WHAT IS PARENTAL ALIENATION?
Classic parental alienation may be characterized as follows:
- There is persistent rejection or denigration of the parent by the child – not just an occasional episode.
- The rejection is irrational (i.e. Alienation is not a reasonable response to the alienated parent's behaviour).
- The child tends to demonstrate no ambivalent feelings.
- The child tends to use language strikingly similar to the alienating parent. Often, such language will be age inappropriate for that child.
- The child aligns unconditionally with the alienating parent.
- The child fails to display any guilt or sensitivity to the alienated parent's feelings. Gifts are often rejected.
- The alienating parent successfully spreads the animosity not just to the other parent, but also to his family, friends, etc.
(The above seven point list is summarized and paraphrased from Ian Turkat: Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Review of Critical Issues (2002), 18-1 Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, pp. 131 - 176.)
Dr. Richard Warshak, one of the world's leading authorities on parental alienation, echoes Turkat's characterization. In Dr. Warshak's words: "alienated children relate to one parent, but not the other, in a consistently negative manner". According to Dr. Warshak, a child is not alienated when the hostility and apparent rejection:
- Is temporary and short-lived rather than chronic
- Is occasional rather than frequent
- Occurs only in certain situations
- Coexists with expressions of genuine love and affection
- Is directed at both parents
Dr. Richard Gardner, another leading expert applies the term "Parental Alienation Syndrome" or "PAS" to children who reject a parent without justification and under the influence of the other parent.
Even if your child does not fit within Turkat or Warshak's description of parental alienation, or Dr. Gardner's use of the term PAS, you may be observing the warning signs of parental alienation in your own family. If you are concerned that you are heading towards a situation where you might become alienated from your children, educate yourself on what the early signs are, and how to deal with them. One parent's conscious (or even unconscious) campaign to poison the children against the other can escalate very quickly and be shockingly effective.
WHAT CAN I DO?
If you and your child suffer from parental alienation, you should employ the services of a health professional familiar with parental alienation. How you as the target parent deal with the situation could play a crucial role in determining the ultimate outcome in your family conflict. The most important thing the target parent must do is maintain contact with the child(ren). Beyond that, in "Divorce Poison", Dr. Warshak gives the following general advice on how to increase the chances of reversing a case of alienation:
- Don't lose your tempter, act too aggressive, or harshly criticize your children.
- Don't counter-reject your children by telling them that if they don't want to see you, you don't want to see them.
- Don't allow the children and your ex to dictate the terms of your contact with them. Don't wait patiently until the children feel "the time is right" for them to see you. Alienated parents learn too late that the time is never right.
- Don't spend your time with the children trying to talk them out of their negative attitudes. Engage in conflict-free, pleasurable interaction instead.
- Don't dismiss the children's feelings or tell them that they're not really angry or afraid of you. Although this may be true, the children will merely feel that you don't understand them.
- Don't accuse the children of merely repeating what the other parent has told them. Again, although this may be true, the children will vehemently deny it and feel attacked by you.
- Don't bad-mouth your ex.
WHAT CAN THE LAW DO?
Sometimes, courts can help, but it is almost always an expensive process. In Ontario you should have outside evidence such as objective third parties who can comment on your formerly healthy and loving relationship with your child. You will also need people who can comment on what is happening now. In the ideal case, you will be able to find professionals (physicians, psychologists, teachers, etc.) who can help the court understand your situation.
The manner of presenting one's case is crucial. Most cases will proceed by motion, and not by trial. The process to get to trial is often too lengthy given the urgency of these cases. In the Reeves case (noted below) it would appear that a cogent presentation of written evidence in admissible format is crucial to one's success in motions court.
In many cases, however, going to court would be counterproductive. An alienated parent must seek professional advice (mental health and legal) to determine if their case is suited to a court-ordered resolution, and how to properly strategize the repair of the damaged parent-child relationship.
WILL THE COURTS SWITCH CUSTODY?
It is difficult to predict how far a court will go in switching the custody of a child, even in cases of severe parental alienation. Some cases show that there is hope: the courts have shown a willingness to reverse custody in certain cases. What these cases also show is just how important the factual situation is in affecting the outcome of any case involving parental alienation.
ONLINE RESOURCES AND RECOMMENDED READING
There are many other websites that address the problem of parental alienation. For a list of internet articles on Parental Alienation Syndrome, see:
Another excellent online resource with helpful links and articles is:
I also highly recommend reading "Divorce Poison", Dr. Warshak's practical and accessible book targeted at parents at all stages of coping with Parental Alienation Syndrome.
One of the most helpful sites re parental alienation is: Keeping Families Connected. This site has a wealth of information including suggested texts in many areas (from the spiritual to the practical) and other links with helpful information. The owners of this site will help you, the alienated target parent, create your own web site so that your children will hopefully find you and understand that your love for them is never ending.
See also: Parental Alienation Information Network - A concise compendium of resources on parental alienation.
For my summaries of some important parental alienation cases, click here.