parental alienation

Parental Alienation and What to Look Out For

When a co-parent systematically manipulates your child to reject you, it is beyond terrifying. If the behavior is severe, it can have irreversible negative effects on your child’s psyche and development.

Parental alienation is one of the most complex child custody issues our clients face. However, before running into court wielding your accusations of parental alienation, there are a few things to stop and consider.  If not, your claim of parental alienation might just backfire on you.  To understand how this is possible, it is important to look at the history of parental alienation.

What is parental alienation?

The term “Parental Alienation Syndrome” was first coined in the 1980s, by Dr. Richard Gardner. The issue of parental alienation then quickly inundated child custody cases across the country.  Judges began to use the concept of parental alienation to make rulings in favor of the alienated (a.k.a. rejected) parent.  As the years progressed, however, the theory of parental alienation began to lose support.

It turns out that Dr. Richard Gardner was not as credible as he appeared.  Despite Dr. Gardner’s financial success in promoting the theory of parental alienation syndrome, through self publishing books and testifying as a paid expert, it became clear that his theory was based only on his clinical observations and not on scientific or peer reviewed data.

Dr. Gardner then began concocting numerous other controversial and strange theories before his death by suicide in 2003. Such revelations about Dr. Gardner created skepticism as to the concept of parental alienation as a whole. As a result, many judges have jumped off the “parental alienation” bandwagon and are far less willing to specifically rule that a parent has engaged in this practice.

The law provides that parental alienation, a psychological theory, must be "generally accepted” by “the relevant scientific community” before it can be used in court. Herein lies another challenge for custody litigants.

Dr. Gardner’s parental alienation theory has drawn wide criticism from the scientific community and mental health professionals. Several of the large medical and mental health associations do not recognize parental alienation, including the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association. Parental alienation is not classified in the DSM-5 (the current diagnostics manual of mental disorders widely recognized in the medical field).

What are some examples of parental alienation?

Parental alienation can come in many forms, including, but not limited to the alienating parent:

  • Giving the child details of the marriage and why it is failing/failed, generally blaming the other parent
  • Allowing the child to choose whether they want to see the other parent
  • Withholding pertinent info about the child's schedule, important events, and appointments
  • Asking the child to gather information about the other parent's daily life
  • Bad-mouthing of the other parent around the child
  • Refusing to allow the child to accept gifts from the other parent/parent's family members
  • Refusing to allow the child to visit with the other parent's extended family

Are there any remedies to parental alienation?

Additionally, most proponents of parental alienation believe the only effective remedy is for the alienating parent (the parent found to have turned the children against the other parent) to have no contact whatsoever with the child for at least 90 days.

This is a steep remedy, especially in Pennsylvania where even incarcerated parents can request visitation with their children. Due to the contentious nature of custody cases, judges can become suspicious of the accuser parent’s truthfulness or motives, concluding that the accuser parent is trying anything to win the custody case, eliminate all contact with the other parent, or avoid paying support.

It is no surprise that parental alienation is among the most complex issues in a child custody matter. Nevertheless, despite mental health professionals’ skepticism and judges’ reluctance, the issue of parental alienation still exists.

Well-educated, well-respected mental health professionals are still researching and advancing the theory of parental alienation, although even these experts caution that parental alienation” occurs in less than 7% of custody cases.  Alleging and convincing a judge that parental alienation is occurring in your case is a delicate matter.  Because the term “parental alienation” is so problematic, the custody process may benefit from pointing out dysfunctional parent behavior without specifically citing “parental alienation.”

Such terms as negative coaching or influencing, inability to cooperate, or unwillingness to co-parent may be more useful.  It is better to focus on the well defined diagnoses recognized by mental health professionals and their research than to try to use the term “parental alienation” to deflect the parties and court from the real facts. As such, it is best not to raise accusations of parental alienation without first speaking with a qualified child custody lawyer who can help to assess the risks and provide a strategy in raising the parental alienation issue.

If you are facing issues in a child custody matter or have any questions on child custody, please contact our family law attorneys at 610-275-0700. Our Bucks County and Montgomery County Family Law attorneys have knowledge and experience in all facets of custody issues. You can rely on our firm for dependable legal services.

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