Parental Alienation: Navigating the Court System, Part 2
In Part 1, we considered a couple of scenarios in which parental alienation is likely to take place. Now we’ll consider some practical advice for presenting your case to the judge as well as information about how to prevent alienation and how to reverse indoctrination once it has begun to take hold.
Countering Alienation Attempts and Reversing Indoctrination
1. No More Mr. Nice Guy — Exposure and Truth-Telling.
You can help prevent indoctrination and help your children resist alienation attempts by paying very close attention to your children’s behavior toward you and by documenting everything you notice meticulously. If your high-conflict ex-spouse attempts to turn your children against you, you MUST bring it to the Court’s attention as soon as possible. You will need the detailed documentation.
It may very well be the case that the judge does not take it seriously or doesn’t know how to handle it. You may not have the experts lined up to prove the damage it’s doing to your kids, but there’s another important reason that you need to bring it out into the open—you need to be able to talk to your children about what is happening and you need to be able to counter the lies that are being told about you. Exposure and truth are the only way to begin to reverse this kind of indoctrination, and often it comes down to whether you can prove to your kids that they are being lied to—this is mind control, and your wife has gotten a head start.
More than likely your kids will think you are the one who is lying if you say anything that is contrary to what their mother has said. If you do not bring this to the Court’s attention, you’re taking a big risk if you talk to your kids about what’s happening and start telling them the truth to counter the alienation. This is one more thing that could be used against you in court when your wife complains about YOU violating the court orders by talking to the kids and disparaging her.
2. Making Your Case. It is true that the legal system for the most part does not have the stomach to remove a child from the alienating parent he or she most closely identifies with, even though it’s a very unhealthy alliance. It’s also very, very difficult to prove alienation, and there is a lot of controversy about the concept. As a result, there is a tendency for judges to flat-out refuse to consider claims of alienation—in fact, the mere mention of the word “alienation” is usually enough to raise a judge’s hackles. Claims of parental alienation are often viewed with suspicion and doubt because “parental alienation” has become a trendy catch-phrase that is sometimes used by parents as an excuse to avoid their responsibilities to their kids.
Talk the Talk
When making your case to a judge, unless it is a judge who is well known to be pro-active in cases of parental alienation, it’s usually better to describe the problem in terms such as “the mother is lying to the children and instilling irrational fears about their father” or “the mother is unwilling to co-parent and is excluding the father from their lives” or “the mother is withholding the children during father’s time with the children and is damaging their parent-child relationship.” All of those descriptions paint a clearer picture than claiming that the mother is alienating the children from their father, which could mean almost anything.
You will have to prove your case, and that will require more than just your word against the word of the kids’ mother. This is where your documentation will play a vital role. If you have been documenting as they occur the behaviors of your children and your ex-wife, your journals should be admissible as evidence. The fact that you have consistently journaled about these events lends credibility to the testimony you’re presenting to the judge. It will often be the case that you don’t know exactly what your ex has said or done to cause the change in your children. In these cases, it’s important that you document in detail what is going on with your children.
Pay particular attention to comments your children make that sound like they have been rehearsed or which sound awkward and unlike the type of things that children say spontaneously. For instance, if you tell your child that you look forward to seeing them on the weekend and your child says in response, “You’re so irresponsible, you probably won’t even pick me up” it’s probably something your child has heard from their other parent. An 8-year old is not likely to spontaneously conclude that his father is “irresponsible” and would not describe it in those terms. If your child refers to you as “unstable,” “abusive,” “erratic,” “labile,” “narcissistic,” “lazy,” etc., those terms have likely been implanted through repetition by their other parent. Kids don’t come up with these concepts on their own. Document the exact words that your child uses as well as the context in which these things are said. While journaling about these behaviors and attitudes of your children, note how the behaviors are different compared to a time before the alienation started and note the lack of any precipitating event that would give rise to these attitudes. Also note how it makes you feel as a parent.
Rely on Experts, But Choose Them Wisely
You will need an expert to interpret the behaviors of your child and explain them to the judge or jury, especially if you have no direct evidence of what their other parent has said or done to cause the changed attitude in your children. It is important that you find an expert who has significant experience with parental alienation—this may not be easy. Do not assume that all child behavioral health professionals are experienced in recognizing the signs of alienation. This is so important, it could make or break your case.
If the court appoints a custody evaluator (usually a social worker or family therapist), do not count on that court-appointed professional to pick up on alienation or to believe your side of the story. In my experience, court-appointed custody evaluators more often than not side with the alienating parent because they take everything at face value. If they interview the children, the children may report that they prefer to be with their mother and they may say they are afraid of you or that you don’t take good care of them or whatever it is that they have been programmed to think and feel. The custody evaluator will usually just take the kids at their word and they will assume that you have done something to have caused the difficulty with your children. You can count on your ex-wife lobbying the custody evaluator aggressively and, all too often, these lobbying efforts are effective in influencing the evaluator. Just like your ex can indoctrinate your children, your ex can also indoctrinate the professionals who have influence over your fate with your children.
Hire your own expert who will be ready and able to challenge the court-appointed custody evaluator, if necessary. Your expert needs to be able to describe the process of indoctrinating your children and the devastating effects it will have on your parent-child relationship.
3. Be a Perfect Parent. Well, no one is perfect, right? But, especially while you’re fighting this battle, you have to be as close to perfect as possible. That means don’t ever miss your visitation and don’t ever miss an opportunity to connect with your children. As long as you are not restrained from seeing them or placed on supervised visitation, you do not have to limit your contact to every other weekend or whatever your orders provide.
Establish a regular presence at the kids’ schools because their mother will be smearing you to the teachers and school administrators; if those folks can observe for themselves that you’re a loving, caring parent and not a hump-backed ogre, they cannot as easily be roped into believing lies about you. If they are called to testify in court, it will be hard for them to say negative things about you if they have their own positive experience of you.
Go have lunch with your kids at school; sneak them encouraging or silly notes in their lockers; send them cards in the mail; set up email accounts for them that their mother cannot access; purchase cell phones for the kids and keep their plans up to date so there is an open line of communication; be available and always put them first; don’t be late picking them up; always keep your promises to them; be at every game, concert, recital, open house, etc.; show up at practices or rehearsals and get to know coaches and instructors. The more time you spend with them the better because when they are experiencing you live and in person on a regular basis, it will be harder for negative perceptions of you to take hold.
As tempting as it may be, do not talk negatively about their mother—particularly not in a spiteful or gratuitous way. That’s not to say that you cannot correct lies their mother tells them, but you cannot just come out and call their mother a liar—it will be a conversation stopper. This kind of discussion with your children may best be handled with the help of a professional counselor. Again, be careful about the professionals you choose because if you select someone who is not experienced in dealing with alienation issues, you could actually further the alienation process rather than alleviate it.
I typically recommend that clients participate with their children in family counseling when alienation has started to affect a child’s attitude and behavior toward the target parent. In that case, your child will have some irrational beliefs about you that you will probably find maddening. Communication will be difficult, and your child may refuse to even talk about it with you, in which case you should not force the issue—but you also cannot afford to drop the issue altogether. Get professional assistance to guide the conversations. You may find yourself feeling anger toward your child because behavior such as this hurts and feels like betrayal. It is not your child’s fault and you cannot direct your anger at your child—this will further alienate him. Your child is being manipulated and controlled just like you were when you were married to the high-conflict woman.
Be aware of what you are telling yourself as this is happening. Too often, a target parent internalizes the rejection and buys into the distortions, believing that the child doesn’t love him and doesn’t want to be with him. I’ve seen a few dads give up on having a relationship with his kids—he stops insisting on visitation, he stays away from schools and sporting events out of shame and ultimately he loses any connection with his kids. This is devastating to children and to the alienated parents who love them. Do not give in to this kind of treatment!
It is not your authentic child who is rejecting you—it is a programmed, scripted Stepford child who needs help sorting things out. It’s not fair, it hurts, it is stressful and demeaning, but if your child is being trained to fear or hate you, your child needs you to help him find his way back to a loving relationship. Do not help your crazy ex deprive your child of a loving relationship with you.
*Please note: Although we are speaking in this context of the mother being the alienating parent, this very sad phenomenon can be carried out equally effectively by either father or mother. I have seen it happen plenty of times on both sides, and it seems to be happening with increasing frequency while the courts and even behavioral health professionals lag behind in their understanding and ability to deal with the phenomenon. For me, it is the most disturbing, frustrating and heart-breaking aspect of family law.
Shrink4Men Coaching and Consulting Services:
Dr Tara J. Palmatier provides confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.