How Parental Alienation Affects the Parent-Child Relationship

Father and daughter relaxing on a rocky beach by the sea concept for How Parental Alienation Affects the Parent-Child Relationship

In high-conflict family situations, it can often feel like your former spouse or partner will say or do anything to undermine you. It might feel impossible to overcome the interference you face from your co-parent or their family. But is that truly “parental alienation”? Find out what parental alienation is (and what it isn’t), how interference tactics can affect your parent-child relationship, and what you can do about them.

What is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

In 1985, a controversial psychologist named Richard Gardner coined the term “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS). It stands for the idea that when a child resists contact with a non-custodial parent without a “legitimate” reason, it is likely due to the custodial parent’s interference. Gardner listed eight symptoms expressed by children with the so-called parental alienation syndrome:

  • Relentless denigration of the targeted parent (the targeted parent can do nothing right)
  • Frivolous, weak, or absurd rationales for their beliefs
  • Lack of guilt, embarrassment or remorse for the denigration
  • Considering one parent to be entirely “good” and the other parent to be entirely “bad”
  • Automatic support for the alienating parent
  • Hostility toward and refusal of contact with the targeted parent or their extended family
  • Parroted language from the alienating parent regarding the targeted parent
  • Insistence that the child is expressing their own opinions

PAS has been debunked and rejected by professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association (APA), American Medical Association (AMA) and the World Health Organization (WHO). PAS has no specific diagnostic criteria or standardized assessment process, and is not supported by well-controlled empirical studies. Because of this, it was excluded from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) and the International Classification of Diseases.

Because of this, judges in Maryland family court and elsewhere are hesitant to use the term or consider the testimony of the few experts who still endorse PAS. However, while parental alienation syndrome itself has been debunked, the broader concept of parental interference with the parent-child relationship of the other parent is still very real.

How Parental Interference Affects the Parent-Child Relationship

Parental interference, as opposed to PAS, occurs when one parent vilifies the other parent, their home, or their family to their children. It can take many forms, some subtle, others very obvious. Generally, parental interference involves words and actions that make the child see the targeted parent or their home in a worse light or exaggerated way.

Parental interference can be done by either gender to either gender. The roles of custodial and non-custodial parents are more informative than whether the alienator is the child’s mother or father. This is because a custodial parent has greater access to the child. This gives them more opportunities to make statements and do actions that undercut the non-custodial parent’s parent-child relationship.

Parental Interference Examples

The details of parental interference are as varied as the families in which it occurs. However, parental interference may look like:

  • Denigrating or speaking poorly about the targeted parent
  • Putting down the targeted parent’s extended family or new romantic partner
  • Pointing out benefits or opportunities available in the alienating parent’s home but not the targeted parent’s home
  • Scheduling activities during the targeted parent’s visitation
  • Interrogating and inspecting children when they return from visitation
  • Repeatedly pointing out the targeted parent’s faults
  • Forcing children to pick sides or express a preference between parents
  • Using manipulative or abusive language such as saying “if your parent loved you they would…”
  • Preventing communication with the targeted parent outside of visitation (including taking away phone access as discipline)
  • Failing to provide transportation to visitation
  • Denying visitation

Most often, it is the child’s refusal to attend visitation or behavioral issues leading up to or during that visitation that signal to the non-custodial parent that parental interference is occurring. A child who is repeatedly exposed to alienating words and behaviors will begin to internalize them. They may initially resist simply to placate their custodial parent. However, over time, the children may genuinely struggle to connect with their non-custodial parent.

Why Children Might Reject a Parent Without Alienation

It is important to remember that parental alienation or interference isn’t the only reason why a child may not want to go to visitation. Children of divorced or separated parents have complex lives and opinions about their parents. These opinions can vary depending on:

  • The child’s current age
  • The age at which the parents’ separation occurred
  • The child’s prior relationship with both parents
  • Personality conflicts
  • Disciplinary styles
  • School, work, and social obligations
  • Inconvenience of traveling for visitation
  • Opportunities and activities available in both homes
  • Mental health issues (in both children and parents)
  • Conflict in the non-custodial parent’s home
  • Conflict between parents
  • Current or historical abuse by a parent or household member (even if not reported)

A child may be rejecting visitation because they:

  • Are upset with the non-custodial parent
  • Blame the non-custodial parent for the divorce or separation
  • Want to spend time with friends in the custodial parent’s neighborhood
  • Don’t have a strong connection with the non-custodial parent
  • Have access to fewer activities in the non-custodial parent’s home
  • Are avoiding discipline at the non-custodial parent’s home
  • Worry about seeing their custodial parent again
  • Feel overwhelmed with school work or other obligations
  • struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges
  • Are afraid of “causing” fights between their parents
  • Fear mental, emotional, or physical abuse

It is crucial for parents, attorneys, and judges to carefully consider a child’s reasons for avoiding visitation. No one should jump to the conclusion that parental alienation or interference is occurring. Instead, both parents should attempt to talk to their children about why they should visit their non-custodial parent, and encourage them to maintain that parent-child relationship, before turning to the courts for help.

Parental Alienation vs Domestic Violence Protections

Special care must be taken in cases where the family dynamic involves domestic violence or abuse. Advocates of parental alienation syndrome often raise PAS in defense against accusations of child abuse or domestic violence. They say the child or “alienating” parent should not be believed when they report violence or abuse, that those incidents did not occur, and that it is simply a symptom of PAS. Gardner himself used PAS to try to discount a mother’s “false” claim of child sexual abuse to alienate the child from the father.

One study from the George Washington University Law School, published in 2019, reviewed how the parental alienation defense affected courts’ treatment of a parent’s allegations of domestic violence and child abuse. Even without parental alienation defenses, mothers’ claims of abuse were credited only 41% of the time. In 26% of cases (including 14% where the courts found the abuse allegations credible), the mother reporting abuse lost custody. Fathers accusing mothers of abuse lost custody 29% of the time.

When a mother reports abuse and the father claims parental alienation, the courts’ belief of those claims sank even lower. Overall mothers’ claims of abuse were credited only 23% of the time. This meant courts were nearly twice as likely to discredit allegations of domestic violence if the father raised parental alienation as a defense. A parental alienation defense also nearly doubled a mother’s chance of losing custody after raising abuse allegations (to over 50%). However, mothers claiming alienation only took custody from fathers 28% of the time. These gender differences were greatly reduced where credible alienation claims were made without allegations of abuse.

How to Prove Parental Alienation is (or isn’t) Happening in Your Case

Given how big an impact claims of parental alienation can have on a custody case, it is important to be able to prove improper parental interference when it happens. Unfortunately, much of this involves the child’s mindset, and that can be hard to prove without claims of hearsay. No parent should want to put their children on the stand to testify against their other parent. That kind of experience can be traumatizing and can damage your parent-child relationship even further.

The Maryland family court may order custody and visitation-related assessments to investigate allegations of improper parental influence. Custody evaluators have a duty to use a balanced approach, with multiple data points, to accurately observe, assess, and report issues related to custody, visitation, mental health, and home fitness. They are also required to have training in family dynamics, domestic violence, child abuse, and family conflict. A court may also appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the child directly, investigating and reporting the child’s wishes and their reasoning to the court.

Evaluators and circuit court judges may also interview children outside the courtroom. Maryland family court judges are required to consider children’s preferences in deciding custody motions, as long as the children are old enough and mature enough to express a rational choice. However, a child’s preference will not decide the case. The judge may rule against a child’s preference if it conflicts with what is in their best interests, or if it seems to be based on temporary feelings or events.

As a parent, if you are trying to prove parental interference, you may have to advocate in favor of a custody assessment or interview. You may also present direct evidence that the interference has occurred such as:

  • Social media posts disparaging the targeted parent
  • Abusive text messages or voicemails
  • Recordings of disparagement or conflict in front of the child
  • Calendars and records of visitation denials or refusals

It will be up to you to show the alienating parent’s pattern of behavior, and its effect on your parent-child relationship.

Options for Overcoming Parental Interference

Given the harm parental interference can have on the child’s parent-child relationship with the targeted parent, it is important to address alienation concerns early. The sooner you ask the court to step in, the better you will be able to rebuild that relationship.

Building Trust with Estranged Children

The first step is to rebuild your child’s trust in you. This is a tall order, and it rests entirely on the targeted parent. You must honor every commitment you make to your child. Exercise every visitation. Show up to every recital, ball game, or event. Keep your word about changes at home. Over time, you can use your good record to wear down your child’s resistance and build a new relationship.

Parenting Classes and Co-Parenting Counseling

At the same time, you can ask the court to order parenting classes (on how to interact with children) and co-parenting counseling (about how to interact with your former spouse or partner). Expect these classes to be mutual. Be prepared to commit to completing whatever you are asking the alienating parent to do. Remember that these classes can only help improve your co-parenting relationship, and your ability to communicate with your child. Even if you feel they are unnecessary for you, the benefit outweighs the inconvenience.

Reunification Therapy

In more severe parental alienation cases, where a child out-right refuses visitation, you may need the help of a reunification counselor. This is a mental health professional who can meet with your child to help them understand and process their resistance to seeing you. Over time, the counselor can help the child address their concerns and bring them around to meeting with you in a controlled environment. Once again, as the targeted parent, you need to be dedicated to doing what the reunification counselor says to undo the parental alienation that has occurred. This will take time, and it might mean you have to accept changes to your visitation or parenting style to address your child’s concerns.

Bridging Schedules for Visitation

Once reunification is underway, you can use a “bridging schedule” to gradually reintroduce visitation. This schedule bridges the gap between no visitation (or whatever the alienating parent is currently allowing) and the full visitation the court has determined is in your child’s best interests. Most bridging schedules include a number of steps that gradually increase visitation over time. They may begin with supervised or daytime-only visitation before moving up to include overnights.

Get Help with Parental Interference and Parental Alienation Claims

Cases involving parental alienation claims are difficult and emotional. Whether you are the survivor of domestic violence trying to protect your child from child abuse, or a non-custodial parent whose child is refusing visitation, you need a family law attorney who understands the science and the law around parental alienation and interference. At the Law Office of Shelly M. Ingram, our Maryland child custody lawyers can help you navigate these high-conflict custody cases to protect your children, and your parent-child relationships. We will help you determine if improper parental influence is happening in your case, gather the proof (for or against), and stand beside you to advocate for your child’s best interests in court. Contact us today to schedule a consultation with an attorney.