What is Parental Alienation and How Does it Affect Divorce?

The psychological term “parental alienation” means that one parent consciously or subconsciously is influencing the children against the other parent. 

Parental alienation can happen at any time (whether or not a family is going through a divorce) and, in fact, I have dealt with it on several occasions. When it does come up in the midst of a divorce proceeding, the Court will absolutely take it into consideration when determining a parenting schedule. 

Let’s take a look at how parental alienation shows up and what it looks like on a practical level. 

Examples of Parental Alienation at Play

Here are some real-world examples of how parental alienation plays out (all identifying information has been changed to protect client identity). 

Example #1: Son refuses to visit mother

In one case, the parents have worked out a 50/50 parenting time schedule, but the 10-year-old son refuses to visit his mother. The mother blames the father, saying, “You are turning my son against me and that’s why he won’t visit me!” 

The father responds by saying, “You’ve done this to yourself: you treat our son poorly and therefore he doesn’t want to see you.”

Example #2: Stay-at-home mother influences her children

In another case, a stay-at-home mother was getting divorced. Since she was a stay-at-home parent, the parties agreed that she would have the majority of the parenting time with her three children under the age of 12 because the father traveled so much for work that she was unquestionably the primary caretaker. 

However, the father accused the mother of parental alienation: he said she was using her time with the kids to negatively influence the children against him. Even though the father had never spent a night alone with any of the children, the parental alienation caused by the mother was still heavily considered when the Court entered a ruling on the parenting evaluators’ request for an emergency hearing to address the parental alienation.  

Example #3: Father can’t hide his feelings

In one case, the children refused to meet with their mother, although she seemed like a decent, loving parent. When a custody evaluation took place, it was found that, although the father didn’t directly say anything negative about his former spouse, when her name came up he wore his heart on his sleeve: she had deeply hurt him by having an affair and he couldn’t hide his contempt for her. The children picked up on this, and in loyalty to their father, they acted the same way toward the mother. 

Parental Alienation: Intentional or Accidental? 

More frequently than not, parental alienation is seen as a conscious effort. It’s most common in custody cases where one parent is trying to win more time with the kids and believes that the best way to do that is to turn the kids against the other parent. 

Other times it’s fueled by jealousy. Sometimes when people get divorced, deep-seated fears arise over whether the kids will prefer one parent over the other, and that can trigger people to act out and engage in parental alienation. 

Whatever the motivation, parental alienation tends to be relatively uncommon.  You would like to believe that parents would recognize how destructive parental alienation is to the children and are able to avoid the temptation to engage in parental alienation. When it happens, sometimes it’s unconscious and the kids really are simply picking up on Dad or Mom’s dislike for the other, and sometimes it’s a more insidious, calculated attack to discredit the other parent in the eyes of the children. 

Unfortunately, the present child support statutes sometimes contribute to parental alienation. The amount of child support a parent pays is substantially affected by the respective number of overnights each parent has with the children. Therefore, the parents frequently want to maximize the number of overnights to either increase the amount of support they receive or to reduce the amount of child support they have to pay.  If a parent can make the children his/her ally, he/she is more likely to get the parenting time schedule he/she desires. It’s a difficult situation, and as I always say, every case is different and deserves careful thought and attention in determining the best path forward. 

If you are dealing with suspected parental alienation, let’s talk. Call us today at 303-449-1873 to set up a free consultation and find out what is possible for your situation. 

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