Divorce is never an easy time. It’s distressing for everyone involved, but for innocent children who played no part in the divorce decision, it’s life-altering and immensely difficult. Children should never have to shoulder the burden of their parent’s choices during the tumultuous time during and after their parents’ divorce. Most parents understand how upsetting divorce can be for children and do their absolute best to protect them, but for some parents, the need to hurt the other parent and isolate them—if not from the children themselves due to court-ordered shared custody arrangements—then from their children’s love and affection, this need takes precedence over their children’s emotions.
Studies indicate that parental alienation occurs in as many as 15% of divorces in marriages with children. If you suspect that your spouse or ex-spouse may be using tactics to alienate your children from you, it might help to know that there are some ways to defend against this type of attack and minimize the emotional harm to children.
What is Parental Alienation During Divorce?
Parental alienation is now considered a form of emotional abuse, resulting in Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) in children. It’s an intentional strategy where one parent displays to the children unrelenting and unjustified negativity aimed at the other parent in an effort to turn the children against that parent. There may be several underlying reasons for the behavior including:
- To keep all of a child’s affection to oneself
- To alienate the other parent from the family circle
- To punish the other parent for real or perceived harms
- To use the children as an outlet for their own negative feelings toward the ex-spouse
In some cases of parental alienation, children become very confused and conflicted. In other cases, they may become increasingly hostile toward the parent who is the target of the alienation attempts. In either case, this type of conflict is emotionally damaging to children.
Combating Parental Alienation
Coming to the understanding that an ex-spouse is bad-mouthing you in front of the children and employing tactics to make your children dislike and distrust you is very distressing. However, it’s important to react in a calm and deliberate way to combat this sort of gaslighting from the other parent. That means taking the following actions:
- Resist the temptation to bad-mouth your ex in return, but instead, try explaining to the children in the kindest possible terms that the other parent is acting out of hurt, anger, and disappointment when they say negative things about you
- Keep asserting your rights to shared custody or visitation according to the terms of your divorce agreement or court orders and become the role model your child needs
- Never blame the child, but instead remain positive, calm, and soothing when your child acts out or repeats the negative things the other parent has said about you
- Counteract negative influences from the other parent by doing your best to continue parenting in the best way possible by engaging in fun activities with your children
- Remain a positive parenting force in your children’s lives
- Seek out a qualified family therapist and engage in therapy sessions with your children
- Consult with an experienced Denver child custody attorney about your legal options
Are There Legal Consequences to Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation can be difficult to prove, but many courts are taking a more proactive stance on this type of behavior. When a parent takes this complaint to court a judge could hold the alienating parent in contempt if the behavior includes preventing the child from their court-ordered visitation or shared custody. A family court could also:
- Order reunification therapy for the family or individual therapy for the parent doing the alienating
- If the attempts at parental alienation occur before the divorce is final it could impact the judge’s decisions on custody and shared parenting
- The court could order a modification of the existing custody and visitation order
The courts always act in the best interests of the child, and one of the aspects of custody the state considers when making decisions is which parent will best facilitate an ongoing loving relationship between the children and the other parent. Parental alienation is the opposite of this ideal parental goal.