Judges often comment on how both parents need to be on the same “team”, meaning they need to set their differences and conflicts aside and encourage the child to develop healthy and loving relations with both of them. When parents act in their child’s best interests in this way, they can often mitigate any negative effects of a separation and divorce. Unfortunately, sometimes the exact opposite can occur, and the effects on children and families can be devastating.
This pattern of behavior has been termed by psychologists as “parental alienation syndrome,” and it is important to know when it occurring. Psychologists define parental alienation as the singular relationship between a parent and child to the exclusion of the other parent. In layman’s terms, it is the process whereby one parent “turns” the child against the other parent. Actions that can constitute “alienating” behavior can be mild, even inadvertent and unintentional, or severe. They can include: frequently calling when the child is with the other parent; downplaying the importance of a parent to the child; using the child to spy on the other parent’s household; discussing adult issues with the child; using “we” statements rather than allowing the child to express their own feelings; and making derogatory statements about the other parent to the child and to adults involved in the child’s life, such as teachers.
Signs of alienating behavior in children typically include the following: extreme negative views of the other parent by the child; the child always seeing one parent as all good and the other as all bad; always siding with the favored parent; repeating the favored parent’s words without understanding them; and becoming cold and hostile towards the family of the other parent. Children that suffer from alienating behavior often feel as though they are in a war or battle between the two parents and feel forced to pick as side or to protect one parent from the other parent. This often leads depression, anxiety, and confusion. Long term effects could include post-traumatic stress, low self-esteem, self-hatred, substance abuse issues, and difficulty forming healthy, emotional relationships as adults.
So what do you do if you feel as though the other parent is engaging in these types of behaviors? The first is to consider that you cannot do this alone, and that both a competent attorney and mental health professionals will most likely need to be involved. Much of the evidence of this behavior often occurs behind closed doors and will not be in writing. You will likely need a trained mental health professional to opine what is happening. Second, if you suspect this type of behavior is going on, do not delay in consulting an attorney, as the negative emotions can become more engrained in the child as time goes on.
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This post is provided as an educational service and should not be construed as legal advice. Readers in need of assistance with a legal matter should retain the services of competent counsel.