How Does Parental Alienation Affect Child Custody Decisions?

An unmarried parent who uses lies and manipulation to turn their child against their ex-spouse can face harsh consequences in child custody decisions. Parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is a real and serious disorder that not only damages the parent-child relationship, but also severely impacts the child’s mental health.

If your ex-spouse has tried to undermine your relationship with your child, you should take immediate action. Talk to your lawyer about reviewing your child custody arrangement to ensure it makes sense considering the circumstances. It may also be a good idea to discuss further legal action to protect your child from an emotionally abusive parent.

What Is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

PAS is a disorder most often seen in the context of child custody disputes. It manifests in the child criticizing and even vilifying one parent exclusively, seemingly without justification.

The behavior arises from another parent’s brainwashing, or programming, combined with the child’s own proclivity to denigrate the parent who is the target of their disapproval.

PAS should not be confused with rational anger toward a parent who has legitimately abused the child in some way. In that case, the child’s hostility is justified and would not be considered PAS. 

Parental Behaviors Intended to Alienate a Child from the Other Parent

A parent will do many things to create a division between a child and the child’s other parent. All are damaging, and all can impact child custody litigation. Social workers and therapists often refer to these behaviors as a campaign of denigration.

In cases of parental alienation, the abusive parent might: 

  • Refuse to change parenting time to accommodate the child’s schedule
  • Share painful or inappropriate details about the breakup of the marriage or divorce with the child
  • Refuse to permit the child to bring items from one parent’s home to the other
  • Complain to the child about their ex-spouse’s perceived failures, including financial missteps, infidelity, breaking up the family, or dating a new partner
  • Use the child to spy and report back on the other parent’s comings and goings
  • Act hurt or sad when the child spends time with the other parent
  • Act as though they are emotionally or physically rescuing the child even if no real threat exists
  • Withhold vital medical or school records and other documents from the other parent
  • Deny their ex-spouse visitation time, whether court ordered or not
  • Encourage the child to ask to skip visitation with their other parent
  • Outright ask the child to choose them over their ex-spouse

Signs of Parental Alienation in Children

There are several common signs of parental alienation in children. Often, the child will have excessive anger toward one parent without being able to express why they are angry. The child may be spiteful, rude, cold, or ungrateful toward the targeted parent, again seemingly without cause. If they do give a reason for their disgust, it is often irrational or untrue.

The child will not show gratitude or appreciation for kinds acts from the alienated parent. They do not often feel any guilt or ambivalence about mistreating this parent because they have been so conditioned to believe they are bad.

The so-called independent thinker phenomenon is another hallmark of PAS. This means the child believes their opinions are solely theirs, without realizing they have been carefully crafted and influenced by the alienating parent.

When you see just how this condition manifests in children, you can grasp how damaging it can be to the bond between a child and a parent who has been targeted by their ex-partner.

Long-Term Impact of Parental Alienation on Children

Research on the long-term effects of parental alienation on children is concerning. Adult children who have experienced this dynamic in their youth describe substance abuse, depression, and very often a pattern of failed relationships including multiple divorces. Many even say they have become alienated from their own children, perpetuating the family cycle of emotional abuse.

What Can I Do if My Ex-Spouse Is Turning My Child Against Me?

If the descriptions of alienating behavior are throwing up red flags for you, it is vital that you take swift and powerful action to protect your relationship with your child as well as their emotional health and well-being.

New Jersey Laws Concerning Parental Alienation

New Jersey Revised Statutes Section 9:2-4 states it is New Jersey public policy to: Assure minor children of frequent and continuing contact with both parents after the parents have separated or dissolved their marriage.

In other words, it is the opinion of the state, and most child therapists and psychologists, that the involvement of both parents in a child’s life is beneficial for healthy growth and development. To that end, child custody determinations in New Jersey are designed and entered to maximize the participation of both parents in the life of the child.

Unless one parent is endangering the child or subjecting them to abuse in any form, family law judges in New Jersey frown on a parent’s efforts to alienate a child from their other parent.

The First Hurdle: Proving Parental Alienation Exists

Although it may be obvious to you that your ex-spouse has poisoned your child against you or denied you parenting time, it is not always easy to prove parental alienation has occurred. It is common for divorced parents to dislike each other, and many divorces devolve into the classic he said, she said battles. The courts may not believe family conflict rises to the level of psychological alienation.

For that reason, it is important to save any direct evidence that confirms your allegations. That can be texts, emails, or recorded phone calls where your ex-spouse is actively engaging in alienating behaviors.

If your child attends therapy, their counselor can possibly speak to any signs of alienation they have encountered. Although there are privacy laws that protect therapists from speaking about their clients, the judge can order them to provide evidence directly without disclosing it to the parents or the public.

Parental Alienation Syndrome and Child Custody Proceedings

Family courts are increasingly recognizing the existence of PAS and have allowed experts to testify on the subject. Some courts have gone as far as to transfer custody of the child to the alienated parent.

Although there are currently no published cases on the books in New Jersey that specifically discuss PAS, any attempt to manipulate a child against another parent is not taken lightly.

Criminal Charges for Interference with Custody

Any person, whether they be a parent, guardian, or lawful custodian, who takes the child with the purpose of concealing them and depriving the other parent of custody or visitation can be charged with a crime.

Interference with custody is considered a third-degree crime in New Jersey, punishable by heavy fines and possible jail time. If the child is taken out of the country, interference with custody becomes a second-degree crime bringing more severe penalties.

Civil Sanctions for Interference with Custody

In addition to criminal charges, the courts can also impose civil sanctions for interference with custody. The parent who has been denied custody by deception can seek relief under R. 1:10-3 for contempt or R. 5:3-7(a). Some of the possible remedies include:

  • Economic sanctions for costs resulting from a parent’s failure to adhere to custody arrangements
  • Compensatory time with the child
  • Counseling paid for by the parent who violated the custody plan
  • A temporary or permanent modification of the child custody agreement

In New Jersey, parents do not have a course of action for parental alienation. That means the targeted parent cannot sue for damages if their ex-spouse turns their child against them. Instead, the most practical course of action is to seek a child custody modification.

If you sense your ex-spouse is turning your child against you, or if they have already disregarded your custody arrangement, contact a child custody lawyer to learn your rights and remedies to prevent further alienation.

Morristown Child Custody Lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. Advocate for Victims of Parental Alienation

The Morristown child custody lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. have seen the devastating impact of parental alienation syndrome on children and the parents who love them. We use every legal tool available to break the cycle of abuse and secure child custody orders, and help you rebuild that bond with your child. To learn more or to schedule a free consultation, call us at 908-575-9777 or contact us online. Located in Somerville and Morristown, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients in Somerset, Woodbridge, Morristown, Parsippany, Rockaway, Short Hills, Chatham, Randolph, Madison, and Morris Plains.