At our law firm, we see parents in divorce who have developed relationships of extremely high conflict. It is impossible for parental conflict not to affect children, but harm to kids can be minimized and addressed through therapy and professional involvement with the family. After all, the best interests of children are the primary focus of Florida child custody and divorce law.
But sometimes conflict directly involves children and they become pawns in parental battling. When one parent actively and without justification attempts to turn a child against the other parent, it is called “parental alienation.” While the professionals debate whether this is a type of syndrome or mental-health disorder, it is widely agreed that it can evolve into a type of child abuse.
Parental alienation may be present in 11 to 15 percent of divorces where children are present, according to one article.
The Florida Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts describes an alienating parent as “one who expresses disproportionately negative behavior about the alienated parent that is not consistent with his or her actual experience.”
Sometimes the parent engaging in the alienating behavior tries to make the child afraid of the other parent or create feelings of anger or hatred. Here are examples of parent behavior that could be alienating:
- Verbal criticism of the other parent
- Negative descriptions of the other parent’s character and behavior
- Blocking online, telephone or mail contacts between the child and the other parent
- Preventing contact and visitation between the child and other parent
- Directing the child to “spy” on the other parent and tell about the parent’s behavior
- Not including the other parent in decisions concerning the child’s life
- Not letting the child discuss positive memories of the other parent
- In an extreme case, false accusations of abuse
While some kids do not become alienated despite the focused barrage of negativity from the other parent, a child can develop alienation to varying degrees and in different ways. The alienated child could:
- Speak badly about the targeted parent
- Resist or refuse to see the parent from anger or fear
- Make up negative stories about the parent
Apart from the impact on the alienated parent-child relationship, the phenomenon can cause even lifelong harm to the child, such as affecting the child’s self-esteem, causing fear, difficulty with trust, feeling abandonment and depression. Chances of addictive behavior, including alcohol or drug abuse, are higher in alienated children.
Identifying parental alienation can be difficult. For example, it is possible that the other parent really does have character traits or behaviors that could be significantly detrimental to the child, and that the other parent has legitimate concerns about how contact with him or her could be harmful to the child. In such a case, the concerned parent should be encouraged to seek professional help for the child and family to determine how to safeguard his or her mental health and determine whether and to what extent a relationship with the other parent might be in the child’s best interest.
In a true case of parent alienation, reunification therapy is the preferred treatment. This could begin during the process of separation or divorce and will require the cooperation of everyone involved, including potentially the parties’ lawyers and even the court.
In our next post, we will talk more about reunification therapy.