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Children may exhibit unexpected behaviors in response to trauma felt during a divorce. Sometimes, the child may avoid a parent, make constant critical remarks about that parent, and avoid any attempts at strengthening the relationship between themselves and the parent. When this form of estrangement is being actively encouraged by the other parent, it is known as “parental alienation”.

Parental alienation is a controversial, and often-disputed phenomenon that most commonly occurs in the wake of a divorce. It usually involves three parties: a parent who wishes to alienate their child from the child’s other parent (often a former or current spouse), a child who is experiencing feelings of alienation they may not fully understand, and a parent who is being alienated from their child.

Courts view claims of alienation with some initial skepticism, as often the feelings of estrangement are coming from the Child or from problems with the relationship with the parent who is claiming alienation.

Mild versions of parental alienation can sometimes occur as a result of latent feelings the child might have about a parent. However, alienation most often occurs as a result of one parent’s encouragement, especially if the child had a healthy relationship with the other parent prior to the divorce. It is very difficult to prove, as it is invariably denied by the alienating parent, and the Child who has been aligned with one parent will often deny it also.

New Mexico family courts view obvious parental alienation as harmful to the Child and, often, indicative of a type of emotional abuse by a parent. Often, New Mexico courts will refer to the concept of “gate-keeping,” rather than alienation.  Gate-keeping is any effort by one parent seeking to prevent the other parent from having a good relationship with the Child.

In some cases, the courts may intervene in custody arrangements and timeshare plans in order to remedy the effects of alienation and lessen the influence of a gate-keeping parent. Parents who are victims of this alienation should take action, since the feelings can only deepen with age and prolonged distance.

If you fear that your child is being alienated from you by their other parent, reach out to an experienced New Mexico family law attorney as soon as possible to evaluate your options for preserving your relationship with your child.

Parental Alienation Is Controversial and Is Sometimes Considered a Form of Psychiatric Syndrome

Parental alienation is best thought of as a concept that explains the actions and feelings that may take place between a child and their two parents in conflict. It is controversial in the psychological community with most practitioners believing it is not an actual psychological syndrome or diagnosis. However, the psychological community does generally agree that parents can alienate children from the other parent, and it is harmful to the Child when that happens.

The level of alienation can be mild to severe, as can the level of involvement the other parent has in encouraging the alienation.

A parent can become alienated from their child at any age. Alienation can also be present at any stage of the marital/personal relationship of their parent, meaning that the parents do not have to be actively divorced or recently divorced for alienation to occur. In many cases, feelings of alienation increase as the child ages and their relationship with the other parent remains distant.

The concept of parental alienation was first described by Dr. Richard Gardner in 1985. His work has become controversial and is often harshly criticized in the psychological community. His theories are often rejected by the Courts. It is not that practitioners do not believe that alienation exists; rather it is disputed that it can be “diagnosed” as a distinct mental health condition that can then be used to work backwards to conclude that the cause of the Child’s behavior or relationship is alienation.

There is no listing for “Parental Alienation Syndrome” in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the manual used to formally diagnose psychiatric conditions. Its effects are best understood as a spectrum of negative experiences that most often stem from the controlling actions of a gate-keeping parent.

What Makes Parental Alienation Occur?

There are many unique reasons and situations that can cause parental alienation to occur. Separating these into subjective levels of severity can help make the reasons alienation occurs more clear.

Mild Parental Alienation

One consequence of parental alienation at all levels of severity is that the child no longer sees their parent in the same light. This can be a result of the things they have directly seen and experienced during a divorce, but it is more likely to result when someone they trust (especially their other parent) begins to say critical things about the parent they are being alienated from.

Without active encouragement by an alienating parent, children experiencing mild alienation may be resistant to spending time with the other parent. They may also begin to discount the presence of the alienated parent in their life, forgetting about them or downplaying their expectations to the extent that the parent is “othered.” In these mild cases, the child’s opinion of and disposition towards the alienated parent may change to become more positive when they are in the parent’s presence and spending time with them.

Moderate Parental Alienation

Moderate parental alienation occurs when the child begins to actively avoid spending time with the other parent. They will also voice strong criticisms or negative opinions about the parent unprompted. This surly behavior persists in the presence of the other parent and is often untempered by positive experiences.

In the absence of a strong reason for these feelings (e.g. the alienated parent has always been nurturing and attentive towards the child), a likely explanation is that the child is either directly or indirectly learning these behaviors from someone with a strong influence in their life. Most often, this means that the other parent actively harshly criticizes the parent for being alienated, affecting the child’s perception.

The alienating parent may also, consciously or subconsciously, punish the child for any attempts to strengthen their relationship with the other parent, such as by planning fun activities during times the other parent should be with the child in order to discourage visitation.

Severe Parental Alienation

Severe parental alienation is a form of child abuse that involves controlling and manipulative behaviors for the purposes of “programming” the child against the other parent. The alienating parent will actively discourage any communication or emotional connection with the alienated parent. They may punish the child for doing so, or they may directly encourage the child to avoid contact by promising rewards. Secrets are often kept between the alienating parent and the child, and the child may be fearful of certain information reaching back to this parent, especially if it involves contact with the alienated parent.

In some cases, alienation will extend to other parties in the child’s life. People at school, in the community, and healthcare workers may be told inaccurate stories, for example, or have contact information for the other parent removed from their records.

Children experiencing severe parental alienation will do anything possible to avoid contact with the alienated parent. They may hide, run, or become combative and violent in order to relieve the sense of unbearable pressure that comes from being in the presence of the other parent.

8 Signs of Parental Alienation

Dr. Richard Gardner presents eight common manifestations of parental alienation that can be observed by the alienated parent and others in the child’s life.  Dr. Gardener suggests that the presence of these factors can lead to the conclusion that alienation is happening.

However, the most widely accepted stance in the psychological community is that the presence of these factors does NOT necessarily lead to the conclusion that alienation is happening.  There are many reasons why children can become polarized in favor of one parent and against the other–abuse, extended family members, environmental factors, diet, the lack of any relationship with one parent, despite the parent’s assurances otherwise, mental health concerns of the parties involved, and other factors.

Dr. Gardener’s factors suggesting parental alienation are:

  1. A campaign of denigration. The child relentlessly attacks the alienated parent with harsh and often unfair criticisms.
  2. Weak, Frivolous, and Absurd Rationalizations. The child does not have compelling logical reasons for their hatred or desire to avoid the other parent. That, or the reasons they offer do not explain the magnitude of their behavior.
  3. Lack of Ambivalence. Support of the alienating parent is “automatic, reflexive and idealized”, whereas the opinions of the other parent are consistently and unequivocally negative.
  4.  The “Independent Thinker” Phenomenon. The child obstinately claims that their opinions are uninfluenced by any outside sources, least of all the alienating parent, despite any evidence to the contrary.
  5. Absence of Guilt About the Treatment of the Targeted Parent. Whereas most people experience remorse or conflicting feelings about negative treatment towards an individual, an alienated child will have no second thoughts about their own behaviors after being hostile, rude, or cold towards the alienated parent.
  6. Reflexive Support for the Alienating Parent in Parental Conflict. No matter what issue is presented or the behaviors of the alienating parent, the child always takes their side. There is no sense of impartiality or ambiguity.
  7. Presence of Borrowed Scenarios. Criticisms, accusations, and negative behaviors leveled towards the alienated parent involve language the child appears to not fully understand, and the child may even bring up scenarios they did not directly experience, revealing the influence of the alienating parent.
  8. Rejection of extended family. Hatred or ill opinions of the alienated parent may extend to their family members and others in their social orbit.

Responding to Parental Alienation With a New Mexico Family Law Attorney

Parental alienation is a significant factor that courts will want to take into consideration in order to ensure the health, safety, and home environment of children. Depending on the level of severity, proof of parental alienation could compel a court to take action against the alienating parent. Visitation schedules may be altered, or the parent may have custody taken away if the courts believe the child is in immediate danger as a result of severe abuse. Some states have statutes directly criminalizing parental alienation, although New Mexico does not.

Generally, the courts view that it is best for children to see both parents regularly. They will typically recommend some form of family counseling in order to address the issue. However, if the court is considering a custody/visitation arrangement or a revision to an existing decree, then the presence of parental alienation could have an effect on their considerations.

Overall, it is in the best interests of the family and the child for quick action to be taken once parental alienation has been observed. It is important for parents who feel they have been alienated from their children to act quickly to document their experiences and make the actions taken against them known.

If you are concerned about your child’s behavior or the things you have experienced in possible relation to parental alienation, it can help to talk to an experienced family law firm in New Mexico as soon as possible. New Mexico Financial & Family Law has extensive experience with hundreds of divorce cases, all with unique factors. We can assist you with documenting your concerns and presenting them to the court, especially in light of any custody/visitation arrangements currently under consideration.

Learn more about your legal options and the steps to take next during a no-obligation case review. Call (505) 503-1637 or contact us online to schedule your appointment today.

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