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What is parental alienation and why it hurts everyone

Evan Koslow

Evan Koslow

Parental alienation is perhaps the worst experience any family can go through while also going through a divorce or separation.

Parental alienation is defined as one parent turning a child or children against the other parent through disparaging remarks and sometimes keeping the child away from the other parent for no reason. As a matter of fact, parental alienation puts a child’s well-being at risk, as they bear the agony of choosing between fighting parents.

Maryland judges understand and easily recognize when a parent is “alienating” the other parent from the children. Because parental alienation is not diagnosed as a mental disorder, Maryland courts do not consider expert testimony in order to label a situation as parental alienation; rather, they accept expert testimony on the negative effect on a child who is prevented from having access to a parent without proper justification.

The term “alienation,” which is commonly thrown around in a high-conflict divorce, is frequently misunderstood and misused. At its core, alienation is about a child’s behavior, not about a parent’s behavior, and it involves a profound change in a child’s reaction to a previously loved parent. This reaction typically occurs in the context of an acrimonious divorce in which the child has been exposed to a great deal of anger and conflict and suddenly begins to reject one parent and become intensely aligned with the other parent. The child’s anger at the parent is not based on the reality of what has actually happened between the parent and the child, despite what they may claim.

In the most severe cases of alienation, the relationships in the family become completely polarized. There is a good, loved parent and a bad, hated parent. The child has lost the freedom to love both parents.

It’s equally important, however, to understand what ISN’T alienation. Hostility, denigration, and other expressions of anger by one parent toward the other during a high-conflict divorce is common. Parents in these cases frequently attack one another and say nasty and vindictive things. Accusations of alienation quickly follow. While this behavior is far from optimal, it is not alienation. Alienation is about the disturbed behavior of a child and the transformation of the parent-child relationship. When a child rejects and refuses contact with a parent, THIS is alienation. When a parent becomes hostile and attacking, it is bad behavior but not alienation.

There are times when children reject a parent for good reasons, such as when the parent has been violent, abusive or neglectful or has demonstrated other parenting deficiencies. In these cases, the child’s rejection of the parent does not reflect unreasonable or unfounded anger toward a previously loved parent. Rather, the rejection is a healthy response to the parent’s damaging behavior.

Early identification is absolutely necessary in every family. Time is of the essence and delays in identifying alienated children, or those at risk, reduces the likelihood of successful intervention. A child’s refusal to visit or the suspension of visits is a “red flag,” particularly if the parent and child previously did things together before the separation and if there are no clear indications of realistic estrangement. Careful inquiry and prompt intervention is crucial.

Attorneys with an alienation case should move early in the case for orders which insure that contact between the rejected parent and the child continues.

2 comments

  1. What we call parental alienation is really a form of domestic violence by proxy, wherein a coercively controlling abuser uses the children to control and punish the other parent. If the abuser fails to alienate the children from the other parent, he will frequently punish them for disloyalty and to illicit an estranged response, which he then uses to make false parental alienation accusations. In reality, he is the one doing the alienating, but with reverse affect. Either way, the children end up in the hands of the abuser. Both PA and false accusations of PA are forms of DV by proxy. So how can the courts distinguish between them? The current framework for identifying PA is flawed in that it assumes PA in every case a child resists a parent. The more the nonabusive parent or child complains of abuse, the more they are viewed as alienating or “coached”. Children are ending up in the hands of the abusers. I would suggest instead that we look for signs of coercive control –domination, lack of regard for the rights or boundaries of others, manhandling or physical restraint, isolation, authoritarian or alternatively, overly permissive parenting styles, lack of previous involvement in the childrens’ lives, history of abuse or violence, etc. Regardless, in no event should children be completely and drastically removed from a parent they are attached to. No parent who truly loves their child would subject their child to such trauma such to punish the other parent. Unfortunately, the courts, lacking understanding of the mechanisms of domestic violence, frequently reverse custody in favor of the abuser.

  2. Alienation is junk science and shouldn’t be admitted in Maryland. Any lawyer representing a client who is accused of alienation should file a motion in limine requesting a Frye/Reed hearing to keep it out.

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