Child custody disputes are often the most contentious part of divorce and paternity cases. The outcome of your custody case could set the tone for your family dynamic moving forward, so securing an equitable custody arrangement that furthers your child's best interests is of paramount importance.
Unfortunately, parents sometimes attempt to turn their child(ren) against their co-parent during custody battles, either to secure more time with them, or to "punish" their ex. Understanding parental alienation, and how to avoid it, can help you create the healthiest custody arrangement for your family.
What Is Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation occurs when a parent attempts to manipulate a child against their other parent. While acts of parental alienation are often committed directly, parents without custody also sometimes try to use relatives (like a stepparent or uncle) to manipulate their child.
Parental alienation often manifests in a couple of different ways:
The "Good Cop, Bad Cop" Dynamic
Sometimes, parents intentionally (or unwittingly) create a "good cop, bad cop" dynamic in their custody arrangement. In this scenario, the child generally "sides" with one parent, indicating they prefer to spend time with them.
Sometimes, a child's preferences are justified. For example, if a parent over-disciplines their child, the child may rightfully want to avoid a needlessly punitive authority figure. However, when a child avoids one parent for ungrounded or unjustified reasons, it may be a result of parental alienation.
Children "Torn" Between Their Parents
Another dynamic that sometimes develops is a child feeling that they have to "choose" between their parents. This situation is more likely to be the result of intentional parental alienation than the "good cop, bad cop" dynamic.
A child may feel torn between their parents if the parents involve the child in arguments they have with one another, or openly disparage each other in front of the child. These circumstances can result in the child feeling as though they have to "side" with one of their parents.
In more extreme cases, a parent may purposefully and openly try and “turn” their child against the other parent. Sometimes, parents who engage in parental alienation during custody battles try and "coach" their child to say negative things about the other parent to the judge presiding over the case. Parents who do this are typically attempting to get a more favorable custody arrangement by showing the court how much their child "dislikes" the other parent.
In other situations, a parent may engage in parental alienation after the custody arrangement is finalized. Parents may do this as a way to try and "get back" at their ex, or to try and manufacture grounds for modifying the existing custody arrangement.
Signs of Parental Alienation
If your child displays the following behavior, their other parent may be engaging in parental alienation:
- Your child suddenly stops wanting to spend time with you;
- Your co-parent criticizes you when you're together around your child;
- Your child says that your co-parent "guilts" them for spending time with you (saying things like "I get so lonely when you go to see your mom/dad");
- Your co-parent engages in increasingly controlling behavior (calling you or your child while you have custody, attempting to interfere with your visitation rights or overstep their own visitation boundaries, etc.);
- Your co-parent makes up lies about you to your child (telling your child that you don't love them as much as they do, that you don't believe in them, etc.);
- Your child recalls events in a way you do not (this can be the result of psychological manipulation, such as gaslighting, by your co-parent);
- Your child protests spending time with you while they're around your co-parent, but stops when they're with you;
- Your co-parent claims your child doesn't want to see you, but your child disagrees when you ask them about it.
What Can I Do to Prevent Parental Alienation?
If you think parental alienation is occurring in your custody arrangement, the first thing you should do is try and determine if it's intentional. As we mentioned earlier in the article, sometimes co-parents commit parental alienation without meaning to.
If you talk with your co-parent about it and they agree parental alienation is happening but want to address the issue and create a healthier family dynamic, there are some things you can do:
- Put a clause in your parenting plan preventing either parent from disparaging the other in front of the child. This will help stop the child from feeling like they have to take a side during disputes the parents have. It also stops the parents from criticizing each other when one parent isn't there to defend themself.
- Agree on boundaries for your child. You and your co-parent should utilize the same academic and behavioral boundaries. This can help prevent the "good cop, bad cop" dynamic from developing.
- See a family counselor regularly. A trained family counselor can help the parents and child communicate healthily and effectively, encouraging a more positive family dynamic.
However, if your co-parent intentionally engages parental alienation, you may need to take more serious measures to maintain a healthy relationship with your child. You should contact a family lawyer with experience handling parental alienation cases and speak to them about your options. An attorney can advocate for your parental rights and help you build a strong case, working with you to preserve your relationship with your child in or out of the courtroom.
At Justice Law Firm, PC, our trusted Southlake divorce lawyers are well-versed in handling parental alienation cases. We'll work with you to protect your parental rights and pursue your child's best interests.