In contentious divorces, child custody is often one of the major sources of conflict. This can drive one of the spouses to convince the children that they hate their other parent. The children may suddenly announce they do not want to live with the other parent part-time or even visit with them.
When a parent has a history of domestic violence, neglect, drug addiction or similar issues, such an attitude is understandable. But absent any negative history, the parent may feel confused and hurt by this rejection. In family law and child psychology circles, this is known as parental alienation.
Parental alienation is when one parent pressures or manipulates their child into feeling negatively about their other parent, perhaps even hating them. The dislike is not based on legitimate reasons but is the manipulating parent’s attempt to gain sole custody of the children. By “winning” the child custody battle this way, the alienating parent can cause long-term damage to their children’s relationship with their other parent. Parental alienation can also harm the children by making them feel like they have lost their other parent for good. It can take years of effort and therapy to reverse these effects.
Three levels of alienation
Experts say there are three levels of parental alienation:
- Mild alienation. Children subject to mild parental alienation may resist visiting their noncustodial parent. However, they often enjoy visitation once they and that parent are alone together, away from the alienating parent’s influence.
- Moderate alienation. At this stage, the child will strongly resist spending time with the non alienating parent, and once there, will act resentful and difficult.
- Severe. A child suffering from severe parental alienation syndrome will do everything they can to avoid seeing the alienated parent, including hiding and running away.
Parental alienation can be reversed, but it is best if children never go through it in the first place. This starts with you and your ex committing to avoid criticizing each other in front of the kids. It also means making a good-faith effort to work out a parenting plan that is in the children’s best interests and respects both parent’s rights.