When people describe their experiences in Family Court and contested divorce cases, they often call it “being put through the ringer.” The process can feel like pure hell when your ex is alienating the children from you. I have had clients tell me that their children refuse to speak to them during visitation, and/or make vicious comments like, “I hate you,” “I don’t really love you,” or even “I don’t care if you die.”
Parent alienation may make you feel hopeless, however as a child custody lawyer, here is a brief guide on what you can do to improve or salvage your relationship with your children.
- The most important thing: Don’t let it bring out the worst in you. Too many parents dig themselves into a deeper hole by inadvertently confirming the alienating parent’s description of them. For example, when the children repeat things that the alienating parent said, some alienated parents see it as a good reason to “bash” the other parent in return. That is a big mistake. The children are not likely to respond by taking your comments at face value. Rather, they will see it as confirmation that the alienating parent’s description of you is accurate.
- Keep making contact with your children. It may feel silly when you call/Skype/Facetime them and they do not speak to you at all, insult you, or hang up on you. If you stop contacting them at all, they will see it as confirmation of the alienating parent’s statements that you do not love or care about them.
- Be at your best. Most children (and even most judges) do not understand that your behavior may reflect the hell that you are going through, and not reflect on your true character. Rather, when you lose your composure, your children may feel that you are showing your “true colors.” The alienating parent will take full advantage. (“See? He yelled and screamed. He’s crazy and dangerous, and that’s why I don’t want you going over there.”) No matter what happens, behave in a manner consistent with the way that you want your children to see you.
- Seek as much parenting time as possible. Many judges believe that when children are not responding to their parents during supervised visits, the visits should stay supervised until the child starts responding. However, I’ve now seen several cases where parents have gotten unsupervised visits, and the children’s behavior does a “180” when they are alone with the targeted parent. While the children may be outright cruel in a supervised setting or during visitation exchanges, they may become affectionate when they are alone with the targeted parent. I firmly believe that as the concept of parental alienation gets more attention, there will be a change to the conventional wisdom that visits need to stay supervised until the quality of the contact improves.
- Get coaching from a mental health professional with expertise in parental alienation. There are several mental health professionals who specialize in this area, and their guidance will be very useful both in your interactions with your children and in your custody evaluation.
Another pitfall: Many well-meaning judges suggest that alienated children get “therapy.” However, many therapists take children’s statements at face value and treat them based upon the assumption that their statements are true. Therefore, if the child is falsely reporting that you are abusive, the therapist may treat the child for the damage that you allegedly caused, inadvertently helping the other parent to alienate the child from you.
However, there is hope. There are now therapeutic treatments for alienation, and the mental health professional who is coaching you can point you towards a therapist for your child who is familiar with these methods. For the most severe cases, there is even “immersion therapy,” where alienated parents and their children live together on a campus for a short period of time to renew the family bond.
Parental alienation is an insidious form of child abuse. Because it is getting more attention, alienated parents now have more options to save their relationships with their children, and give their children the ability to have both parents in their lives.