What does alienation really mean in custody cases?
The word “alienation” is a buzzword that has been used more frequently in custody and access cases. Alienation generally involves one parent poisoning a child against another parent. Alienation has been described by one judge as a legal concept and not a mental health diagnosis. However, often experts are used to provide reports regarding alienation when it is believed to be occurring. Often, when a child refuses to see one of his or her parents, the other parent will allege alienation as the cause of that refusal.
Alienation has been described by Dr. Michael Stambrook as follows:
It is an abusive practice. It is child abuse when it occurs. It’s emotionally abusive. It cripples and stunts children’s development because the reality they knew at one point is undermined by this process. It is dangerous for the development because in [an] ideal situation, children should feel free to love and interact with the adults who are important in their lives, unencumbered by twisted turns of relational loyalties that are, unfortunately misplaced in this situation.
So parental alienation is a process, an interactional process where systematically one parent’s role in, for the children is eroded over the course of time
The problem is that not all situations where a child does not want to see a parent involve the legal concept of alienation. The flip side of alienation is called “justified estrangement.” In cases of justified estrangement, a child may not want to see a parent because of the actions of that parent. While some cases of justified estrangement involve physical abuse, this is not always the case. Justified estrangement can occur when a parent does not respect a child, regularly embarrasses a child, engages in a frequent insults against a child, denigrates the other parent regularly in front of a child, or constantly involves a child in a court case. Some of these actions may cause a child to have legitimate reasons not to want to see one parent.
In the middle between “alienation” and “justified estrangement” lies more complex situations where a child is having difficulty seeing a parent through no specific fault of either parent. A child, for example, may remember conflict between the parents, may fixate on certain unpleasant memories, may be extremely closely bonded to one parent leading to separation anxiety, or may have a hard time relating to one parent. In such cases, neither parent is deliberately trying to harm the child emotionally. Indeed, in some of these cases both parents genuinely WANT the child to have a good relationship with both parents, but do not know how to make that happen given the child’s individual personality.
It is often tempting for one parent to allege “alienation” when there are difficulties with access. But like with any problem, if it is diagnosed incorrectly, it won’t be cured properly. For example, if alienation is found when there is no alienation, an order that harms the bond with the non-alienated parent will actually be harmful to the child. True alienation is less common than most litigants think. However, many litigants, and some lawyers as well, are quick to make the allegation even in the absence of common signs of alienation. Thus, it is important to seek advice from a lawyer who has the insight to examine what is really going on and potentially give advice about situations tailored to the particular problems with the particular child.
When a child is unwilling to see a parent, or has difficulties with seeing the parent, it is an extremely difficult situation. It is important for parents to understand the various possibilities about what is happening and take the steps that will benefit the child in the long term.
(This post does not constitute legal advice, but is general commentary only. Always speak to a lawyer regarding your particular fact situation).