“Parental Alienation” is a controversial theory that may tip the balance in some child custody cases. At root, it’s a pattern in which one parent encourages their child to unfairly reject the other parent. When it happens consistently, this behavior may take the name “parental alienation syndrome,” though the American Psychiatric Association does not recognize it as a diagnosis.
In most states, judges decide child custody disputes based on what is in “the best interests” of the child. When figuring out what’s in a child’s best interest, courts will take seriously any allegations of child abuse. Research demonstrates that true parental alienation is a form of child abuse. Yet there are disturbing stories of parents using the theory of parental alienation falsely accuse the other parent of harm.
In a recent episode of the podcast Reveal, the Center for Investigative Reporting explains and unpacks this problem in a compelling way. The episode, called Bitter Custody, goes into family courts to tell the stories of some judges who have forced kids to have relationships with parents the children say abused them. And it investigates so-called “family reunification camps” that profit from families torn apart by contentious custody battles alleging parental alienation.
Family court is the only place where parental alienation ever really comes up, and a lot of people think it shouldn’t even come up there. It’s never been accepted as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association, and Dr. Gardner [the theory’s creator] even talked about it more as a legal strategy than a psychological condition. He drew up a playbook for using PAS to counter child abuse allegations and get custody of the kids. ~ Trey Bundy, Bitter Custody
Putting the Kids First
It’s of course critical to look carefully at both sides of any parental alienation claim. Courts must seriously consider claims of parental alienation while avoiding harm to parents subject to false accusations. But we can’t lose sight of the most important thing in any child custody fight: avoiding harm to the kids.
One parent in a child custody fight may well feel resentful and hurt by the other parent. But, in the majority of cases, kids do best when they have a relationship with both parents. Most laws and judges presume this, and they will consider each parent’s willingness and ability to foster good relations when making child custody decisions. The best thing to do is to shield the kids from your private battles with the other parent. Let them know that you support the love they feel for both of you. Doing so may even help you get the outcome you most want.
Listen to Bitter Custody on the web or wherever you get your podcast episodes.
To learn about the best interest of the child standard in your state, see Legal Consumer’s child custody learning center. In particular, check out the article How Courts Make Child Custody Decisions.