What is Parental Alienation and How to Recognize The Signs

What is parental alienation? The definition of parental alienation is when one parent tries to undermine or damage their child’s relationship with the other parent. In law, this is regarded as a form of child abuse.

When a child, out of the blue, seems to all of a sudden dislike, disrespect, fear, or refuse to see the other parent, it is often the case that a parent has engaged in parental alienation. In many cases, they do this unintentionally. In others, sadly, they are doing it intentionally.

When engaging in parental alienation, the parent manipulates their child’s emotions. They are manipulating their child to turn them against the other parent.

What parental alienation is not – it is not parental estrangement

Mother holding her young son in her arms, attempting to comfort him

As parental alienation lawyers, we have seen all kinds of examples of when parental alienation occurs. Because the legal consequences of parental alienation can be significant, it is also important to remember when parental alienation is not occurring.

There are cases when children no longer want to spend time with one parent. This is not because of parental alienation, but because there are good reasons why that child does not want to spend time with the other parent. 

Examples of this are when someone gets a new spouse and the spouse is nasty or mean to the child. Yes, it is true, the “wicked stepmother” can be a thing (although not very prevalent, it does happen). In one case the child was treated so badly by her stepmother that she no longer wanted to spend time with her father while the stepmother was around. Because the child was, at first, afraid to tell the father what was going on, the father thought it was a case of parental alienation against the father, however, when the child was interviewed, it became clear what the real problem was. 

The truth is that sometimes a parent fails to do the job of good parenting. In those cases, it is not considered what is parental alienation, but what is called parental estrangement.

What parental alienation is not – it is not a brief bumpy beginning

As family law lawyers, we see that a lot of the time when parents first separate, there can be a brief period of high conflict. This tends to settle down quite quickly. There can, at the beginning, be bumpy parts as everyone in the family gets used to the “new normal.” Even when parents are hoping to engage in an amicable divorce process, parents are often tense, stressed, and fearful as they adjust to their new lives post-separation. Almost always this tension spills over to their children. Although these bumpy parts are normal, it is important that parents pull it together very quickly so their children are not exposed to a high-conflict custody battle or other issues. As well, it becomes a very serious issue if parental alienation abuse starts to occur. 

The great news is that despite us seeing many examples of parental alienation, most parents do not engage in this kind of behaviour. Most parents want what is best for their kids. 

At Pathway Legal, we see that most parents want to have an amicable divorce and they will do their very best when co-parenting after divorce.

This means that parents who may have said the odd “wrong” thing in front of their kids, quickly learn to manage their behaviour. 

Parental alienation abuse, on the other hand, is when a parent does not stop trying to denigrate or disparage the other parent. They attempt and sometimes succeed at emotionally manipulating their child so that the child turns against the other parent. The child ends up with unjustified negative feelings towards the parent who has been targeted by the one engaging in the alienating behaviours. The children become the object of the alienating parent's campaign. 

Is parental alienation abuse?

Make no mistake about it, parental alienation abuse is just that, a form of child abuse.

This is because it is very, and we mean very damaging for a child to be exposed to parental alienation tactics. Studies show that parental alienation is so bad for kids that it affects the ability of their brains to develop in a healthy way. Children exposed to high-conflict custody battles that include parental alienation have a much higher likelihood than other kids of quitting school, becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol, and having dysfunctional adult relationships themselves. It makes you wonder why a parent would ever engage in what is considered parental alienation.

What constitutes parental alienation - real life examples of parental alienation

At Pathway Legal, as parental alienation lawyers, we have seen a lot of parental alienation divorce. Here are some examples of narcissistic parental alienation syndrome that we have come across in our cases (obviously we have changed details to protect our clients and their children’s identities):

1. A parent insults the other parent in front of their kid.

In one case we had one parent who always insulted the other parent’s choice of food and what they fed their child.

2. A parent interferes with the other parent’s parenting time without a legitimate reason.

Young boy with a sad facial expression in the foreground, with his parents arguing behind him

Withholding the child after the end of their parenting time is an example of this. Nowadays the best evidence for child custody in this type of circumstance often comes from texts, and email communication between the parents.

Just recently we saw a case where one parent picked the child up from daycare and withheld the child from the other parent for eight days. The child had never been apart from the other parent for more than three days. At 3 years old, there is no doubt this child was confused as to what was going on, having no explanation as to why her primary caregiver had disappeared for so many days without an explanation.

Parental alienation phone calls - these are also signs of parental alienation and happens when one parent is limiting or blocking the communication time that a child has with the other parent or conversely, excessively texting or phoning the child whilst in the other parent’s company.

3. Blaming the other parent for the separation in front of the child

Unfortunately, we have seen this happen way too often. Kids already feel that the separation is their fault, but to blame the other parent in front of the child really makes the child feel like it is their fault even more. 

4. Asking the child to spy on the other parent

This can be unintentional. In one case we had recently, the father always wanted the child to report things that were “bad” that were going on in the mother’s home. Their 8-year-old son knew that the best way to get attention from Dad was to tell him that Mom was doing “bad” stuff. What the Dad failed to realize was that his ongoing interrogation of the child and getting him to report everything that went on in Mom’s house was a form of child abuse.

5. Breaking down into tears when the child is to leave with the other parent

Father comforting his crying daughter

Thus causing the child to feel guilty for spending time with the other parent. Yes, we saw this happen. We would not have believed it if we did not see it on video. In this particular case, the father was at the mother’s house to pick up the child. The father had, in his pocket, his phone video-recording the pickup. The mother was sobbing, yes, sobbing, as she was buttoning up the child’s jacket. Clearly, the mother was having a very hard time with the child leaving for the several hours he was about to spend time with his Dad.

At five years old this child was being made responsible for how his mother was feeling. Even worse, as the mother was crying, she was (we think unintentionally) undermining the father’s parenting abilities. She was reminding the child to keep his jacket done up if he was cold, to ask for food if he was hungry, to be safe, etc. She said all of this to the young child through tears while the Dad was standing right there. It was nothing short of gross.

6. Insulting the other parent’s choice of food and nutrition, new partner, gifts, or ways of spending time with the child and making those insults in front of the child

In one case we had recently, the father had given the child a lego set as a gift. When the mother picked up the child, she was furious about the gift, complaining that now she would have to build lego with the child. “As if I don’t already have enough on my plate!” she yelled, as she stormed off. The wild thing is that she stated this in front of a professional visit supervisor. It makes you wonder what she says around the child when professionals are not around right?!

7. Pressuring the child to choose between the parents or take the side of a conflict

Often parents do not agree on which child custody schedules to implement for their parenting time. For example, one parent might want a week-on/week-off-type custody schedule while the other parent might want a 2-2-3.

We recall one case when a 9-year-old girl was interviewed by a professional for a “Hear the Child” report. The child, unprompted, said, “My Dad says for me to tell you I want week on and week off.” The report writer told the Dad he was “busted.”

8. Bringing a child to court to testify against the parent

This is probably one of the more awful examples we have seen when looking at what constitutes parental alienation. In this case, the father was criminally charged with sexually assaulting the children’s mother. The father pleaded not guilty to the charge and the matter went to trial. At trial, the father had one of the children testify on his behalf against the mother. Despite the testimony, the father was convicted of sexual assault. 

It is no surprise that in this particular case, the kids have refused to see their mother at all. 

This is probably close to the worst example of parental alienation against a mother that we have ever seen.

9. Alienation of parental affection by making disparaging comments about the other parent in relation to their work, family, or friends and doing so in front of the child

In cases like this, the alienating parent not only denigrates the other parent in front of their child but everyone and everything the other parent does. We have seen this happen.

10. Undermining the other parent’s parenting style or authority in front of the child

For example, telling them to ignore the parent’s request to do their homework.

11. Making false reports to the Ministry for Children and Family Development (aka child “protection” authorities)

In one case we saw that there were five false reports made to the Ministry about the mother’s supposed lack of care of the child. This happened within a week after the father started dating a social worker. Although there are cases where there is parental alienation against the father, this was a clear case where there was parental alienation against the mother.

12. Spreading nasty and untrue rumours about the other parent

So that other adults in the child’s life will be fed a very false and damaging narrative about the other parent. We wish we had never seen this kind of thing happening, but it has.

13. Coaching a small child to draw photos of alleged sexual interference when the sexual interference did not happen

Yep, this happened. Imagine a child being coached to “remember” something that did not happen to them in the first place and being shown and coached how to draw parts of their body demonstrating where the other parent had supposedly been grooming them. The judges view on parental alienation was that she did not take it lightly. The legal consequences of parental alienation in that case were so severe that the parent lost custody of their child.

14. Ignoring or discouraging the child’s positive relationship with the other parent

In one case, the parent refused to allow the child to mention anything at all about the other parent. It was a strict rule. The parent said, “When you are in our home, your father does not exist.” Imagine how that landed for the child. In that case it was a significant case of parental alienation against the father.

15. Withholding important information about the child’s education, medical requirements or other important information that affects the child

Parenting is about more than spending time with your child. It is also about being able to take responsibility for what is happening in their education, their medical care, and other areas of their lives that are important to them. Keeping information from the other parent is another clear example of alienation of parental rights.

Summary of what is parental alienation

When looking at what is parental alienation, we have to remember that parental alienation can have serious and long-lasting consequences for children, their development, and their ongoing relationships, including the relationship between them and the other parent.

If you are fighting parental alienation, at Pathway Legal, we have the experience to assist.