Typical Behaviors/Attitudes Of Alienating Parent And Alienated Children & Harm Caused By Alienation

Parental Alienation – Part 1 of 3: Behaviors Of Alienating Parent, Alienated Child & Harm Caused

Although very experienced in all aspects of family law, Kelly Peterson also has specific expertise for and specializes in cases involving parental alienation, gatekeeping, and parent time interference.

Key Takeaways:

  • You will learn the typical behaviors of an alienated child;
  • You will learn typical behaviors of an alienating parent

By definition, an alienated child is one who rejects a parent without a good reason. The child’s rejection of the parent is far out of proportion to anything the rejected parent has done.

The behaviors and attitudes of an alienated child often include the following:

  • Freely and persistently expressing negative feelings about the rejected parent, such as anger, hatred, or fear, that are disproportionate to the circumstances and the actions of the rejected parent.
  • Demonizing or vilifying the rejected parent,
  • Presenting trivial reasons to justify their rejection or hatred of the rejected parent.
  • Strongly resisting parenting time or visitation with the rejected parent.
  • Refusing to see the rejected parent in any setting, even virtual parenting time, telephone calls or therapy.
  • Black and white thinking where the favored parent is entirely good and the rejected parent is entirely bad.
  • Making statements to others justifying their feelings about the rejected parent that sound very rehearsed.
  • Brittle, wooden responses to attempted engagement by the rejected parent, and the use adult words or phrases in their discussion of the rejected parent.
  • Idolizing and idealizing the favored parent by speaking so glowingly of them that it appears they have no flaws.
  • Taking the favored parent’s part in parental conflict. This could include such things as describing how the rejected parent has hurt the favored parent, or how the rejected parent caused the favored parent to suffer.
  • Maintaining constant contact with the favored parent. This is particularly troublesome in cases where the child has a cell phone or similar device and constant access to the internet.
  • Demands that the rejected parent stop harassing them, or that the rejected parent should not contact them.
  • Citing frivolous reasons for why parenting time with the rejected parent should not happen.
  • Sometimes threatening to run away, engage in cutting or other self-harm, even suicidal threats. It should be noted that in these cases, interestingly, the self-harming behavior or threats, ideation or attitudes only occur when the child is faced with parenting time or contact with the rejected parent.
  • Exaggerating or even making up false claims about the rejected parent. For example, alleging abuse falsely.
  • Characterizing normal parental discipline and structure by the rejected parent as being violent or abusive.
  • Emphasizing the need to participate in extracurricular activities over the need to spend time with the rejected parent.
  • Spending time in therapy, reiterating repeatedly a litany of the rejected parent’s alleged faults and acts of wrongdoing to persuade the therapist that the rejected parent is evil.
  • Doing that same thing with a guardian ad litem, school counselor, doctor, police officer, etc.
  • Discussing ad nauseam how they are old enough to choose or mature enough to choose whether to have contact or parenting time with the rejected parent.
  • Corrupting their younger siblings by attempting to convince their siblings to adopt their point of view.
  • Engaging in hidden communications with the rejected parent—i.e., self-erasing instant messages, secret email accounts or secret cell phones, etc.
  • Jealously guarding their electronic device as if they are lifelines and allowing the favored parent to have access to the login credentials and passwords of their devices but prohibiting the rejected parent from being able to login.
  • Defiance of household rules beyond the extent of normal developmentally expected defiance.

Oftentimes, alienated children will engage in these behaviors with no appearance of remorse. Unfortunately, it is also often the case that some part of the child realizes that what they’re doing is inappropriate. So, as with most people when they do something wrong, the child will attempt to justify their treatment of the rejected parent. This often means that they must come up with reasons to vilify the rejected parent in order to justify their behavior.

Can A Child’s Judgement and Preferences be Compromised by Parental Alienation? If so, How Seriously Should an Alienated Child’ Preference be Taken by a Court Therapist or a Court-Appointed Guardian ad Litem?

Any child, even a 17-year-old, are generally not trusted to be the decision-makers regarding their own best interests when it comes to custody, parenting time, or a variety of other things having to do with how much contact each parent has with them.

Even seemingly mature children and teenagers lack the experience and emotional or mental acuity to fully consider what is best for them in the long term. For this reason, courts generally take a child’s preference into account, but weight that preference together with a dozen or more other factors.

To use an extreme example, a child may love and desire to live with an untreated sex offender or drug user, but that does not make it in their best interest to do so. The older the child, the greater their preference is generally weighted by the court in their decision-making, even though other factors are considered. That said, if the child is alienated, that child’s judgment likely has been compromised. A great deal of research supports that assertion.

In determining whether alienation has compromised the child’s judgement to the point their preference should be given little weight, the court or therapist or guardian ad litem should diligently explore evidence regarding the following, among others:

  • The child’s maturity prior to alienation
  • The child’s intelligence
  • The child’s ability to communicate their relationship with the favored parent before the alienation
  • The degree or magnitude with which the child has rejected the rejected parent

Interviews with family members on both sides, as well as with doctors, therapists, friends, etc., may be needed.

If a judge, therapist, or guardian ad litem determines the child’s judgment has been compromised by alienation, as difficult as it must be, they must disregard or at least significantly discount the importance of the child’s preference and determine the child’s best interests based on other factors.

What Are Typical Behaviors Or Attitudes Of An Alienating Parent?

Alienating, gatekeeping, and interfering parents often engage in or have the following behaviors and attitudes:

  • Badmouth and disparage the other parent– Sometimes this is done in subtle ways, such as reminding the child of something bad the other parent has done, comparing and contrasting the strengths of the alienating parent with the weaknesses of the target parent, etc. It is not uncommon for an alienating parent to subtly disparage the other parent through prayer with the child. For example an alienating parent might pray, “Dear God, please bless the child’s other parent. Please bless that Johnny’s other parent won’t be such an alcoholic anymore.”
  • Cause fear in the child about the other parent – This can be done in numerous ways. A few examples are to inform the child of something horrific the other parent has done, whether it is true or not. Sometimes when the alienating parent ceases such behavior, what the alienating parent has told the child is so horrific that the damage has already been done. The child becomes like a pre-programmed or wind-up toy moving forward along the track of fear and rejection of the non-favored parent. Sometimes a parent does this by repeatedly expressing comfort to the child due to the fact that they “have” to go to the other parent’s home. There are other ways also.
  • Refer to the target parent by their first name
  • Withhold important information from the target parent
  • Fail to properly co-parent with a non-favored parent – For example, they fail to give the other parent significant information regarding the children.
  • Fail to involve the other parent in decision-making
  • Fail to support the other parent’s relationship with the children
  • Fail to communicate with the other parent regarding the children
  • Use the child to communicate with the other parent, instead of communicating directly with their co-parent.
  • Involve the child in parental conflict – putting the child “in the middle” – This might include telling the child such things as “I really wish I could send you to that soccer tournament. Unfortunately, your mom/dad has not paid child support.” Or “Tell your mom not to honk the horn when she comes to pick you up.”
  • Fail to facilitate a relationship between the target parent and other people who have a degree of care over the child such as coaches, teachers, doctors, therapists. etc. The alienating parent might keep the target parent’s name off of medical forms, academic records, or emergency contact forms. Sometimes an alienating parent will go so far as to inform those others involved in the child’s life how awful the non-favored parent is and explain the list of horribles about the non-favored parent.
  • Fail to engage in constructive attempts to resolve disputes with the other parent
  • Fail to comply with court orders regarding the children
  • Overburden the child with adult information – They might discuss litigation or financial problems caused by the other parent with the child.
  • Ask a child to spy on the target parent or interrogate the child about what is going on in the other parent’s home
  • Undermine the authority of the non-favored parent – They might suggest that the other parent is too strict or tell the child that they do not have to listen to the target parent.
  • Force the child to choose who the child wants to live with or which is the favorite parent
  • Withdraw love and affection from the child if the child fails to favor them – It is not unusual for an alienated child to gravitate to the parent they fear or distrust the most. This seems counterintuitive, but if a child feels secure in the love and affection of one parent and feels insecure in the love and affection of the other, very often they wish to please the parent they feel insecure with and take steps to do so. The ultimate show of loyalty to an alienating parent is the rejection of the non-favored parent.
  • Ask the child to keep secrets from the non-favored parent
  • Refer to step-parents as “Mom” or “Dad” in front of the child and suggesting the child do the same
  • Limit, gatekeep, or interfere with contact, parent time and telephone calls/virtual parent time with the target parent

I think it might be helpful to add just a few ideas about the behavior of alienating parents and alienating children that we didn’t have time to discuss before. Let me just add a couple of points on that. One is that alienation can be either overt like flat out disparaging, but it can also be more subtle; it can be covert. The alienating parent can pretend to be concerned about the target parent, but really just be highlighting the target parents flaws to the child. For example, an alienating parent can say, “I really love your mom but she’s making some bad choices right now,” or even praying with the child, “dear God please bless that your dad won’t be such an alcoholic anymore,” repeatedly texting the child and asking the child if the child feels safe with the other parent ,or when they’re on parent time with the other parent thereby suggesting to the child that the child may not be safe.

Another behavior that is more covert is insisting that the exchanges take place at a police station parking lot, or fleeing with the child and taking the child to, say, to a shelter, taking the child to environments where there is an implication that the reason they’re there is because the other parent is unsafe. Often alienation is done with the best of intentions.

Is “Honesty” To The ChildThe Best Policy?

Not always. Sometimes an alienating parent thinks that they’re just telling the “truth” about the negative things of the target parent to the child. Sometimes an alienating parent just doesn’t understand the burden that they’re placing on the child, and how it harms the child emotionally and developmentally to discuss negative aspects of the target parent. Even if they think those things are the truth, many alienating parents think telling the truth is a defense to anything. “I’m never going to be dishonest with my child,” they’ll say. What they don’t realize is they’re treating the child not as a child but as if they’re just a little adult. The first problem with that is that the alienating parent doesn’t have the corner on truth. It’s a “mighty thin pancake (that) doesn’t have two sides,” – there’s usually another side of the story. Even if what the alienating parent is saying really is true, it can still harm the child. We generally don’t tell five-year-old about how babies are made or all the awful things that serial killers do, even though that might be the truth; neither do we tell a 15-year-old all the negative things about the other parent even if they’re true, at least from our point of view, because that usually still harms the child developmentally.

What If A Parent Is Asking A Child About Their Preferences?

Another way that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, alienating parents can harm a child is by creating loyalty conflicts. This often occurs when the alienating parent specifically asks the child things like where do you want to live, who do you want to live with, do you want to go on parent time with the other parent, do you want to have a telephone call with the other parent. Even asking the question can create a loyalty conflict and can be the equivalent of asking who do you love more, me or the other parent. The child’s in a no-win situation at that point and will often side with whoever is asking the question just to avoid having an argument or making the asking parent feel bad. You generally don’t bite the hand that feeds you, so often the child will simply side with the parent that they get more “stuff” from, whether it be care, toys, fun time, or those kinds of things. But then the alienating parent will sometimes compound the problem by requiring the child to live by their original statement. This can happen when they say things like, “hey remember kiddo you’re the one that decided that this is what you wanted.” Then the child feels responsible to stick with what they told the pressuring parent, even if that’s not what the child really wants. Kids just are not cognitively equipped to remain unharmed by that kind of pressure.

Another subtle method of alienation that I wanted to talk about that we weren’t able to discuss before is best illustrated by this situation: Imagine if you would, a parent doing the dishes or some other task while the child is talking in the background, and the parent has half an ear on the child but is largely focused on their work. Then the child, who can sense that their parent isn’t entirely listening, mentions something negative about the target parent or talks about how the target parent mistreated them in some way. The listening parent then stops doing the dishes.They turn around and they give 100% focus and attention, laser-like focus, on the child. That feels good to the child. The parent starts asking the child questions and the kid realizes, “wow, look at all this attention and sympathy I’m getting! This is great! “I guess I’ll keep talking more on this subject.” The child realizes that they’re essentially getting an emotional pat on the head for whenever they mention negative things about the other parent. They feel emotionally rewarded. So, the child talks more about it and now the child has an incentive to exaggerate, embellish, and talk about how hurt they feel and get even more attention and sympathy.

Parents generally are not trained to do forensic interviews. and they mess it up. They’ll pull false or exaggerated allegations out of the child instead, not even realizing what they’re doing. Even sexual or emotional abuse claims come out this way. Unfortunately, often the child then feels like they need to stick to their story so that they’re not later condemned as a liar. Abuse can and should be properly investigated and taken seriously. I’m not saying that abuse is out of the question but for purposes of our discussion today, I’m assuming cases where no abuse has actually occurred. I’m just illustrating how false allegations sometimes happen or how negative things about the other parent are sometimes inappropriately emphasized.

What Should Be Done If A Child Discloses Parental Abuse?

Well they certainly shouldn’t keep pumping the child for information, harming the child emotionally and also tainting the evidence, tainting the interview. If there is abuse they should report it to the authorities, law enforcement, or DCFS. But if what the child is describing is just poor parenting, talk to the other parent about it, talk to a therapist but don’t keep interrogating the child.

What Are Some Typical Ways That Alienating Parents Interfere With Parenting Time?

The most straightforward methods by which alienating and interfering parents prevent parent time is simply by not sending the child, ignoring parent time, or flat out refusing. Very often, they justify this behavior by citing the bad characteristics, traits or habits of the target parent. Sometimes, they claim that the target parent has not paid child support so they do not get parent time. Very often, they claim that the child does not want to go on parent time, or that they are fearful of the other parent. One of the most insidious methods by which alienating and interfering parents stop parent time with the other parent or interfere with parent time with the other parent is to influence the child against the non-favored parent, and then claim the child “does not want to go.”

They might say, “I’ve encouraged Johnny to go but he just does not want to. What do you want me to do? Handcuff him and throw him in the trunk? He’s bigger than me. You can come over here and try to get him to go with you.” Alienating parents will often claim to be supportive of the other parent’s parent time, but hide behind the alleged choice of the child. They will then give to the child a soft place to land, meaning they provide a comfortable space in the favored parent’s home to spend the time they should be with the target parent. In other words, they give the alienated child a place to stay.

Alienating parents also often schedule extracurricular activities, vacations, trips or other attractive activities during the non-favored parent’s parent time. This creates a huge incentive for the child to reject parent time. Sometimes an alienating parent might induce a child who otherwise would go on parent time to reject it by saying something like “Too bad you’re going to miss the trip to Disneyland because you chose to go with” the non-favored parent.

Another tactic used by alienating parents is that they often misinterpret the parent time schedule and engage in endless debates about how to interpret the schedule.

Alienating parents and interfering parents also often engage in “tethering.” This is when even though the child is at the non-favored parent’s home, an alienating or interfering parent will remain in constant contact with the child, text messages, late night phone calls, tracking apps on a child’s phone, sometimes even username apps such as Snapchat where the text disappears when the conversation is over.

They will often insist that the child carry the cell phone they purchased but they will not give the pin or login information to the non-favored parent. This tethering behavior results in the child never being able to detach fully from the alienating parent thereby preventing the development of a relationship between the child and the target parent.

For more information to address Typical Behaviors Or Attitudes Of An Alienated Child In Utah, an initial consultation is your next best step. Get the information and legal answers you seek by calling (801) 616-3301 today.

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