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Avoiding Parental Alienation: Keeping Child Custody Without Risking Wrongdoing

When you’re in the middle of a divorce, it’s all too easy to lose any respect for your former partner. Whether they made your life difficult before your split or they aren’t cooperating during the legal process, there’s plenty of temptation to complain about their behavior to anyone who will listen.

Venting to adult friends can be an essential part of moving on, but if you’re a parent, you should follow a simple, crucial rule: never complain about your co-parent to your children.

There are a couple reasons to follow this rule. First and foremost, your children are already going through enough with their parents separating. They deserve better than to hear your petty (or not-so-petty) complaints about their other parent.

Second, complaining about your co-parent to your children can actually land you in contempt of court in the wrong scenario. Why? Because it can be interpreted as parental alienation or attempting to turn your kids against your ex, which is unhealthy for children and their parents.

Courts take parent alienation claims seriously, so it’s important to understand how parental alienation occurs and how to avoid it. Here’s everything you need to know to keep your child’s parental relationships healthy.

What Is Parental Alienation?

At its root, this offense is simple: one parent works to turn their kid against their other parent. This can take a number of forms. Some common types of separation include:

  • Encouraging the child to rebel against court-ordered parenting plans
  • Telling them lies about the other parent
  • Undermining the other parent’s authority
  • Giving them too many details about the divorce
  • Trying to “team up” with the child to get changes made to the parenting plan

Each of these acts can reduce a kid’s respect and trust in the alienated parent. Whether or not the alienating parent intends to do this can vary, but it’s never healthy for the children in question.

Why People Attempt Parental Alienation

There are as many motivations for parental alienation as there are for breakups. Depending on the person, they may try to change their child’s understanding of their other parent because:

  • They’re angry with their former partner
  • They genuinely believe their former partner is dangerous to their child
  • They want revenge for something that occurred during the split
  • They want to avoid paying child support, so they want full custody
  • They simply don’t have control over their emotions and can’t filter what they say

The many potential roots of parental alienation can be summed up into three basic behaviors to avoid.

The Three Levels of Parental Alienation

Depending on the alienating parent’s motivations, they’ll fall into one of the following three categories.

Accidental Alienation: In some cases, you or your ex-partner may accidentally alienate your child from one another. This can be as simple as dropping dismissive comments about your partner or complaining about them in your child’s hearing. Either way, the result is your child losing respect for one of you because of unintentional, unnoticed actions. Accidental alienators are generally remorseful once they realize what’s going on and will take steps to fix things. This type of alienation is considered mild.

Active Alienation: The next step up leads to moderate alienation cases because there is at least some conscious awareness on the part of the alienating parent. In this case, the alienator will actively tell your kid negative things or get angry about the other parent while talking to them. While the alienator may feel bad about what they’ve done later, at the moment, they do mean to turn their kid against the other person.

Obsessive Alienation: Finally, and most maliciously, obsessive alienators actively work to ruin their child’s perception of and relationship with the other party. This includes lying to their child, refusing to follow parenting plans, ignoring support orders, and anything else they can do to keep their ex and their offspring apart.

Effects of Broken Parent-Child Relationships

Distancing a child from their parents isn’t just unfair; it has lifelong consequences for their mental and emotional health. Studies have shown that people who suffer from broken parental relationships as a child face lifelong effects because of the work that went into ruining that relationship. Common problems these children face include:

  • Constant low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Reduced ability to trust
  • Increased likelihood of divorce
  • Alienation from their own kids

There plenty of reasons why the US and Californian legal systems frown on parental alienation, but the well-being of the children involved is at the root of the issue. Anyone who works to ruin any parent-child relationship is actively harming both people.

For that reason, there are serious legal repercussions if allegations of hold up in court. The judge may hold the alienating party in contempt of court, for example, and adjust their parenting plan, so they receive less time with the kids in question. The judge can even revoke the alienating party’s custody rights entirely if the situation is deemed bad enough.

How to Avoid Committing Parental Alienation

For such a serious accusation, it’s remarkably easy to avoid committing this offense. Just give your child fair access to their other parent and avoid discussing adult matters with them. That means that you should never insult the other parent in your kid’s hearing or complain about their behaviors. Even if your ex-partner isn’t doing the same, it’s always better to be the better, more adult person.

As a parent, you deserve to have the opportunity to build a good relationship with your kids. Legally, so does your ex-spouse. Working to keep your kid’s relationships strong gives you both the best chance to continue connecting with your child despite living apart.

If you’re concerned about being alienated from your child, reach out to experienced family law attorneys to discuss your options. Losing your children just because your spouse doesn’t want to pay court-ordered support is unfair and potentially even against the law. Working with the right legal team can help you work to keep custody and stay in your kid’s life.