It has been widely accepted that children cope with divorce far better when they maintain a healthy relationship with both parents. What frequently happens after a marriage ends, however, is exactly the opposite.
While it is best to keep the children out of the conflict inherent to divorce, some parents either consciously or unconsciously work to undermine — or even destroy — the relationship their child has with the other parent.
This is known as parental alienation, and it has been found to be extremely detrimental to a child’s development and well-being. However, that does not stop some vindictive parents from attempting to transfer their own feelings of anger and resentment on to their children.
Parental alienation is defined as the programming / brainwashing of a child by one parent to vilify the other in a way that damages or destroys the targeted parent’s relationship with their child.
Unfortunately, the non-custodial parent is most often the target of alienation, which in turn means fathers are far more likely to be alienated since mothers are overwhelmingly awarded primary custody.
This means divorcing dads need to be on the lookout for signs so they can work to end it quickly, as reversing the damage caused by alienation can be a difficult and expensive process depending on the severity.
Recognizing parental alienation
From seemingly innocent comments badmouthing the spouse in front of the kids to withholding court-ordered visitation, there are many different forms of parental alienation, which makes it a challenge to identify.
Parental alienation is also more common than you may think, with alienation found to be present in 11-15 percent of divorces involving children. Extreme cases of alienation have even recently been classified as a form of child abuse, since it can result in low self-esteem, lack of trust, depression and substance abuse.
This means divorcing fathers need to be vigilant for any sudden changes in their children’s attitude toward them.
Possible signs of parental alienation include a child having knowledge of specific divorce details, visitation being blocked on a regular basis, the children being told it is the other parent’s fault for the divorce, constant negative comments in the children’s presence or a child being asked to choose one parent or the other.
Oftentimes, the alienation is completely unintentional. It is totally understandable for parties to retain a sense of anger or resentment that continues long after the divorce is over since it takes time to recover. They may feel it is the other spouse’s fault that the marriage ended, and it is easy to let critical comments slip from time to time out of frustration.
However, it needs to be understood how damaging these sorts of remarks can be on children trying to cope with divorce. The comments may be offhand, but it is entirely possible for your children to begin internalizing your feelings, which results in a conflicted view of the other parent.
Other times, parental alienation is more direct and malicious. A targeting parent may wish to get revenge on their former spouse by overextending the influence granted by having primary custody, seek to warp the child’s view of their other parent and finally edge the targeted parent out of their child’s life.
This ends up not only hurting the former spouse, but it can also be severely damaging and detrimental to the development of the child. Using children as pawns to hurt your ex will only result in more harm than anything else, and end up stunting their ability to recover from the divorce.
Combating parental alienation
While parental alienation is finally gaining more widespread recognition, it is still a very difficult and misunderstood aspect of custody disputes. However, there are steps you can take to stop and reverse the damage being caused if you feel your ex is alienating your children.
Identify and document the behavior — before you can do anything else, you need to recognize that the alienation is occurring. If your children are suddenly unenthusiastic about your visitation, seem scared to be with you or ask specific questions about your divorce, it may be early signs of alienation. Documentation will go a long way toward proving your point if you end up needing to go to court.
Raise your concerns with your ex — since many times the alienation is unintentional, you may be able to resolve the problems early on if you simply bring them up with your ex. Obviously, this will work best if you are still on somewhat good terms, but educating on the negative affects parental alienation has on your children may help the other parent pay closer attention to the things they say.
Continue being a great dad — parental alienation can be a heartbreaking experience for fathers, particularly if you have always had a great relationship with your children. Do not get discouraged and lash out at your kids for how they are treating you; they are victims just like you. Continue demonstrating love and support to combat the hate and lies being spread by the other parent.
Seek counseling (and invite your ex) — not only can going to a professional therapist help identify and put an end to the alienation, it can also help support your case if you need to go to court. Demonstrating that you took steps to remedy the situation on your own will only strengthen your case, and documenting that your ex was invited to attend shows that you are trying to co-parent effectively. If she declines, that is another point in your favor.
(Bonus: Be sure the therapist you see is qualified and experienced at recognizing the signs of parental alienation, as it is a fairly unique field. Not all counselors are trained in this area of psychology, so it is crucial to select the right one).
Lawyer up and seek court intervention — convincing a judge that parental alienation exists is often a tall order, even when you feel there is a mountain of evidence supporting your argument. Many judges are simply unwilling to acknowledge the abuse or will do little to stop it.
A skilled family law attorney can help build your case and gives you a better chance of obtaining results in the courtroom. You may wish to obtain an attorney earlier in the process to help you develop a defined strategy for combating the alienation.
While legal remedies are still often limited, it is sometimes possible to obtain a modification of custody, and the targeting parent can often be found in contempt since disobeying visitation or other orders is a common alienator tactic.
Parental alienation is a serious — and unfortunately fairly common— result of the negative emotions that pervade many divorce and custody cases. It is certainly natural to feel resentment toward your ex, but it is absolutely not OK for the minds of your children to be polluted by those feelings.
Do not stand idly by while your ex destroys your relationship with your child; it is your responsibility to continue being the loving and supportive dad you have always been and actively take steps to end the abuse. Don’t give up.
Mat Camp is a former Lexicon Services Online Editor, who focused on providing a comprehensive look into all aspects of the divorce experience. On MensDivorce.com, he concentrated on issues, such as parenting time, custodial rights, mediation, the division of assets, and so much more.
Mr. Camp used the wealth of experience of Cordell & Cordell attorneys to bring tangible answers to reader questions in Ask a Lawyer articles, as well as offer a step by step process through the divorce experience with Cordell & Cordell Co-Founder and Principal Partner Joseph E. Cordell in Divorce 101: A Guide for Men.
Mr. Camp used thorough research to highlight the challenging reality that those who go through divorce or child custody issues face. He helped foster the continued success of the Men’s Divorce Survival Guide, the Men’s Divorce Podcast, and the Men’s Divorce YouTube series “Attorney Bites.”