering from parental alienation syndrome, they will view your ex-spouse as all-good, and you as all-bad.
  • Independent Thinking and Decision-Making: If your child is suffering from parental alienation syndrome, they will say that their feelings are their own when they are asked about their views toward you and your ex-spouse. Additionally, if your ex-spouse is the alienating parent, they will support your child’s decisions to not visit you, etc.
  • Absence of Guilt: If your child is suffering from parental alienation syndrome and believes you don’t deserve to see them, your child doesn’t feel bad or guilty about shutting you out and will express how thankful they are for the parent who is alienating them. In fact, your child may try to manipulate you into getting whatever they want from you with the belief they are entitled to behave this way because you are such a bad person. Children suffering from parental alienation syndrome often become selfish, cruel, and manipulative. 
  • Fully Support Alienating Parent: Your child who is suffering from parental alienation syndrome will not have an impartial opinion of any disputes that arise between you and your ex-spouse. Your child will unwaveringly support your ex-spouse if they are the alienating parent.
  • Hostility Toward Your Extended Family: If your child is suffering from parental alienation syndrome, it is quite common for them to show signs of hatred toward your family, such as grandparents, etc.

Proving Parental Alienation

If your ex-spouse is actively working on alienating your child, they may eventually lose custody of your child, and even be ordered to have supervised visitation. However, you need to be able to prove parental alienation in court. In order to do that, you need to:

  • Keep a Journal: Write down all the issues that happen when you are communicating with your ex-spouse and the things your child says that obviously came from the alienating parent. Record dates and times of visitations that are not at the regular times, such as plans being made by your ex-spouse that conflict with your visitation. You should also record any actions by your child that demonstrate parental alienation.
  • Pay Attention to the Warning Signs: Keep a record of suspected behavior from your child that demonstrates parental alienation. Write down the dates, times, and specific actions or words. Know if your child has secrets with your ex-spouse that are alienating your child. 
  • Keep Open Communication: Both you and your ex-spouse need to maintain open communication with your child. Make it clear to them that you love them.
  • Obey and Enforce All Custody Orders: This includes actual visitation dates and times and sharing information about your child. Denying access to your child’s school activities, their education records, and medical concerns are not in your child’s best interest. 

Once you have gathered all the evidence that your ex-spouse is attempting to alienate your child from you, you or your child custody attorney can file a motion in court to review or change any custody orders. In some cases, the court may decide to appoint a guardian ad litem who is separate from you and your ex-spouse’s individual representation to represent your child’s best interest.