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Parental alienation’s role in California child custody matters

After a marriage has ended, one of the ex-spouses might occasionally say something negative about the other parent in front of their kids. But sometimes, this behavior grows into a potentially dangerous, pathological phenomenon called “parental alienation syndrome” (PAS).

What exactly is parental alienation?

Parental alienation occurs when one parent takes extreme measures, including lying and fabricating negative stories about the other parent to make the children reject the targeted parent. Recent research out of Colorado State University described in Science Daily defines parental alienation as a “particular form of family violence … [that] can result in a child’s ultimate rejection of a parent for untrue, illogical or exaggerated reasons.”

In its extreme, PAS is a form of brainwashing or indoctrination of the child to reject the other parent that is considered abusive to the child. The Colorado research also describes mental health problems that can develop for targeted parents – suicidal thoughts, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What is in the children’s best interests?

Whenever child custody or visitation is at issue in divorce, separation or between unmarried parents – in original proceedings or a request to modify custody arrangements – California law requires that the court always prioritize the child’s best interests. Parental alienation can have very serious negative consequences for the children as well as the alienated parent, so it is hard to imagine a scenario in which granting the alienating parent significant time with or responsibility for the children would be in their best interests.

For example, it is well known that when possible and safe, it is best for a child to have relationships with both parents, so interruption of the parent-child relationship can be harmful to the child. The ability of a parent to facilitate a positive relationship with the other parent is generally thought to be in the child’s best interest when crafting a custody arrangement.

How does parental alienation hurt kids?

Parental alienation can negatively impact the child’s healthy development and harm their ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships even into adulthood – including a tendency to fly into a rage. They may also experience powerlessness, loss, anger, guilt, confusion, anxiety, depression and other negative emotions. In serious cases, these children may develop suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, eating disorders, learning problems, sleep disorders and more.

Legal representation

When a parent thinks the other parent might be engaging in alienating behavior, an attorney can investigate the circumstances by consulting professionals and developing evidence to present to the court. Because there are legitimate circumstances to keep children away from some parents such as criminal behavior or substance abuse, the targeted parent must prove to the judge that false stories the alienating parent might have made to the children about the other parent are untrue. False allegations in their extreme can even include accusations of abuse or violence.

It can be challenging to show parental alienation to the court because the alienating behavior can be subtle and indirect. For example, the parent may communicate negativity toward the other parent with body language and word choices by never using positive language to refer to anything related to the other parent, including memories and character. Other alienating behavior may be more obvious such as destroying photos of the other parent, refusing to give the child messages from the other parent, withholding information about the child from the other parent, keeping the child too busy to see the other parent and so on.

Mental health professionals may recommend (and the judge may order) that the children spend all their time with the targeted parent away from the parent engaging in alienation. This time should likely involve mental health treatment and therapies to help protect the children from the negative consequences and to rebuild their relationship with the alienated parent, if possible.

Or, in less serious situations, the parties may avoid the courtroom by negotiating an arrangement that will protect the children from the psychological harm of parental alienation.

Legal counsel can answer questions about parental alienation and provide guidance in an individual case.