What Is Parental Alienation?

Before learning how issues of parental alienation can impact child custody disputes, it’s important to understand what parental alienation is–and isn’t. Parental alienation occurs when a child exhibits strong or excessive dislike of one parent, often expressing outright hatred. This happens when the other parent has trained the child to develop and express these feelings to try to break the relationship between the child and the parent. In child custody cases, the parent encouraging the hatred usually wants to receive sole custody.

To be clear, the parent who’s on the receiving end of the denigration has done nothing to deserve it for it to be considered parental alienation. A child who’s been neglected or abused in any way has cause to feel negatively about a parent who inflicted that neglect or abuse on them. The other parent may reinforce those feelings, but it was the abusive parent who instilled them in the first place, so it’s not a case of parental alienation.

Instead, when one parent hasn’t been neglectful or abusive, but the other parent works to turn the child against the innocent parent, that’s the type of emotional manipulation known as parental alienation. It can be considered a form of child abuse.

Keep in mind that there are situations in which a parent who’s bitter about the divorce doesn’t intend to engage in parental alienation but can’t help saying some angry things in front of the child. If someone hears from their child that the other parent is doing this, the first step–depending on the condition of the parents’ relationship–could be just to sit down and talk about it with the other parent. If both parties remain calm, it may be enough to point out the behavior and request that it stop. If you’re unsure you can manage the conversation calmly, it might be time to bring in an attorney. There are times when the other parent, once they’ve learned about the behavior and how it can affect the child long-term, may rein themselves in and prevent alienation from occurring.

How Is Parental Alienation Identified?

If you have reason to believe your soon-to-be ex may be engaging in parental alienation while negotiating child custody, there are several things you can do to prove it. However, it’s vital that you work with an experienced child custody attorney to ensure that you build a case without inadvertently violating any laws. 

The types of evidence that might help include:

Witness testimony. Anyone who has witnessed the parent denigrating the other parent in front of the child could provide testimony. That could be other family members, teachers, daycare workers, medical professionals, team coaches, friends, parents of the child’s friends, neighbors, clergy, etc. 

Communication that shows signs of denigration. That can include emails, texts, voicemails, or anything that demonstrates either that the parent is training the child or that the child is parroting the parent. 

Professional testimony. Some cases may benefit from having a mental health evaluator brought in who can interview the child and the parents and determine that the child is being manipulated. Some of the things the evaluator may look for include:

    • The child says similarly or identically negative things that the alienating parent says.
    • The child rigidly refuses to consider visiting the other parent.
    • The child believes only negative things about the other parent and won’t consider anything good.
    • The child’s beliefs appear to come from another person (the alienating parent) rather than from their own experiences. 

If Parental Alienation is a Form of Child Abuse, Should Child Protective Services Become Involved?

This is a complex question. Because it is a form of child abuse, it seems logical to involve Child Protective Services (CPS). However, keep in mind that the child is already tremendously stressed by the pressure put on them by the alienating parent. Before contacting CPS, talk with an experienced child custody attorney who may recommend pursuing mental health treatment avenues before involving CPS.

How Do California Courts Address Custody Cases that Involve Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation itself isn’t a crime in California, but it does cause concern in the courts. The court may order mental health assessments and, if parental alienation is confirmed, may order treatment for the child or parent causing the alienation, or both. In cases in which the alienating parent claims the other parent is guilty of abuse or neglect, those claims would need to be investigated, too.

If abuse or neglect isn’t substantiated, the court may consider several options, including reconciliation counseling for the child and the alienated parent or physical child custody options that allow more time for the alienated parent. In some severe cases, the alienated parent may be awarded sole physical custody of the child. However, California courts prefer to have both parents involved in the child’s life, so this is an extreme measure.

What Should I Do if I Need Help with a Child Custody Case Involving Parental Alienation?

Call Tomassian, Pimentel & Shapazian as soon as possible at 559-277-7300 to set up a consultation. Divorce itself can be tremendously stressful, and when there are child custody issues involved–especially if the other parent is trying to alienate your child from you–it can be even more so. We understand how difficult this time is for you. Our team of experienced, knowledgeable child custody attorneys can guide you through the specifics of your case and help determine the best approach.