Difference Between Estrangement and Parental Alienation
Divorce is a difficult process, made exponentially harder when children are involved. The best possible solution is figuring out as a couple how to peacefully co-parent your children even though you will be living in separate households. Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done. That is why parental estrangement and alienation are important to understand.
The terms estrangement and parental alienation often get used interchangeably, but they have unique definitions under the law. Both refer to a breakdown in the relationship between parent and child.
The legal definition of estrangement is when a child grows apart from a parent for reasons that are justified by that parent’s behavior. For example,
- Prior abuse or domestic violence toward the child or other parent.
- Immature or damaging behavior toward the child or other parent.
- Personality clashes or different beliefs between child and parent.
By contrast, alienation is a breakdown of a child–parent relationship due to the efforts of one parent to turn the child against the other parent, whether done actively or passively. For example,
- One parent bad-mouthing the other in front of the child.
- One parent sharing negative information about the other parent with the child, other family members, or court officers, under the guise of “protecting” the child.
- One parent instructing the child not to do or say certain things and blaming this behavior on the other parent.
It can be difficult to tell the difference between estrangement and alienation, even in family court. Some level of estrangement is expected even in the healthiest of home situations, as children age and start to grow apart from their parents. During divorce, children often feel estranged from one or both parents as they deal with a new family situation, one that is beyond their control. However, parental alienation is manipulation by one parent to drive a wedge between the other parent and the child. It may be "naïve" or it may be "obsessive," but it is a serious problem that many ex-spouses face in custody battles. If you suspect parental alienation, speak to an attorney immediately.
Because serious alienation is a form of child abuse, California family courts will take action to remove the child from the damaging situation. If one parent is unwilling to bend and work with the other parent or support the relationship between that parent and his or her child, a judge will take that into consideration when awarding custody. However, the alienation must be proven first.
Sometimes, alienation starts small and grows. If your ex is actively undermining your relationship with your child, legal action is necessary. A good family lawyer will help you petition the court for a new custody situation. Huguenor Mattis, A.P.C., has a firm commitment to helping families and protecting children. Call today for a free consultation with a skilled and compassionate San Diego family law attorney at (858) 458-9500.