If your child’s father has accused you of parental alienation, you’ll want to tread carefully. Even though it’s a really common allegation, and disproving it can be difficult (check out our article from Friday for more information on what parental alienation is and how you can combat an allegation of parental alienation), you will need to adjust your behavior.
Even if you’ve never said a bad word about their dad in front of the kids ever in your entire life, knowing that he’s making these allegations is a pretty clear window into his frame of mind and the allegations he will make as your case heads towards a potential custody and visitation trial. Knowing what you know, you should use this information to adjust your behavior and your case strategy accordingly.
Today, we’re going to discuss 5 common mistakes in parental alienation cases, and what you can do to avoid making those mistakes.
Mistake #1: Saying, “I’m not doing that!” and ignoring his allegations.
It’s easy to disregard something someone says when you know it isn’t the truth. Some of that comes from the self assurance of being a grown up, and not taking on more of someone else’s bitterness or meanness than you need to. But, when you’re facing a custody case, regardless of whether you feel your actions are actually parental alienation, you’d be silly not to listen up.
He’s giving you a lot of valuable insight into what he’s thinking, and how he plans to litigate his case. He’s telling you, ahead of time, a lot of the things that he plans to say about you. It’s not nice things, of course, but it does give you a chance to either turn your act around or beef up your defense.
Ignoring it is one thing (to be sure, it’d be worse if you retaliated in kind), but it doesn’t help move your case forward. If you know that’s what he plans to say, work with an attorney to come up with a comprehensive strategy to address it.
Mistake #2: Communicating verbally with your child’s father.
“He said, she said” allegations will always be tricky in custody cases, and it can come down to whether you or your child’s father seem more believable.
If he’s charming (or maybe even a narcissist), he may seem quite convincing. And if all you have to offer as evidence is your testimony about how your conversations have gone, that may not be nearly as convincing as you wish it would be.
If you aren’t getting along, it’s best to restrict your conversations, wherever possible, to a written medium. You’ll need to tread carefully – it can be hard to tell the tone of a message when it’s taken out of context of read in a courtroom – but at least it’ll be some evidence of how the tenor of your conversations have gone. If you’re saying nice things, like, “Sure, we can switch this weekend and next weekend, since you have duty,” or “The kids would definitely enjoy dinner at Chick-fil-A, they’ll be ready for you to pick them up around 5:30!” it can really help your case.
It can also help undermine some of the arguments that you’re unreasonably withholding the kids. If he’s asking for something and you have to say no – because you have something planned, for example, or because what he’s asked for just isn’t appropriate – you can do it in a way that shows your commitment to fostering the relationship without feeling like you have to say yes just to pacify him. “No, I don’t think dinner at Hooters is a good idea,” you could respond, “but maybe that pizza place in Town Center? There’s a concert tonight and you can take them for Sweet Frog after!” Or, “I’m so sorry, I wish we could switch weekends, but its my sister’s wedding in New Jersey!” Having those records will help you remember, help ensure that your comments are taken in context (and not just “Oh, she wouldn’t let me switch weekends last November when I had duty”), and help make sure the court can see how you speak to each other.
You can use OurFamilyWizard, an online tool to help separated parents work together, or just regular old text and email. Any way you can document your exchanges will help!
Mistake #3: Complaining to the GAL about your child’s father’s behavior.
Repeat after me: The Guardian ad litem is NOT my friend. Say it again. Better yet, say it like 100 times.
The GAL is there to do a job. She’s not on your team, and she’s not on your child’s father’s team. It’s best not to treat her visits as a chance to dish on your ex, or to discuss all the problems that you’ve had with him recently.
Stay positive, and focused on all the great things you’re doing with you children. Remember those ten best interests of the child factors, and keep your observations centered primarily on what you’re doing to help ensure that all ten of those factors are being met while the children are in your care.
Icing on the cake? Have a picture of your child’s father in their bedroom when the GAL comes to visit.
Mistake #4: Not attending coparenting classes.
It’s kind of like driver improvement classes when you get a speeding ticket – though considerably more helpful.
Regardless of whether the judge has ordered that you complete coparenting classes, it’s a way to show the judge that you’re really serious and committed to doing as good of a job as possible. If the judge hasn’t ordered it, not taking it won’t hurt your case – but imagine the leg up it’ll give you if your child’s father hasn’t even attempted coparenting classes.
If absolutely nothing else, it’ll give you an idea of the vocabulary courts want to hear. Make sure you’re talking about coparenting, about fostering relationships between both parents (and extended families, if applicable), and always refer to them as “our” children. It may be semantics, but you’d be surprised how important that can be when your case is in front of a judge.
Mistake #5: Getting angry and defensive.
Don’t overreact. Though I understand your fear, I don’t want you to act on it. Remember, strategic thinking is critical when parental alienation claims exist, and you’ll want to be sure that you’re thinking ahead to the hearing – and not just focusing on whatever he’s saying about you today.
The worst thing you can do is to retaliate or to actually act in a way that suggests to the court that dad’s allegations were on point. Stay calm and rational.
If you need help managing the situation, it’s a good idea to engage an experienced attorney and also even a therapist. This is a highly stressful situation that may not be easy for you to navigate. It’s normal to lash out in fear, but you need to be thinking beyond that kind of behavior.
For more information, or to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.