family torn apart

Parental Alienation: What Is It?

If your client’s custody case is particularly hostile, you may begin to suspect your client is the victim of parental alienation.

It’s an increasingly common occurrence in custody litigation and disputes, judging from anecdotal evidence supplied by divorce lawyers across the country, so it’s worthwhile to take some time to learn more about this phenomenon, how to recognize it, and what to do about it when it does occur.

This post will focus on the first two issues – parental alienation (PA) in general and indicators of PA – and a subsequent post will discuss what to do when you suspect it’s happening to your client in custody litigation.

Parental Alienation vs. Parental Alienation Syndrome

It’s important, right off the bat, to distinguish parental alienation from Parental Alienation Syndrome. PA is an observable set of behaviors in a child/parent relationship, while PAS is a term coined by Richard Gardner to describe a mental diagnosis that is heavily debated and controversial.

If PA is an issue in your client’s custody case, be very careful of your terminology. If you ask questions about “parental alienation syndrome,” and your testifying expert responds in kind, expect a motion to exclude.

Expert testimony on PAS is not accepted by any court that I know of in the child custody litigation context. Additionally, PAS is recognized neither by the DSM-IV-TR (in the US) or the WHO’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.

The Alienated Child and Her Parent: Observable Behaviors

Instead of focusing on a label or diagnosis, most experts now agree that we should speak of “the alienated child” and the behaviors we can observe in that child in relation to the alienated parent.

Some of those observable behaviors include:

  • Anger that the child cannot explain in an age-appropriate way, or that is based on absurd rationalizations
  • Resistance to visitation that is not occasion-specific but constant and vehement
  • Acting out in unusually overt, hostile ways while in alienated parent’s care or custody
  • Frequent strong expressions of hatred or apathy targeting the alienated parent to a third party, or a targeted campaign of denouncement of the alienated parent
  • Automatic reflexive support of the non-alienated parent, no matter how absurd or indefensible that parent’s position may be
  • Knee-jerk dismissal of any suggestion that the child’s hostility towards the alienated parent is in any way not the child’s own conclusion – that it has been influenced by others, or “planted” by others
  • Scripted, borrowed language used when the child talks about the alienated parent, particularly when criticizing the parent
  • Rejection of any extended family that is associated or aligned with the alienated parent

In the next post, I will share some strategies divorce lawyers and their clients can utilize to prevent and counter parental alienation.