Parental alienation can harm children both short and long term

When one parent tries to paint the other parent in a poor light to their child in an attempt to wrongly keep the child apart from the other parent, it is called parental alienation.

Parental alienation can occur when one parent inappropriately turns a child against the other parent or to a level undeserved by the other. For example, the parent may wrongly say negative things to the child about the other parent's character or behavior to pressure the child to dislike the other parent or even refuse to see him or her.

This kind of alienating behavior in itself is not a manifestation of a mental disorder, according to most sources, but in extreme cases, many view it as a kind of child abuse. After all, if the other parent does not pose a danger to the child, then it is normally in the best interests of the child to have contact with both parents, under supervision if necessary.

Examples of alienating behavior include:

  • Withholding or monitoring mail, online communication and phone calls to or from the other parent
  • Keeping from the other parent information about the child's activities, health or school
  • Saying bad things about the other parent, true or false
  • Creating an image of the other parent that generates feelings of hatred or fear in the child
  • In extreme cases, falsely accusing the other parent of abuse

The child in this scenario may indeed become afraid of or angry with the other parent, even refusing contact. Even later as an adult, such a child is more likely to suffer from substance abuse and other addictions, depression, insecurity and low self-esteem.

Sorting out the child's best interests can be complex in such a situation. For example, the other parent may indeed have behaviors or character traits from which a child should be shielded or protected. In this situation, it may actually be appropriate to restrict visitation or custody rights. A parent advocating for the child in this scenario should not be wrongly accused of parental alienation.

In a Pennsylvania divorce, if a parent suspects that the other parent is engaging in alienating behavior before the divorce is over, the concerned parent can request an expedited custody hearing before the actual divorce trial. Rather than allowing the behavior to continue throughout the divorce process (such as ongoing badmouthing or refusal of visitation or contact), the alienated parent may be able to get the judge to order temporary visitation or custody, or arrange for reunification therapy, if in the child's best interest.

The family lawyers at Testa & Pagnanelli, LLC, with offices in Philadelphia, Norristown and Radnor represent parents in custody and visitation matters.