Factors for Determining Child Custody
What is Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation, from a legal perspective, is a confusing and ambiguous concept. On the one hand, as professionals that routinely handle divorces, we have regularly seen situations where it appears that one parent actively works to turn a child away from the other parent. On the other hand, a more legally recognized classification has alluded practitioners, making handling these types of cases difficult.
Parental Alienation Syndrome
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), as a defined concept, is relatively new and still unresolved. The concept was only recently given its name by Richard Gardner in 1985 when he used it to describe behaviors of a child who is exposed to parental alienation. Healthline, 2019. He defined PAS as: "a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child's campaign of denigration against the parent, a campaign that has no justification. The disorder results from the combination of indoctrinations by the alienating parent and the child's own contributions to the vilification of the alienated parent." He went on to describe the primary symptoms as:
- The child is consumed with hostility and fear of the alienated parent and deny any positive past or experiences
- The criticisms are based upon "weak, frivolous, or absurd rationalizations"
- The child's feeling about the alienating parent demonstrate steadfast support and unconditional trust without reservations
- The child believes that their conclusions are theirs without the influence from the alienating parent
- The child has a reflexive level of support for the alienating parent during parental conflict
- Absence of Guilt Over the treatment of the alienated parent
- Presence of borrowed scenarios, such as situations that happened before the child's memory or the use of adult language to describe certain situations
- The child's animosity is often spread to the alienated parents entire extended family
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS): Sixteen Years Later, Richard A. Gardner, M.D.
Other Points of View
Despite Gardner's work, however, other experts in the field have not been as quick to validate this diagnosis. Notably, it is NOT recognized as a mental health condition by the:
- American Psychological Association
- American Medical Association
- World Health Organization
- American Bar Association
This is problematic for litigation because legal experts rely heavily upon the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (currently DSM-5) when evaluating cases and Parental Alienation Syndrome is notably not included in the list of mental health conditions that are recognized.
That said, the DSM-5 does include: "Child affected by parental relationship distress." Further, it defines "child psychological abuse" to include: "non-accidental verbal or symbolic acts by a child's parent or caregiver that result, or have reasonable potential to result, in significant psychological harm to the child."
Regardless of classification, there should be no doubt parental alienation exists, it harms a parent-child relationship and has mental health effects for those involved.
How does Parental Alienation Occur?
The emotional estrangement of a child occurs when the alienating parent, sometimes unconsciously, manipulates a child's feelings by repetitively and selectively portraying the targeted parent in a negative light by focusing a child's attention on past mistakes, painful disappointments, and shortcomings of the targeted parent. This pattern of brainwashing ultimately causes the child to crowd out and ignore positive experiences and construct a new and distorted view that is gradually internalized and ultimately leads to the total rejection of the targeted parent.
10 Potential Signs of Parental Alienation
Signs from Child
Becomes more defiant or angry at the targeted parent
Avoids visitation ("not feeling good," "needs to stay here to study")
"Parrots" alienating parent
Does not feel guilty about his behavior towards the targeted parent
Guilty about spending time with the targeted parent
Divulges unnecessary details of your divorce to the child
Speaks harshly about the targeted parent in front of the child
Schedules tempting activities during the other's parenting time
Monitors communications and interactions with the targeted parent
Secrecy related to the child's activities, education or medical history
Related Child Custody Content
Georgia Law on Parental Alienation
Although there is no formal definition of parental alienation in Georgia case law or Georgia statutory law, it is clear that Georgia law recognizes the importance of both parents playing a positive role in the lives of children.
"It is the express policy of this state to encourage that a child has continuing contact with parents and grandparents who have shown the ability to act in the best interest of the child and to encourage parents to share in the rights and responsibilities of raising their child after such parents have separated or dissolved their marriage or relationship."
O.C.G.A. § 19-9-3 (d)
"The willingness and ability of each of the parents to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent, consistent with the best interest of the child."
O.C.G.A. § 19-9-3 (a)(3)(N)
M&T's Practice Pointer
It has been our experience that Georgia courts are becoming increasingly aware and concerned about parental alienation. As such, there has been an increasing number of cases where the ability to co-parent, or not, are becoming major factors in a courts ultimate custody decision.
Georgia Cases on Parental Alienation
Petry v. Romo, 249 Ga. App. 99 (2001)
In re M.E., 265 Ga. App. 412 (2004)
Weickert v. Weickert, 268 Ga. App. 624 (2004)
Consequences of Parental Alienation
Parental alienation has a negative impact on both the parent that is attacked and the child who is victimized by it. While divorce, in and of itself, can cause depression, fear, and anger, for the parent that is shut out, it can create acute psychological trauma that is compounded by their inability to protect their child from the manipulation.
For the child, many have gone so far as to label PAS as a form of emotional child abuse. It not only weakens the parental bond with the targeted parent, but it also causes numerous physiological problems ranging from an increase of anger, anxiety, depression, neglect, and a lack of empathy.
How to Respond to Parental Alienation
Having your child reject you can be very difficult. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. The general rule of thumb is to try and always take the high road and never give up. While good advice, a more comprehensive set of solutions are necessary to combat parental alienation:
Seek an Evaluation by a Therapist
Employ Parenting Strategies
While your instinct maybe to avoid conflict for the benefit of your child, it is important to be assertive, at appropriate times, in a constructive manner to help improve your child's perspective. There will be times where it is important for you to maintain parenting time with your child.
Battling parental alienation will take years, not days - often with limited rewards. You may question whether it is better to give up the fight. Remember that you are the adult and demonstrate consistent, unconditional love regardless of how long it takes.
Children often go through various stages in life and their conduct may not be parental alienation, but just a new phase that they are going through. Be careful not to jump to conclusions and employ a therapist to help you confirm your concerns.
When facing parental
alienation, it is important to work on learning and improving various parenting
strategies. Work on really listening to your child and respond with only
empathy, not judgment thereby creating a safe space for your child. Use play
therapy to discover a child's hidden thoughts. Try some of the tactics proposed
by Dr. Warshak to help a child resist and recover from PAS.
Family therapy can be a
critical and constructive way of helping to overcome negative messaging that
has been programmed into a child.
When facing parental
alienation, it is important to keep a log of various comments, incidents, or
concerns, with date, time, and location information. Have a trusted individual
with you for exchanges to serve as a witness and for basic safety. This
information can be later used by a therapist or a lawyer to better understand
Please contact an attorney
and discuss your options on how to help this child. While we caution against
high conflict divorce which can exacerbate this problem, there is a need to
appropriately assert your parental rights. In short, you are looking for an
attorney that can have a balanced approach to combating these challenges.
Dealing with parental
alienation can be stressful, especially when it appears your energies are not
working. It is important to practice self-care to help you make it through this
period. Consider joining a support group for parents impacted by parental
alienation. Take advantage of individual therapy to provide a sounding board
for appropriate responses and learning day to day techniques to provide
FAQs about Parental Alienation
Q What tools does a court have to combat parental alienation?
There are two major tools that courts use when confronted with parental alienation. First, a court will consider therapy to help rebuild a child's relationship with their targeted parent. Second, a court will consider giving additional parenting time to the targeted parent (including potentially changing the primary custodian of the child) to minimize the impact of the alienating parent while promoting a healthy relationship with the targeted parent.
Q Why does parental alienation happen so often in divorce cases?
Unfortunately, many divorce cases turn into a war zone at the emotional expense of everyone involved, including the child. Sometimes the alienation is a tactic to "win" custody and limit the other parents' time with their child. In others, the alienating parent is seeking to just completely start over and ignore all parts of their past life. Finally, it is sadly worth mentioning that in some cases the child serves as an unfortunate pawn while the parents fight over more assets, cash flow, or other divorce issues.
Q Why does a child sometimes choose to ally with one parent?
There can be a variety of reasons for a child appearing to ally with one parent. Some common ones to consider are fear and intimidation, threats of punishment, or protection of an emotionally fragile parent.