How parental alienation can backfire in child custody

Parental alienation in child custody cases can have serious impact-and not always in the way you originally inten

What's Inside

What's Inside

It’s no secret that divorce and custody disputes may become contentious and bring out intense emotions from the parties involved. 

When faced with the possibility of losing precious time with a child, some parents may resort to harmful tactics, such as parental alienation, in an effort to gain back some level of control over their relationship with their child. However, these parents may not realize that intentionally keeping a child away from the other parent can backfire and lead to harmful consequences for you, your child and the other parent. 

In this article, we discuss how parental alienation can backfire. After an overview of alienation, we explain its potential consequences and the detrimental effects it may have on child custody arrangements, the parent-child relationship and the child. 

Can you withhold a child from another parent?

Withholding a child from their other parent without having a valid legal reason to do so usually isn’t advisable and may have serious consequences. 

Generally speaking, unless a court determines otherwise, both parents have legal rights to see, communicate with and spend time with their child. If a parent withholds their child from the other parent in violation of any existing custody order, this may be considered parental alienation. This may lead to losing custody, being found in contempt or facing criminal charges.

What is parental alienation?

Parental alienation refers to the behaviors exhibited by one parent whose intent is to undermine or damage their child’s relationship with the other parent. 

Signs of parental alienation

Parental alienation may take various forms. Below are some common examples of parental alienation tactics: 

  • Speaking negatively about the other parent, criticizing their character, behavior or parenting abilities or making derogatory comments about them. 
  • False allegations, such as those of abuse, neglect or other wrongdoing against the other parent, either directly to the child or through other channels and individuals
  • Interference with the child’s ability to communicate with their other parent
  • Undermining the other parent’s authority in front of the child 
  • Emotional manipulation, such as guilt-tripping the child or implying they may be punished if they express loyalty or affection to the other parent

How keeping a child away from the other parent can backfire

The short-term gratification of keeping a child away from their other parent may seem attractive. However, parental alienation may have significant and lasting negative impacts on both you and your child in the long run.

Parental alienation may result in severe legal ramifications for the parent engaging in the alienating behaviors.

The concept of parental alienation is widely recognized and accepted throughout the United States. However, there are no federal parental alienation laws. Instead, specific laws pertaining to this subject vary from state to state. 

Generally speaking, judges’ view on parental alienation is most often disfavorable. They recognize the potential harm that parental alienation may have on children and their families.

In family law cases involving children, courts typically follow the “best interests of the child” standard in making any legal determinations regarding the children. As the name implies, this means that a judge’s primary consideration is to do what is in the child’s best interest.

Therefore, where allegations of parental alienation have been raised, judges may take proactive measures to address and prevent such behaviors by the perpetrating parent moving forward. Such measures might include:

  • Ordering therapy or evaluations by mental health professionals to assess individual or family dynamics and provide strategies and resources aimed at promoting a healthier parent-child relationship.
  • Reducing the alienating parent’s custody or visitation rights if their behavior is deemed detrimental to the parent-child relationship and the child’s overall well-being. This might involve adjusting the parenting schedule to limit the alienating parent’s time with the child or requiring supervised visitation
  • Holding the alienating parent in contempt of court, which may lead to fines, court orders to pay the other parent’s legal fees or even jail time until the parent ceases the alienating behavior. Such consequences are intended to enforce compliance with existing court orders and deter future harmful alienating behavior. 

Impact on the parent’s relationship with their child

In some cases, parental alienation may backfire and cause the child to resent or distrust the alienating parent. This may lead to a strained parent-child relationship and feelings of betrayal.

Negative effects on the child

When one parent engages in the harmful behavior of keeping a child away from their other parent, this may negatively impact the child’s well-being and development. For example, this may lead to: 

  • Emotional distress
  • Low self-esteem
  • Identity confusion
  • Internal conflict over loyalties to their parents
  • Instability and inconsistency in their parent-child relationship
  • Feelings of loss, abandonment or guilt
  • Problems with respecting authority
  • Behavioral issues

Even where a child experiences parental alienation during their youth, the effects may last into adulthood

How a lawyer may help

Allegations of parental alienation may have severe consequences and should be taken seriously. 

Whether you suspect your child’s other parent of engaging in parental alienation or you have been accused of parental alienation yourself, you may have considered speaking with an attorney about your rights and options moving forward. 

An experienced family law and custody lawyer can help you gather critical evidence to help support your claims or defense, prepare arguments to establish that what you’re seeking is in your child’s best interest and advocate on your behalf in court to protect and preserve your relationship with your child. 

Share with

Bottom line

Our experienced team would love to help you move forward. Schedule a free 15-minute call so we can connect you with an experienced attorney.

Book a free call

Frequently asked questions

Is parental alienation a crime?

In some jurisdictions, parental alienation may be considered a form of child abuse or custodial interference, which may constitute a crime. However, the law varies from state to state. If you have questions about whether parental alienation is a crime where you live, check the laws of your jurisdiction and consider seeking counsel from a legal professional licensed in your state.

Do judges recognize parental alienation?

Yes, many judges recognize parental alienation as a serious issue and are aware of the potential impact alienating tactics may have on child custody cases. Courts generally don’t take allegations of parental alienation lightly. Depending on the extent and severity of the parental alienation, a court may decide that modifying existing custody orders is in the best interest of the child.

What happens to a child with parental alienation?

Children who experience parental alienation may face a variety of negative consequences. This may include emotional distress, low self-esteem, behavioral problems and strained relationships with their parents and extended family members. These effects may be short- or long-term. Recognizing the signs of parental alienation early on and understanding how to combat these consequences may allow parents to better mitigate the harmful impacts on the child moving forward.

Disclaimer: This article is provided as general information, not legal advice, and may not reflect the current laws in your state. It does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel based on the facts of your circumstance. No reader should act based on this article without seeking legal advice from a lawyer licensed in their state.

This page includes links to third party websites. The inclusion of third party websites is not an endorsement of their services.

Share with

More resources