New York Child Custody

Parental Alienation

By Staff Writer

The standard utilized by Courts in New York State in deciding custody is the "best interests of the child." In structuring a custodial schedule that best meets a child's interests, the Courts consider a variety of factors, including that of "parental alienation." 

Parental Alienation is not unique to New York State, or any other specific local. Rather, it is a problem that is, unfortunately, all too common and one that plagues homes and Courtrooms across the Country. 

Any parent who has been alienated from his or her child will need no definition of this term. They know it for what it is - the insidious use of the children as pawns in an effort to discredit the other parent as a parent. Parental alienation occurs when a parent either intentionally or unintentionally aligns the child with him or her and against the other parent. Simply put, the alienating parent turns the children "against" the other parent. 

Children who have been alienated will begin to reflect the feelings of the parent who has alienated them against the other parent. They will no longer wish to spend time with the alienated parent and will begin to think poorly, or show fear towards, the other parent. Mental health professionals have written many articles and studies explaining how and why parental alienation occurs. In its most basic form, parental alienation occurs when a parent becomes so consumed with his or her personal feelings of anger, betrayal and hurt, that they are unable to separate those personal feelings from the other parent's right and ability to have a relationship with the children. Often, the alienating parent truly believes his or her own rhetoric. They are so convinced that the other parent is evil that their belief compels their conclusion that the other parent must be bad for the children. A

n alienating parent can engage in a number of unacceptable tactics. They might call the other parent names in front of or directly to the child, speak negatively about the other parent in the presence of the child, refuse to abide by access schedules ,or have no regard for the child's contact with the other parent, often telling the children that it is their decision whether or not they go to visit. More subtle examples of alienating conduct include scheduling fun family events when a child or children will be visiting with the other parent, confiding in the children about the other parent's conduct that caused the marital dissolution, rewarding the children when they mimic the alienating parent's disparaging statements or conduct regarding the other parent, and rewarding the children when they refuse to visit with the other parent. 

Discussing the other parent's marital faults with the children and keeping the children updated on the details of the Divorce is, unfortunately, common. A parent who does this is not being honest with their children. Rather, they are alienating them against the other parent. Divorce and Custody/visitation disputes are legal actions between two adults. Children should never be involved in those issues. If they ask, as they invariably will, about the details, they should be told that the issues are adult issues and that both of their parents love them. 

Another common form of alienation is scheduling activities for the children during the other parent's custodial time in an attempt to prevent that visitation from occurring and/or preventing the other parent from attending school events, conferences and extra curricular activities. Children benefit from the involvement of both parents in the various aspects of their lives. No matter what wrongs a parent perceives that the other parent inflicted upon them and/or the children, the children will benefit from spending time with the other parent and having that parent present at important events in their lives. 

Parents in the midst of adult disputes are prone to using the children as messengers or weapons. It is always inappropriate to question a child about the details of the other parent's life or to use the child as a messenger for adult issues. Surprisingly, even well intentioned parents will instruct their children to ask the other parent questions regarding adult issues such as Child Support, visitation or division of marital property or debt. Your child's relationship with the other parent is that of parent and child. Children should never be used as messengers for questions or to relay information on adult issues. 

Immature behavior in front of the children is also a form of indirect alienation. By refusing to speak with the other parent or deal with him or her in an adult manner, a parent sends the children a very clear message: the other parent is not worthy of your time and respect. Anyone with children knows that children emulate and mimic the behavior of adults close to them. If a parent treats their former partner with disrespect, in time, so will the children. 

Parental alienation is a factor that Courts should, can, and do consider when awarding Custody. In extreme cases, alienation, which is viewed as an inability of one parent to foster a positive relationship between the child and other parent, can serve as a basis for a change in Custody or an award of Custody to the parent who has been the subject of the alienation. In less extreme cases, Courts will typically modify the existing visitation schedule to give more time to the alienated parent and will sometimes Order therapy for the parties or the children.  

Recently, a New York Court suspended child support to punish an alienating parent.  Although that result might justly be viewed as equally punitive in its effect upon the children, it might  be a truly effective means of compelling a different set of behaviors from the alienating parent.  The child support was not terminated - it was suspended until the alienating conduct was ended.  An analysis of that case is contained in this Newsletter. 

The sad fact is that any Order fashioned by a Court to address a situation where alienation has occurred is nothing more than a band aid placed on a bad situation. If a child has been alienated from a loving parent, that parent-child relationship may be irretrievably broken. If not, it certainly will have been damaged to a great degree. 

When considering the possible remedies for alienating conduct, a Court has to consider that it may not be able to award Custody or even an expanded custodial access or visitation schedule to the parent who has been alienated. To do so might cause more emotional harm to the child who has been taught to disrespect, fear, or even hate that parent. 

An Order that the parties engage in therapy presupposes that the alienating parent will view a therapist as an expert to be listened to. That does not occur in all cases. The end result of a campaign of alienation is often children who are damaged, probably for life. The parent who has been alienated is often then asked to do the Herculean - remain patient, loving and available, continue to show up for access periods even though you may be denied access, and continue to provide for the children no matter what. It can be no surprise that a number of those parents do the opposite. They abandon their efforts to remain a constant part of their children's lives. The alienating parent gets exactly what they set out to achieve. They have made the other parent vanish. However, in doing so, they have very clearly harmed their children. It is also clear, however, that only by staying in their children's lives can the alienated parent help their children to recover from the effects of conduct that is as damaging as outright physical abuse.