December 05, 2023
Parental Alienation: This is a term referring to when one parent uses extreme manipulation to cause a child to develop irrational negative feelings toward the other parent. The outcome is that the child is consistently and unreasonably antagonistic in their feelings and beliefs, expressing anger, hatred, fear, and other resistant or oppositional attitudes toward a parent that are not congruent with that child’s experience with that parent.
This affects the child’s mental health because the child has two people they love telling them two conflicting things. Even if one parent is only saying, “I love you,” and, “I’m here for you,” it can cause confusion and conflict when the alienating parent says bad things about that parent. Children innately want to love and be loved by both parents. Being caught in the middle can lead to trauma and is considered abuse.
Parental Alienation in Court: While parental alienation is not a diagnosable psychological condition, the courts do recognize it on occasion. It can be difficult to prove, but courts — including Oklahoma courts — have seen an increase in the number of cases that are brought up. It has even been a significant factor in determining custody.
Parents involved in a parental alienation situation often feel helpless because it involves the child’s attitudes and behaviors. Trying to get the child into counseling can be an option, but if the courts don’t intervene and enforce a solution, it is difficult for the parent who is being alienated to have any inroad with that child, especially if the alienating parent is vigorously working against them and the targeted parent is not having much access to the child.
Retaliation Against the Alienating Parent: The biggest thing to avoid is any form of retaliation. This can be very hard if a child is coming up and talking meanly, even though it is obviously coming from the other parent. Likewise, it can be a challenge not to attack the other parent through the child and say mean things, but parents should absolutely avoid doing it, no matter what.
Shutting out the Child: Although the child’s behavior is upsetting and can be extremely hurtful, it is important not to shut the child out. Parental alienation causes significant mental health struggles, and the child is suffering, even more than they realize.
The best course of action is maintaining consistency and a sense of calm and continuing to be the same parent the child has always known. This can reinforce to the child that the picture the other parent is feeding them is not based on reality.
Talk to the Alienating Parent: It may seem that this is a waste of time, but a parent should probably attempt to talk to the alienating parent about the behaviors and how they may be hurting the child. The parent may not realize that their personal vendetta to damage the parent-child relationship is psychologically damaging to the child. Making the request in writing also gives parents documentation that they tried to address the issue in an appropriate way if that becomes necessary to use as evidence later.
Help the Child: Many find that therapy can help the child learn to cope with conflicting messages and emotions. However, what will help the child most is if each parent honors and respects the other and encourages the child’s relationships with each other. The non-alienating parent may find this a challenge, but it may help to keep in mind that the child is half one parent and half the other, and it will only hurt the child if anything negative is said about either parent.
Get the Courts Involved: If the alienating parent refuses to work with the other parent to make sure that visitation is happening, and they are always trying to subvert it, then court intervention may be possible. Even if the child is 12 years old or older, it should not be left up to them whether to see the parent because the alienation will likely make them unwilling to choose, and this will only worsen the relationship over time. In that case, the child may never overcome the manipulation and decide to never see that parent again.
Missed Appointments: Alienating parents often exclude the other parent from momentous events in their child’s life such as school programs, teacher’s conferences, doctor’s appointments, etc. With joint custody, this information should be available and freely shared. However, if the alienating parent keeps the other parent from learning about these things, it can look to the child as if the parent doesn’t care. By keeping track of the instances where information was withheld, the parent may show that the alienating parent was violating the joint custody order and deliberately harming the parent’s relationship with the child.
Documentation: Text messages, emails, recordings, and pictures may help a parent to paint a picture of the situation for legal purposes. In addition to documentation and witness accounts, a journal is a good idea to capture all the little things as they occur and provide the bigger picture. Because there are no bruises or abrasions to show proof of the abuse, this type of documentation is critical for a successful alienation case.
The Child’s Attitude: Witnesses of the child’s attitude and behavior before and after time spent with the alienating parent can be effective in court. Parents should talk to teachers, school counselors, therapists, and others who have noticed a difference and would be willing to testify. It’s not unusual for a teacher to say that they can tell when a child has spent time with another parent because they return to school angry, upset, or depressed, unlike their usual demeanor.
For example, in one case, a parent took the child to a therapist before the visit with the alienating parent and then went to another therapy session after the visit to see if there was any difference. The difference was so marked that the therapist was willing to go to court and testify.
Psychological Evaluation: Parents may want to hire a mental health professional who provides expert testimony in court cases to evaluate the child both for mental health reasons and to testify in court if it becomes necessary. In fact, although most custody cases wouldn’t see any benefit from expert testimony, in parental alienation cases, it can have a substantial impact.
Guardian ad Litem: The courts often appoint a guardian ad litem, or GAL, to evaluate the best interests of the child by going to each home when the child is there and seeing how the parents and child interact. The GAL represents the child in court rather than taking the side of either parent.
Strict Visitation Guidelines: Through court intervention, the parent may be able to get an order for visitation, and request stringent guidelines. They may seek enforcement to the point of contempt of court if the other parent violates it. In one extreme example, the court removed the child from the home of the alienating parent and would not allow them to regain custody until they cooperated. If the child is removed from a situation, that parent may be brought back into the child’s life slowly, gradually allowing more contact to make sure that the alienating parent is acting appropriately and doing what they should to encourage a healthy relationship.
Enforceable Orders: In any extreme situation, having enforceable orders in place may be the only way to mitigate the damage the alienating parent caused. The alienating parent probably needs help, as well as the child. However, the other parent is not likely to be able to force them to go to family counseling or to work on appropriate behaviors in the home.
Ultimately, unless the alienating parent recognizes what they are doing and the detrimental impact they are having on the child, this type of situation is tough to resolve. In some high conflict situations, cases may be reopened more than once before the child turns eighteen.
For more information on Parental Alienation In an OK Divorce Case, an initial consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you are seeking by calling (405) 792-2400 today.