Parental Alienation & Shared Custody: What You Need to Know

As a divorced parent, one of the worst feelings you can have is feeling that the other parent is actively working to turn your child against you or damage their relationship with you. If you’re concerned this is happening or you’ve noticed strange behavior in your child or ex-spouse, you may be witnessing parental alienation, also known by the courts as “restrictive parental gatekeeping.” If you or someone close to you notices a change in how your child views you and suspects manipulation on the other parent’s part, it is important to act quickly. Parental alienation is extremely damaging to a child and the sooner you act to reverse it, the better.

The Warning Signs of Parental Alienation

Attempts to Exclude

If one parent frequently asks the other to not be in attendance at certain events or milestones in their shared child’s life, it can be an example of them being exclusionary. Being exclusionary can be more subtle, such as making parenting decisions without the other parent’s input, making shared events uncomfortable so the other parent will not come or leave sooner, keeping “secrets” with the child that the other child is not privy to, and so on. This behavior can result in the healthy parent being excluded from chunks of the child’s life, thereby slowly alienating them from the child.

“It’s Them or Me”

When one parent tells the child that they can either choose them or the other parent and not show them how to have a healthy relationship with both parents, they’re restricting the child’s relationships. The worst-case scenario of this warning sign is one parent keeps the child from seeing the other parent entirely. Often times the behavior is more subtle, with parents acting in such a way to discourage the child from enjoying their time with the other parent, such as by making disparaging comments, encouraging the child to report back after visits, or acting in such a way that suggests to the child that they are in danger when with the other parent. The key factor in this is that one parent is causing the child to believe that they cannot enjoy their relationship with one parent without risking the love and acceptance of the other parent.

Inciting Anger & Disrespect

Some parents, after separation, choose to continuously encourage their shared child to be upset with the other parent, often for unfounded reasons. In other instances, one parent may make disrespectful remarks and convince the child to do the same; over time, they may grow consistently disrespectful, damaging their relationship with the healthy parent in the long-term. Examples of this behavior are many but the defining characteristic is encouraging the child to have a distrustful or outright hostile relationship with the other parent.

Refusing to Co-Parent

A key factor in most custody situations in parents sharing joint legal custody, which means both parents should have a say in major decision-making for the child. Implicit in joint legal custody is the ability to communicate for the sake of the child. If one parent refuses to communicate with the other, refuses to participate in activities where the other parent will be involved, or refuses to consult with the other parent before making decisions for the child, it can have a severe impact on the child’s relationship with the parent trying to do their best.

Invasion of Privacy

As noted above, some parents still want to know what the other is doing for the wrong reasons and will ask children to spy on the other parent or report back in detail after visits. When a parent grills their child for gossip or “grown-up” information about the other parent, they’re asking the child to violate the other parent’s trust and nonverbally encouraging the child to form a “team” with them against the other parent, resulting in alienation over time.

Negative Talk

After separation, many co-parents tend to have uncomfortable, strained, and even stressful relationships with each other, and this is an unfortunate but typical experience after separation. However, when one parent continuously speaks poorly of the other parent with, or in front of their child, it can change the perspective of the young mind, resulting ultimately in the child taking that parent’s side or being otherwise negatively affected.

Financial Guilting

One parent can privately blame or criticize the other for their individual or combined financial woes without it being alienation, but when they do so in front of their child and do so repeatedly, it can have a profound impact on the child’s mind. The child may begin to believe the other parent is deliberately making life hard for their parent and can see one parent as the “bad guy” while the other is the “good guy”, ultimately damaging the relationship dynamic.

False Accusations

Perhaps the most dangerous warning sign of parental alienation is one parent’s use of false accusations against the other, especially when it involves something as serious as domestic violence, substance abuse or other forms of abuse. A child’s mind is malleable and gullible. If false allegations are being repeatedly made, the child can begin to believe the false allegations and believe they need to protect themselves or the other parent by giving up their relationship with the healthy parent entirely.

What You Can Do to Stop Alienation

Unfortunately, parental alienation is not a quick fix in many situations. The damage it can do to a child is severe and long-lasting. If left unchecked for an extended period of time, parental alienation can result in permanent damage to a parent’s relationship with their child. The longer alienation is allowed to go on, the more difficult it is to undo. When you notice a pattern of alienating behavior in your co-parent, the first thing to do is to have an honest, open conversation with them and see if it will be possible to resolve the situation yourself. However, if this discussion ends in gaslighting, an explosive argument, or is otherwise unproductive, your next step is to call an attorney. If you find yourself facing parental alienation and you are unable to convince the other parent to stop, the best thing you can do for your child is to speak with an attorney right away about your legal options and to take quick action to reverse the damage.

When to Bring in a Child Custody Lawyer

At the Law Office of Dorene A. Kuffer, we understand that navigating shared custody is a difficult situation to be in, especially when your co-parent isn’t working toward a healthy relationship with you. Once you’ve reached a point where talking about solutions doesn’t work, consider connecting with our office to get a team of experienced attorneys in your corner to help you heal any damage that has been done or prevent any further damage. Contact us to learn more today.