Child custody during and after divorce – Dangers of Parental Alienation

If you are newly divorced, undergoing a divorce, or considering separating from your spouse, we understand that this is not an easy time for you. If you and your spouse/former spouse have a child or children together, the situation can be even tougher.

During a time when tension between parents is at its highest and conflict regarding parenting responsibilities and access to children arises, some may worry that the spouse/former spouse may resort to parental alienation in an effort to control and hinder the emotional relationship the children would otherwise forge with them.

Parental alienation is a situation where one parent uses strategies to manipulate his/her child to have unjustified feelings of animosity or fear towards the other parent, in order to distance a child from the other parent.

Parental alienation may occur consciously or unconsciously. In fact, research indicates that in 11 to 15% of divorce cases, parental alienation was found to be present. It is estimated that 1% of children globally are subjected to some form of parental alienation with an equal distribution between fathers and mothers being alienated and doing the alienation (Bernet, von Boch-Galhau, Baker, & Morrison, 2010; Fidler & Bala, 2010; Kruk, 2011).

If you are a parent navigating a divorce, it is important that you be able to recognize the types of parental alienation, and have a plan to address any problems that may arise.

There are 3 main types of alienators:

i) Naïve alienators

The naïve alienator wants the child to have a good relationship with the other parent, does facilitate the child’s access with the other parent, and does not have any ill intentions. However, while the parent means well, the parent may unconsciously make passing remarks criticizing the other parent.

For example, “tell your mother it would help if she was on time to pick you up”, or “tell your father that he has more money than I do, so get him to buy you your new sports shoes”.

While those are trivial comments, it can cause the child to be apprehensive as to how to treat the other parent. Thankfully, this problem is likely to be easily solved once it is pointed out to the naïve alienator, reminding him / her to be more mindful of his / her words and actions.

ii) Active alienators

An active alienator is similar to a naïve alienator in that they both believe that children should have a good relationship with both parents. Like naive alienators, they are able to differentiate between their needs and those of the children by supporting the children’s desire to have a relationship with the other parent.

However, unlike a naïve alienator, an active alienator tends to have strong feelings of bitterness or frustration towards the other parent.

As such, they struggle with not letting their own pain affect their behaviour during the co-parenting and divorce journey. Their problem has more to do with loss of self-control when they are upset with the other parent than with a sinister motivation. Hence, this may result in angry outbursts and complaints, or arguments with the other parent in front of the children.

For example:

Why did you have to tell your father that your swimming classes are cancelled? The miser will now ask his attorney to deduct the swim coach fees from the child’s maintenance. I plan to use the money for a staycation with you. You remember he has done it before and deprived us of the spare cash for our Christmas party.

While active alienators generally comply with the access and maintenance court orders, they can be very rigid and uncooperative with the other parent. This is usually a passive attempt to strike back at the other parent.

For example, in a court order that was previously agreed by the parties a few years ago, both parents agreed that the father could bring the child for an annual overseas trip for up to 7 days during the school holidays. However, due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions, the father wanted to bring the child for a staycation instead. The mother refused as a staycation does not constitute an “overseas trip”. As a result, this necessitated us having to take out a Court application in the Family Justice Courts on the father’s behalf to vary the initial court order to allow him to bring the child for staycations.

For the most part, older children have their own views about both parents based upon their personal experience rather than what they are told by others. To maintain harmony, the older child usually learns to keep their views to themselves. The younger and more trusting children tend to be in a dilemma as to which parent they should believe and more vulnerable to the active alienator’s manipulation.

Since active alienators do not usually have any malicious intent and have a genuine desire to act in the child’s best interest, they may act rationally after calming down. They may apologise to the child or the other parent. They are also open to accept professional help as well as attend mediation sessions to resolve any underlying issues with the other parent.

iii) Obsessed alienators

Unlike the 2 aforementioned alienators, an obsessed alienator speaks or acts with the purpose of causing estrangement.

Obsessed alienators typically present with narcissistic or borderline personality traits. When their relationship ends with the targeted parent, for whatever reason, the obsessed alienator experiences an abnormal grief reaction called narcissistic injury. They will intensely feel the loss and embarrassment of the loss. They will externalise the cause of their pain and will want the targeted parent to suffer for their pain.

The obsessed alienator has an unquenchable anger and bitterness towards the other parent, and these feelings do not subside but instead becomes more intense as he/she is being forced to continue a relationship with an ex because of the children. While they combine traits of naïve with active alienation, they lack any level of self-control or insight.

The alienating parent will want his child to be firmly on his/her side and turn his/her child against the other parent by giving biased perceptions of the targeted parent. For instance, if the other parent is not free to meet their child as scheduled, the alienator will tell their child that the other parent does not care or want to meet them.

For example, “Your mother is not free because she is busy dating. Just like how she abandoned me for another man during the marriage, she will no longer care for you once she starts a new family. I, however, will always be here for you."

Obsessed alienators may also find ways to prevent their child from interacting with the other parent and plant seeds of doubt in the child’s mind about the alienated parent. For example, the parent might reconstruct past events to make the child believe nasty and untrue things about the other parent. The obsessed alienators may also manipulate the legal system in order to deprive the other parent from access to the child.

In one of our cases, the obsessed alienator mother lodged a false police report and filed a personal protection order against the child’s father. The child’s mother lied that the child’s father pointed a knife at the child when the child was sleeping and threatened to kill the child and the mother. The child’s mother also submitted pictures of cuts on the child’s arm and claimed that the cuts were inflicted by the child’s father.

Although these were all lies, the child’s father was deprived of his access to the child for many months as the child was so terrified of her father that she refused to spend time with him. It also took months of mediation and counselling before the obsessed alienator finally agreed to withdraw her personal protection order application against the child’s father as it was made without any basis.

Divorce inevitably creates stress and tension for everyone in the family. Children often face difficult adjustments in this transition period. When one parent attempts to sabotage their child’s relationship with the other parent, it is the child who suffers the most. Parental alienation prevents children from receiving the reassurance and support they need—from both parents—to successfully adapt and adjust to their new family dynamics.

Is parental alienation affecting your relationship with your children and your child custody arrangements?

We understand that alienation from your child can be devastating and we will work with you to strengthen and repair your relationship with your child. You do not need to be defenseless to the alienator’s tactics.

Please feel free to contact us at 6280 7388 or drop us a WhatsApp to explore how we can best help you.