Last year around this time, I wrote an article which could probably be best described as a primer on parental alienation. At the time of its publication, I had not personally observed much, if any, parental alienation in any of my own cases. However, since that time parental alienation has been a relevant factor in a few of my cases.
Recently, I was working on a case in which a custody evaluation was performed by a psychologist because Mother claimed that Father’s behavior was alienating the child from Mother. For example, Father told the Child that Mother stole Child’s cell phone; Father also refused to answer Mother’s emails requesting updates about the Child. Mother shared her concerns with the custody evaluator who concluded that Father’s behavior did not rise to the level of parental alienation but was better described as “subtle interference” in the Child’s relationship with Mother.
Although I thought Father’s behavior was inappropriate, I questioned whether it met the level of alienation. Parental alienation is such a strong term, so when a client accused the other party of alienation, I was looking for correspondingly strong, and sometimes even extreme, behavior. For example, a mother who cuts the head off the father in a family photograph, thereby literally cutting the father out of her life, and the child witnesses his mother’s conduct, is undoubtedly extreme behavior and one would be hard pressed to argue it is not alienation in its clearest and most direct form. The behavior by Mother in my own case, however, could not be described as extreme and, therefore, labeling it as alienating seemed off base. Rather, the psychologist’s characterization of “subtle interference” seemed to me, to be a more accurate description for Mother’s behavior.
I discussed the custody evaluator’s assessment with a colleague, who happened to agree with Mother that Father’s behavior was alienating the Child from Mother. This conversation with my colleague got me thinking. Would subtle interference classify as a form of parental alienation? To answer this question, I turned to Dr. Stanley Clawar, Ph.D., C.C.S., one of the nation’s foremost experts on parental alienation. He is also the co-author of Children Held Hostage: Dealing with Programmed and Brainwashed Children, which is the first book to provide objective methods for establishing that a child has been brainwashed by one parent against another. The book is based on a ten-year study of 700 cases in the author’s counseling and evaluative work with children of divorced couples. It is considered a practical guide which discusses all aspects of a case where an alienated child may be involved, from identifying the process to making the presentation in court.
What is parental alienation?
Alienation, as Dr. Clawar explained to me, is a very broad term and has many related terms – programming and brainwashing (terms adopted by Dr. Clawar), indoctrination, mind control, total conformity, reeducation, among many, many others. No matter the term used to describe it, Dr. Clawar defines parental alienation as intentional or unintentional behaviors and attitudes of one parent which damage the actual or potential relationship between the child and the other parent.
In voicing my hesitation to label the behavior in my case as alienation, my colleague responded “well, what do you think parental alienation is?” I paused before responding, “it is one parent’s attempt to turn the child against the other parent.” I was not wrong, although a more precise and accurate definition is as follows: parental alienation is when one parent, in an effort to be viewed as the “chosen” parent, fosters an environment in which his or her child is forced to choose sides, and in some extreme instances, actually encourages the child’s rejection of the other parent. These parents manipulate their children to reject, resist contact, or show extreme reluctance to spend time with the other parent. My colleague then pointed out how Father’s behavior was doing exactly what I had defined as alienation. By telling the Child that Mother stole his cell phone, Father was essentially turning the Child against Mother by making Child think Mother stole his phone. (Mother did not in fact steal anything from Child).
What is unintentional alienating behavior?
If a parent’s behavior is unintentional, he or she is acting unconsciously, but those actions still have the consequence or effect of damaging the relationship between the other parent and child. For example, indirect alienating behavior is when one parent talks to a friend on the phone about the other parent and makes negative statements about that parent, and the parent is not aware the child overhears the conversation. According to Dr. Clawar, this unintentional behavior can be multi-dimensional. It can be verbal (i.e. mom does not pay child support), or it can be behavioral (i.e. father does not have the child available for pick up on a regular basis or one parent withholds information from the other parent). Intentional alienation, on the other hand, is talking negatively about the other parent in the child’s presence, or a more extreme example would be the picture-cutting mother I described earlier.
At what point does one parent’s subtle interference in the child’s relationship with the other party become parental alienation?
What about the behavior I had witnessed in my own case? Does a parent telling a child that the other parent stole his phone qualify as indirect alienation? Or is it subtle interference as I had originally thought? According to Dr. Clawar, subtle interference can mean unintentional or unconscious behavior but the ultimate question is whether the parent is going to stop the interference. Furthermore, Dr. Clawar pointed out that one lone comment by a parent does not necessarily mean that parent is engaging in alienating behavior. However, a situation such as the one which I described, combined with other behavior, can certainly amount to alienation. According to Dr. Clawar, alienation, whether direct or indirect, is a process and it does not happen in one day. It is clustered with dozens and dozens of statements and behaviors by one parent, which, if successful, prevents full and meaningful parenting by the alienated parent.
Alienation clearly encompasses many types of behaviors and attitudes. If you wish to pursue custody, it is important to talk with your family law attorney about your concerns, including whether the other parent is engaging in alienating behavior as this may be an important factor in your case.