Healthy child development requires support from both parents. In a healthy parent/child relationship, parents serve as examples for the child. They nurture their emotional development and capacity to relate to others. When one parent wages war on the other, and recruits the child to their side, that child suffers. They may experience feelings of alienation toward the targeted parent. Unfortunately, this phenomenon occurs all too frequently in child custody cases.
Parental Alienation Defined
Parental alienation is the manipulation or “programming” of a child by one parent to reject the other parent irrationally and without justification. Parental alienation is distinguishable from parental estrangement. The latter results from behavior in which a parent harms their own relationship with their child. This usually occurs because of their own shortcomings.
Is Parental Alienation Syndrome Real?
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) does not officially recognize parental alienation syndrome (PAS). However, in 2013, the APA introduced two new diagnoses: child psychological abuse and child affected by parental relationship distress.
While there may be a dispute in the medical community about whether parental alienation syndrome is a diagnosable, pathological condition, there is no doubt that contentious custody disputes commonly involve acts by one parent calculated to obstruct, undermine, or sabotage the other parent’s relationship with their child.
Common Types of Alienating Behavior
Parental alienation lies on a spectrum. It ranges from isolated badmouthing to extreme acts of coercion leading to the outright rejection of the target parent by the child. The alienating parent typically adopts a set of abusive strategies. For them, the goal is to foster the child’s animosity toward the targeted parent. Common strategies include:
- Badmouthing: “If your dad cared about you, he would come to your soccer games.”
- Telling the child that the other parent doesn’t love them: The alienating parent will instill a sense of doubt in the child as to the target parent’s love and affection.
- Limiting contact: The alienating parent minimizes any opportunity for the target parent to refute the badmouthing.
- Referring to a stepparent as mother or father: The alienating parent pressures the child to replace the target parent with a stepparent.
- Confiding in the child: The alienating parent involves the child in adult matters, such as court matters or visitation disputes. They also may portray themselves as a victim of the target parent to elicit sympathy from the child and channel animosity toward the target parent.
- Changing the child’s name to remove association with the target parent: The alienating parent undermines the child’s identity and attachment to the target parent.
- Interfering with communication: The alienating parent forbids, blocks, or minimizes the target parent’s attempts to contact the child. The alienating parent may also discourage, minimize, or otherwise limit any discussion of the target parent.
- Withdrawal of love: The alienating parent withholds love and approval from the child as punishment for maintaining a loving relationship with the target parent.
- Asking the child to spy on or keep secrets from the target parent: The alienating parent convinces the child to withhold information from the target parent by convincing the child it is in their best interest.
- Referring to the target parent by first name: The alienating parent demeans the parental authority of the target parent and their bond with the child by portraying the target parent as a common peer.
- Withholding medical, academic, and other important information from the target parent: The alienating parent makes it difficult for the target parent to play an active and involved role in the child’s life.
This type of alienating behavior can have a severe psychological impact on the child and effectively destroy their relationship with the other parent for years to come.
How Can I Stop the Other Parent from Destroying My Relationship with My Child?
Fathers dealing with parental alienation syndrome have recourse in Tennessee. While Tennessee courts may not technically recognize parental alienation syndrome as a diagnosable mental illness, they are very familiar with child abuse and the tactics alienating parents use. If Mother wants to wage war on you and your relationship with your child, you have a couple of options in court.
File a Motion for Contempt
Under Tennessee law, noncustodial fathers are entitled to contact the child and participate in significant decisions impacting the child’s life.
With respect to parental alienation, Tennessee law recognizes that noncustodial fathers have “the right to be free of unwarranted derogatory remarks made about such parent or such parent’s family by the other parent to or in the presence of the child.” If Father can show that Mother made disparaging remarks about him in front of the child, a Tennessee court may very well hold Mother in criminal contempt. In such a case, a court may order imprisonment as a penalty.
Petition for a Change of Custody
In Tennessee, a targeted Father can request the court modify the parenting plan to make him the primary residential parent. In Honea v. Honea (Tennessee Ct. of Appeals, Middle Section, April 22, 2021), the court did just that. After finding Mother’s worsening alienating behavior constituted a “material change in circumstances,” it granted Father’s petition to modify the parenting plan. The court awarded Father equal parenting time, changed the primary residential parent to Father, and awarded Father sole decision-making authority over educational decisions. In making its decision, the court observed:
“[Mother] has denied [Father] parenting time in willful violation of the Court’s Order, has interfered with his ability to obtain childcare during his parenting time and has expended substantial effort in attempting to alienate the children from the father. [Mother] has demonstrated neither a willingness nor an ability to ‘facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship’ between the children and their father. “
Don’t Let an Alienating Parent Destroy Your Relationship with Your Child
Fathers dealing with parental alienation syndrome should not sit back and simply hope things will get better. They usually don’t. Parental alienation is a form of child abuse. What your child learns in their formative years may stay with them for a lifetime.
In business since 1860, Batson Nolan PLC knows how to fight for the results you need. In fact, our legal team has over 100 years of combined experience. Come and see us, so we can evaluate your case and discuss the best way to move forward. Call us today or contact us online to set up your initial consultation in our Clarksville or Springfield office.