Ask Dr. Leigh: What can I do if I suspect my child is a Victim of Parental Alienation?
This question has come to my attention countless times throughout the years. The majority of them have come from fathers, divorced and desperately trying to maintain some type of connection with their children. Others are from mothers who contend that their children are increasingly resistant to spending time with them because their relationships have been “soiled” by an angry father.
What can be done in these situations? The most reasonable solution is to have the child evaluated by a specialist in alienation. But in most of these cases, this evaluation will not take place.
In order for a child to be evaluated by a mental health professional, both parents have to sign consents for the child’s treatment to take place. And this is almost impossible in cases where there are questions about the credibility of a child’s allegation, or there is an alienating parent who has an investment in keeping the status quo.
In divorces, decision-making is often split up between the parents while some decisions are designated to be joint. For example who will make the decisions about education, religious upbringing, summer activities, etc are negotiated during the parents’ divorce. What often happens, however, is that parents don’t fully understand the implications of joint decision-making as it relates to medical care. For medical care includes therapy and in high-conflict divorce, more often than not, the children are going to need treatment. Agreeing to joint medical decision-making in the context of a high conflict divorce will create a great deal of future conflict if your child ever needs professional help.
Therefore, the alienated parent who doesn’t have medical decision-making in a solo or joint capacity, is stuck in a very difficult position.
Often the aligned parent will allow their child to go to therapy if they choose the therapist and if the therapist sides with them. It is amazing to see how many therapists who, without ever meeting the alienated parent, make decisions about the deleterious impact the alienated parent had on the child and give the child a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These therapists only serve to increase the conflict and increase the child’s alienation.
If you are an alienated parent who feels powerless to make any changes in your current situation with your child, it is important to consult with an attorney who is familiar with high conflict divorce and parental alienation. Your attorney can find legal means, in the form of requests to the court, to have your child evaluated. Attorneys can work with the mental health professionals assigned to the case to present relevant findings to the court.
An attorney, referred to as a guardian ad litem, can also be assigned in order to protect the rights of your child. A guardian ad litem may suggest a child custody evaluation CFI report) or a parental responsibility evaluation (PRE) to help determine the best interests of your child.
If you have already had a CFI or a PRE and parental alienation continues, you can petition the courts for another evaluation. Remember to keep accurate records of all events that lead you to suspect parental alienation.
It is also very helpful to consult with a mental health professional to get advice on how to handle parental alienation and your alienated child. Make sure that the professional has expertise and experience in high conflict divorce, the alienated child, and parental alienation syndrome. There are certain behaviors that will help your child while others will only serve to increase the alienation.
If you are an alienated parent:
- Look at your behaviors that may have added to your child’s alienation. Are you excessively angry at your former spouse, do you expose your child to this anger? Do you use your child for emotional support? Are you overly critical, too busy, distracted, or depressed when you are with your child?
- When you talk to your alienated child does not dispute his or her allegations regarding your behavior. If the allegations are serious such as sexual or physical abuse it is often more appropriate to ask for a reconciliation therapist who can help you and your child negotiate these issues.
- Don’t get angry with your child for his or her alienating behaviors. It is not your child’s fault. Your child has been put in a difficult situation; much like a little foot soldier in the midst of a battle he or she can neither understand nor control. It is important that you become educated in all of the factors that lead to alienation so that you can approach it with your child from a supportive stance.
- If your child brings up allegations against you, try to remain neutral. Even though these allegations are false, it is important to understand that many children do come to believe in their allegations. Studies have demonstrated that children, particularly young children, can be made to believe in something that did not happen. Children who voice false allegations of abuse speak and act as if they have been abused and only an experienced professional can tell if the child has been alienated and coached. An appropriate response to your child’s allegations should they arise in your presence is to let your child know that you do not condone that type of behavior and you will do everything in your power to make sure that he or she feels safe.
- In the event that your child is seeing a therapist, don’t be afraid to contact your child’s therapist even if you did not choose this professional. Show your interest and your willingness to do what is in the best interest of your child. Offer to meet and share your observations of your child. If the therapist refuses to contact you or to meet you, keep note of the dates and times that you have attempted to contact the professional. Often an alienated parent in the midst of an abuse investigation is told by his or her attorney not to speak with the child’s therapist, especially if the therapist appears to be “on the other side.” Attorneys are fearful that anything said in the session could be used against their client. However, it is critical when evaluating a child, that the therapist have a perspective from both parents.
Great article. Tough situation for the alienated parent. Helpful tips.
I can imagine a wronged spouse creating bad stories for younger children to hurt their ex-spouse and keep the kids from them. However, it would take considerable, concerted effort and fairly sophisticated technique to actually get the false events into their little heads, and then not have a therapist find inconsistencies in history, behavior, emotions, reactions, etc. But how personality disordered do you have to be to accomplish that? Older kids? You could come up with how the ex was a bad person to you, and out of loyalty have them reject the other parent – but then how tenuous was your relationship to begin with? Or you could go the manufactured bad memories or just a bad parent route, and guess what, older kids HATE going to therapy. They get to sit in there alone with a therapist for an hour. After a couple sessions, they can’t and won’t maintain it. So if a therapist believes the abuse, there was probably something going on. I’ve seen nearly 20 divorces in our extended web of friends. No ‘parental alienation’ in any of them, so why is it all over the web? Different demographic? I always wonder if those crying alienation were/are abusive, and are now facing the consequences. “No fault” divorce has brought in this philosophy that there is no need or even incentive to be a great spouse (to model loving behavior to your kids) or to be a great parent (kids are property, they’re yours to parent, no matter how bad, because it’s all about you.)