Parental Alienation (PA) is a term used to describe a mode of conduct in which one parent purposefully, and for no valid reason, distances his or her child from the other parent by denigrating or otherwise vilifying the other parent. The aim of the alienating parent is to “brainwash” the child into disliking and/or disrespecting the target parent, consequently damaging or destroying the relationship between them.
Parental Alienation frequently becomes an issue in high-conflict domestic violence and child custody cases, usually as an argument by the alienating parent to limit the target parent’s access to their child.
Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)
While parental alienation conduct can be subtle and the impact on the child interim and/or treatable, some children are not so lucky. If the indoctrination is extreme, he or she may develop a serious psychological disorder called Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). A child with PAS may become obsessed with distrust and hatred for the target parent, reject them completely and possibly experience fear and panic in their presence. The obsession can take on a life of its own with the child becoming an ally to the alienating parent, aiding and abetting the alienating parent’s battle against the target parent. In these extreme cases, the child begins to “parrot” the alienating parent’s language and behavior toward the target parent.
How Child Abuse Differs from Parental Alienation
It is important to differentiate child abuse from parental alienation. In parental alienation, the alienating parent uses trivial, vindictive or other inappropriate messages to program the child and create animosity toward the target parent. If the alienating parent resorts to physical abuse, the child becomes a victim of domestic physical abuse and charges should be filed for that offense. If the conduct of indoctrination by the alienating parent is extreme to the point of damaging the child’s psyche, the child should be seen by a professional psychologist who can document the emotional abuse and, hopefully, treat the child.
The line between parental alienation and psychological child abuse is a gray area. The psychological diagnosis of Parental Alienation Syndrome is not specifically recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and it has no diagnostic designation in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Mental health professionals diagnose the condition under other similar DSM codes.
Clearly, a child whose relationship with one parent is systematically and deliberately damaged or severed through poisonous mental and emotional programming by the other parent must suffer some degree of emotional abuse. Whether that abuse meets the legal standard for domestic child abuse is a matter currently being decided on an individual case basis by the courts.
Parental Alienation and North Carolina Courts
While Parental Alienation Syndrome has not been officially recognized as a psychological disorder and North Carolina law does not specifically address the issue of PA or PAS, trial courts regularly hear matters of parental alienation in family law cases. The evidence can have a major influence on how the judge decides custody, how much visitation is granted and other determinations such as whether the judge orders ongoing family therapy.
Avoid Becoming an Alienating Parent
Legal family disputes are emotionally challenging times but every attempt should be made to keep your child out of the battle, especially in an acrimonious divorce or child custody dispute. Try to keep your emotions in check around your child and take care with how you speak to – and about – your ex-spouse.
Make sure you have talks with friends and your own parents and others in private and away from your child’s listening ears – especially if you are being emotional.
Speak respectfully about your ex-spouse to your child, if possible. If your ex-spouse is being unreasonable or acting badly, keep the altercations away from your child and do not discuss it with him or her afterwards. Vent your feelings with an appropriate adult in private.
Keep visitation or shared custody arrangements as agreed. Resist the temptation to withhold visitation or financial support in order to punish your ex-spouse.
To best serve the interests of your child, attempt to maintain a civil, respectful and orderly home environment in spite of the turmoil that may be swirling between you and your ex-spouse. If you have reason to believe your ex-spouse is engaging in parental alienation, do not retaliate or involve your child. Call your family lawyer immediately to report the behavior.