Parental alienation—defined as a process, typically intentional, by which one parent seeks to isolate a child or children from the other parent through words and conduct to make the child fearful or think the other parent is in some way bad—can have severe implications for the alienated parent and for the child, some of which can last into adulthood and affect relationships for the rest of his or her life.
Parental alienation has been shown to lead to significant areas of impact, including low self-esteem, depression, substance abuse, lack of trust, alienation from one's own children, and divorce.
The roots of parental alienation often date back to when the parents were together and were part of the relationship dynamic. It's no easy task to co-parent with a hostile adversary, and it can be even harder to not communicate your side of the story to your children—but trying to even the score can do further damage.
Is it Parental Alienation? Red Flags
There are several tactics that spell parental alienation, all of which should be taken extremely seriously.
Expressing contempt. When your co-parent engages in negative comments about you, it can be the first phase of parental alienation and be among the first warning signs that it is taking place.
It can be parent-to-child comments that disparage the other parent, including blame for the split, saying the other parent doesn't love the child, talking about all of the serious personality flaws the other parent embodies, and how the rules in the other parent's household are bad for the child. The comments may also be related to child support and the unfairness of the arrangement.
Engaging other relatives or people close to the child to make unpleasant comments about the other parent can be another contemptuous tactic, as can be pulling the child into a custody battle, making statements that are often false, and portraying the other parent as the enemy and themselves as the ally.
Undermining authority. When co-parenting is going well, parents communicate and establish a common position on the child's education, safety (including phone and social media access), and extracurricular activities. But when one parent is trying to discredit the other, they often tell the child not to take the other seriously and to disregard their rules.
Over time, the child may come to believe that there is a right way and a wrong way for a parent to behave and ultimately decide the alienated parent does not have their best interests at heart. This can cause the bond between the alienated parent and their child to deteriorate, sometimes beyond repair.
Turning a minor into a mini-adult. An alienating parent can, in their efforts to undermine the other, put their child in a position to make major decisions that far exceed his or her age or maturity level. This isn't a matter of deciding what to wear to school but involves decisions that are deliberately set up to undermine the alienated parent.
A common tactic involves pushing the child to make decisions about whether he or she wants to see the alienated parent. Because disparagement and the undermining of authority have already been deployed, the results often determine the outcome: The child is not really making the decision but has been heavily influenced to avoid the alienated parent.
Another common occurrence involves allowing the child to decide his or her best interests in terms of the circumstances that govern daily life, including bedtime, homework, screen time, and so on, giving the child the opinion that they have more freedom in one household versus another, leading the child to want to spend more time with the alienating parent.
Substituting someone else for the alienated parent. This involves an attempt to replace an actual parent with someone the alienating parent can control—as a parental figure. (Note: there are some parents who actually do fully abandon their children, but this article refers to parents who still very much want to be a legitimate part of their children's lives.)
In the case of divorce, parents may eventually want to bring a significant other into their kids' lives. This is perfectly legal and acceptable and in and of itself does not constitute parental alienation.
When the lines start to blur between new partners and actual parents, things veer into alienation territory. Asking the child to call the new partner “Dad” or “Mom” when the co-parent is still formally and clearly in the picture is confusing and difficult for a child to process.
Allowing a non-parent to assume a parental role in education, religious faith, extracurricular endeavors, and philosophy on discipline is also out of bounds, as is persuading the child that the proxy parent loves them more than their actual parent.
When this happens, it's extremely important to take steps to show in court that this is taking place. Keep a demonstrable record of all communications to demonstrate the pattern, which, left unchecked, can make it nearly impossible to persuade the child that the non-parent is not actually the authority figure in his or her life.
What to Do If You are Faced with False Claims of Child Abuse
Parental alienation can often be driven by false allegations of domestic violence or child abuse. For the alienating parent, this is a strategic move to gain more custody time—or full custody. The specific goal is to obtain a court order that prevents the alleged abusive parent from spending time with the child.
In the face of abuse allegations, it's essential to take them seriously and hire legal counsel to fight them in a vigorous and smart way. There are a few things you can request from the court. The first is to demand that both parents (separately) enter counseling and take parenting classes; you can also fight back and demand a rollback of the alienating parent's custody time.
False accusations can follow you around, even if they are ultimately dismissed by the court. These types of allegations can affect your professional and social standing and do permanent damage to your relationship with your child.
The Lento Law Firm has worked effectively with parents dealing with alienation from their children. Joseph Lento has extensive experience handling child custody cases and can work closely with you to develop a strategy to combat parental alienation.
Long Term Effects of Parental Alienation
The results of efforts by one parent to alienate another are serious and can last a lifetime for a child. There are several hallmarks in behavior that have negative consequences for a child's wellbeing—even apart from the damage to their relationship from the alienated parent.
Either/or thinking. Kids who have experienced alienation can see people as all bad or all good with no ability to see shades of gray. This can lead to borderline personality disorder, which can cause unstable moods and chaotic relationships.
Challenges in forming and sustaining relationships. Kids who have been conditioned to alienate a once-beloved parent have learned to dump a relationship at the first sense of conflict or a threat. Everyone has flaws that need to be accepted if a relationship—be it romantic, a friendship, or a work connection—is to work.
Alienated children are trained to write others off at the slightest perceived (or taught) infraction rather than employing flexibility, forgiveness, and acceptance that nobody is perfect. They may be almost incapable of empathy, immediately reacting and rejecting anyone who makes them uncomfortable, which is a part of working through every healthy relationship.
No tolerance for any form of anger or conflict. People get mad, sometimes with good reason. For an alienated child, even when they are adults, anger and conflict represent abuse. If someone gets upset with them, they likely will have a very hard time owning their stuff and taking any responsibility for their part in an issue and can panic or be triggered by any perceived disapproval. This will get in the way of handling others' negative feelings for them, an essential part of a solid bond and an inevitable part of life.
Problems with authority. Because they have been taught to circumvent a parent, as life goes on, they try to go around other authority figures. These could be teachers, bosses, or even law enforcement. An alienated child may, in adulthood, find themselves conducting smear campaigns against managers at work who make them uncomfortable (which, as we've said, can happen very easily) or getting into brushes with the law. All of this can lead to setbacks in life and limit opportunities for financial and emotional wellbeing.
Rage and entitlement. When a child is rewarded by an alienating parent for expressing hostility towards their other parent, it can form a pathway in their brain for experiencing pleasure when they feel rage and create a feedback loop that will be hard to break as they get older.
While not every child whose parent chooses to try and alienate the other will suffer from these characteristics, the potential for this kind of damage is real.
Legal Steps to Combat Parental Alienation
While family law judges in Pennsylvania are starting to acknowledge the damage parental alienation can do, there are only limited legal steps a parent can take to combat it, as it's very difficult to prove in court. But if it's clear to you that you are the victim of parental alienation, it's essential to act as quickly as possible to stop it. Reaching out to an experienced lawyer is a first step.
Combined with a now long-standing predisposition to healthy co-parenting arrangements, alienation is very difficult to fight in a court of law or through mediation. Mental health professionals and family law are divided on the merits of the parental alienation argument, and there is no formal clinical diagnosis that can be used to determine custody arrangements.
That said, there are a few options on the legal front—all of which require skilled legal counsel who understand the court's perspective on these issues.
- Contempt of court. Should you bring action, a court does have the ability to find the alienating parent in contempt regarding the custody order and impose some sanctions against them at the discretion of a judge.
- Custody modification. If a judge finds that there is alienation and it is causing harm to the child, he or she can order changes to the physical and/or legal custody arrangements.
- Reunification therapy. This happens most often and is a mandate by the court for the two parents to work with counselors in an effort to reunify the child with an alienated parent. It can be a difficult process for all concerned, but ultimately it helps preserve a relationship that is among the most important in a child's life.
Even before you seek the support of a family court, there are steps you can take to demonstrate your good faith in trying to maintain a connection with your child.
Take notes. Keep careful notation of the times, dates, and circumstances when the alienating parent blocked your access to your child. Take particular note of the situation, the reasons cited, and your response. Screenshots of these excuses—especially if they are habitual and ongoing—can be particularly compelling should you wind up back in court.
Make it formal. Again, concrete evidence in the form of a text or an email where you specifically ask to see your child can avoid an accusation of hearsay and demonstrate you have made an effort to connect.
Make sure to keep a careful record of all of this communication so you can share it with your lawyer if you can't work with your former partner to co-parent effectively.
Self-Care in the Face of Parental Alienation
If you are the targeted parent in an alienating situation, taking care of yourself may be the last thing on your mind. But just like an oxygen mask on an airplane, making sure your own needs are met is the best way to take care of your kids.
Counseling can help. You may wonder why you, the parent being cut out of the picture, should have to get counseling. While it may be frustrating, understand that the alienating parent typically sees no need to seek advice from a mental health professional—because obviously, you are the problem.
Yet for you to seek counseling can help you gain some relief from being bullied and gaslighted—when you are dealing with someone who is highly manipulative, it's hard to trust your own reality, and it can be helpful to work with a professional to take things apart from an impartial, rational perspective.
It also shows you took steps to work on yourself, continue to take responsibility for your part in the conflict, and invited your former spouse to be part of the counseling process (if they show up, so much the better) which also documents your efforts to effectively co-parent.
Make a plan. You'll need a lot of allies to fight this kind of battle (and yes, many of our clients do refer to this situation in terms of war). In addition to a seasoned family lawyer, you will need wise friends, professionals, and others you trust to understand and make peace with reality.
If your children are young and you are at the beginning of your split, settle in for a long and rugged road and know that it will take patience (with yourself and others) and perseverance to overcome the challenges associated with the other parent seeking to undermine your relationship with your children.
Find Spiritual Solace
This can come in whatever form works for you. It can be talking to a spiritual or religious leader in your community, mediation, prayer, or any way to refill your emotional tank.
Take Care of Your Body, Too
If you aren't eating well, getting out for walks, or sleeping properly, it's going to be much harder to stay positive and fend off frayed nerves. Limit your evening screen time and try to avoid all the other things we know don't contribute to our health.
Let Things Go When You Can
While it's hard not to dwell on the details of the dissolution of a relationship, doing so won't help you move forward. Take time occasionally to talk about it with a trusted friend or partner but do your best to live in the present and look forward to a better future. Writing down what you hope to achieve with your child as they grow up can make a huge difference in your outlook.
It's equally important to practice forgiveness to yourself. All parents make mistakes. Give yourself compassion and understanding. If you are coming out of an abusive relationship, remind yourself that you have now escaped it. Don't let the voice of your ex get in your head: Defy that angry voice when you start to feel guilty or ashamed.
Engage carefully and thoughtfully. Your former partner knows how to push your buttons because he or she installed many of them. Once again, work with a professional or trusted person in your life to talk about the tactics that affect you the most.
Establish firm boundaries for yourself, and don't go down the rabbit hole when your ex starts to try to bait you with lying, anger, accusations of poor parenting, bringing up old grudges, or playing the victim. Even in the heat of the moment, don't let the other party hold you against you and don't let them have power over you.
Maybe most important, think about your weaknesses and situations where you've allowed a person to trample you emotionally. Work with a counselor to find ways to shift your mindset, change what you can, and accept yourself for who you are.
Consider a support group. Sometimes it can help to talk to others who have experienced a similar situation. For example, the International Support Network of Alienated Families (ISNAF) bills itself as “a support network for those suffering from the pain and bewilderment of losing a child due to the dynamics of parental alienation.”
While support groups, either virtual or in person, can help with isolation and sadness, one of their major drawbacks can be a lack of solution-based thinking.
Meetings can turn into full commiserations rather than figuring out what can be done to repair the parent/child relationship. While it's good to have someone to talk to, the advice you will receive through support groups comes from personal, anecdotal experience and is no substitute for the knowledge of a compassionate, experienced family lawyer.
The Lento Law Group is available to help you evaluate your situation from a clear-eyed, informed legal perspective.
Strategies for Hope
When it appears that your child has shut you out, the grief can be almost unbearable.
It can be tempting to pull out all the stops and become a stereotypical “Disneyland Parent.” You may feel desperate and want to promise kids the world in terms of gifts, trips, privileges in exchange for their loyalty, especially if the alienating parent engages in this type of behavior.
Resist the natural urge to compete. Of course, on a short-term basis, dangling shiny objects in front of kids will work. But bear in mind that they will benefit more as human beings from a true connection based on what matters to you as a parent. Down the road, they will see what your fondest wishes were for them and that you love them for who they are, not for which side they pick.
Here it's important to remember your value beyond what you can provide materially, even if it's within your means to take them on a lavish trip or buy them an expensive toy.
Consider your intrinsic value and the ways you can teach your children about guideposts that will keep them emotionally healthy through the course of their lives, including empathy, security, stability, and genuine reminders of their own gifts they have to bring to the world. When you do see your children, listen carefully and acknowledge their point of view, even if it doesn't necessarily reflect well on you. Even young kids can teach us adults an awful lot.
Extend respect to your children, and don't drag them into your quibbles with the other parent, no matter how frustrating that may be. They already feel stuck in the middle. (Remember, children are great observers but poor interpreters, and any conflict will feel to them as though they are the cause.)
This means not responding with anger to comments they make about you when you know they are parroting the alienating parent but doing so with kindness and the acknowledgment that you can disagree without being mean.
Parental alienation happens on so many levels, and it can be extremely helpful to have a lawyer who can advise on ways to maintain and perhaps build back a connection. This can, like it or not, involve working both with the alienating parent and your children.
Some ways to reach out include:
- Sending a thoughtful text, card, or letter when your child has a big day, test, or event coming up without expecting a response
- Attending every public event—recital, play, game—you possibly can; the kids will see you, even if they don't acknowledge you, and they will remember
- Stay involved in your kids' education, meeting with teachers and advising them of the situation in a neutral way
- If there are allegations of abuse, request supervised visits outside the home or schedule video conferences on a regular basis, even if it's awkward and short
- Always acknowledge birthdays and special holidays, and request that you be included in celebrations; be sure to be completely civil when they take place because a parental fight at such an event will bear out what may be said about you and, in your child's mind, prove your former partner right
Whatever you do, don't give up! Children will remember that you loved them enough to reach out even when they were not responding to you. Having multiple points of connection will be a big part of your relationship down the road if you are persistent.
The courts expect parents to adhere, in general, to the premise that children do best when both of their parents are involved in their lives. Usually, the alienating parent will try to pin the blame on the other, so all of your documentation is critical—once the courts have issued a custody agreement, they expect everyone to take it seriously.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento - Pennsylvania Parental Alienation Expert
Working with an experienced Pennsylvania parental alienation attorney can make sure you leave no stone unturned when it comes to salvaging a parent/child relationship and help you fight unfounded allegations.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm have helped countless parents fight undeserved parental alienation cases across Pennsylvania. Attorney Lento and his team have unparalleled experience and a fighting spirit which equates to a winning combination for parents who are going through their most challenging times in life.
If you are dealing with parental alienation, call attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to discuss your case.