Understanding the Signs of Parental Alienation

Your child’s other parent won’t let you talk on the phone to your son or daughter. Your child acts shy or resentful around you until it finally comes out that your ex has been saying some pretty awful things about you behind your back. And then one day, you go to your designated location to pick up your child for the weekend only to find no one there. When you text your former spouse to ask what’s going on, you receive a reply telling you that your child doesn’t want to see you. Is this the truth — or is it parental alienation?

Parental alienation, or parental alienation syndrome, involves the “programming” of a child by one parent to denigrate the “targeted” parent as a way to undermine and interfere with the child’s positive relationship with that parent. The behavior is often motivated by one parent’s inability to separate co-parenting from the conflict and anger that may still be present in the couple’s relationship.

This type of negative behavior was first identified by psychiatrist Richard Gardner, MD, in the early 1980s. In labeling it as “parental alienation syndrome,” he noted that the desired end result of this kind of emotional power play is child’s rejection of the targeted parent. Because this may equal the loss of a capable and loving parent from that child’s life, based on Gardner’s groundbreaking work, it has grown in acceptance to challenge child custody orders on the basis of parental alienation. In cases where parental alienation tactics are determined by a judge to be present, remedies might include formal changes in parenting time plans, required parenting classes, and supervised visitation.

Gardner outlines three levels of parental alienation: mild, moderate and severe. According to his writing, mild and moderate cases may be successfully treated with individual therapy for the child and strict court supervision of the alienating parent.

In severe cases, meaning there have been significant attempts to “brainwash” the child into believing falsely negative information about the targeted parent, it is in the targeted parent’s best interest to seek the advice of a family law attorney with experience and skill in dealing with cases of parental alienation. It’s unfortunately still the case that not every judge or psychologist believes in the doctrine of parental alienation. However, when strong evidence is presented, the courts are still motivated to protect the best interests of the children; therefore, supervised visitation, parenting classes, or best interest evaluations may be recommended.

Are you on the receiving end of parental alienation? What questions do you have about how to move forward?