Parental alienation is an act of psychological manipulation in which one parent—often the custodial parent—sabotages the relationship between their child and their child’s other parent through disparaging words and/or actions such as refusing in-person visits.
The bond between the child and the distant parent is therefore weakened, as the manipulating parent positions him/herself as the more trustworthy, caring guardian. The purpose of alienation is usually to gain or retain custody of the child and to ultimately create a scenario in which the other parent disappears from the child’s life altogether.
Warning Signs of Parental Alienation
Parental alienation can take many forms, including physically blocking the child from visiting with or speaking to the other parent, speaking negatively to the child about the other parent, or manipulating the child into believing that the other parent is dangerous or doesn’t love the child.
Parents who are practicing alienating behaviors might be telling the child details regarding the other parent or the custody dispute that are not appropriate for the child to hear. Parental alienation can cause devastating long-term damage to the affected child’s relationship with either parent as well as to the child’s overall mental health and well-being.
As such, parental alienation is prohibited within a child custody dispute and may result in undesirable consequences to the parent engaging in such behaviors.
Parental Alienation in California Law
Family Code Section 3020 states that it is of the utmost importance to a child to have frequent and continuing contact with both parents. Family Code Section 3040 (otherwise known as the “Friendly Parent Doctrine”) indicates that the Court encourages parents to work together for the benefit of the child, ensuring that the child has a healthy relationship with both parents. The caveat to these general rules involves cases where contact or unsupervised time between a child and a parent is detrimental to the child, either physically or emotionally.
Proving parental alienation in court and obtaining helpful orders is easier said than done, as most cases of alienation involve conversations and behaviors taking place in a private setting between the alienating parent and the alienated child. Minor’s counsel or a 730-custody evaluator may be appointed to investigate what is happening in the alienating parent’s home and why the child is exhibiting an aversion to the alienated parent.
Anyone who has witnessed inappropriate behavior by either parent or concerning behavior on the part of the child may be called to testify. Text messages or emails that demonstrate the attitude or a pattern of behavior of the alienating parent may be produced to the court or any other experts involved.
What to Do If You’re Experiencing Parental Alienation
Solutions for correcting and reversing parental alienation include a change of custody, which distances the child from the alienating parent. Family Code Section 3040 specifically indicates that the court will tend to award more custody time to the parent who shows that they are actively fostering a positive relationship between the child and the other parent and will award less custody to the parent who demonstrates alienating behaviors.
In severe cases, it is possible that custody could be completely reversed, giving the alienated parent full custody of the affected child while the alienating parent is only allowed limited contact with the child, supervised by a professional. Additionally, the child may be placed in individual therapy to work through an aversion to one parent or the alienated parent and the child may participate in reunification therapy.
All cases of parental alienation are very difficult on many levels. Oftentimes, the court is hesitant to make changes to custody orders even when severe parental alienation has occurred. It is important to act early and often in cases where alienation may be ongoing.