Parent alienation in divorce occurs when one parent tries to damage the relationship or attachment between their children and the other parent. For example, one parent may lie to their children by saying that the other parent did not show up for a visit when one was not even scheduled. Over time, the children may develop feelings of animosity or even hate. This type of alienation can be emotionally destructive for parents and their children. A family law attorney may be able to help.
What Is Parental Alienation?
Parent alienation in divorce is not always clear-cut. Some people mistake it for estrangement. However, estrangement typically occurs for a good reason when children decide to separate from a parent in some form. For example, if parents fail to show up for visits, children might lose interest in seeing them or talking to them. They decide for themselves to do that. The other parent does his or her duty in following custody orders and not badmouthing the parent.
Alienation can impact children’s self-esteem, cause serious emotional distress, and interfere with children’s current and future ability to build healthy relationships.
Understanding Parental Alienation in a Divorce
Divorce frequently is tough for children, even in the best of splits. Effective coparenting for divorced parents includes sharing consistent core values and rules, keeping children out of their parents’ conflicts, and parents showing respect for each other.
The opposite amounts to what is considered parental alienation. It is a type of child abuse. Characteristics of parental alienation include parents doing the following:
- Forcing their children to take sides
- Blocking reasonable communication or contact between children and the other parent
- Lying to children with malicious intent about the other parent
- Attacking the other parent verbally
- Piling guilt onto children for loving the other parent
The outcomes of parent alienation can include tremendous emotional harm and children refusing to see the other parent. However, the parent doing the alienating could eventually lose custody or visitation rights.
Parental alienation may occur for any number of reasons. Sometimes, parents genuinely think they are justified in the alienation, perhaps believing in their anger that the other parent is a legitimate safety risk. Sometimes, parents are still recovering emotionally from the divorce or want to lash out at their co-parent.
Common Signs of Parental Alienation
Common indicators that parent alienation in divorce may be occurring include children showing atypical distance or hostility toward one parent. For instance, if your child is no longer willing to speak with you, now belittles you, or speaks negatively about you to you or others, the other parent may be trying to drive a wedge between the two of you.
Likewise, if your child believes false information about you, the other parent may be committing alienation. Falsehoods parents may tell include, “[Other parent] does not care about you,” “[Other parent] is too busy to come to your games,” “[Other parent] is too drunk to care well for you,” or “[Other parent] is a bad person.”
Part of easing the pain of divorce for kids is to never put them in the middle of parental conflicts. When children take sides in disputes between parents, parental alienation could be at play. Children might take sides because one parent tells them to, seems upset if they do not, or tells them untruths about the other parent.
Some alienating parents hope that their children will stop wanting to see the other parent, and, indeed, that can result from parent alienation in divorce. Refusing contact with one parent is a sign of alienation. The contact being refused could be as simple as phone conversations but could include unwillingness to go on scheduled visitations.
Steps to Take If Dealing With Parental Alienation in Court
Parents have rights. In Illinois and many other places, kids have rights too. If parents divorce, Illinois law mandates that divorce agreements reflect the best interests of the children. If parental conflict is excessive, the courts may need to appoint separate attorneys to represent these best interests.
Judges in Illinois view parent alienation in divorce as a negative and do not want to see it continue. Your lawyer can help if you suspect your co-parent is alienating the children from you. It is important to gather evidence of your alienation claim. Steps you or your lawyer can take include these:
- Keeping angry texts or emails from your co-parent
- Taking screenshots of social media posts accessible to your child
- Recording witness statements, for example, taping your neighbor saying the children don’t want to see you because your ex said you hate them
- Writing down what the children say about you to your face and when
- Tracking visitation or custody arrangements your co-parent does not follow, including documentation of requests you make to see the child
Often, documentation shows similar (parroted) language in messages from your co-parent to you compared to what the children say about you. If you do not have a lawyer, look for one who has experience in child custody and parental alienation cases.
What the Courts Can Do
Your lawyer may need to take the case to court. The guardian ad litem reviews the documentation and speaks with the involved parties and experts, such as child psychologists. The guardian ad litem makes recommendations to the judge.
Judges have the authority to modify custody orders, for instance, to give the alienated parent sole custody. Some judges hold alienating parents in contempt of court and can impose fines or jail times.
Some judges are hesitant to award custody to the alienated parent, thinking it adds to children’s trauma and dislike of the parent. Instead, these judges may opt for the gradual process of reunification therapy. It eases the children and alienated parent back into each other’s lives and works to deal with the children’s negative emotions.
Judges may order one or both parents to attend counseling or take co-parenting classes. The alienating parent may lose significant time with the children, especially if he or she fails to follow all requirements in the custody orders.