Divorces often cause tension between ex-spouses. When a child is involved, the parents cannot simply go their separate ways. They must continue to co-parent their child or children. Unfortunately, some parents act irrationally out of anger toward the other parent. This can include attempts to interfere with the relationship between the child and the parent, also known as “parental alienation.” Damaging a child’s relationship with their parent can have harmful and long-lasting effects. If you believe the other parent of your child is undermining your relationship with your child, you have rights and options. It is possible to rebuild a positive relationship with your child. The family law attorneys at Melone Hatley, P.C. are here to help. We can assert your rights under your custody order and parenting plan so you can become a part of your child’s life again.
Parental alienation is a term from the mental health field that describes the emotional fallout of family disputes. It is not a legal term, but it can have legal consequences.
Family law disputes like divorce and child custody cases often lead to negative emotions like anger. Resolving the legal case does not always address all of the emotional issues. A parent may take their anger out on the other parent by trying to get the child on their “side.”
Parental alienation often begins with bad-mouthing the other parent. The alienating parent may exaggerate about the target parent’s faults, or they might just lie to the child. Examples of alienating behavior might include the following:
The alienating parent is often also the custodial parent, but this is not always the case. It is easier for a custodial parent to engage in alienating behaviors since they have more time with the child. Other family members, such as a child’s grandparents and siblings, can also engage in alienating behavior.
Isolation from a parent can have severe impacts on a child. Mental health professionals use the term parental alienation syndrome (PAS) to describe the effects on both the parents and children. Target parents may experience anxiety and depression because the other parent is unjustly withholding their child. Children can develop a wide range of mental health problems. They might believe that the parent has rejected them or that the parent is dangerous. These impacts can endure far beyond childhood.
Victims of parental alienation might feel like there is nothing they can do. Their own child seems to have turned against them, after all. However, parenting plans and child custody orders give parents rights enforceable in family court.
Parental alienation syndrome in children can take several different forms:
Expressing negative feelings about a parent is not always evidence of parental alienation. They can result from a parent’s actual physical or emotional abuse. Parental alienation typically occurs when one parent undermines the parent-child relationship with false or exaggerated claims about the other parent.
Most children do not experience hatred naturally. Someone has to teach it to them. Parental alienation can have severe effects on children’s health and emotional growth. It can create a false impression that a parent is dangerous or that the parent has rejected the child.
Many mental health professionals consider parental alienation a form of child abuse. Even without any physical violence, parental alienation involves emotional abuse that can be no less damaging to a child’s well-being. The Parental Alienation Study Group, an organization dedicated to studying this issue, estimates that more than 3.9 million children in the U.S. are experiencing moderate to severe parental alienation at any given time.
Divorce and other family law disputes can lead to depression and other problems in children. Parental alienation can substantially enhance these issues. For example, a child who believes that the alienated parent wants nothing to do with them can experience profound feelings of grief and loss, often leading to prolonged depression. The alienating parent might provide little support for these issues since they are the source of the child’s distress.
A child who believes a parent has cut them off has lost one of the fundamental relationships for their mental and emotional development. As a result, they may have difficulty building trust with others, including the alienating parent. This can lead to dysfunctional and even abusive relationships during childhood and adulthood.
The parent-child relationship is important for building self-esteem in a child. The perception that the alienated parent is dangerous, unworthy, or absent can result in a negative self-image, leading to other developmental and behavioral issues.
In some cases, a child may internalize the narrative that the alienating parent is providing about the target parent. The child may blame themselves for the target parent’s supposed abandonment. If the alienating parent gives the child a false narrative about the target parent’s character, the child may start to see the target parent’s flaws in themselves.
A child subjected to parental alienation may seek coping mechanisms to deal with stress, anxiety, depression, and other psychological effects. Examples of such behavior may include the following:
Some of these behaviors or conditions, such as substance abuse and eating disorders, can be life-threatening. Others can seriously impair a child’s educational opportunities.
Low self-esteem, self-hatred, and a lack of emotional support can all contribute to suicidal ideation in children and adults alike. The perceived loss of a parent can be difficult enough for a child, but parental alienation may also involve continued emotional abuse from the alienating parent.
The long-term effects of parental alienation may include difficulties forming or maintaining healthy friendships or romantic relationships. Lack of trust can result in a person avoiding relationships altogether. Fear of loss can lead to unhealthy or abusive relationships in adulthood. It can also lead to them becoming an abuser.
A 1996 paper, co-authored by a psychologist and a family law attorney, found that children may take two significant and harmful lessons from parental alienation. They may conclude, first, that “hostile, obnoxious behavior is acceptable in relationships.” They may also come to believe that “deceit and manipulation are a normal part of relationships.”
To prove parental alienation, you will need evidence that it has occurred. This includes evidence that the alienating parent is engaging in behavior intended to drive a wedge between you and your child. This can be a difficult and painful process, with harsh accusations going back in forth.
If you bring a parental alienation case in family court, the other parent may respond by claiming that they are justified in keeping the child from you. They may allege, for example, that you cannot provide a safe environment for the child or that you are not fit to care for the child. You may need to produce evidence to show not only that the other parent’s behavior is unjustified, but that you are ready, willing, and able to be a parent to your child.
Evidence of parental alienation can include testimony about the alienating parent’s behavior. It often also involves written communications, pictures, videos, and other materials.
Many people may be able to testify about behavior they have witnessed or remarks they have heard. Statements made by the alienating parent about you are admissible as evidence in a child custody case in family court. Your child’s statements may be admissible as well in many situations. For example, someone might have heard the alienating parent falsely telling the child that you do not want to see them or that you do not have the legal right to see them.
Individuals who can testify about these matters might include:
Even if a particular witness is on the other parent’s side, their testimony will be under oath. Lying to the court to make you look bad can have serious consequences for a witness.
Most of the time, witnesses in court can only testify about what they saw or heard. Fact witnesses, as they are called, cannot offer their own opinions about their testimony. Certain individuals, known as expert witnesses, can offer opinion-based testimonies if they possess expertise in a particular subject.
In a parental alienation case, a therapist or other mental health professional might be able to offer expert testimony about how a parent’s behavior is affecting a child. If a child is already receiving counseling, their therapist can testify about certain aspects of the child’s mental health. From a family court judge’s perspective, the most important issue in any child custody case is whether the “best interests of the child” are being met. A therapist’s testimony can address those concerns.
Your child might refuse to see a therapist, or the other parent might refuse to let them see one. You may be able to ask for a court order requiring the child to attend therapy sessions. The court may also order you and the other parent to see someone. A court-appointed child custody evaluator can meet with everyone involved. They are usually a licensed therapist, so they can testify about what they believe would be best for the child.
The best evidence you can produce against the alienating parent is their own words and actions. Social media may provide a wealth of evidence about what the other parent has been saying and doing. Their social media posts could show what they have been saying to the child about you and what they have been saying to others.
Your child’s social media posts may also contain useful evidence. For example, their posts could demonstrate how the child sees you.
Even if you do not have access to someone’s social media accounts because they are private, you can obtain the contents of those accounts in a process called discovery. It is possible, of course, that the other parent might delete incriminating posts before you can see them. You can ask a sympathetic friend or family member to keep an eye on their accounts and make copies of anything useful as evidence.
To prove parental alienation, you need to show that you have not been able to spend enough time with your child. Keeping detailed records of your contact with your child and the other parent can help you make your case.
As much as possible, keep a copy or log of every text message, phone call, and other communication you have with the other parent. This can provide a record of your attempts to contact your child and any disparaging remarks that the other parent makes directly to you.
Keep a log of the time you spend with your child. Include the dates, the length of the visits, and a summary of your activities. Keep receipts from activities you did together, as well as pictures of those activities. This kind of evidence can have two benefits in your case:
The act of parental alienation, by itself, is not a crime in North Carolina. However, a parent could face legal consequences if they violate a child custody order by keeping the child from seeing the other parent. A judge could order them to comply with the parenting plan. If they continue not to comply, the judge could hold them in contempt of court. This could result in a fine or even jail time.
If you do not have a custody order already in place, you can assert your parental rights in court by filing a new custody case. Family court judges in North Carolina determine custody and visitation based on the best interests of the child. If one parent is interfering with the child’s best interests by keeping them away from the other parent, the court might factor that into a final custody order.
If your child’s other parent is not allowing you to see your child, or if you believe they are giving the child false information about you, you should consider contacting a child custody lawyer. Your best course of action will depend on whether you have a child custody order. A family law attorney can help you enforce that order, or they can help you establish a new custody order. In either case, they can offer legal advice about your parental rights and show you how to prove parental alienation. A skilled attorney can advocate for your rights both in and out of the courtroom.
Parental alienation is a serious problem that can cause lifelong harm to a child. If your child’s other parent is violating a child custody order, you can enforce your parental rights in family court. You can also go to court to set up a custody order if you do not have one. The family law attorneys at Melone Hatley are here to help clients in Charlotte and throughout Virginia. The firm offers free eBooks and free advice videos to help you understand your rights. Call 980-288-8909 to schedule a consultation, or use the firm’s contact form for easy online scheduling.
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