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Parental Alienation After Divorce

Dear Carolyn,

My heart is broken. The mother of my children has bad-mouthed me so much and talked about our nasty divorce to the children so much that the children won’t talk to me or visit with me. She has poisoned their minds. What can I do?

Carolyn Answers….

Estrangement of a child from a parent is a huge problem in high conflict families. While psychologists differ in what label to assign, if any, to this problem, a book named Divorce Poison deals with the continuum of bad-mouthing, bashing, and brainwashing ending in parental alienation (sometimes referred to as parental alienation syndrome (PAS). Psychologists, who differ with Dr. Warshak, may describe the alienated parent-child relationship as “in groups and out groups.” There is a body of literature worth studying on “in groups and out groups” that are not part of Dr. Warshak’s discussion.

As a family lawyer of many years, I can tell you that parent-child estrangement is very real and devastating in high conflict divorces. The damages to the family and the child are extensive, and these situations need special care by family lawyers who regularly handle high conflict divorces or unmarried parents. Divorce Poison has help for parents who are the “target” of the manipulative parenting of the other parent.

The hallmark of good parenting is the presentation by the parents of a united front to the children. The gold standard of good parenting is not to let the child know the parents disagree about something. In Parental Alienation Syndrome, one parent may be undermined by the other parent in virtually every aspect of the child’s life. The “targeted” parent may become unworthy of even the smallest amount of regard or respect.

Generally, the alienation process starts with bad mouthing, progresses to bashing and ends in brainwashing. Malignant motives are generally present in the alienating parent. Revenge, anger and hanging on to hate are frequently motives. The personality disorder of narcissism can be a factor. Remarriage and third parties can also play a factor.

The key to your situation is that the children have to gain insight into the fact that they are being manipulated. Therapy may help, so you might ask the judge to order therapy for you and the children. You need to let the children know that you love them and that you are there for them. A letter to them memorializing your love for them and telling them you would like to see them would be helpful. You may also want to include a few photos with the letter showing good times. Memorializing the positive is important. Keeping photo albums of the good times you had with the child and keeping these good times in the forefront of the child’s mind is key. Take great vacations with the child and create memories that will never fade. You want to ask the court to give you some extended time in the summer so that the children can “detox” from the alienating parent. While no one wants to involve a child in the parental conflict, when brainwashing has happened, it may be necessary in the conjunction with a therapist to educate the child about brainwashing.

If you find yourself the target of an alienator, you must have an attorney experienced and knowledgeable about alienation of the parent-child relationship. Sometimes careful negotiation and de-escalation are appropriate, but on other occasions litigation is the only answer; that litigation has to be planned carefully not to back-fire with appropriate psychological reports and witnesses. Alienators can be convincing, so careful corroboration is key. If the court agrees with you that the other parent is alienating, the court has the authority to give you complete custody of your children, and there is precedent in North Carolina that allows the court to do this to remedy this serious situation.


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Note that the answers in “Ask Carolyn” are intended to provide general legal information, and the answers are not specific legal advice for your situation.  The column also uses hypothetical questions.  A subtle fact in your unique case may determine the legal advice you need in your unique case.  Also, please note that you are not creating an attorney-client relationship with Carolyn J. Woodruff by writing or having your question answered by “Ask Carolyn.”

This blog is an excerpt from Ask Carolyn, available on kindle.