What Judges Need to Know in Parental Alienation Cases

The Complex Tapestry of Parent-Child Relations emphasizes that the psychology of alienated children cannot be reduced to a single factor. In some cases, the judge has little doubt that one parent is primarily responsible for the child’s alienation. It may be the parent whom the child favors. It may be the rejected parent. In other cases, though, it is difficult to discern the threads that make up the tapestry of alienation. Consider this example. 

A child, still feeling unmoored in the early aftermath of her parents’ separation, is reluctant to leave her mother’s home for her first extended stay with her father in his new home. She asks Mom if she can postpone the time with Dad for one more day. Each parent’s response can make things better . . . or make things worse.

Handled insensitively or ineffectively, the girl’s request can lead to a yelling match between the parents where each blames the other for their daughter’s temporary uneasiness. The child may feel pressured to choose sides. If the scene ends with dad storming out of the house, and mom uses this as an opportunity to commiserate with her daughter about what a lousy dad she has, weeks may go by with no contact between father and child. The longer the hiatus in contact, the more the child’s anxiety about her dad freezes into a stubborn refusal to spend time with him. Meanwhile, her younger brother, eager to spend the week with Dad, either cannot understand what the problems are about, or he feels the need to join Dad’s team against Mom.

By the time such a case reaches the courtroom, months later, each parent accuses the other of causing the daughter’s negative attitudes. It can be very difficult for mental health professionals and judges to sort out exactly how Daddy’s favorite girl turned into an obnoxious child who vilifies the man who taught her how to ride a bike, claims she never really had a good time with him, says that she never wants to see him again, and tells a custody evaluator that no one can make her spend time with the father she now refers to as  “Bill,” or, simply, “that man.”

Because of this complexity, when judges deal with cases in which it is clear that a child is alienated from a parent (and those who know my work understand that I use the term alienated the way it has been used for several hundred years, with no implication about the cause, or reasonableness, of the ruptured relationship), but the causes of the alienation are less clear, I recommend that judges focus on the question, “Is this child’s rejection of this parent in the child’s best interest?” The question deemphasizes a search to apportion blame. Instead, it focuses on the child’s welfare.

Naturally, the court will strive to understand the type of environment that each parent is likely to provide for the child. If the court determines that a rejected parent is likely to physically harm the child, either through abuse or neglect, that the child is truly better off having no contact with a parent, and that the child is being reasonable in harboring hostility or fear toward that parent, the court will want to protect the child from such contact.

If the court determines that the rejected parent is someone who would provide safe and loving care and with whom the child previously enjoyed a positive relationship, and the other parent is emotionally harming the child by pressuring the child to give up a relationship with a good-enough parent, the court will want to protect the child from such negative influences.

Even when the court is unsure of the extent to which the favored parent contributes to the child’s rejection of the other parent, the court may find that the child’s best interests would be served by healing the damaged parent-child relationship. The court can then explore the various options for accomplishing this goal and promoting the child’s best interests. [For an in-depth discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of the main options, see my peer-reviewed article, Family Bridges: Using Insights From Social Science To Reconnect Parents and Alienated Children.]

If the court chooses to enforce an expectation that the child have contact with the rejected parent, a plan can be developed to help the family without blaming the favored parent. Even if the court suspends contact between the child and the favored parent for an extended period of time, this need not be framed as punishing the favored parent. The court may conclude, without elucidating all the reasons, that the desired repair of the parent-child relationship will be more difficult to achieve if the child has regular contact with the favored parent. The court may believe that the favored parent’s behavior will interfere with the healing process. Or, the court may believe that when the child is in the presence of the favored parent, he or she feels internal pressure to reject the other parent, even if this pressure is not coming from (or is no longer coming from) the favored parent. Or, the court may simply believe that an extended period of time in the exclusive care of the rejected parent will compensate for the prior prolonged absence of contact between the child and parent.

My main point: in some cases it will be easier for the court to determine whether it is in a child’s best interests to disown a parent, than it will be for the court to tease out the various factors responsible for a child’s alienation from a parent.

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17 Responses to What Judges Need to Know in Parental Alienation Cases

  1. Cindy says:

    Once parents seek court intervention, it awards the courts power. Power in the form of decisions that resemble playing the lottery. In fact, “playing the lottery” is a quote from an employee working in a family law firm. In response to the article about judges, I feel a judge can do even more. The judges can find out what parent is saying and doing what to the best of his or her ability. Then, if the child is old enough, the child needs to be empowered by the judge directly. The child needs to hear that from the judge that it is wrong for a parent to use a child as a messenger, to be privy to child support payments, to be involved with the hundreds of other ways that a parent alienates. Make it case specific. The judge can then order that Dr. Warshak’s video be viewed by all as well as involving the school counselor in administering curriculum geared toward enforcing that healthy empowerment. Next, afford 50-50 custody if each parent complies and make child support fair/affordable….. Since many judges’ decisions empower the wrong side, their decisions further empower and condone the emotional abuse. That is WHY we need to empower the children in a healthy manner that is age appropriate. On a side note, get curriculum and the DVD into all schools! Please feel free to print and pass on to judges and lawyers in the best interest of the children.

    • I want to emphasize that this article concerns cases in which the court has difficulty discerning how and why a child became alienated. Certainly when allegations of abuse, alienation, and violence are raised, the court should make every effort to investigate the allegations and ensure the safety of the children and parents. When it comes to children who irrationally reject a parent, the court will sometimes hear very clear evidence that one parent has used the children to exact revenge on the other parent. As I write about in Divorce Poison, many of the cases I deal with and hear about involve spouses who do not want a divorce and threaten the partner with the loss of the children if she or he follows through on the divorce. For instance, a wife who is verbally abused by her husband tries to get out of the marriage and is told that she will never see her children again and that they will want to have nothing to do with her. Then her husband follows through on such threats using a combination of tactics that I expose in Divorce Poison. In such a case, the court may identify the vindictive behavior as the main source of the children’s rejection of the other parent. There are some court decisions that explicitly note that the children’s alienation was a product of intentional behavior perpetrated by one parent to punish the other. Along with cases in which it is relatively easy for the court to determine the roots of children’s alienation are cases in which the path to alienation is less clear. For some of these cases, the court will be able to determine whether the loss of the rejected parent is in the child’s best interests, even if the court cannot verify exactly how much each parent, the child, other adults (such as stepparents), and the situation contributed to the problem.

  2. EC says:

    Courts look first at the parents: if neither is manifestly unfit by the standards a child protection agency would apply they assess the prospects for coparenting, the ability to cooperate that’s in evidence. If a parent is unfoundedly attacking the other parent, leveling false allegations, alienating the child from them, etc., judges abandon the possibility of joint custody and order sole custody on the basis of what’s status quo for the child in terms of living arrangement, who’s historically arguably been the primary caregiver, and quite often a dose of political correctness. That there have been false allegations and there is parental alienation—except to the extent it proves intra-parental conflict—won’t figure in much or at all at this, the top and most dispositive level of the court’s decision making process.

    If parental alienation presents a problem for ordered `reasonable visitation,’ counseling for the child may be ordered. Therapists who treat alienated children very often focus essentially exclusively on the child’s feelings about the target parent, and ignore the existence of the alienating parent’s campaign of badmouthing etc., which then almost certainly continues unabated. This seems to be especially true when the alienator is the primary or custodial parent, and no doubt the therapist feels criticism of the parent in whom the court has put its trust would be inapropos and even disapproved of by the court. But the value of the therapy then becomes doubtful: it may even in the contradiction it presents to them be harmful to the child.

  3. Monika says:

    This article reminded me of your quote, “restoration does not preclude prevention.” In your aforementioned example, preventative measures could offset future alienation or estrangement. Courts should include parenting education that incorporates reading Divorce Poison and viewing Pluto. In addition, it seems necessary to cover the length of adjustment after separation and divorce. Unquestionably, children are unique and will display various behavioral manifestations due to temperament, age, support etc. Perhaps, if parents understood a child is reluctant to leave not by programming, but instead realized that temporary reluctance is normal, a yelling match would not ensue. Possibly, some parents internalize a child’s reluctance and consequently, accuse the other parent of attempting to alienate his or her child. On the other hand, it appears in obvious cases of parental alienation, children are alienated– exceeding more than a year. Undoubtedly, alienation over a year or more, when a previous relationship existed, is not a normal reaction to a divorce.

    The scenario describes dad storming out while the mother uses time to badmouth. Currently, many parenting education classes cover the adverse effects of badmouthing. As a trained facilitator for Children in the Middle, created by the Center of Divorce Education, I can attest to the powerful videos depicting two parents in a heated debate. The videos vividly portray the sadness that overcomes a child caught in the crossfire. However, I would like to see Divorce Poison and Pluto utilized as they serve not only as a powerful preventative tool, but they also provide methods of possible restoration (as indicated by feedback on your web-site). If your materials were incorporated as mandatory education, by the time families reached the courts, they would understand the damaging effects of poor-mouthing the other parent. The parents that do not learn and grow will continue to utilize their child as a spy, go-between, confidant, friend, and sounding board. One can conclude that educating divorcing parents is necessary, but it is clearly not always sufficient. The evidence of insufficiency is obvious in cases in which parental alienation is chronic; situations in which favored parents defy court orders and chronically denigrate his or her ex-spouse.

    Unmistakably, it is a daunting task for evaluators and judges to sort out the complexities of the all too common, he said/she said finger-pointing accusations. I am recently reminded of such difficulties, when I read, “change calls for alerting the process, not discovering the original culprit” (Goldenberg, 2008). I agree; alienation cases that are less clear, are best served by deemphasizing blame and keeping the child’s best interest in mind. Our courts need to change their process: Beginning cases, those a couple of months post separation, may not have an “original culprit.” Yet, I hope evaluators realize that a child who suddenly refers to a parent on a first name basis, or claims that she never had a good time with her father, would serve as a warning. A warning that one parent may not be ready or willing to co-parent with the child’s best interest in mind. If an adequate evaluation is performed, one should grasp the child is parroting the favored parent, or that the thoughts and feelings are not the child’s own, but instead are fear based and stem from “pressured loyalties.” When such cases reach the court, it may help clarify the obvious cases of alienation from the indistinct cases. Maybe the distinction could be sorted out by first mandating Divorce Poison and Pluto. Then, if by subsequent observation, the child is using adult-like language and continues to reject a once-loved parent, one should be aware that a future of on-going strife is likely.



  4. Lee says:

    I believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty and that is often not the case in parental alienation. My experience as a grandmother who has watched her son be alienated from his two children has continually shown that he as a father, even when proven to be a good dad who had wonderful relationships with his kids prior to his divorce, is still seen with suspicion and mistrust. It does not help the children when the court does not stand up for the alienated parent. The child has been so brainwashed that they have no one outside the family to turn to for the truth because the healthier parent is seen as the enemy. How is it that the alienator seems to be believed by the system but the targeted parent does not? I honestly think that the one major issue that could really help these children caught in the middle is if judges had to attend classes for a certain amount of time (10 hours) to learn about this horrible form of child abuse and some of the many ways it is perpetrated. They all think they know, but do they? And if they do why do they fail to act? They also need to realize that the targeted parent’s statements need to be equally valued and assessed or they are adding to the confusion of the children by reinforcing the alienators beliefs and allowing the alienation to continue with the courts blessing. Going through the divorce process as the targeted parent with the system against you makes the task of reconciling with your children even more insurmountable.

    I also believe that every couple who has children and divorces should have to attend a specifically focused class on Parental Alienation and not just an overall divorce class. We need trained administers who can use Dr. Warshak’s books and video as mandatory reading during the class. A 2 hour class that was court ordered and lasted 4 weeks with real life stories about the affects of PA, discussion and parents role playing as children who are being alienated, might make some of these people think before they unleash their hatred. I also believe that it should be mandatory for all children to receive at least 5 counseling session if their parents are divorcing. It is very hard to know where a child is when their world has been turned upside down. This also enables parental alienation because I believe the children are searching for stability which the custodial parent has more time to influence.

    We have Divorce Poison and the Pluto DVD but unfortunately for our son and his children it came too late. We had no idea that the hell we were living in was called Parental Alienation until the kids had been brainwashed and completely overtaken by their custodial parent and her family. After research we found out that others had experienced this horror as well. If we had known when this first started 10 years ago, we would not have taken “the high road” and kept quite when we heard constant lies and vile statements inappropriately made by the children. We thought that by keeping quite we were helping the children stay out of being trapped in the middle. Not so.

    Because of our experience I believe that Dr. Warshak’s video and his book should be required reading for all divorcing parents, grandparents (if applicable) and should be taught in every school in the nation, religious or otherwise. If my grandchildren had seen this video and had a neutral person to turn to at the onset of the alienation (ages 2 and 6) they probably would not be facing a lifetime of counseling for mental illness and their Dad would not be looking at the possibility of never see his daughter again. I applaud Dr. Warshak for his continued pursuit of helping children and parents affected by this sinister form of child abuse.

    • Aimee says:

      Lee, I so agree with you. It’s funny (or not) that when things are in black and white and seemingly so apparent, there are persons of the court, Law Guardian primarily, who wishes to see gray to make their job easier. When I read Dr. Warshak’s book, Divorce Poison, I felt like he had written it explicitly for me. I like your idea of the courts, as well as Family Court attorneys but more importantly the Law Guardian, should be mandated to take a course on PAS. It is cruel and inhumane how these children are being harmed for life because of one spouse’s hate and vindictiveness, when it is totally unnecessary. But unfortunately, being in the system for over 2 years now, I do not see a change in the positive direction for some time now. If it’s too late for my family, I pray that something is done soon to protect the poor innocent, unsuspecting children who are put deliberately in harms way for the sake of one ‘adult’s’ own negative agenda. I must continue to be positive and pray that my 13 (almost14) year old son comes to the realization of what his father is doing to him in the name of “love” is wrong. Even our family court Judge admonished my husband to “mend the damage he has caused and to make sure the relationship between son and his mother is regained or it will be at his back door one day. ” Hadn’t happened as he feels he is above the law. I love my son so much, as he is my heart and soul and always willl be. Good Luck to us all, and thank you Dr. Warshak!

      • I appreciate your kind comments. The reason I wrote the Huffington Post column, Stop Divorce Poison, was to counter the tendency for evaluators and Guardians to automatically assume that both parents contribute equally to a child’s irrational alienation. In some cases, when professionals “see gray” they are expressing a necessary and nuanced view of family problems. In other cases, though, attributing a parent-child problem to both parents, when one parent is clearly more responsible for destructive behavior, is a misguided effort to appear balanced and avoid blame. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in blaming the victim, and leads to inadequate remedies that prolong rather than relieve a child’s suffering.

      • EC says:

        That judges and court ancillaries “see gray” reflects the position given parental alienation in the custody case decision making process, rather than ignorance of the phenomenon, including a lack of ability to see the black and white of it. Enhanced education on PA will help little if the approach courts take to custody disputes isn’t also fundamentally restructured.

        The apparent ignorance in many situations of court appointees is a facade, related to the team player attitude they have to exhibit to remain in good standing. It’s the presence of parental conflict that’s decisive, not which parent is the greater agent behind it.

        It is appalling that the suffering of children receives a relatively low priority.

  5. EC says:

    It’s not that the alienator parent is believed by the system and the target parent is not, but rather that courts decide custody disputes on the basis of the presence or absence of intra-parental conflict, the status quo in the residence of the child, the historical primary caregiver, and some political correctness, and other than the evidence they furnish showing that there’s conflict, false allegations and parental alienation receive very little weight.

    It’s this framework, which is currently fundamental to the operations of nearly all family courts, that needs to be criticized and reformed.

  6. cxf says:

    In Texas, a court will swap primary conservatorship (primary domicile) of a child if credible evidence of the cause of harmful parental conflict can be shown, and that harmful parental conflict is related causally to the emotional development of that child. It is more than a herculean effort to gather, pay for, and present that evidence however. EC, in many aspects the outcomes of typical family courts are routine, predictable and biased. Very few have the time and money needed to get beyond the typical outcomes.

  7. EC says:

    I’m not in direct touch with what’s happening in Texas right now, but on the basis of what I’ve observed in other places and times I suspect the court is reversing custody on the basis of the child actually having severe developmental problems, on the level of falling several grades behind in school and seriously lagging in social maturation, and the other parent’s household being evaluated as suitable to remediate these problems. Parental alienation may be an ingredient but is probably not the sole cause.

    Quantity and quality of evidence is probably not so much the determinant of the court’s ruling on the case, as is the severity of the child’s condition, which has to exceed `mere’ potentiality. Sometimes it’s a matter of the child’s condition worsening during the litigation, rather than the points being made in court in its course accumulating to prove the reversal is in the child’s best interest. When the child’s condition is bad enough for the court, nominal testimony from credible therapists and other professionals, such as teachers, who know the child will usually suffice to inform it.

    Parents who fixate on gathering evidence pertaining to the other parent’s personality, character, and lifestyle are usually barking up a wrong tree, and may even harm their own case if they heighten the court’s sense that there’s intra-parental conflict.

  8. cxf says:

    Fixate on gathering evidence that relates the acts or omissions of the alienating parent to the child’s emotional well being. For example, you’d never want to go into court and tell a judge that an alienating parent has 5 cat’s in the home, and that’s bad for the kid. However, you would want to go into court with proof that the alienating parent is forcing the child to call the target parent by anything other than Mom or Dad – that is unhealthy, for a variety of reasons, for the kid.

  9. EC says:

    Judges usually find things like whether a parent calls the other parent daddy or mommy, or something else when talking to the child, not that significant, and if a parent thinks the reason the court is pretty much ignoring the fact that it’s been brought up is because they didn’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, they are probably misunderstanding what matters and what doesn’t to the court, and may be missing other pleadings they could be making that would benefit the child.

    For one thing the court is usually more concerned with how the child is doing than with the other parent: if the child is showing definite symptoms of suffering it will usually accept that it’s being caused by the environment in which the child is receiving most of its care, without being inordinately picky about evidence, or shifting its attention away from the child and focusing on the parent. The criminal evidentiary standard of `beyond a reasonable doubt’ doesn’t apply in family court, and the objective as the court sees it is not to `convict’ the other parent.

    Evidence is moreover not generally self-explanatory: before you introduce it you have to `lay a foundation,’ as lawyers say, and argue how if the evidence is more or less credible it should compel a certain result in terms of what the court orders.

    Many Internet discussions among parents with real grievances go off on an unuseful tangent when they become obsessed with recording conversations, video surveillance of the other other parent, compiling extensive collections of their text messages and e-mails, screenshots of social networking sites, etc.

  10. cxf says:

    “For one thing the court is usually more concerned with how the child is doing than with the other parent: if the child is showing definite symptoms of suffering it will usually accept that it’s being caused by the environment in which the child is receiving most of its care,”


    The breadth and depth of parental alienation evidence is germane in Texas courts as long as it relates back to the child. In isolation no, a parents one-time behavior, is quickly chalked off to typical parental conflict and courts will see this as not harmful to the child – it’s good judicial economy. In isolation, an incident here or there carries little weight in typical courtroom custody rulings, but often comes with a stern warning to the parties from the bench.

    However, when sufficient evidence of alienating behaviors is presented to the court in total, and that alienating behavior IS determined to be harmful to the emotional development of the child, courts, at least in Texas, will rule in favor of the non custodial parent – since courts relate the cause and source of that behavior to root from the child current domicile. See my previous posts regarding specific cases in Texas, that reached appellate review, where non custodial parents were awarded full custody due to these same case dynamics.

  11. EC says:

    I’ve been trying to suggest that it’s evident problematic development in the child, rather than gold plated evidence of a pattern of alienating behavior in a parent, that the court responds to, and the reason it takes so much effort, why many—probably most—cases in which a parent vies for a reversal in primary custody fail, is that the court’s criterion for what’s problematic development sets the bar fairly high: the child has to be definitively troubled.

    I’m not defending the courts: on the contrary I’m saying how they actually `work’ needs to be understood in order to reform them, as well as to do as well as possible when one is forced to deal with them as they are.

  12. William O'Connor says:

    Dr. Warshak,

    You give excellent advice for parents, but what about grandparents who are being alienated from grandchildren? Our biological daughter wishes to isolate the children from all contact with adults, including teachers (she home schools) and neglects the children. We wish to serve as a safety net and have a court order for visitation which she has ignored. Do you have resources for grandparents?

    Bill and Cathi