What is Parental Alienation?
Recognized earlier but first given a name in the 1980s by child psychiatrist Dr. Richard A. Garner, parental alienation occurs when a parent turns a child against a targeted “alienated” parent through words, actions, or behaviors which cause the child to reject, fear, or avoid contact with the targeted parent. In these scenarios the victim or intended victim is referred to as the “target parent” and the instigator of the alienating tactics is the “alienating parent.”
Seen most frequently in high-conflict family law cases, alienating behavior can start subtly and eventually lead to unexplained or unjustified resentment, verbal or physical attacks, and an apparent dislike of the targeted parent by the child. Since children are impressionable by nature, parenting time disputes can make children especially vulnerable to alienating behaviors.
Because alienation is such a complicated matter, Colorado courts differ in their recognition of and handling of parental alienation claims. It can be difficult for parents, and courts, to distinguish between “alienating” and “gatekeeping” behavior.
“Gatekeeping” involves a parent preventing or limiting contact between the child and the other parent for legitimate and protective reasons. Conversely, alienation, or unjustified gatekeeping occurs when one parent acts or behaves in a way to cause the child to become fearful of or dislike the other parent, even though the other parent has done nothing wrong to warrant the child’s negative reaction.
Symptoms of Parental Alienation
In 1992, Dr. Richard A. Garner outlined the eight (8) specific symptoms of parental alienation:
1. A Campaign of Denigration: This refers to the child’s view of the targeted parent and results in the child having a negative view of the targeted parent. Sometimes referred to as indoctrination, this symptom demonstrates how a child may claim to “hate” the targeted parent, not because they actually hate the targeted parent, but because they are actually afraid of the alienating parent.
2. Weak or Frivolous Rationalizations for the Deprecation: A child may express a desire to avoid spending time with the targeted parent for reasons that don’t make much sense or add up to the child’s extreme dislike for the other parent.
3. Lack of Ambivalence: This refers to the child’s view that the alienating parent is “good” while the targeted parent is “bad.”
4. The “Independent Thinker” Phenomenon: Where the child maintains that his or her criticisms of the targeted parent are his or her own independent thoughts and not the product of coaching by anyone.
5. Reflexive Support of the Alienating Parent in the Parental Conflict: This refers to the child’s consistent loyalty to the alienating parent’s position and rarely or never siding with the targeted parent.
6. Absence of Guilt Over Cruelty to and/or Exploitation of the Target Parent: This represents a diminishing and ultimate extinction of the child’s ability to empathize with others and not just with the targeted parent. It is tied to conscience and moral choice and may set a lifelong pattern of reacting to stress and threatening situations
7. Presence of Borrowed Scenarios: Refers to the making up of stories and incidents in the furtherance of the vilification of the targeted parent. The quality of the stories and the details of the incidents often reflect that of the alienating parent, hence the “borrowed” nature of the scenarios.
8. Spread of Animosity to the Extended Family of the Targeted Parent: Refers to a child being alienated not only from the targeted parent, but from the target parent’s entire life, his or her activities, and his or her family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.). As is often the case with the targeted parent, the history between extended family members and this child is often one of a loving and caring relationship.
Common Examples of Parental Alienation
The reason parental alienation cases can be so problematic is that the alienation often begins subtly and increases in its severity over time. Typical examples of actions that may be perceived as parental alienation tactics include:
• Failing to pass on birthday gifts or other presents from the target parent;
• Telling the target parent that the child is not available when they call or visit;
• Pointing the finger at the target parent for everything that goes wrong (i.e., blaming the target parent for leaving the home during a divorce proceeding);
• Telling the child that the target parent doesn’t love them or making similar disparaging remarks;
• The child feels guilty whenever they express love towards the target parent;
• Fabricating information or making false allegations to create a negative impression of the target parent;
• The child no longer knowing truth from lies;
• The child calls the target parent a liar or hurtful names;
• Coaching the child to ignore the instructions of the target parent.
How Colorado Courts Handle Parental Alienation
If alienation is occurring before the entry of any parenting time orders, you can raise this issue to the court and present it at your permanent orders hearing. If you already have an established parenting plan, to have your concerns heard by the court, you will need to file a post-decree motion. Most often, a parent will file a motion to modify parenting time or an emergency motion to restrict parenting time.
To better understand the unique dynamics of a particular family, courts will often appoint a Child and Family Investigator (“CFI”) or a Parental Responsibilities Evaluator (“PRE”) to investigate the family and make parenting time recommendations to the court. These investigations include interviews of both parents, the child(ren), as well as the child’s teachers, coaches or other collateral witnesses. While these experts can help uncover possible parental alienation, the complexity of alienation often requires further intervention by trained mental health professionals who specialize in parental alienation.
If you can show parental alienation is occurring and that the alienating parent is detrimentally affecting your relationship with the child, the court can deal with this issue in a variety of ways. Often a court will order therapy, to include individual therapy, family therapy, and psychological evaluations of the parents. Courts can also modify a parenting time arrangement, limit or prevent contact between the child and the alienating parent, restrict the alienating parent’s parenting time, or order a parent to undergo reunification therapy.
However, the court may find that the alienating parent is harming the relationship between the child and the targeted parent, but still not change the parenting time schedule, as that change would not be in the child’s best interest.
What Should You Do if You Suspect Parental Alienation is Occurring in Your Family?
If you suspect parental alienation is occurring, it is important to do something about the alienating behavior early. Due to the complexity of parental alienation, it is important that you consult an experienced family law attorney to help protect your relationship with your child. Whether you believe you are the victim of parental alienation, or you are being accused of alienating, the experienced attorneys at GEM Family Law understand the devastating consequences of parental alienation and are here to navigate you through these challenging times.
Authored by: Tyler Lambert, Associate Attorney