Parental Alienation and Child Custody

Learn about the controversy over parental alienation, how to prove (or disprove) that one parent is programming a child to reject the other parent, and how judges handle these claims.

By , Legal Editor
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Child custody can be one of the most emotional issues that parents have to deal with when they're splitting up—or even long after a divorce is final. Most parents do their best to keep their kids out of the fray. And most kids want a relationship with both of their parents. But sometimes, children get caught up in ugly custody battles by taking sides and rejecting one of the parents.

Children may have good reasons for this behavior, especially if they've been abused. But some parents attribute their kids' estrangement to what's known as "parental alienation syndrome"—the idea that one parent has manipulated a child into turning against the other parent for no good reason. Read on to learn what parental alienation is, why it's controversial, and how alienation claims play out in legal custody battles.

What Is Parental Alienation? Is It Real?

The concept of parental alienation as a psychological "syndrome" was first popularized in the 1980s by Dr. Richard Gardner. Based on his own clinical practice as a psychiatrist and expert witness, Dr. Gardner believed that the vast majority of sexual abuse claims in custody battles were false, and that (mostly) mothers brainwashed their children into believing those false claims in order to win custody or limit the kids' access to their father.

Even as many of Dr. Gardner's beliefs have been debunked, the concept of parental alienation has become popular in some circles (including fathers' advocacy organizations). It has also spawned an industry of custody evaluators and forensic psychologists who specialize in cases involving claims of parental alienation, abuse—or, often, both. And judges often rely on their testimony (more on that below).

But many legal scholars and researchers argue that little empirical evidence supports common ideas about parental alienation.

Signs of Parental Alienation

Parental alienation advocates point to a wide range of signs that one parent is turning a child against the other parent, including:

  • repeatedly badmouthing the other parent
  • limiting or interfering with the child's contact or communication with the other parent
  • telling the child to spy on the other parent or keep secrets, and
  • generally forcing the child to choose between the parents.

Also, some behaviors on the part of children are considered signs of parental alienation, such as:

  • refusing visitation or any contact with the disfavored parent
  • saying things about the disfavored parent that aren't age appropriate (indicating that the child is simply repeating what the other parent said) or just don't make sense, and
  • showing thorough hostility toward the disfavored parent, without any mixed feelings and despite a previously positive relationship.

What the Research Says About Parental Alienation and Abuse

The scientific community has largely discredited the validity of parental alienation as a psychological condition. In fact, the American Psychiatric Association has repeatedly rebuffed efforts to have it included in its manual of mental disorders (DSM).

In response, advocates now commonly characterize parental alienation as a form of emotional child abuse rather than a "syndrome." Even so, many researchers and scholars have cast doubt on the scientific basis for parental alienation claims and their use in custody battles. For instance:

  • An extensive review of the research on parental alienation pointed to a study showing that it's actually uncommon, and that all the children who did reject one parent had multiple reasons, including child abuse, inadequate parenting, or other negative behavior by the rejected parent.
  • Some research shows that claims of parental alienation are often used as a weapon against parents (or children) who claim that the other parent has abused the kids. One study of custody cases involving abuse allegations showed that judges are much less likely to believe mothers' claims that the fathers were guilty of child abuse when the fathers responded by claiming they were the victim of parental alienation.

Are There Laws Against Parental Alienation?

So far at least, there aren't any laws against parental alienation. But most state laws on child custody require judges to consider certain factors when they're deciding which parenting arrangements would be in a child's best interests. Those factors typically include each parent's willingness to encourage the child's relationship with the other parent. So if the evidence shows that one parent is limiting contact or actively harming a child's relationship with the other parent, the judge will take that into account when awarding custody or changing an existing parenting plan.

However, these same laws also generally require judges to consider any history of abuse or neglect in the family when making custody decisions. This can make it complicated for judges to address competing claims of parental alienation and child abuse (more on that below).

How Do Courts Handle Claims of Parental Alienation?

One commonly used method for diagnosing parental alienation as a mental condition includes, as one of the criteria, the absence of abuse, neglect, or serious parenting deficiencies on the part of the rejected parent. But in guidelines for judges dealing with custody disputes, a leading judicial council has pointed out that claims of parental alienation inappropriately ask judges to assume that children don't have a good reason for withdrawing from a parent who might actually be engaging in abusive, violent, or humiliating behavior toward the child. So it's important that judges try to learn what's actually going on.

The Role of Custody Evaluations in Parental Alienation Cases

Whenever one parent has accused the other of parental alienation as part of a custody dispute, the judge will typically order a custody evaluation. The court-appointed evaluator (usually a child psychologist or other mental health professional) will interview the child and parents, gather other relevant evidence (which might involve psychological testing), and report back to the court with findings.

Judges don't have to follow a custody evaluator's recommendations, but those recommendations usually carry a lot of weight—unless a parent can show that the evaluator was biased or didn't have the proper expertise. Sometimes, parents will each hire their own evaluators. Then the judge may have to weigh the competing reports and decide which one is most reliable.

Can You Lose Custody for Parental Alienation?

If a judge concludes that you've engaged in a smear campaign aimed at alienating your child from your co-parent—without a good reason (like abuse)—the judge may require reunification therapy. That could involve extended periods when you can't see or even have any contact with your kid. Or the judge may simply treat the parental alienation as a change of circumstance that warrants changing custody.

Does Mediation Work for Parental Alienation?

Custody mediation can be a cost-effective way for parents to resolve their parenting differences without expensive, lengthy court battles. And in many states, courts require most parents involved in legal custody disputes to participate in mediation.

Unfortunately, by the time parental alienation claims enter the picture, the parents are usually too much at odds to communicate and cooperate—which is required for successful mediation. And mediation is almost always inappropriate when there's a history of abuse.

How to Prove (or Disprove) Parental Alienation

Custody disputes—especially those involving claims of parental alienation—can be very complex, and they usually require expert testimony. If you believe that your child's other parent has turned your child against you—or you're the one being accused of parental alienation—you'll need help gathering the right kind of evidence to prove or disprove these claims. If at all possible that means hiring a family law attorney. A lawyer who's experienced with cases involving claims of parental alienation should be able to refer you to qualified custody evaluators and other experts who can testify in your case.

But if you believe that your co-parent has abused or is still abusing your child, it's critical that you enlist the help of a custody evaluator with in-depth, specialized training and experience in working with abused children. Evaluators without this expertise often fail to recognize (or misread) behaviors of these kids. And without their insight, judges may accept the opinions of other expert witnesses who claim that your abuse allegations are just a symptom of parental alienation.

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