How to Combat Parental Alienation | Part 2 of 4


How to Combat Parental Alienation is a four part series for parents and family lawyers.  Part 2 discusses: How Do I Protect My Child from Parental Alienation? How Do You Overcome Parental Alienation? Parental Alienation Advice from Family Law Attorneys. Risk of Silence About the Parental Alienation. Therapeutic Intervention and Reconciliation.

Part 2: How Do I Protect My Child from Parental Alienation?

How Do I Protect My Child from Parental Alienation?

How Do I Protect My Child from Parental Alienation?

A number of appropriate responses are available to parents against whom alienating tactics are being used. Prevention now is better than treatment later, so do not shrug-off a child’s resistance as mere growing pains. Be vigilant in preventing this affliction from ever taking root.

With alienation happening now, what should the targeted parent do? Dealing effectively with the situation will require action and a strategy. Certain tools can help parents stay in front of this destructive behavior.

How Do You Overcome Parental Alienation?

With the child’s disaffection already apparent, a target of parental alienation should waste no time in taking these initial steps:

Step 1: Consult an experienced family law attorney for legal advice on the targeted parent’s options. The attorney should be one who is very skilled in identifying and defending against parental alienation. They will determine and evaluate what evidence exists to prove actual harm to the child.

Timidity is unlikely to stop the other parent’s wrongful behavior. Bullying is bullying! Sometimes the only way to stop the bullying is, figuratively, a punch to the bully’s throat by filing an action and seeking to prove in court what is happening. Taking measures that fall short of filing do not always work when dealing with bullies. Memphis family law attorney C. Suzanne Landers[1] says, “It is imperative to remember this – [the bully’s] goal is to win and control. And it can be the same battle as fighting a zealot where you need to have something to hold over that zealot that is more valuable than what he or she thinks will be won through alienation. If you are not holding that ‘something,’ then it’s time to seriously consider filing as a first move.”

Step 2: Seek advice from a mental health expert you trust and who is very experienced testifying in court in family law matters. The MHP should be experienced in litigating parental alienation, specifically, with a firm grasp on the data and potential harm. In a consulting role, the MHP’s focus should be on evaluating the targeted parent’s situation, determining strategies, and advising that parent and his or her family lawyer.

Obtaining guidance from one highly qualified MHP who serves in a consulting role is an essential strategy. Professional credentials matter. Landers recommends finding a consulting MHP who is “well-versed in Cluster-B character disorders, which generally involve things such as borderline or narcissistic behaviors, antisocial lying, and the willingness to harm others without guilt. Without knowing the ‘tricks’ of the alienator, you cannot successfully defend, much less defeat, a parental alienator.”

A practiced family lawyer should be able to make the referral to a knowledgeable psychologist or psychiatrist. In seeking a consulting professional, be mindful of strategic reasons for why the MHP may be excluded from testifying in an evaluative role because of dual roles problems.[2]

Step 3: Decide whether to file an action or not. Will waiting do more harm than good? Is there sufficient evidence? Carefully think through this crucial step. Learn what is at stake. Know what options are available to the court (discussed in Section IV). Anticipate what the particular judge assigned to the case is likely to do. Understand the costs, both financial and emotional. Then make a decision.

Before Filing an Action

Taking action does not necessarily require filing, but it might. Therefore, the alienated parent should work two avenues simultaneously. Apply reasonable alternatives without court action while also preparing for filing and litigation. This is not simply hedging your bet. This strategy is about stopping child abuse and reversing damage where possible. Carefully consider professionally recommended alternatives before filing.

Advice from Mental Health Professionals

There is nothing unreasonable about gathering evidence in preparation for filing while also giving family counseling a concerted effort. There is, after all, a possibility the alienating parent does not comprehend that what he or she is doing is driving a wedge between the targeted parent and the child. (Ignorance is not bliss, however, as the child may reject the alienating parent, too.) There is also the possibility the alienating parent will exploit every opportunity to exaggerate and criticize the target’s actions during parenting time with the child. Although every case has unique circumstances, there are some inroads that have been beneficial for many families.

In responding as the target of an alienation campaign, maintain perspective and apply these principles:

  • Be the best parent possible. Do not be provoked by what the child says or does. Do not take the bait by reacting negatively to the child.
  • Always remember the child is the victim of brainwashing and is being used by the other parent.
  • Have empathy for the child. Tailor responses to the child’s developmental level, unique qualities, and circumstances.
  • Be level in responding to the child’s bad, challenging, or uncooperative behavior.
  • Identify the unique qualities of both parents (positive and negative).
  • Identify motivations and establish goals.[3]

Dealing with an alienating parent’s provocative, nasty, disgusting behavior plunges deep into one’s psyche. Learn proper responses and coping mechanisms to avoid flying off the handle when your child accuses you of being a horrible person, “Just like Mom [or Dad] said.” Therapy can help, but it is not a quick or easy fix.

Risk of Silence About the Parental Alienation

A parent who always takes the high moral ground in the child’s presence – neither confronting nor directly criticizing the alienating parent – may be approaching the problem ineffectually.[4] If saying nothing allows the child’s rejection to progress and intensify, then rethink this approach. The parent who suspects alienation should:

  1. Self-educate to identify alienating strategies.
  2. Be vigilant in looking for signs and symptoms of parental alienation in the child.
  3. Reassess by talking to a few trusted adults to determine whether they see alienation going on, too. A parent’s perception of “what is” and expectation of “what should be” may not be accurate.
  4. Extend an olive branch and communicate. How might co-parenting be improved?
  5. Seek professional confirmation by obtaining specific legal advice from a family lawyer and involve a MHP in the planning process.

Reduce Adult Conflict

A key preventative is reduced adult conflict. Sustained, extreme conflict between parents can make successful co-parenting nearly impossible. As noted, children of battling parents who express hate toward each other often have great difficulty comprehending how they can love both adults. Parties and attorneys who fan the flames do not act in children’s best interests.

Simply raising the issue of whether parental alienation has taken place can ignite intense conflict between parents. And alleging this abuse also acknowledges it’s working. Will the sweet smell of success motivate the alienating parent to double-down on efforts to make it worse? Never forget that alienation is about control.

Take Direct Action with the Child

What direct action can be taken with the child? The alienated parent’s first option is clinical. Get the child into therapy.

Child Therapy

For therapy to help a son or daughter have a good relationship with both parents, the child must be “innately strong enough, brave enough, and flexible enough to reach out to the rejected parent.”[5] Age and development are central to the therapist’s approach. Rarely do MHPs observe unrelenting rejection in a child under the age of seven.

The child’s therapist should be “quite active, practical, and somewhat confrontational” with the child.[6] In challenging a youngster’s mistaken beliefs, the therapist helps the child shape new beliefs based upon direct experiences with the alienated parent.

The therapist may encourage the child to spend time with the rejected parent, just to see how it goes. Or may focus therapy on school problems and significant lags in development. Another therapeutic objective is to identify rewarding activities the parent and child can do together, from fishing to 4-H. All while employing methods that “improve child coping, parenting practices, and related family behaviors.”[7]

Therapeutic Intervention and Reconciliation for Parental Alienation

Therapeutic Intervention and Reconciliation for Parental Alienation

Therapeutic Intervention and Reconciliation for Parental Alienation

Therapeutic intervention and reconciliation involve isolating causation and undoing the damage. Potential contributing factors, both individual and circumstantial, include a parent’s alienating behavior, intense inter-parental conflict, ongoing litigation, the parent-child relationship, living arrangements, sibling attitudes, personality features of each family member, and lifestyle. The difficulty? Identifying parenting time issues before the child’s resistant posture hardens into total rejection.

Ideally, intervention will improve the relationship between parent and child. Possible results are better cooperation, reduced child anxiety and depression, positive family interactions, regular contact, and increased visitation. Although results are mixed, these intervention techniques may help:

  • Supportive counseling with a long-term therapist.
  • Reunification therapy. Reversing the damage in younger children is more likely than with adolescents. As outpatient counseling, this therapy might not be effective for the child whose alienation is entrenched.
  • Intensive intervention programs with all family members participating. Some are specialized family camp experiences. Example 1: Overcoming Barriers Family Camp blends fun outdoor experiences with “intensive clinical intervention, [and] psychoeducation.”[8] Example 2: A parallel group therapy program of weekly sessions with the children’s group meeting separately from the parents’ group.
  • Parenting coordination.[9]
  • Multifaceted gatekeeping treatment.[10]

Does intervention merely telegraph “be more discrete” to the alienating parent? Is he or she being rewarded with proof the campaign is working? Weigh the risk of doing something against the risk of doing nothing. Or of doing the wrong thing and crystalizing the child’s rejection.

Multifaceted gatekeeping treatment addresses overly restrictive access to the child by a parent.[11] Healthy gatekeeping can facilitate co-parenting. But when restrictive gatekeeping significantly limits the other parent’s contact and interaction with the child, it looks like alienation. Does the aligned parent sincerely believe the child’s safety is in jeopardy or is this retaliation? Counseling may help find answers.

Direct Focus on the Alienated Parent

Alienating parents may appear “calm, charming, convincing and credible” while their targets are “typically anxious, agitated, angry and afraid” and possibly traumatized.[12] The alienating parent is likely to manipulate and negatively characterize everything the target says or does. Yet the targeted parent needs to out the truth.

For the alienated parent, the inquiry begins with introspection and parenting history. Does the parent exhibit extremely negative behavior (self-alienating)? Is the parent passive or withdrawn in conflict situations with the aligned parent? Do the parent’s problems contribute to the child’s rejection (“limited empathy, excessive criticism, self-centeredness, or rigidity”[13])? Was the parent accused of sexual abuse and, consequently, opportunities for positive interaction with the child have been minimal? Are others contributing to the alienation process? This includes extended family, friends, a significant other, a stepparent, and well-meaning professionals.

Direct Focus on the Alienating Parent

Get the alienating parent into counseling. Consider whether that parent:

  • Believes the target does not deserve to have the child in his or her life, or
  • Has a psychological problem that contributes to over-stepping personal boundaries with the child.

Additional Challenges

Another challenge to overcome is the potential of a “fundamental attribution error”[14] by professional observers where external forces on the child (indoctrination) are wrongly believed to be internal and coming from the child.

More than one therapist may be needed – one for the child, one for the alienating parent, and another to be the parents’ mediator. In therapy, parents should agree to end their conflict. Agree to support the child’s positive relationship with both of them. And agree to cease all indoctrinating efforts.[15]

Parental Alienation Advice from Family Law Attorneys

Consult a family lawyer experienced in recognizing alienation tactics and utilizing effective defensive strategies. Some alienating efforts may be impossible to prove, even if one had video and audio of all communications between a child and the parent hell-bent on this emotional terrorism.[16] A starting place may be a letter to the opposing party or opposing counsel regarding the alienation. But what else?

Follow the Parenting Plan

Failing to follow the parenting plan can worsen the situation by weakening the alienated parent’s legal position. The alienating parent may be violating court orders, but doing the same will not help. More likely, it will compound the problem by further distancing the child. Indianapolis family law attorney Melissa J. Avery[17] offers this advice:

[T]his situation is no different than any other. The person who feels they are being alienated should make requests for contact frequently and with specificity. That person needs to be flexible, however, and accept any opportunity for parenting time, virtual contact, et cetera, that is allowed by the alienating parent, even if it is not what they feel they deserve. That way the alienating parent will be left with the choice of offering no contact whatsoever (exposing their rigidity and unreasonableness) or allowing some contact which is always better than none.

Respect the Child’s Therapy

Be respectful of the child’s therapy. This “safe place” allows the child to talk freely about both parents without it “getting back to Mom or Dad,” says Scott Friedman, a Columbus, Ohio, family law attorney.[18] The child’s therapist can provide feedback in a broad sense to the Guardian ad Litem who, in turn, may share pertinent information with the attorneys. For example, if the GAL informs the parties’ attorneys that “Johnny says Dad is passed out on the couch at 8:00,” then the attorneys need to get Dad in for an alcohol and substance abuse assessment. Try to determine what issue is actually causing the child’s rejection.

The attorney who suspects a client has drug or alcohol problems or is otherwise alienating the child should be proactive. Try to help the client turn things around with therapy and treatment. Judges do not like it when “people think this isn’t an issue and that it’s not going to affect their kids,” warns Friedman.

Attorney May Interview Potential Witnesses

Do allegations of alienation have basis in fact? The alienated parent’s attorney should interview people familiar with the child to determine whether they will be helpful to testify or speak to the GAL. These interviews are a way of “fact-checking and getting people’s opinions of where they would come down on this issue,” says Friedman. For example, “Mom says the child never gets to have a sleepover at anyone’s house when he’s at Dad’s. Dad gives his attorney three contact numbers for neighbors who had a sleepover last week.”

Once the target has defended against allegations of bad parenting, he or she needs to argue that the other parent is acting against the best interests of the child. The biggest hurdle for the alienated parent? Simultaneously defending against allegations of bad parenting while proving he or she is the target, the victim, of the other parent’s alienation campaign. Shifting the judge’s focus from the wrongly accused parent to the alienating parent’s abusive tactics can be challenging.

 

Continue reading: How to Combat Parental Alienation

Endnotes:

[1] https://landersfirm.com/suzanne-landers-divorce-lawyer-memphis.html retrieved 8/18/2020.

[2] See Mason, M. “Dual Roles in Custody Litigation: Ethical Conflicts with Therapeutic and Forensic Roles” 56 Tennessee Bar Journal, 3 (Mar. 2020) reprinted by permission at https://memphisdivorce.com/dual-roles-in-custody-litigation-ethical-conflicts-with-therapeutic-and-forensic-roles/.

[3] Baker & Fine.

[4] Baker & Fine.

[5] Bernet & Ash at p.80.

[6] Bernet & Ash at p.80.

[7] Hynan at p.161.

[8] Hynan at p.156.

[9] See the American Psychological Association Guidelines for the Practice of Parenting Coordination. https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/parenting-coordination.pdf retrieved 7/7/2020.

[10] Hynan at p.160.

[11] Hynan at p.160.

[12] Robert A. Evans, PhD, How to Prepare for and Present Issues of Parental Alienation. http://drbobevans.com/issues-of-parental-alienation/ retrieved 7/21/2020.

[13] Hynan at p.151.

[14] Evans, Parental Alienation: Child Abuse? – Reportable?

[15] Bernet & Ash p.80.

[16] Kruk.

[17] Melissa J. Avery, Of Counsel, Broyles Kight & Ricafort, PC, 8250 Haverstick Road, Suite 100, Indianapolis, IN 46240. https://bkrfamilylaw.com/indianapolis-family-law-attorneys/melissa-avery retrieved 8/18/2020.

[18] https://www.friedmanmirman.com/team-member/scott-n-friedman/ retrieved 7/13/2020.

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