Parental alienation is an extreme and serious phenomenon, far beyond the casual, random sniping parents indulge in that is so common in custody cases. While parental alienation has always existed, only recently have family courts begun to take notice of the issue when it occurs, to recognize that it is profoundly harmful to any child or children caught in the middle of a custody case, and to understand that serious measures must be taken to remedy the situation.
“Parental alienation” in a formal sense occurs when one parent engages in an overwhelming, intentional campaign to cause a child or children to reject the other parent entirely without a valid cause. Identifying parental alienation is often counterintuitive. Any judge or juror would tend to assume that, if a child immensely dislikes one parent, a valid reason must exist for this strong distaste. Such a hypothetical judge or juror will tend to suspect that the child has suffered some kind of abuse or neglect at the hands of the rejected parent.
But in fact, many children who have actually been abused or neglected still want to see the misbehaving parent and still care for the parent and long for his or her love and approval. In cases of parental alienation, the child rejects the targeted parent so completely that suspicion should be triggered immediately that the child has been trained and groomed to reject that parent, no matter what he or she does.
Therapy can make the situation even worse. If the therapist believes the child’s conviction that the targeted parent is truly neglectful, unloving or abusive, therapy can unwittingly reinforce the delusion.
Psychologists have identified and catalogued the typical behaviors of the alienated (rather than abused or neglected) child. First of all, the child will claim to have always hated or disliked the targeted parent, even when there is clear evidence that this was not the case. If shown videos or photos of him or herself in a loving, happy situation with the targeted parent in the past, he or she will claim irrationally that he was just pretending to like the parent. The child will insist that he wants nothing to do with the targeted parent ever again. The rejection is absolute without any evidence of ambivalence or guilt.
If asked why the child hates and condemns the parent, he or she may offer explanations that are weak and frivolous, such as disliking the food served at that parent’s home, or disparaging the grooming or fashion choices of the targeted parent. The child will also insist that his rejection of the targeted parent is his idea alone, refuting any notion that he has been influenced into taking his present stand. He or she may use an unchildlike or near-robotic “script” in explaining his dislike that was obviously crafted by an adult. And his antipathy may spread to hatred of family members and friends of the rejected parent.
This extreme state of affairs is achieved through a sinister, concerted campaign by the alienating parent. The alienating parent employs an array of strategies to essentially brainwash the child into total rejection of the other parent. He or she may begin by continually badmouthing the other parent, far beyond the occasional carping that occurs in most custody cases. He will try hard to convince the child, seizing on whatever meager evidence may be available, that the other parent is unloving, unsafe and unavailable. He will also strive to eliminate contact, as much as possible, between the child and the targeted parent—to “erase” the other parent from the child’s life.
The alienating parent may groom the child by alternating loving behavior with rejection if the child ever exhibits the slightest sign of interest in, or affection for, the other parent. The child becomes very anxious to maintain the love of the only parent—as he is coming to see it—who truly cares for him.
Obviously, parental alienation is extremely harmful to the development of any child’s sense of self-worth. Believing the propaganda that one parent has been unloving or abusive can wound a child for life. What can be done to remedy what amounts to a form of child abuse? Judicial intervention is absolutely required to salvage an essential relationship and the child’s sense of self-esteem as he/she grows into adulthood.
Some courts have established a remedy as extreme as the problem itself by removing the child from the home of the alienating parent completely for at least 90 days with a one-week intensive program to reorient the child to the rejected parent. Spending a large block of uninterrupted time with the targeted parent will enable that parent to demonstrate that he or she is not the monster he has been portrayed to be, and that he or she does indeed care very much for the child. In the meantime, the alienating parent must demonstrate a willingness to change by undergoing therapy aimed at recognition and acknowledgement of the harmful conduct and demonstration of improved behavior.
Without a judicially imposed remedy, the alienation will be allowed to continue and to fester, depriving the child of a meaningful relationship with a parent and convincing him or her to accept a lie about a basic condition of his or her life as truth.
Robert S. Hoffman is a board-certified family law attorney who has been practicing for 31 years in Houston. Jennie R. Smith is an attorney in the Law Office of Robert S. Hoffman.