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Measuring & Identifying Parental Alienation

If you are a frustrated parent or grandparent of a child who has displayed signs of being alienated from you by a manipulative co-parent, then today’s blog post is for you. We at the Law Office of Bryan Fagan have seen good people- both parents and grandparents- pushed away from their children and grandchildren by co-parents who have motives designed to do just that. These parents don’t care about the well-being of their children. They care about being able to hurt good people like you who want nothing more than to build a relationship with a child. We want to be able to help you identify signs of parental alienation and understand how to combat it. 

No matter how you define parental alienation, and there are a lot of definitions, almost everyone involved in the world of family law will agree that there are specific behaviors that you can look out for that will help you to identify and call out alienating behavior in parents and symptoms in children while they are happening. Identifying parental alienation early and then nipping it in the bud as best you can is what this blog post is designed for. Alienation is a sickness that is trying to infiltrate your family. The longer that you allow it to fester the worse off your family, especially your children, will be. 

Keep in mind that your child or grandchild may not be acting in the way that he or she is on purpose. Rather, he or she could be acting that way out of confusion or truly being under the grip of alienation from a parent. These children cannot be blamed for their behavior. Taking out your frustrations on the child with your words or actions would be a mistake. Rather, you should address the alienation directly at its source by taking your concerns to the at-fault parent. More than that, you need to be able to have a plan in place when you do so. Confronting a manipulative, narcissistic, and selfish person without a plan could be a disaster for you. Keep reading today's blog post to see what kind of plan may work best for you and your family. 

Parental alienation is a funny thing in some ways. When I think of parental alienation, I think of what your co-parent could be saying behind closed doors, at their home about you. Anything that could be used to get your child to like being with you a little less or scare him a little more about you may be said by your co-parent or their family. This is the tough part about alienating behavior- it can be done well outside your presence to a child that doesn't even know that it is happening to him. You're at home or work and powerless to stop that from going on. All you can do is be vigilant about it and address the signs of alienation when you see them- both with your co-parent and your child. 

However, sometimes you are even able to see alienating behavior in the courtroom- in front of judges! For example, a scene that I have seen occur right in front of a real, live family court judge is as follows. A mother had filed a modification case for an increase in child support. She believed that her co-parent, the child's father, had an increase in his income and that the mom was due a little more in child support as a result. However, the dad testified to the judge that his income had decreased because of some changes in his workplace. He was less able to meet his current child support burden than he was before. 

So, the hearing is over, and the parties are leaving. The business I had in the courtroom that day had concluded before that hearing had begun. I was collecting some things and finishing up some notes when that hearing caught my attention. Anyways, I was riding in the elevator with the mom from that hearing and her teenage son. The son was not allowed in the courtroom, so mom was filling him in on what happened. What the mother was telling her son about the hearing, his father, and his father's "lies" was startling to hear. She was very clear about her feelings for this man who was the father of her son. The son was a teenager but still a child. It was doubtful that he would ever ask the man about these issues because children are not going to talk to their adult parents about touchy subjects like this. 

So, the mother was laying into her co-parent who was being truthful about his income. He had paystubs and the like to present to the judge showing that his income was not near what his co-parent was making it out to be. Tough situation for the mom to an extent because her "sources" of the income increase were wrong. Nonetheless, she was incredibly disrespectful to the man in front of his son. Going down that elevator from the 15th floor took maybe a minute or so with a stop or two along the way. However, in that minute the mother was able to trash this father enough to leave a lasting impression on the boy. He may have been left wondering why he even sees the father if he is such a bad guy. 

What the mother did not consider, other than the fact that a dozen strangers heard her talking that poorly about her ex-husband, was that her son probably has respect and love for his dad. That man is the boy's role model- may be the only one he has. Imagine a person ripping apart the only role model you've ever had. How would you handle that- especially at such an impressionable age like this boy was? It's a tough situation to cope with, undoubtedly. The teen stood there and didn't say a word, to his credit. He may have been sensing the awkward nature of the mom talking like that in front of a bunch of people and chose to just stand there quietly rather than add fuel to the flame that his mother was stoking to perfection. You can appreciate that the mom may have been frustrated about the issues going on in the courtroom. She may be a good mother beyond just what I experienced that day. However, what I did see was textbook alienating behavior. How the boy responds to it in the long term is anyone's guess as they left the elevator and walked out the courthouse door. 

What we know is that parental alienation sees one role model for the child completely trash the other role model for the child. If we get beyond the family law components to the issue and just talk about the familial and relational issues this is the true subject matter that we need to look at. That boy, and every child who is exposed to parental alienation, will have an uphill climb in front of them when it comes to having a productive and loving relationship with both of their parents due to the alienating behavior. We don't know exactly how your child or any other child will respond to alienation but we do know that he or she would have been better off not having experienced it in the first place. 

How does parental alienation take place?

When we talk about how parental alienation takes place it is helpful to describe how parental alienation takes place. These would be the techniques that a parent could use to alienate their child from you. We have already covered how badmouthing is a common technique. Enough negativity surrounding a person and your child will undoubtedly be impacted and influenced. We see that in areas that have nothing to do with family law. Have you ever heard bad things about a person that you've never met? For months you may have heard a co-worker complain about a fellow employee at your company. The next thing you know you have an opportunity to meet that person and it turns out that he or she is not that bad. That can happen easily with a child because he or she has no frame of reference beyond their own limited experiences. If you tell your, child, not to trust their mother, then odds are your child will listen and trust they're motherless. 

Limiting the interaction opportunities that you have with your child is another way that he or she can be harmed via parental alienation. You are supposed to have structured and calendared visitation occasions with your child. If your co-parent is constantly making your child late for these sessions, forgetting items that he needs to have a successful visit, and generally making a nuisance of themselves then you are in a position where your co-parent is interfering with your visitation and possession of your child. In other circumstances, left unchecked, your co-parent may deny you possession and access to your child. Fortunately, this is an obvious sign of alienation that you can file enforcement or modification case(s) to combat. It does require you to be proactive and to take matters into your own hands as far as working with an experienced family law attorney to combat these problems. Imagine how bad or out of hand these situations can get if you do not do anything about them. Your co-parent may decide to always withhold visitation from you for no reason at all.

Another issue that we see happen especially during a child custody or divorce case is when a parent confides in their child almost like he or she would do to a friend or family member. It is important to have someone in your life that you trust and can confide in. I won’t argue that point. Some of the scariest literature out there in the social sciences has to do with how Americans are suffering from bouts of loneliness at very high numbers. Surely the pandemic created a lot of such cases, but we were struggling to build and maintain relationships long before a virus came onto the scene. It is frightening to think about how our lack of relationships could lead to family problems but here we are. When it comes to building relationships, we know that your co-parenting relationship is one of the most important. We work with divorced people all the time who think that divorce will be the end of a relationship with their spouse. In many ways, these folks would be correct. A divorce ends a marriage relationship. However, the divorce begins a relationship that is known as the co-parenting relationship. 

For you and your child to be able to form an ideal bond you should do your best to reinforce the relationship your child has with your co-parent. Instead, a co-parent that engages in alienating behavior does everything that he or she can to hurt your relationship with your child. This is a shortsighted action because that parent is harming not only the child’s relationship with you but also the parent engaging in bad behavior. Trust is a huge aspect of a child's relationship with their parents- even if the child doesn't know it. By continually bad-mouthing the parent in front of a child that child will internalize certain characteristics of the bad-mouthing parent. The result is that your child may lose their relationship with you and the alienating parent. 

Withholding key information is another way that parents engage in alienating behavior. Imagine a situation where your child lives with your co-parent and sees you in specific periods of visitation. Those periods of visitation are weekend visitation during the school year so school forms do not typically make it home to you. You rely upon your co-parent to fill you in on the details of school and extracurricular events. Your child is only 7 so she can't be fully trusted to tell you about everything that is going on in their life- not to mention the specific time of those events. This is where your co-parent comes in. She would ideally take her knowledge of these events and tell you when they are and any details that would be helpful. 

However, sometimes she “forgets” to share information with you either on time or at all. For instance, you may have found out about a few soccer game cancellations or time changes at the last minute from your co-parent. This wasn’t the most important thing in the world, so you were willing to look past it. Sure, it was annoying to lose time in driving down to the soccer field at what turned out to be the wrong time, but you know that people make mistakes. You were even willing to give your co-parent the benefit of the doubt when things like this happened. However, all of that changed a few weeks ago when your co-parent did not tell you about an important event in the life of your child. 

That event was a parent-teacher conference. For a few weeks, prior your child had been struggling with paying attention in class and otherwise minding her manners in school. Your daughter had met with the school counselor and a person from the school district who was going to help establish whether your child needed some extra help at school as far as their grades and behavior were concerned. It was an all-hands-on-deck type meeting with school teachers, counselors, the assistant principal and parents would attend. A letter was sent home to your co-parent but as so often happens the school did not send you a copy of the letter even though you have your address listed at the school. Regardless the school held the parent-teacher conference without your input. 

Ultimately, decisions were made at this parent-teacher conference that you would not have agreed with. You only found out about the changes because your child made an offhand reference to them one day while she was at your house. When you asked your co-parent about the conference, she did not have a good answer for you. All she could do was agree that it was an important meeting and then move on. Your child’s life could be changed a great deal because of your not being able to offer your opinion at this meeting. 

Whatever your feelings are on co-parenting the fact remains that your child is the one caught between you and your co-parent in a situation where parental alienation is occurring. He or she is at the mercy of the alienating parent and your reactions to that alienation. Your best bet is to work on addressing the issue with your co-parent and then work with an experienced family law attorney if he or she is not receptive to your attempts to resolve the issue directly with him or her. 

Questions about the material contained in today’s blog post? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan

If you have any questions about the material contained in today’s blog post, please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free-of-charge consultations six days a week in person, over the phone, and via video. These consultations are a great way for you to learn more about the world of Texas family law as well as about how your family's circumstances may be impacted by the filing of a divorce or child custody case. 

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