What Is Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation occurs when one parent manipulates a child into hating or fearing the other. This may occur in the context of either a divorce proceeding or a modification of custody matter, and is a way for one parent to limit and/or exclude the other from the child’s life.
The specific definition of parental alienation is fuzzy, as it may be one primary behavior that is obvious, but is more often many collective behaviors that the alienating parent does. What makes is more difficult to understand is that attorneys, child psychologists, and other experts often define it differently based on their knowledge and expertise.
The Parental Alienation Awareness Organization defines it as a set of emotionally abusive behaviors that involve “the systematic denigration of one parent by the other with the intent of disrupting what would otherwise be a loving parent-child bond.”
The term doesn’t refer to isolated incidents, but a pattern of behavior with the ultimate goal of persuading the child to shun the targeted parent.
In Georgia, there is no formal definition of the term, but the courts are more “open” to consideration of evidence leading to alienation.
Parental Alienation in Georgia Courts
In Georgia, the “best interest(s) of the child” is the “standard” Courts have to go by. More than any single factor, the best interests analysis takes priority in Georgia custody cases. In most circumstances, the court prefers to allow each parent to have a positive role in the child’s life while sharing the responsibility of raising the child. At times this shared responsibility will be with the child spending equal time with each parent. At other times, it may mean the child lives primarily with one parent, but spends time with the other parent according to a schedule.
If your divorce or modifications of custody action goes to court, the judge presiding over your case will consider your child’s best interests, each parent’s ability to raise the child, and whether each parent is willing to encourage a positive relationship between the child and the other parent, regardless of the parents’ feelings toward each other. There are also a multitude of other factors that the court will consider prior to making a decision about custody.
Charges of parental alienation are extremely serious and can have a significant effect on custody cases.
It is not unusual for a Court to permanently change custody in cases where charges of parental alienation were brought and shown.
False Claims of Parental Alienation
Many experts consider parental alienation to be a form of child abuse. However, the charge of parental alienation can also be a tool in the hands of abusers or those who just want to “win.”
Consider either of these scenarios: You are married to a spouse who is controlling or abusive (more often than not, both), and you have a child together. After many difficult years, you finally garner the courage to leave and take the child with you. You file for divorce, and in order to protect the child, you bring up your spouse’s behavior in Court and the Court gives you “primary” custody. Your ex-spouse then begins to address issues with the child claiming you are “getting all the money” or they “can no longer afford” to live. They then begin telling the child that you are purposely alienating your child from them and they wish they could see the child and “have fun” more. Your child then begins to feel guilty (or even ashamed) and tells you they want to live with your ex. The judge appoints a Guardian ad Litem and the Guardian listens to the child and begins to side with the child—just because “it’s easier” and “what the child wants.” The Court listens to the evidence, then hears what the Guardian has to say and agrees with your spouse. You have now become the “non-custodial” parent as a result of your ex’s campaign and enlistment of the child.
In another case, you are married to a spouse that is angry at you and cannot move beyond that anger in a healthy way. After much struggle, perhaps therapy, and discussion, you and your spouse decide to divorce. A divorce is filed. Despite what you and your spouse agreed to previously regarding custody of the children, you begin noticing little things: your spouse does not leaves you alone with the child or becomes overly emotional when you to take the child even for “your time.” When your spouse is around the child they “roll” their eyes at what you say, or even directly undermine your authority (e.g., “it’s ok” or “don’t worry about what was said” or “your with me now”). Your spouse then begins to “reward” your child very subtly when they go against you in any way. The spouse begins to empower the child by being the child’s “friend” as opposed to their “parent.” They begin to allow the boundaries to slack with the child and become laissez-faire in their household “rules” and “boundaries” or “discipline” of the child. You have now become the “bad” parent because you simply are trying to set appropriate boundaries and parent your child—but because your child is still developing, then will not (and indeed cannot) understand this—and they will interpret even the most fundamental or basic of “rules” as “restricting them,” “controlling,” or “abusive” and they begin distancing from you and spending less time. Your spouse has enlisted your child against you and you are being alienated.
Parental alienation can cause lasting harm to children whether the alienation comes from overt behaviors or subtle, covert behaviors and when the allegations are true, the best thing for the child may be to change the terms of custody. However, alienating parents also use these accusations to regain custody and control. You must understand alienation is complex psychologically and the impact on a child is equally complex—there are a lot of “moving parts” even in the most obvious of circumstances.
Signs of Parental Alienation
Some of the behaviors that indicate parental alienation can be very common, even understandable. What parent hasn’t made a disparaging remark or two within earshot of a child in the midst of a contentious divorce case? What parent hasn’t “rolled” their eyes and commented about something their “ex” has said while in front of their child?
But parental alienation doesn’t just refer to occasional events. It’s more than just the occasional comment. Alienation is like a pattern—that consistent drip— that may include a number of these symptoms, over a period of time.
Some things to watch for include:
Allowing a child to choose their visitation (or empowering the child to believe they can). Typically, a court order defines the terms of visits for the non-custodial parent. These visits can rapidly become a point of contention, however. When the custodial parent tells the child they can choose not to go on the visit, it can set up a contentious situation. This empowers the child beyond their developmental ability to cope and leads to problems.
Telling young children grown-up details. Some parents will tell their children adult details about the relationship and the divorce that can serve to alienate that child from the other parent. This can be a sign of parental alienation, especially when the parent is disparaging and negative about the other. This also “aligns” the child and tried to assure the child’s “loyalty” to one parent over the other.
Refusing to cooperate with the other parent. If one parent is refusing to cooperate with the other in co-parenting—for instance, not allowing them access to children’s school or medical records, not telling them the child’s extracurricular schedule, or refusing to be flexible about visitation, this may be a sign of parental alienation.
Insisting that a child choose between parents. This can be highly distressing for children. In a healthy scenario where neither parent is abusive, most children will not want to reject either parent.
Under Georgia law, children are allowed to state their preference of which parent to live with once they reach the age of 14. If the child is old enough, it’s important to let them start the conversation to move to another parent’s house and not “insist” they do it before the child is developmentally ready and brings it up on their own.
Unreasonable anger on the part of children. Anger against one (or both) parent(s) is very common and not a sign of a deliberate campaign of alienation in and of itself. This is especially true in difficult divorce proceedings, which can cause strong emotions in everyone. However, a continuation of that anger without justification or reason is a problem.
If the child sees the alienated parent in a consistently negative light, cannot think of anything good about that parent, and is constantly angry at them for indefinite reasons, it may be a sign of purposeful alienation.
Using children to spy on a parent. Sometimes, the alienating parent may ask a child to “report back” on details of the other parent’s life – are they dating; are they working; what is their home situation like; or other questions. Enlisting a child to gather information about the targeted parent may be a sign of parental alienation.
Displeasure at a child’s good time. When the child enjoys their time with the other parent, an alienating parent may react with displeasure, sadness, or anger. This is insidious and can be as subtle as a child coming home from a noncustodial visit and the other parent telling them how much they missed and needed them while they were gone—or how sad they were. The child gets the message that it’s not okay to enjoy that time away from them and expressing that enjoyment may hurt the parent’s feelings or cause other consequences.
Calling the targeted parent by their first name. This is one of the most clear examples of alienation: if your child is beginning to refer to you by your first name rather than “Mom” or “Dad,” you can rest assured that some degree of alienation is occurring (and it is usually a pretty significant degree at that).
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are many behaviors that may indicate parental alienation and it’s typically not one, but a long list of behaviors that happen as a pattern over time.
Work With An Experienced Georgia Family Lawyer
Taylor Law has extensive experience dealing with parental alienation issues in Georgia family court. If you believe your child is being purposely turned against you or your spouse is making unfounded claims that you’ve done this, we can help.
Get in touch now by calling (678) 738-0056 for a free, confidential conversation. We are available 24/7.