Lisa Zeiderman, Esq., CFL, wrote in Psychology Today that it is not unusual for the children of divorced and divorcing parents to have a “primary parent,” sometimes known as the primary caregiver and sometimes known as the psychological parent. This is the parent with whom they spend most of their time and/or who they turn to for much of their routine care and to share their concerns, fears, and feelings.

It also may be the parent who they wish to spend most of their time with on a regular basis. Sometimes the child’s need to spend more time with one parent versus another is related to the age or gender of the child, which parent has traditionally spent more time caring for the child, or whether one of the parents has re-coupled. Other times it may have to do with which parent has the laxer rules at home regarding bedtime, curfew, or even screentime.

Courts have consistently ruled that one of the most important factors in determining which parent is more suitable to have custody of the children is dependent on a parent’s ability to encourage and enhance the other parent’s relationship with the children.

The Difference between Parental Alienation and Realistic Estrangement

According to William Bernet, M.D., Nilgun Gregory, Ph.D., Ronald P. Rohner, Ph.D., and Kathleen M. Reay, Ph.D. who published their study in the Journal of Forensic Psychology (July 2020, Vol. 65, No. 4), Parental alienation (rejection of a parent without legitimate justification) and realistic estrangement (rejection of a parent for a good reason) are generally accepted concepts among mental health and legal professionals.

Alienated children, who were not abused, tend to engage in splitting and lack ambivalence with respect to their parents; estranged children, who were maltreated, usually perceive their parents in an ambivalent manner. In other words, the difference between parental alienation and realistic estrangement is defined this way: Parental alienation is the rejection of a parent without legitimate justification and realistic estrangement is the rejection of a parent for a good reason.

Some parents use alienation to gain an edge in litigation or to curry favor with a child to gain custody. They may do it to settle the score with a parent who has had an extramarital affair or to avoid paying child support. Whatever the reason, parents need to remember that their child is a product of both parents and that their children need both parents. And for those parents who are attempting to gain control of the children for purposes of avoiding support, then they should also consider that the cost of therapy for their children could run high.

Signs of possible Parental Alienation

What are signs that your child is the victim of parental alienation? And what is the legal recourse if you believe your co-parent is trying to alienate your child against you?

  1. There is a stark reaction to each parent: In other words, one parent is perceived as “good” and the other as “bad.” This lack of nuance in the interpretation of a parent’s behaviors can be indicative that the other parent is painting the alienated parent as “bad” to the child.
  2. Using the other parent’s language: In this case, the child uses the alienating parent’s language or key phrases verbatim to describe the other parent’s behavior, personality, etc.
  3. Lack of rationale: If the child is asked why s/he is uncomfortable with the other parent, they are unable to give examples of behavior or provide reasons that do not make sense, such as the child complaining about his or her bedroom when they never had shown concern about this issue before.
  4. Lack of ability to reason with the alienated parent: In every situation, the child “sides” with the alienating parent, despite logic.

If it sounds familiar, what can you do?

It will be important to understand if your child’s behavior is a result of realistic estrangement or alienation as you work through custody issues with your co-parent.

Talk with your attorney about the issue. They may recommend working with a forensic psychologist to understand the source of the estrangement and whether the break between the parent and child is realistic or the result of the other parent’s manipulative conduct.

For example, is one parent bribing the child with goodies that the other parent cannot afford? If the child is a teenager, is the parent able to consider the child’s interests and desires? Is one parent incapable of placing their child’s needs before their own? Is a parent actively ambushing the other parent’s relationship or is the estranged parent ambushing their own relationship with the child? Your attorney may suggest family therapy or that the alienating parent spends less time with the child.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, reach out to friends and family, or a therapist or attorney if you have one. Please do not burden your children with your concerns. Children are not your friends—they depend on you to be their parents, particularly in the unsettling environment that tends to surround divorce.

Please remember that taking care of your own and your children’s mental health and physical health should be a top priority during this incredibly stressful time.

Note: These opinions should not substitute as a diagnosis or as legal or mental health advice, as each case is unique. If you are facing a similar situation, please contact a mental health professional or family law attorney in your area.

This article is provided by Dr. Ralph Kueche (Child Psychologist). Dr. Kuechle is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle.