The divorce process can be difficult to navigate under the best of circumstances. When children are involved, deciding on parenting plans, child support, and the best co-parenting style for your family can add to an already complicated equation.
While emotions can run high during divorce, it’s crucial to minimize your children’s exposure to conflict and negative behaviors from either parent, which can have long-term effects on children’s mental health.
For both legal reasons and for the well-being of your children, it’s imperative to guard against parental alienation.
What is parental alienation?
Simply put, parental alienation is when one parent consciously or unconsciously undermines and interferes with a child’s relationships with the other parent.
Parental alienation can take many different forms, such as one parent or both parents:
- Refusing to follow a custody/parenting time schedule
- Intentionally scheduling activities for the children during the other parent’s time
- Interfering in the communication between the other parent and the children
- Discussing the divorce case with the children
- Disparaging the other parent in front of the children
While a parent may not realize the harm they’re doing, materially disrupting a child’s relationship with the other parent hurts the well-being of the child—particularly when the child is already experiencing upheaval because of the divorce.
Why parental alienation matters during divorce
In addition to damaging your children’s wellbeing, parental alienation has legal impacts. Courts are particularly sensitive to matters involving parental alienation. If discovered, the parent demonstrating alienating behavior may not fare as well in the Court’s final determinations relating to custody and parenting time.
How to deal with parental alienation
Dealing with parental alienation can be a struggle. It may feel like no matter what you do, your child’s other parent refuses to cooperate.
Let’s be honest—there is no one perfect solution. Part of coping with an alienating co-parent is accepting that you cannot control your former partner’s actions or how your child feels.
If you believe that parental alienation is occurring during or after your divorce, there are several ways to approach the situation and navigate toward a more amicable situation:
1. Be a steady presence for your children
While this situation is painful, remember that it’s also difficult for children to interact with both parties. In addition to considering therapy for your children, it’s vital to be mindful of their experiences and act as an active, engaged presence in their lives.
Focus on being a reliable parent who follows through, as best as you can in the face of the other parent’s inconsistency, on commitments and parenting time schedules. Use your actions to show that you’re there for them, whether that means maximizing quality time or acting as an empathetic listener.
Keep in mind that confronting your child about another parent’s behavior may only alienate them further. If your child is showing signs of parental alienation, you may want to consider starting therapy with them.
2. Consider therapy or counseling
Consider therapy or counseling for you and your children. A high-conflict parenting relationship can have a long-lasting impact on your and your child’s mental health.
Therapy can be an essential resource for your child, providing a place to explore their feelings and work through the ramifications of parental alienation. That being said, children who are subjected to parental alienation can be resistant to therapy. Studies have shown that therapy may be more impactful when alienated children are treated in joint sessions with the targeted parent as they can foster better parent/child interactions.
While your child’s health and well-being are paramount, supporting your mental health is also essential. You need a strong support system during and after cases of parental alienation so that you can continue to be the best parent you can be for your children.
3. Avoid reciprocating parental alienation
When it comes to parental alienation, under no circumstances do two wrongs make a right. While it can hurt to believe you’re on the receiving end of parental alienation, it’s essential to avoid reciprocation. Fight against the urge to disparage a spouse or retaliate in some form—it will only worsen matters and could result in legal ramifications for you.
It’s normal for emotions to run high and to feel the need to take action in these situations. When strong emotions are involved, working with a third party, such as a family law attorney, is even more important to help you work through your specific circumstances and move toward a productive resolution.
4. Consider exploring legal avenues
Family law courts have the ability to issue certain remedies in cases of parental alienation, including ordering family therapy, reunification therapy, and modifying the custody/parenting time order. You can work together with your family law attorney to explore what might work for your situation.
If you and your legal counsel decide that court is the right avenue to address parental alienation, there are certain things you can do to prepare, such as keeping meticulous records. Note conversations with the other parent and keep printouts of text messages, emails, call logs, and disruptions to parenting time.
Your legal counsel may also advise that you document your relationship with your child by keeping a log of your parenting time with places you go and how you spend your time with your child or children. This may include saving all receipts and taking photos during your time together. If the alienating parent claims you have a negative relationship with your child or children, showing evidence proving the contrary can be very important.
Another recourse, depending on the child’s age, could include requesting that your appointed judge interview your child or children. It may be possible to request that the judge interview a child privately. This allows the judge to converse with the child in a friendly fashion and evaluate the situation from a neutral vantage point.
The courts may suggest or order a child custody evaluation. It is also possible to enlist an expert to perform a forensic evaluation of your child custody situation. An expert evaluator will conduct interviews with the parents and the child and possibly conduct psychological testing on all parties involved to discover any issues. The expert can then issue a written report to the court with their findings.
When addressing parental alienation and preserving time with your children, it’s critical not to take on these issues alone.
5. Consult with trusted legal counsel
If you believe your former spouse is alienating you from your children, speak to an experienced divorce attorney as soon as possible. Parental alienation can have a negative impact on parent-child relationships that worsens with time, but an experienced child custody attorney, especially one experienced with alienation, can help you find creative legal solutions to pursue the best outcome for your family.
The attorneys at Jacobs Berger, LLC have years of experience guiding clients in Madison, Randolph, Tewksbury, Morristown, and the greater Morris County area through a wide range of family law-related issues, including parental alienation.