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Parental Alienation In Child Custody Cases

Even the use of the word “alienation” sparks controversy amongst parents, lawyers, mental health professionals and child custody “experts.”  The phrase “parental alienation” is used very broadly to define an estranged relationship between a child and one parent.  After a separation, there are often multiple allegations and counter-allegations that may include accusations that one parent is intentionally poisoning a child against the other parent.

It is uncommon that there is just one dynamic contributing to a child’s rejection of a parent.  There are complex, multi-factored, interactions that cause children to reject a parent, including abuse, poor parenting, family conflict and domestic violence, among others.

Get Legal Help Early

When there is evidence of a child resisting visitation, it is worth a pound of legal and mental health intervention before these problems become deep-rooted.  Parent coordination is almost always a necessary tool for managing cases where there is evidence of alienation because the Family Court is not able to intensely manage the needs of the family.  Court intervention is necessary — even critical — because coercive court authority is needed to support compliance with treatment and custody orders.

The favored parent and child are rarely motivated to comply with court orders that support reunification or access to the other parent, so a court order enforced by contempt of court or sanctions is often necessary for progress to occur.

Distinguishing Conduct From Patterns of Behavior

After a separation, most parents will make a few angry and inappropriate statements, and most children will find a way to ignore these occasional outbursts.  It is important to examine parental behavior to evaluate whether these angry and inappropriate statements are situationally-isolated incidents or whether they are a pattern of ongoing behavior.  Alienating behaviors can range from mild belittling and hostile comments about the other parent to intense and active campaigns to paint the other parent as evil.

When the idea of separation and divorce is new to a parent, a parent may make some disparaging remarks to a child about the other parent.  Although this is not acceptable behavior, it is understandable when the wounds are fresh and the pain is raw.

When called out on the offending statements, if the parent immediately takes corrective action (and means it), these are most likely isolated acts that will not cause a child or the parent-child relationship permanent harm.  On the other hand, when a parent vindictively continues a pattern of persistent attacks, even subtle ones, legal and therapeutic steps must be taken.

Overt and malicious behaviors are obvious to most everyone.  Some behaviors, while subtle, are just as damaging and traumatic to a child and to parent-child relationships as obvious actions.

Consider this: Let’s say we have a dad who expresses support about the mother, along with confusion and dismay about the child’s rejection of the mother. However, dad “accidently” leaves court papers out in the open and anxiously says goodbye with frantic hugs and kisses, saying, “Don’t worry baby, I’m sure you’ll be ok with mommy, but text me as soon as you get scared.” Dad might also make fabulous plans during times when the child is supposed to leave for his or her custody time with mommy. Such actions could be viewed as a pattern of behavior that will likely contribute to damaging the parent-child relationship.

It May Not Be Just One Parent

In most cases, it is not just one parent that is contributing to the estrangement between the child and a parent.  Actions taken by each parent have an impact.  Take the dad’s actions outlined above, and add to the mix how the child may feel when mom says, “You’re acting just like your dad,” and when mom screams “get out, get out, get out – this is my time. You’re ruining my life,” when dad walks into the room.

Legal and mental health interventions must occur where there is alienation or estrangement.  A detailed, clear and specific custody order is critical.  An experienced mental health professional is essential and a Parent Coordinator is typically necessary.

For more information on this complex subject, contact a Raleigh child custody attorney at Parker Bryan Family Law.