Parental alienation is a controversial topic. It does not appear (by name) anywhere in Arizona’s child custody laws, but it is frequently alleged in family court when legal decision-making (LDM) and parenting time hang in the balance. Sometimes the claim is appropriate but not always.
This blog discusses both scenarios. It also peeks at “detraction”: the problem of truthful (but still damaging) commentary about the other parent.
First, it is almost always inappropriate to discuss family court matters with a minor child, no matter how “mature” or “precocious” they seem to you. It does not matter how much they beg for information or whether the other parent routinely breaks this rule. Children (even teens) are not your “friends.” Not this way. First and foremost, they are your children and you are their parent. Sometimes that means telling them things they don’t want to hear, or refusing to share what they do want to hear. They should be focused on their education, activities, and personal goals – not your family court case.
Second, it is wrong, needless, and even counterproductive to trash the other parent in conversations with your children. Wrong … because it enhances the damage to an important family relationship and denies children the right to develop their own conclusions. Needless … because – if the other parent was really that bad – the child requires no reminder from you. It is evident to everyone. Even if a child is temporarily swayed by the other parent’s charm or manipulation, they almost always come to understand the truth as they grow older, smarter, and stronger. Counterproductive … because your child may eventually refuse any adult relationship with you if they come to believe you poisoned their relationship with the other parent.
Third, family court litigation is important, to be sure. But “winning” LDM or most of the parenting time is not the true gold medal, and you should never lose your broader perspective. The real prize is an honest, fulfilling relationship with your children when they reach adulthood. At that point, they will decide “parenting time” for themselves. They will remember whether their mother or father always put them first. And they will tell both of you whom they want present at their wedding … or their graduation … or the birth of their own children. A mother or father who abuses, frightens, or alienates their children risks throwing away that prize. Forever.
Different Forms of Alienation or Detraction
No belittling of a parent in front of a child is ever especially good, but it does not always happen the same way or for the same reason. Using no particular scientific method, this blog divides behaviors into four, general, common sense categories.
- Truthful Detraction : Sharing Condemnation of the Other Parent About Known Issues
This occurs when a parent discusses accurate information with a child who already knows all about it. There is no revelation, no lying has occurred, the speaking parent may have no evil agenda, and the child may feel no differently about the other parent than before. The conversation even might have been insightful or invited by the child. But it is still bad. The conversation can trouble a child in the long run, especially if you spoke with anger or sarcasm at the time, and especially if the child was privately or subconsciously allowing the possibility of redemption in the other parent. Even if they did not say so out loud, they might have wondered if you still saw some good in that person, despite your shared, common knowledge.
- Truthful Detraction : Sharing Condemnation of the Other Parent That Reveals Something New
This is similar to the last category except, here, your honest disclosure was news to the child. The problem is obvious. Despite the accuracy of your information, the child might not have been ready for it – even if they claimed differently. The revelation may trouble or pain them and blunt their path to understanding the other parent.
- Reckless But Truthful Detraction
This happens when a parent unintentionally, but still rashly, blurts out negative comments about the other parent. It can happen in direct conversation with the child or simply within their reckless earshot while you speak with someone else. It is bad for all the reasons described above.
- Dishonest Manipulation
This is true alienation and, by far, the worst of the four behaviors described in this blog. The offending parent fabricates behaviors attributed to the other parent – and does so with the clear aim of ruining the child’s relationship with the latter. Here the offender simply lies, whether by exaggerating known flaws or simply making up stories designed to anger, shock, or frighten a child into avoiding and rejecting the innocent parent.
It is worth warning the reader that family court judges, lawyers, and professional evaluators do not often dwell at length on these distinctions, even when it seems they should. The term “alienation” tends to be tossed around haphazardly – and irresponsibly – in response to all four categories. “Alienation” is also raised with great zeal and clamor – sometimes as a knee-jerk reaction and without much nuance or thoughtful discussion. This is just another reason to exercise extraordinary caution when talking about your family court case with others. You cannot assume people will care about the context of the conversation or your true intentions.
Misuse of Alienation Theory
Because they are so popular and effective, alienation claims are frequently misused by parents with a different agenda. This is especially true in domestic abuse cases where an offender, because of intimate partner violence and controlling behavior, has already defined the family dynamics without help from anyone else … but wants to deflect attention to other issues. It is a textbook strategy for DV offenders to accuse their victims of the very conduct they themselves have committed – and alienation is no exception. Abusers are master manipulators. They do not hesitate to alienate their children from their non-offending parents, usually by undermining the latter’s authority or suggesting to their sons or daughters that the other parent is “mentally ill” or prone to “false allegations of abuse.”
This form of alienation is both more insidious and less prone to exposure and punishment in family court. This is due in part because of the inherent difficulty with proving domestic violence in the first place, but also because of persistent myths about DV and gender that fall outside the scope of this blog.
A false claim of alienation does not necessarily arise from a DV case, though. It is human nature for separating couples to blame each other for a child’s negative views of either parent. But sometimes a child dislikes a parent for reasons having nothing to do with detraction or alienation. The child may be struggling with personal issues outside the home but taking it out on a parent who got in the way, e.g., while enforcing a curfew or rules about social media. Or maybe the child simply dislikes a parent because they earned it.
Both detraction and parental alienation are wrong and deserve careful study by the family court and behavioral health professionals. As with other complex dynamics, we should continue to work toward a better and more precise understanding of why it happens, hold offending parents accountable in proper measure, but also take care not to allow such an allegation to overwhelm other relevant issues in a child custody case.