The Role of Parental Alienation in Divorce

It’s no secret that divorces aren’t always stress-free, but some high-conflict cases can be particularly contentious. In many cases defined by underlying conflict, one spouse may even try to turn their kids against the other through manipulation and disparagement, resulting in what’s referred to as parental alienation.

At Z Family Law, we know that your kids are your life — and we’ll do everything in our power to safeguard your sacred parent-child bond. Powered by years of experience navigating contentious divorce and custody cases, our qualified team of attorneys is committed to finding the right legal solution for you and your kids while stopping parental alienation in its tracks.


What Is Parental Alienation?

Coined in 1985 by child psychologist Richard Gardner, parental alienation refers to a child's distinct behaviors when exposed to alienating conduct from one parent. The concept is centered around mental health, and while it’s not officially recognized as a syndrome or disorder, it’s a harmful, commonly used tactic in high-conflict divorces and separations.

During high-conflict divorces where parental alienation is present, the children might be unwittingly used as weapons by one parent with the intent of destroying their relationship with the other.

Of course, parental alienation has a profound impact on not only both parents, but on the children caught in the middle. More often than not, it’s in the children’s best interests to have a relationship with both parents, regardless of their feelings towards each other. And since the problems behind a divorce are typically between the parents alone, the calculated involvement of their children in the dispute only heightens tensions and intensifies complications. Ultimately, the children’s mental health and well-being may suffer as a result of this incendiary behavior.

An alienated parent, on the other hand, could suffer irreparable damage to the relationship with their children as they become increasingly estranged due to the alienator's interference in their relationship.

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How to Know if Parental Alienation Is Taking Place

During parental alienation, a parent's manipulations can range from mild to severe. To counteract this harmful behavior before mental damage is inflicted, it’s critical to heed the early signs of parental alienation by keeping a pulse on how the children are handling the breakup. The reality is that once parental alienation behavior takes root, it’s hard to overcome, often culminating in the dissolution of parent-child bonds.

Alienators might employ a range of strategies to create distance between their estranged spouse and children, including bad-mouthing, interference with visitation and communication, and emotional manipulation.

Parents navigating a high-conflict divorce should look out for the following red flag behaviors in their children:

  • Denying all past positive experiences with the alienated parent
  • Rejecting contact and communication with the alienated parent
  • Lacking a rational explanation for their newfound disdain
  • Accusing the alienated parent of wrongdoing that’s either been exaggerated or fabricated entirely
  • Refusing to recognize the alienator’s influence over their actions
  • Showing no remorse or empathy for the harsh treatment of the alienated parent
  • A swelling of animosity for the alienated parent that extends to that parent’s family as well. A child experiencing parental alienation, for example, may no longer want to see or associate with cousins, uncles, aunts, or grandparents on the alienated parent’s side

    When a child displays any (or all) of these signs, there’s a good chance that parental alienation is at play. Once you’ve identified its presence, we advise acting fast and taking the steps necessary to curb the alienating behavior before the parent-child relationship is irreparably fractured.

How Can You End Parental Alienation?

When it comes to serious matters like divorce and child custody, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution — especially in cases where parental alienation is a factor.

Since parental alienation isn’t officially recognized as a mental health syndrome, it can be difficult to prove in a court of law. However, there are certain measures you can take to uproot parental alienation before it’s too late. One way to prove parental alienation is through a custody evaluation, an assessment during which a licensed clinical social worker or mental health professional closely evaluates the interactions between parent and child before submitting a formal recommendation to the court based on their findings. These evaluators may either be appointed by the court or chosen by the disputing divorce parties.

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Mediation and parenting plans can also help children to spend more time with the alienated parent, hopefully allowing for an improvement in their relationship. Since divorcing parents often find it challenging to communicate effectively, mediation offers a chance for facilitated conversation focused on getting to the root of the relevant issues. A neutral third party plays a vital role in this scenario, guiding discussions over several sessions to encourage understanding and compromise so the parents, not the courts, can reach a resolution.

In mediation, parents typically create a parenting plan that serves as a guide on how the couple will parent the children moving forward. Once a plan is in place, the parents can simply refer to its contents to clarify how any subsequent problem should be resolved.

When parental alienation begins after divorce and custody orders have already been signed into law, custody modification is a residual form of recourse. Choosing this course of action requires revisiting the original custody evaluation, meaning the alienated parent will have to show that the alienator is violating the current order. This can be accomplished by providing corroborating evidence, such as proof that visitations are being missed regularly without valid reason, for instance.

In modifying the order of custody, the hope is that the alienated parent will have the opportunity to reconnect with their children and repair any bonds that have been severed. A parent’s wish to alter the existing arrangement so they can spend more time with their children is generally looked upon favorably by the courts, as it shows a willingness to be an active and present caretaker. At the end of the day, Maryland courts aim to protect the best interests of every child, and having a relationship with both parents almost always falls into that category.


Finding the Right Parental Alienation Attorney for You

As you navigate this challenging time, a trusted legal team who can help you make rational, well-guided decisions is essential. After all, when it comes to writing your new happily ever after, the importance of finding strategic and compassionate counsel focused solely on family law cannot be understated. By combining our vast legal experience, our tenured team can design a tailored strategy to help you take back your power and build the new beginning you deserve.

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