What is parental alienation?

Posted on Dec 14, 2022 by Katie Carter


There are lots of ways that our all-too-human reactions to all-too-human situations can land us in hot water. Where custody and visitation is concerned, leaning in too heavily to our feelings and reactions to difficult situations can be a warning sign that there is significant danger ahead, especially if your case is litigated.

Whether or not you were married to your child(ren)’s father, at the point that you either separate, divorce, or just plain break up, it’s a huge change. Depending on what led to the break up – whether infidelity, addiction, mental illness, abuse, or just incompatibility and unhappiness – it’s a time of change, both good and bad, that can feel overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. Even if you WANT the breakup (or separation or divorce), you may find that you have really mixed feelings.

You may still love your ex. Or you may hate him with a fiery passion you’ve never before experienced. You may be completely gutted by betrayal, disgusted with yourself for letting things go on as long as you did, or confused as you start to realize that his gaslighting and abuse led you to accept a worldview that is nothing like the actuality of life that you’re now experiencing. Whatever the case may be, it’s a difficult – to put it mildly – part of your life.

If the two of you have children, it’s extra difficult because, on top of the concerns that you have for yourself, you’re also overwhelmed and concerned and afraid for your children and the impact of your grown up choices on their lives.

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation refers to a situation where a parent uses his or her influence over the children to damage their relationship with or opinion of their other parent.

It can happen when the parties are still together. It can be even the simplest comment, intended to disparage the other parent.

Parents – even good ones – tend to offer little asides, especially when children ask intuitive questions that speak right to the heart of the issue. “Why is daddy gone on the weekends, mommy?” Kids really do have a knack for figuring out what’s not quite right, and then ask questions that are unsettling, surprising, and/or insightful. It can be alarming.

It’s tempting to respond with blunt honesty, or with veiled sarcasm, especially when the question is one that hurts or draws attention to a behavior that is difficult to witness. One that undermines your relationship. One that wounds.

We’re human, and we all make mistakes. But, for the sake of the best interests of our children, it’s best to do what we can to control the impulse to respond in a way that would undermine the child’s relationship with their other parent. Not only because it’s what’s better for the kids, but also because it can hurt you in litigation.

Basically, we see parents – moms and dads, of course – act out parental alienation in a couple key ways.

The first, we’ve already described a bit. Making disparaging comments – however truthful – is a form of parental alienation, and one that can be really upsetting for children.

If you’re struggling with this, and with finding things to say to your children that are supportive of their other parent, it’s a good idea to talk to someone. A therapist can help you work through your feelings and come up with productive responses – truthful, but kind and not cutting. It’s not so much that you care about your child’s father, but because you want to preserve your relationship with the children, and do all you can to support their healthy development long term, that you’d want to work on the way you response to the stress of the divorce or breakup.
We also see parental alienation happen in the form of unreasonably denying access to the child. If you look at the best interests of the child factors, parental alienation generally falls under factor number 6:

“The propensity of each parent to actively support the child’s contact and relationship with the other parent, including whether a parent has unreasonably denied the other parent access to or visitation with the child;”

Your actions should support the child’s relationship with the other parent, no matter what your relationship with him is like. To avoid unreasonably denying visitation, I suggest coming up with a specific parenting plan. Nothing fuels a parenting time hate fire like both parties having different ideas about what the parenting plan should look like. Go into it with specific times set forth, rather than a general ‘at such times as the parties may agree’ kind of provision. You may think you want it to be general, rather than specific, but I find it leads to trouble (sometimes, big trouble) more often than not.

What if HE’S the one engaging in parental alienation?

It’s not a guy/girl thing – anyone can engage in parental alienation, and I’ve seen allegations on both sides of a case. If your child’s father is talking about the case, making disparaging comments about you, or trying to reduce the parenting time that you have with the children, he could be engaged in parental alienation.

It’s a good idea to discuss your concerns with your attorney and/or your Guardian ad litem (though I wouldn’t speak to the GAL unless and until you’ve had a chance to talk your concerns over with your attorney). Ultimately, if his behavior continues, you could be forced to file petitions to modify custody and visitation, and to ask that you have more of the parenting time because of his inability to effectively coparent.
Like any custody and visitation case, it’s going to be incredibly fact specific, and ultimately depend on what you can convince the judge is actually happening behind the scenes. A lot of times, parental alienation cases rely heavily on witnesses – like therapists. If you fear that parental alienation is going to be a big issue in your case, it’s a good idea to get an attorney on your side sooner rather than later.

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.