Raising a child by yourself has ups and downs, but it may get more challenging if your family is going through a divorce or separation. During a parental conflict, the relationship with your child can be affected by the dynamics of the conflict. It may also impact the custody arrangements. Parental alienation may be difficult to spot unless you learn about how it presents and what you can do to help maintain the relationship with your children. Learn more about parental alienation as a consequence of relationship conflict and how it might affect your custody arrangement as a single parent. Doing so can better help your children to navigate the challenging time of family breakup.

What Is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation is any pattern of behaviours that isolate a child from the parent or primary caregiver with whom they have a positive relationship. It happens to both fathers and mothers, although there is evidence that fathers are at a higher risk. Dr. Christine Giancarlo, researcher at Mount Royal University in Calgary and author of Parentectomy, said the process harms the children involved, especially when compared to the kids who do better in the long run around divorced parents who are friendly to each other around their children.

There are two elements regarding parental alienation. The motivation of the perpetrators of parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome presented by the children. The first is the constellation of behaviours that an adult does to a child and the target parent. The other is a syndrome present in the child after the alienating behaviours affect them. They may behave negatively toward the target parent when the syndrome begins without the target parent understanding why or how to deal with the situation.

Although both are concerning for single parents and any parent, parental alienation behaviours are what could affect custody arrangements. It’s essential to understand how the dynamics present themselves to see if they affect your relationship with your child.

What Relationship Dynamics Lead to Parental Alienation?

There are many signs of parental alienation once it begins breaking a relationship between the target parent and their child. Consider if you’ve seen these behaviours present in your kid’s other parent:

  • Disparaging the target parent with negative comments or accusations of abuse, 90% of which are false for both male and female target parents when investigated by authorities
  • Making your child feel guilty or scared of the alienating parent through verbal, physical or emotional abuse
  • Moving with the child far away from the target parent to disrupt their relationship or otherwise telling the kid the target parent doesn’t love them to fracture the connection
  • Neglecting the child’s safety or needs, making them need the alienating parent more to see that they’re still loved
  • Talking with the child about adult topics like custody disputes or trauma to adultify them away from needing the other parent
  • Refusing to acknowledge that the alienating parent’s own negative behaviours are bad for the child, even when the kid voices concerns
  • Encouraging the child to push away or let go of negative reactions to the alienating parent to get them to accept the toxic dynamics more easily

If your partner started exhibiting these negative behaviours, you might instinctively want to talk with them about your concerns. Working through challenges strengthens your relationship, which you’ll need to maintain a healthy long-term dynamic for the sake of your kids. However, if the other parent is intent on continuing their alienating behaviours, your conversation might not make them want to change.

How Does It Affect the Adults Involved?

Alienating behaviours often occur when one parent is angry about things resulting from their marriage, separation or divorce. Successfully turning their children against the other parental figure makes the kids side with them, seemingly validating the former partner’s anger.

Meanwhile, the targeted parents often deal with panic, stress, depression or anxiety when alienating behaviours begin. They might see their child get angry with them easily or spend more time away from them. At first, target parents often reflect and see if something they did drove their child away. Even if they made mistakes, the alienating parent’s ongoing behaviours are the primary reason for the kid’s emotional or physical distance.

Once targeted parents identify the alienating actions or verbal abuse, they often try to take the other parent to court. It’s possible to claim parental alienation in custody court battles because it’s a known family dynamic.

Paulette MacDonald, a family and child advocate, notes how this path isn’t always easy. “We do now have more judges and lawyers that are familiar with parental alienation and more court-appointed family counsellors that are becoming more aware of the dynamics involved in parental alienation,” she says, “but it’s a really hard sell in court.”

External factors also put pressure on custody court judges. There’s ongoing public pressure to ban the idea of parental alienation in family law settings. When the alienating parent with an unearthed or unrecognized history of domestic abuse claims the target parent is the one alienating the child involved, the courts sometimes side with the abuser.

“The family justice system is indeed broken,” MacDonald notes. “The waiting and lengthy process causes the most damage. Courts pit parents against one another and basically, it’s the best actor that wins.”

Parents don’t just lose their relationship with their kids when their partners alienate them. The behaviours destroy the entire family. A child who loses access to the targeted parent will likely not be allowed to see extended family members related to that person. They become threats to the parent doing the alienation because anything they say could disprove what that person is telling their kid.

Children lose essential loving relationships that would otherwise make them feel secure in their family dynamic. They also miss out on positive relationships that model loving dynamics, trust and healthy interactions. Instead, the alienating parent gains more control and influence over their child. Meanwhile, extended family members have to mourn the lost connection.

What Are the Mental Health Effects of Parental Alienation on Kids?

Ongoing alienating behaviours can cause parental alienation syndrome for some of the involved kids. They may exhibit some of these common signs that they believe the alienating parent, whether that parent is telling the truth or not:

  • Continually being angry at the target parent with seemingly no particular trigger
  • Complaining about the target parent to others repeatedly without justification
  • Refusing to recognize when the target parent is emotionally supportive of them
  • Lacking a sense of guilt after saying or doing a bad thing to the target parent without justification
  • Automatically taking the alienating parent’s side on anything, typically driven by a fear of disappointing or angering that parent

Ultimately, the child’s loss of a relationship with the target parent makes them feel completely dependent on the alienating parent. They may grow up with low self-esteem, anger, depression or a lack of trust, depending on what they believe from the alienating parent’s words or actions.

What to Do if You’re Being Alienated

Talk about your concerns if you feel like your partner is alienating you from your kids. Point out the specific behaviours to get their perspective. There might be other issues you can work through, like unintentional miscommunication.

When a conversation doesn’t stop the alienation, start documenting the behaviours. Note what’s happening and when. Record interactions if possible or get them on video. If your lawyer recommends including your partner’s alienating interactions in your defence, you’ll need proof to present in court.

Meanwhile, maintain a relationship with your child as much as possible. Spend time with them while making positive memories, like reading together or driving them to school. Try to avoid letting the stress of the situation get to them as well. Children’s minds have been shown to be more adaptable to change than adults. Making a conscious effort to encourage them can have long-term effects on how your children see both you and themselves. If you build trust with them, your child will question moments of alienation because they know you so well.

Understand and Identify Parental Alienation Better

The concept of parental alienation may seem distant to those who haven’t experienced it, but it’s a family dynamic that affects many single fathers and mothers all the time. If you think you’re the targeted parent, look for these relationship dynamics before consulting a legal adviser about your custody arrangement. Their advice may help you protect your child against the toxic alienating parent.

Jack Shaw is the senior editor of the men’s lifestyle magazine Modded and an advocate for men’s mental health. He has written extensively on the issues faced by single parents and those struggling with trauma, mental health disorders, and more. His tips, breakdowns and personal experiences have been published in TinyBuddha, Calmerry, The Company of Dads and more.