One of the most significant problems in the life of many Texas families is parental alienation. We can all rattle off many of the problems that people encounter every day in family law cases: domestic violence, hiding the kids from a parent, denying visitation, not paying child support, infidelity and the list goes on and on. It is not hard to find bad stuff going on within the typical family law case. All you must do is look for a moment and usually something will pop to the surface almost immediately.
If you are reading the blog of a family law attorney, then I can probably guess that you are involved in a family law case of your own. Either that, or you may be considering filing a case in the not-so-distant future. Reading through the blog of one of the most experienced and results-oriented family law attorneys in Texas is a great first step towards achieving whatever goals you have for yourself about your divorce or child custody case. With so much at stake in a typical family law case, you don't have all the time in the world to learn what you need to know to accomplish those goals.
Getting back to what we were discussing in the first paragraph of today's blog post, parental alienation is one of those things in life that we know when we see it, but we just can't always put a name to the actual problem. Parental alienation is basically when your co-parent manipulates your child into feeling uncertain, angry, or even dismissive towards you. This is done to curry favor with the child and ultimately have your child prefer your co-parent over you. What is especially tough about parental alienation is the insidious nature of the actions that your co-parent engages in. While you can do a lot to prevent bad actions from a co-parent that you can see first-hand, parental alienation is something that occurs outside of your time with the kids. Your co-parent would not engage in parental alienation with you standing right there most likely.
How parental alienation is likely to occur is something like this. Suppose that your 12-year-old son is over at his mother’s home for the weekend. She may say something negative about you to get your son’s attention. Then, after your son has asked about what she said, your ex-wife may go into detail about some problem that she has with you- either real or farcical. She may then reveal something about you that she never should have or even make up something about you.
The intention behind these acts is to cause your child to start second-guessing their relationship with you. If your co-parent tells your child that you do not enjoy spending time with him then that is a dangerous thing to tell a child. Once your child hears that from a trusted source it is difficult to un-ring that bell, so to speak. The thought of you not wanting to spend time with him or you saying something negative about his may stick with him for years to come. It could be the beginning of their acting out or otherwise not being the sort of child that you had come to expect up until that point.
It can take counseling or other types of mental health therapy to help your child get over the hurdle of being alienated from their parent. The irony is that often the attempts to alienate a child don't work in the manner intended. While your co-parent may have worked hard to convince your child that you are a bad person, sometimes it can be the alienating co-parent who ends up looking bad. If your child is older then he or she can use common sense to figure out if alienating behavior is based on or is fiction. Either way, it is not a good situation even if your child does not buy into the alienation. Sometimes your child will need to seek outside help to remedy the trauma and mental health impacts of one of their parents trying to manipulate him or her.
Warning signs of parental alienation
Have you recently experienced your child reacting negatively to a gift that you have purchased him or her? If so then your child may have been the victim of manipulation by your co-parent this is a seriously harmful behavior that your child is exhibiting, both to him and you. The nature of your relationship with your child may forever be altered because of the manipulation. Even if every story told by your co-parent to your child is a fabrication that still can impact your relationship negatively. No matter how many times you tell your child that something is false or incorrect it may not be able to completely erase the bad memory for your child.
Acting quickly to combat these acts of parental alienation is the key to preventing a long-lasting impact from the alienating behavior. If you can identify the alienating behavior and then work to eliminate its impact, you have a chance at minimizing the impact of the behavior. To do this you need to be paying attention, know the warning signs and then have a plan on how to approach the issue with your child. Being intentional about this subject is incredibly important.
The impacts of alienation on child custody determinations
If you are going through a child custody case, then you need to be especially mindful of the impact that alienation can have on your case. Parental alienation is not a criminal offense in Texas- it’s not against the law for your co-parent to manipulate your child in some way to gain an advantage within a case over you. If you make it known to the court that alienating behavior is ongoing, and have some proof to back it up, then it is not out of the ordinary for other professionals like attorneys ad litem or counselors to become involved in the case to determine the extent of the damage to your child.
Meeting the issue of parental alienation head-on
Parental alienation is not a subject that you stand to benefit from by sitting around and letting someone else handle matters. To delay the difficult measures that are needed to stop this sort of behavior by a co-parent would be a mistake. Fortunately, there are many options available to you as far as thinking about these issues and then developing a game plan to eliminate them as best you can from your life. However, it takes a certain amount of intentionality and forethought to follow through on them.
Without a doubt, parental alienation can impact how custody works out in your family. If you are going through a divorce or child custody case currently and are seeing parental alienation already becoming apparent in your home, then your child may not want to spend as much time with you as he or she ordinarily would. This could cause you to feel like should not push for primary custody or even split custody with your co-parent. You may be giving up time with your child due to a concern over an issue that your child is upset with you when is that your co-parent is manipulating him or her against you.
However, if you can identify the alienating behavior as it occurred you can and should bring it to the attention of the family court judge. Even if you have not been aware of the term "parental alienation" the court you are going before for a hearing surely has. Judges are aware of the issue and are typically quick to try and do what it takes to limit its impact on your family. Divorce and child custody cases are difficult enough as it is without introducing the subject of parental alienation. Once a parent begins to alienate a child it can cause ripple effects throughout the case to the point where the child's relationship with both of their parents may never be the same again.
Best interests of the child standard
Across the board, whether you are involved in a child custody or divorce case, the family court judge will be issuing orders related to your child that are intended to be in the child’s best interests. That is also the presumption in Texas when it comes to parenting. Namely, it is presumed that when you as a parent decide or do something about your child you are doing so in your child's best interests. Having a safe and stable environment in which to grow is a huge part of the best interest determination.
What can a court do to help prevent parental alienation?
If the alienating behavior in your life is starting only after the divorce or child custody case is over then you are in a tougher position when it comes to having a court intervene in the situation. However, if you are currently going through a family law case and are starting to see what you believe to be parental alienation going on then you can and should bring it to the attention of your attorney so that you can inform the judge of what is going on.
For example, a court can appoint a guardian ad litem to your case who can look out for the best interests of your child. The guardian would be charged with helping the court ensure that your child's best interests are kept at the forefront of the case. It can be difficult to think about but what is best for you and what is best for your co-parent may not always be what is best for your child. For that reason, a guardian ad litem (typically a family law attorney) can be appointed to fulfill that role for the court. The ad litem can act as the eyes and ears of the court in situations that involve parental alienation to help the judge understand the degree to which alienating behavior is ongoing.
Social studies can also be commissioned where the judge will appoint a child psychologist, social worker, or other professional to come into your home and that of your co-parent to make determinations about living environments and other obstacles that exist in either home that may prevent your child from living a life that is most conducive to their well-being. In most cases, the social study will result in a report being made and issued to the judge in your case. When that occurs the judge can have an outside perspective available to him or her that can assist them in deciding about issues like conservatorship and custody.
What could your co-parent be doing that will alienate your child from you?
To close out today's blog post I would like to discuss with you some warning signs of potential alienating behavior. For starters, if your co-parent is the primary conservator of your child then this puts her in a position where can control a great of what happens when it relates to your periods of possession. While your child may be ordered to come to your home on the first, third, and fifth weekends of each month that doesn't mean that the child will always be ready for you to pick her up or will always have a good attitude about the visits.
Rather, your co-parent has a big impact on that subject. Does your child have their overnight bag ready at 6:00 p.m. on Friday when you pull up to their driveway? Or will your co-parent inevitably text you at 5:58 that it will be another 45 minutes to wash and dry some clothes that your little girl will need for the visit? When your child gets in your vehicle does she greet you warmly or does it seem like she is distant or even angry at having to spend time with you? You know if something seems “off” about your child. If you believe that she is being manipulated by her mother against you then this should be something that you can take note of and share with your attorney.
As co-parents, you are likely going to be ordered to share information about your child with your co-parent. This could be information regarding medical or educational matters specifically. If there is a parent-teacher conference that is coming up, your co-parent may have been the one to get the email or letter about that. She would need to share that with you based on your court orders. Also, it is just the right thing to do considering the circumstances of your life. Being able to partake in these types of events is what makes co-parenting work. Both of you share the burdens and responsibilities so that both of you can use your time and talents to benefit the life of your child.
However, you need to be aware of situations where your co-parent may decide not to share information about your child with you. It could be that your child got a new diagnosis from a doctor that you weren't told about for weeks. Or, it may have been a disciplinary issue at school that your co-parent spoke to a teacher about but did not inform you about. Many times, a co-parent who attempts to alienate the other parent will not include your email or phone number in school or doctor's office correspondence so that you are left out. Make sure your email and phone number are correct with these sorts of places. Yours would not be the first instance where a co-parent “forgot” your phone number or wrote down your email address incorrectly. That’s not to say that this will certainly happen in your case, but it is something to keep an eye on.
Another potential form of alienation could relate to your co-parent simply providing too much information to your child about why the divorce is happening or what makes you a “bad” parent. Invariably, even the youngest of children have questions about why parents split up and what is going to happen in the future. That doesn’t mean that your co-parent needs to over-share and tell your child everything under the sun about why you all are going through a divorce. It is unnecessary to talk in detailed terms about issues like this and can be harmful to your child’s relationship with both parents.
If your child starts to use language around, you that is not normal for them or their age group then this is a tell-tale sign of oversharing on the part of your co-parent. Be aware that your child may be told a lot of things about you that are either not true or are so true as to be completely inappropriate to share with your child- no matter their age or maturity level.
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.