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*323 Parental Alienation; Not in the Best Interest of the Children

Douglas Darnall

75 NDLR 323 (1999)
North Dakota Law Review

Copyright © 1999 North Dakota Law Review; Douglas Darnall

Reproduced under the Fair Use exception of 17 USC 107.

This paper found through the diligence of Bill Wood.  Thanks, Bill!
         
                                                                           



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Editor's Note: Dr. Douglas Darnall is a practicing licensed psychologist and the CEO of PsyCare, Inc., an outpatient psychiatric clinic in Youngstown, Ohio. He is the author of Divorce Casualties: Protecting Your Children from . Parental Alienation (Taylor Publishing Company, 1998). In the following essay, Dr. Darnall, drawing largely from his book, discusses how attorneys and judges can serve clients by recognizing, dealing with, and seeking to stop and prevent parental alienation. Because the essay is based largely on Dr. Darnall's book and because he is not a legal or academic professional, a bibliography of sources employed in his book appears at the end of the essay instead of traditional footnotes.

I. INTRODUCTION

During the crisis of divorce, most parents fear whether their children will emerge unscathed. Any reasonable and empathetic parent sincerely believes in the value of his or her children having a healthy relationship with both parents. Ideally, parents deliberately work on comforting and reassuring the children that no harm will come to them. At the same time, both try to strengthen their parent-child relationships without degrading the other parent or causing the children to feel divided loyalty. They encourage visits, talk kindly of the other parent in the children's presence, and set aside their own negative feelings to avoid causing the children distress. They are sensitive to the children's needs and encourage positive feelings toward the other parent. This outcome is the goal of not only the parents and children, but also the attorneys and judge involved in the case.

However, any number of events can destroy the fragile balance of peace between parents. If this happens, an injured parent may seek comfort by aligning with the children, especially since he or she may feel threatened by the children's love for the other parent. A pattern of alienation usually begins without any malicious or conscious intent to harm or destroy the relationship between the other parent and the children. Though most parents mean well, they are often unaware of how subtle behaviors and comments can hurt the relationship between the children and the targeted parent. In effect, alienation can occur in even the friendliest of divorces.

*324 In unfriendly divorces, the effects are predictable. Custody litigation or struggles for parenting time creates unavoidable competition between parents. Children feel pulled in many directions as long as both parents want custody or feel they must fight for their fair share of time. Afraid of losing custody, a parent may feel an urgency to align with the children to help ensure victory. The other parent may retaliate with an insurgence of passion for winning their cause. They may have difficulty accepting that they must compete against each other to prove to the court that making them the custodial parent is in the children's best interest. The struggle between two passionate parents is a byproduct of modern-day divorce, and it sets the stage for alienation.

Alienation will continue as long as divorces--and custody battles-- continue to increase at alarming rates. More fathers are becoming more comfortable in a nurturing and caretaking role and no longer adhere to the belief that they are genetically predisposed to be the inferior parent, and as a result they are seeking and being granted custody. Therefore, courts no longer automatically assume children are better off living with their mother. Meanwhile, mothersare realizing that the all-American dream of marriage, a home, and children is not a guarantee of emotional fulfillment. Many women now want an identity in both the workplace and the home. The high costs of living and supporting a family force women to work outside the home even when their children are very young. Consequently, women can no longer argue for custody because of an inherent birthright or ability to care for the   children at home.

After the attorneys are gone and the case is closed, the parents must somehow pick up the pieces and establish a working relationship for the children's best interest. The issue for attorneys and the court is what they see as their role and responsibility for setting the stage in helping families to repair damaged relationships. Attorneys who take an active role in educating clients about parental alienation, parental alienation syndrome and where to get help if needed can help families get on with their lives with some semblance of harmony. While attorneys and judges should not become therapists, they can help set the stage for parents to work together in harmony by educating divorcing parents during litigation about parental alienation and how such behavior impacts the children.

II. BACKGROUND

In 1994, approximately 2.4 million Americans obtained divorces, including the parents of more than one million children under the age of eighteen. Nearly as many unmarried couples with children will separate. Thanks to sky-high divorce rates and recent increases in the number and *325 viciousness of child custody battles, there has been a marked increase in parental alienation. Children suffer from a breakup because they are torn, trapped, precariously balanced, as if one wrong move could cost them all their parents' love and acceptance. This can easily lead to disastrous effects on children. Various studies show that youngsters exposed to even mildly alienating behaviors may have trouble learning, concentrating, relaxing, or getting along with their peers. They have been known to develop physical symptoms and/or serious behavior problems. Clearly then, parental alienation can be a major factor in the pain of divorce.

A. The Nature of Parental Alienation

There has been a lot of confusion about the definitions of parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome. For purposes of this essay, parental alienation is any constellation of behaviors, whether conscious or unconscious, that could evoke a disturbance in the relationship between a child and the targeted parent.

<>This definition is not the same as Dr. Richard Gardner's definition of parental alienation syndrome, which he coined in his 1987 work, "The Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Child Sex Abuse." Gardner defined parental alienation syndrome as "a disturbance in which children are preoccupied with deprecation and criticism of a parent--denigration that is unjustified and/or exaggerated." Dr. Gardner explained the term is similar in meaning to brainwashing, except the motivation for the alienating parent has both conscious and "subconscious or unconscious" components. Dr. Gardner further explained, in "The Parental Alienation Syndrome: Second Addition," that parental alienation syndrome "arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child's campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from a combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent's indoctrination and the child's own contribution to the vilification of the targeted parent."

Parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome differ in important respects. First, parental alienation syndrome focuses on the child's behavior. It is often visible when a child refuses visits, expresses unjustifiable hatred towards the targeted parent, displays no fear of the court, harbors irrational beliefs shared by the alienating parent, and cannot see any good in the targeted parent. Children may have motivations that make alienation worse. Their desires for immediate gratification or avoiding discomfort makes them vulnerable to siding with the alienating parent. Children, often unknowingly, become *326 advocates for alienating parents by serving as spokespeople for their parent's hatred. The only exception to keep in mind is if children displaying these symptoms have been truly sexually, physically or emotional abused, as the child's feelings could then be justified.

Parental alienation, on the other hand, focuses not on the child's behavior, but on the parent's behavior. Parents can and will alienate without necessarily leading to parental alienation syndrome. The risk is that once severe parental alienation syndrome takes hold of the child, the process is almost impossible to reverse. That is why preventing and understanding parental alienation is so important. Parental alienation is reversible, most often through education. This is where the role of the attorney and the court becomes so important. They are usually the first to see the parental alienation and are in the best position to thwart the potential damage to the children.

There is a second major difference between parental alienation and parental alienation syndrome. Dr. Gardner emphasized that parental alienation syndrome requires the child to be an active participant with the alienating parent in degrading the targeted parent. If a child were able to ignore a parent's persistent attempts to degrade the other parent, then, by definition, parental alienation syndrome could not occur. Parental alienation focuses more on the parent's behavior than on the child's role in degrading the victimized parent. Thus, parental alienation can occur well before the parent's hatred permeates the child's beliefs about the targeted parent.

It is important to keep in mind that understanding parental alienation is not an issue of who is the alienator, or "bad guy," versus the targeted parent, or "good guy." A common mistake made by attorneys and mental health professionals is trying to place blame. Assigning blame is understandable, because many states consider which parent is most willing to foster a healthy relationship between the children and the other parent as a factor in determining the child's best interests. However, finding the most cooperative parent doesn't always solve the problem of alienation, since alienators usually feel as victimized as the targeted parent. The roles of the alienator and the target alternate between parents. The same parent can be both the alienator and the target depending on how he or she is behaving. Generally, one parent triggers the other. The targeted parent then feels defensive and, in turn, retaliates with alienating behavior. The roles become blurred, because alienation is a process, not a person or outcome.

Parental alienation varies in severity, as seen in the behaviors and attitudes of both the parents and the children. The severity can be of such little consequence as a parent occasionally calling the other parent a *327 derogatory name or as overwhelming as a conscious campaign to destroy the children's relationship with the targeted parent. There are three main kinds of alienators, and preventing or stopping alienation begins with learning how to recognize the three types of alienators, because the symptoms and strategies for combating each are different.

First, naive alienators are parents who are passive about the children's relationship with the other parent but who occasionally do or say something to alienate or reinforce alienation. Most well-meaning parents will occasionally be naive alienators.

Second, active alienators also know better than to alienate. Their difficulty is that the hurt and anger they feel continues to fester. They are very vulnerable to triggers, usually pushed by the ex-spouse, causing the parent to lose control over his or her behavior or what he or she says to the children. After they have calmed down and see reason, they may feel very guilty about how they behaved.

Finally, obsessed alienators have a fervent cause to destroy the targeted parent and any vestige of a relationship the children have with the targeted parent. Rarely does the obsessed alienator have enough self-control or insight to recognize how his or her behavior is hurting the children. In fact, he or she feels justified: His or her crusade is to protect the child from the evil of the court and targeted parent. A qualified evaluator may observe that the obsessed alienator's beliefs are irrational and even delusional. The obsessed alienator is always looking for support and affirmation that his or her cause is justified from so-called experts. These are usually the parents who bring an entourage of supporters, including the child, to court without being asked to do so by the court or attorney.

Obsessed alienators pose the most severe problems for attorneys and judges. Attorneys for obsessed alienators can inadvertently cause alienation by giving their client the message his or her behavior and cause are justified. It is very common for obsessed alienators to shop for an attorney or evaluator that will support their cause. Once the attorney *328 starts to question the alienator's behavior and motives or raises questions about the child's best interest contrary to the alienator's goals, the attorney is usually fired and the alienator begins shopping again. These clients also usually want to manage the case and have attorneys do their bidding. They can be difficult for judges, because they want the court to punish and humiliate the targeted parent by denying visits and affirming the alienator's allegations.

Attorneys with an obsessed alienator as a client are in a difficult situation. They are ethically bound to represent the client's interest, and yet they are conscious that children's lives are involved. Once the attorney starts to lean away from the obsessed alienator's cause, the attorney will begin to see his or her client's rage and manipulation. The client's obsession may intensify, sometimes to the point that he or she appears delusional, perhaps making accusations that the court is fixed or the attorney or judge is being paid off. In these circumstances, when the attorney believes that the children's interest are being threatened and not represented, the attorney should consider asking the court to assign the child a guardian ad litem. This helps the attorney out of an ethical dilemma and offers the child some protection.

B. Signs of Alienation: 

1.In Parents

Below are the more common symptoms of parental alienation. Many of these behaviors will look familiar, because some alienation occurs in all divorces. Some symptoms may come as a surprise, because many don't think of the behavior as something that can hurt children.

Common symptoms include:

  • Supporting the child's refusal to visit the other parent without reason;
  • Allowing children to choose whether or not to visit a parent, even though the court has not empowered the parent or children to make that choice;
  • Telling the children about why the marriage failed and giving them the details about the divorce settlement;
  • Refusing the other parent access to medical and school records or schedules of extracurricular activities;
  • Blaming an ex-spouse for not having enough money, changes in lifestyle, or other problems in the children's presence;
  • Refusing to acknowledge that the child has personal property and denying the child control over taking personal possessions to the other parent's home;
  • Rigid enforcement of the visitation schedule for no good reason other than getting back at the ex-spouse;
  • Assuming the ex-spouse is dangerous because he or she had made threats in the past during an argument;
  • False allegations of sexual abuse, drug and alcohol use or other illegal activities by the other parent;
  • Asks the children to choose one parent over the other;
  • Reminding the children that the children have good reason to feel angry toward their other parent;
  • Suggesting adoption or changes in name should a parent remarry;
  • *329  Giving children reasons for feeling angry toward the other parent, even when they have no memory of the incident that would provoke the feeling, and especially when they cannot personally remember the incident or reasons for being angry
  • Special signals, secrets, words with unique meanings, or a private rendezvous arranged between the child and one parent;
  • An intention to use children as witnesses against their other parent;
  • Asking the children to spy or covertly gather information to be used later against the other parent;
  • Setting up temptations that interfere with visitation;
  • Giving the children the impression that having a good time on a visit will hurt the parent;
  • Asking the children about the ex-spouse's personal life;
  • Rescuing the children from the other parent when there is no danger.

This list is not meant to be conclusive of all possible symptoms. As one learns more about parental alienation, one can add to it.   

2. In Children

The symptoms of parental alienation describe a parent's behavior towards the child. It says nothing about how the parent's behavior impacts the child's behavior or attitudes towards the targeted parent. If parental alienation is successful and influences the child against the targeted parent, then the observer will see symptoms of parental alienation syndrome. For example, if a child doesn't appear to have a problem with visits, one can safely conclude that parental alienation syndrome is not severe or present. That is not to say that parental alienation is not occurring, and in time the child may display severe symptoms of parental alienation syndrome. Often, children appear healthy until asked about the targeted parent. Some of the behaviors an observer can expect to see in the parental alienation syndrome child include:

  • A relentless hatred for the targeted parent;
  • Parroting the alienating parent;
  • Refusing to visit or spend any time with the targeted parent;
  • Having many beliefs enmeshed with those of the alienating     parent;
  • Holding delusional or irrational beliefs;
  • Not being intimidated by the court's authority;
  • Reasons for not wanting to have a relationship with the targeted parent based only on what the alienating parent tells the child;
  • Difficulty distinguishing between personal memories and what he or she is told;
  • *330 No ambivalence in a child's feelings; feeling only hatred without the ability to see any good in the targeted parent;
  • No capacity to feel guilty about behavior towards the targeted parent or to forgive any past indiscretions;
  • Sharing the alienating parent's cause to destroy the relationship;
  • Hatred extending to the targeted parent's extended family without any guilt or remorse.

Children displaying these tendencies may well by the subjects of parental alienation by one parent. If this is the case, attorneys and judges need to know how to help stop it, as well as deter and prevent further alienation.

C. Identifying Alienation

Attorneys may be the first to see symptoms of alienation, and they can therefore help dilute the severe effects, as well as prevent more severe problems in the future, by recognizing an obsessed alienator. Attorneys need to know strategies for dealing with each kind of alienator. Typically, naive and active alienators can learn to curb their behavior with education. The obsessed alienator will, at some point, require professional intervention, though that is the last thing the obsessed alienator wants to hear.

It is helpful to recognize the more common symptoms of parental alienation that occur during litigation and understand how attorneys may unwittingly contribute to the problem. Learning to recognize alienating behavior will help attorneys better serve clients as they transition from a dysfunctional and hurting family into, hopefully, two healthy and loving families. What attorneys do and how attorneys work with these families can have a lasting influence for many years to come. Set forth below are some of the common situations in which an attorney may see alienating behavior by a client or a client's former spouse. Strategies for combatting alienation are discussed in Part V, infra.   

1. Expecting the Children to Keep Quiet

It is natural for a parent to ask their children upon their return home, "How was your visit?" or "Did you have a good time?" Such questions are usually harmless. Parents should not become paranoid about asking children innocent questions about visits. However, there is a difference between these casual questions and asking for specific information that serves their personal interests.

*331 One of the less malicious forms of alienation is expecting children to keep secrets. It can be very harmful to a child to be told by a parent to say nothing about what is happening with the divorce to the other parent. The child is not only placed in the uncomfortable position of lying to protect the alienating parent, but he or she is getting the subtle message that something is wrong with the targeted parent. The parent's rationale is that some things are none of an ex-spouse's business.

Asking children to keep secrets puts them in a difficult situation because it forces them to divide their loyalties between parents. Therefore, parents should not blame the children when they learn of secrets with the ex-spouse. Without being punitive, parents may ask the children about the secrets. If the child does not want to talk about the secrets, the parent should not push the issue. When the parent is alone with the ex-spouse, the parent can tell him or her that he or she has learned about the secrets. Without attacking or degrading the ex-spouse, the parent can explain his or her concern about how the secrets place the children in the uncomfortable position of having to lie and deceive. Usually, parents ask the children to keep secrets when they expect that the other parent will get angry about something or try to restrict the ex-spouse's activities with the children. Rather than asking the children to keep secrets, parents need to see if they can come to some agreement about the issue. If parents cannot get satisfaction, they should consider discussing the issue with a counselor, or have their attorney discuss the issue with the ex-spouse's attorney. Someone has to tell the offending parent to stop having secrets.   

2. Having Secrets and Codes with the Children

When children and one parent have secrets, special signals, a private rendezvous, or words with special meaning, there is potential for damage to the children's relationship with their other parent. It is one of the most blatant forms of alienation. Telling the children, "Don't tell your mother," "This will be our little secret," or "When I say 'whimsy,' call me tomorrow," creates an exclusive relationship that psychologically excludes the other parent. The secrecy implies there is something wrong with the other parent that justifies such behavior. The victimized parent is portrayed as not understanding or as someone who "doesn't want us to have fun." Regardless of the excuses, the results are the same. The children are alienated from the victimized parent while the other parent is characterized as a special person who understands.

There are many reasons a parent would have secrets or private rendezvous with their children. The most frequent excuse is that the ex-spouse "will not allow me more time with my children." Thus, *332 parents say the ex-spouse "would have a fit if she knew the truth about the times I see my children." Sometimes, having a special relationship with the children makes the alienating parent feel powerful. It is almost like getting one over on the former spouse. The child becomes an unwitting vehicle for the parent's hostility.

However, having secrets, private codes, or rendezvous are damaging to children because they learn to deceive and lie. They become very confused from not knowing what is morally correct. If a parent has secrets with his or her children, he or she needs to stop the practice immediately.   

3. Using the Children as Spies Against the Other Parent

Children get a very damaging message that demeans the targeted parent when they are asked to spy or gather information covertly about the other parent. The subtle message is, "Mom is bad" or "Dad is doing something wrong." These messages will cause the children to become suspicious of the targeted parent and to pull away emotionally. If the alienating parent is clever, he or she may lead the children to believe they are playing a game while gathering the information.

There are many reasons why a parent would use the children to gather information covertly about the other parent. The parent may be sincerely concerned for their children's safety and welfare. On the other hand, he or she may want to gather information that they can use later against the other parent. Whatever the reasons for spying, it is wrong. It teaches children to lie and sneak, and most important, to betray someone they love.

Of course, a parent's motivations for having children gather information may be even more clearly selfish. A noncustodial parent struggling with paying bills may want to know how his ex-spouse is spending "his" money. The custodial parent may have reason to believe that the ex-spouse is hoarding money rather than paying a fair share of child support. Knowing local courts often echo very traditional values, a mother may want to know if the children's father is having his girlfriend spend the night. Drinking and driving, punishing the children excessively, allowing their children to engage in reckless or dangerous activities, or failing to supervise are all reasons courts may restrict or ban visits.

Parents seeking to prove allegations often need the children's cooperation to gather information about when and where these questionable activities occur. A parent may think that if he or she can prove to the court that the other parent is mistreating or neglecting the children during a visit, the court will issue an order restricting visits to daytime hours or eliminate them altogether. Such parents may believe the end justifies the means because they are so intent on restricting or *333 eliminating visitation. Attorneys should be cautioned not to participate in such deceit.

Attorneys, however, are in a difficult position, because they may need information from the children that will help their case. Getting this information without hurting the children and without hurting the children's relationship with the other parent can be very difficult. This is part of the balancing act attorneys must perform. Before deciding the extent of involving the children in a case, it may be helpful to keep in mind the possible pitfalls: becoming a major contributor to alienation or, worse yet, inadvertently hurting the children.

Before deciding to gather information, the parent and attorney should ask themselves why they need this information. Is it pertinent for the litigation? If so, can the information be gathered by other means rather than asking the children? If the decision is made to ask the children, the inquisitive parent should be reminded about the risk to the children.   

4. Using the Children as Witnesses in Court

A variation of gathering damaging information is using the children as witnesses against the other parent. When a parent decides to seek custody, he or she realizes the need to build a case against the ex-spouse to impugn their competency to parent. The parent, along with the attorney, knows this requires information. Boyfriends spending the night, drinking, smoking in the presence of an allergic child, or using drugs are all arguments that have been used to settle a custody dispute. As discussed earlier, the parent may draft the children into service to gather information covertly against the other parent. While the process is occurring, alienation evolves between the children and the targeted parent.

Attorneys must be careful about the possible consequences of using the children in court. Though the information they can provide is important, the attorney and parent must realize how the child will feel after the testimony. Often they feel guilty, fearful that the targeted parent will be angry, or depressed because of the betrayal. Children who are actually enthusiastic about testifying against a targeted parent are frequently severely alienated and thus will usually have very biased testimony. These children cannot be trusted to be truthful or objective. The only exception is when it is known the targeted parent has abused the child, and even then the court must be cautious. Children victimized by abuse are usually embarrassed and withdrawn, and thus they are not enthusiastic about telling their story before the court and their parents.

While children don't belong in court, sometimes it can't be helped. Hopefully, their appearance comes after a lot of reflection about how the *334 disclosure of the information serves the best interest of the children and weight against the harm it can cause the relationship with the targeted parent. On the other hand, if the information only serves the parent's interest in winning the case, the children should not testify.   

5. Dealing with Children Who Volunteer Information

If the children volunteer information about what occurs in the ex-spouse's home, parents should casually listen to what they say. They should not interrogate the children by asking numerous questions. Instead, the children should be trusted to disclose any significant information. When they are ready, they will usually tell a parent if there is something wrong. Parents should listen to what their children say without getting upset, making judgments or accusations. Otherwise, the children will become upset, causing them to temper their story.

A parent who doesn't know how to ask his or her children questions can give them the wrong impression of what actually occurred. This can be dangerous and can lead to false allegations. Parents, and usually attorneys, are not properly trained to interview children. This is why a trained professional is needed to ask children questions about sexual abuse or some other serious offenses. Parents should not ask their children questions about the ex- spouse's behavior that may impugn their character unless the parent has a good reason to believe the child's safety is at risk. Satisfying one's curiosity is not sufficient reason for risking harm to a child's relationship with the other parent. Asking the children a provocative question will serve no purpose other than to cause great discomfort.

If a parent has more questions, he or she should direct them to the ex- spouse. It is important to remember that children are capable of lying, and their recall of past events is very susceptible to distortion, especially if an unqualified evaluator interviews the child. Further, parents can prevent problems by not asking their children or ex-spouse about an alleged incident unless they have good reason to believe something actually happened. One parent asking children questions without a basis to do so will raise doubts in the children's minds about the other parent's integrity. Though the questioning parent believes the reason for asking was innocent, he or she may precipitate alienation between their children and the other parent.

Finally, remember that children's accounts about what happened will not always be accurate. This is because of their young age, biased perception, and limited vocabulary. Younger children will take shortcuts explaining themselves because it is easier. Children may agree with a parent before they really understanding what the parent is trying to say. *335 This happens frequently with younger children because they are usually more concerned about pleasing a parent than being accurate in what they tell them. Asking child, "Are you telling me the truth?" is meaningless, because children always say, "Yes."
 

III. EFFECTS OF ALIENATION ON VISITATION AND PARENTING TIME

These common situations, as well as others, manifest themselves in specific situations. One of the major effects of alienation is confusion and problems relating to visitation and parenting. Visitation or parenting time is important. The amount of time children spend with noncustodial parents is often a barometer of alienation. Those who have regular contact and meaningful relationships with both parents benefit in many ways. This is why courts encourage frequent visits, assuming the tensions between parents don't harm the children.

A. Background

Parenting time can be messy. The transfer of children from one parent to another and phone calls to make or change visiting arrangements provide the perfect breeding ground for conflicts and power struggles. Parents need to learn about the different ways parenting time is used to cause or reinforce alienation and what tactics can be used to prevent or resolve these problems before they become insurmountable. Unfortunately, there are many ways for one or both parents to use parenting time as a weapon against the other parent. Even the children can get into the act and cause problems.

This has implications for both custodial and noncustodial parents. Custodial parents often say, "He doesn't pay his support on time, so why should I worry about his visits?" This allows them to justify their refusal to allow the ex- spouse parenting time. Courts, on the other hand, do not accept this argument. In most jurisdictions, a parent cannot withhold parenting time because his or her ex-spouse is behind in child support. Parents may not like what they hear, but they need to be told by their attorney that paying support has nothing to do with parenting time. If the court order entitles the other parent to parenting time, the offended parent cannot take it on his or her own to withhold that time. As these issues are separate, parents must continue to allow parenting time and discuss what to do about the child support with their attorneys. It is surprising how frequently an offended parent's attorney has not told the parent that parenting time cannot be used as leverage to get support or to punish a former spouse.

*336 Noncustodial parents, on the other hand, often ask, "Why should I continue to pay child support if I can't see my kids?" The answer is that the money is for the children's care, which continues regardless of whether or not the parent is getting a fair share of parenting time. Like the custodial parent, these parents need to be told by their attorneys that they cannot stop paying child support to retaliate for not getting parenting time. The children still need to be fed and clothed. The court views withholding child support under these circumstances as punishing the children, not the uncooperative parent. Unfortunately, the court does not have very effective sanctions when a parent refuses to cooperate with visits. Ideally, sanctions should not harm the children or the children's relationship with either parent.

Many problems with parenting time would be eliminated if parents followed the court order. However, parents who rigidly follow the court- ordered schedules often do so to satisfy their own needs rather than those of their children or ex-spouse. A request for a change in the schedule may be met with an angry rebuttal: "Why should I let you bring Tracy home late? You wouldn't give me the same courtesy." The rejecting parent may feel a sense of power from denying the other parent's request.

Conversely, excessive requests to change scheduled visitations are often disruptive and should be discouraged. Watching parents argue about changes in parenting time can remind their children of past fights. To keep peace, the children learn to keep quiet and not ask for any changes in visits. They learn to keep their desires to themselves. Former spouses need to learn how to work together on theissue of parenting time. Often, their attorneys can help educate them on these issues, which can do a lot to prevent future problems and helps the children. Following are several tips to keep in mind when educating clients on these issues.

First, if a parent wants to reschedule parenting time or bring the children home late, it should be cleared with the other parent before asking the children. Parents should not get the children excited over a special event that could be vetoed if the other parent doesn't agree to change the schedule.

Second, after getting approval from the other parent, ask the child how they feel. It is acceptable for a parent to ask for their children's input, but not in a way that makes children feel they must choose one parent over the other. One must be careful not to make the children feel caught in the middle. Parents can communicate their feelings about this by choice of words, tone of voice, and so on.

*337 Finally, as mentioned earlier, parents must not set up temptations that interfere with the other parent's parenting time. This is unfair to everyone and will surely cause problems. These general tips will help solve some of the more common and simple parenting time problems. Following is a discussion of more specific situations and how one can deal with them.

B. Common Alienation-Related Visitation Problems

The issues discussed above manifest themselves in specific situations. Below are some of the common situations attorneys are likely to see when practicing in this area. The examples include tips on dealing with the problems.   

1. "I Don't Want to Visit, and You Can't Make Me!"

The most common symptom of alienation is the child's unwavering insistence on not wanting to visit the targeted parent. Some of their reasons may sound reasonable, while others are ridiculous. A teen in love would rather be with the boyfriend than seeing dad; sometimes an important ball game conflicts with mom's weekend. Even with good reasons, however, changing visits should only be an occasional interruption to a consistent pattern of visits. When the excuses become a pattern, one can reasonably expect that a parent is trying to alienate the other parent from his or her children. In such a case, an obsessed alienator is often behind the excuses.

The noncustodial parent has good reason for being suspicious when the other parent frequently cancels visits. The cancellations are a reminder of the custodial parent's power over the time the noncustodial parent spends together with the children. Noncustodial parents fear an abuse of power because there is little they can do about it other than file an expensive contempt charge against the custodial parent for failure to cooperate with visitation. The noncustodial parent must trust the custodial parent's motives and judgment for canceling a visit. For example, he or she must believe that a child's illness is serious enough to justify canceling a visit. If ex-spouses distrust each other, reasons for withholding visits may be seem like excuses.   

2. "Sweetheart, Do You Really Want to Visit Daddy This Weekend?"

Courts differ on the matter of how much control a child has on deciding whether or not to visit a parent. Some courts insist that the *338 noncustodial parent's right to have a visit has priority over the wishes of the child. Other courts argue that children of a certain age, say sixteen, know what they want and should exercise greater control over visitation. Still other courts are vague about the child's power to decide. The important point is that the children's right to decide should be part of the court order and not up to the discretion of the custodial parent. If the court order is vague, mediation can help resolve the dispute and is less expensive than going back to court.

Courts must maintain the position that a parent should not offer his or her children choices that are contrary to court orders. Doing so sabotages the court's authority. Judges faced with such a parent can remind the parent that children have no choice about other matters, such as attending school, and visitation is similar.

However, it is difficult for a parent to know what to do when children complain about visits at the same time the court insists on compliance with the visitation order. The parent may want to support the children's wishes while knowing he or she could be held in contempt by the court. The parent's desire to please the children and frustration for having to enforce the visitation order will incite anger. The parent's anger may be inappropriately directed toward the ex-spouse for insisting upon seeing the children. However, to avoid the possibility of alienation, a parent should not give the children a false impression that they have a choice about visitation when, in fact, there is no choice. The custodial parent has a responsibility to ensure that this does not happen. The message is worth repeating: Children who are actively involved with both parents are more likely to be better adjusted than children alienated from one of their parents.   

3. "If the Kids Don't Want to See You, What Can I Do?"

Rather than taking responsibility for interfering with visits, many alienating parents place the blame on the children. This can take many forms. First, the alienating parent can pretend to be a sympathetic harbinger of bad news: "Isn't it a shame that the children don't want to visit you?" Alternately, a parent may make a passive attempt to alienate by appearing neutral and uninvolved while denying any responsibility for the child's behavior. Such a parent may say, "My son knows what he wants. I'm not getting involved." Other alienating parents may profess a lack of control over the children's wishes: "I can't force them to visit! If they don't want to go, that's their choice."

Finally, the alienating parent may not believe a court order is necessary to do what he or she wants. In fact, the alienating parent is *339 often self-righteous in the belief that he or she is defending the children's rights, thus providing a justification for defying the court: "Nobody, not even the court, is going to tell my children they have to visit you. They have rights too." This final standoff between parents usually occurs with obsessed alienators, because nothing anyone does or says will change their position. They get very angry when anyone, including the court, challenges their authority to make this decision. How the targeted parent feels is completely unimportant to them. The targeted parent is now helpless because he usually can't get his point across to the alienated child, and the alienating parent has made her position clear that she is not going to do anything to help. Often the only choice the targeted parent has in this situation is to return to court.   

4. "Dad, I Can't Go to Disneyland. It's Mom's Weekend."

Both parents should know the children's visitation schedule. The schedule outlined by the court will allow parents an opportunity to plan vacations and spend recreational time with their children. There should be no confusion regarding where the children are going on any particular week or weekend.

Parents know how easy it is to entice children to spend time with them. They know their children will want to go anywhere they think will be the most fun. Dangling a temptation like a trip to the amusement park or the beach will cause the children to feel torn between wanting to go and wanting to spend time with their other parent. This is a common alienating tactic. Children will typically not empathize with their targeted parents' dilemma. Instead, they are driven by their immediate desire to have fun. The children are frustrated and angry when a parent insists on the visit that interferes with something they would rather do. The children will vilify the parent who tells them they cannot go, while they will adore the other parent.

Parents should not invite children on a special activity when they know it interferes with the other parent's time with the children. They should ask the other parent about it first. They shouldn't even say anything about the activity to the child until they talk to their ex-spouse. If a parent says something to the child first and the other parent says, "No," the asking parent sets up the other parent for their child's wrath and hurt. Parents may justify the invitation by saying they are just thinking of the children. This puts the targeted parent in a no-win situation: If the non-offending parent insists on having the entitled visit, the children may feel resentful, but if that parent allows the children to go for the weekend, he or she will miss the time spent with the children. *340 This situation leads inevitably to alienation, and so parents must strive to avoid it.

Further, parents must keep each other informed of matters which affect parenting time. For example, whether the children are home or on a visit, both parents should know if their children are leaving town for an extended time. Such special occasions require parents to work together by negotiating changes with visits. The children should be given an opportunity to express their feelings about attending the function without interference or coaxing from either parent. For the children to feel comfortable about their choice, parents must set aside their feelings and consider their children. Otherwise, the children are again victimized. 

5. "I Have a Date. Why Do I Have to Visit Dad This Weekend?"

When children become teenagers, their social life becomes more independent. Visits which interfere with their social life can become an annoyance, especially when they fall in love. Almost any teen would rather be with a boyfriend or girlfriend than with a parent, particularly when visits prevent access to their friend. Parents need to empathize with their children's desires and not take what seems like rejection personally. Instead, the noncustodial parent needs to be flexible and willing to negotiate. If a parent fights, he or she may get the visit, but this is scant comfort if a teen's attitude makes the visit miserable. Parents need to be told by the court to negotiate with teenagers. 

6. "Mom, Will You Come Get Me? I'm Bored."

Rescuing is a subtle alienating tactic, because it allows the rescuing parent to appear as a concerned and caring parent trying to do what's best for the children. Any responsible parent seeks to protect children from any potential harm or threat to their safety, even if the threat is from the ex-spouse. When parents believe they have reason to be concerned, they will be vigilant and listen closely for anything that seems a potential threat or sounds out of the ordinary. At the same time, wise parents realize their children's account of what happens on a visit may be misunderstood or distorted. A wise parent will be cautious before reacting to what children say.

A parent going through a bitter divorce has a lot of hurt and bitterness that will influence his or her perceptions about the children's safety, the other parent's competencies, or the child's sense of responsibility. Sometimes an unbiased friend, or an attorney, has to help the parent put *341 risk in realistic perspective. This is particularly true when the parent has been abused and questions whether or not the children are safe and properly supervised by the other parent.

Sensing the parent's apprehension, the children may also start to fear being with the other parent. They approach the visit with a critical eye, looking for any fault in the visiting parent. Their demeanor is reserved. They may be looking for a blunder: drinking a beer, having a girlfriend or boyfriend over, getting angry. In the most nightmarish cases, kids panic at the thought of visiting, shriek and cry, run away, or call home begging to be rescued. Most often, however, the only fault children find with the visit is boredom. As soon as they feel uncomfortable, for whatever reason, they call home asking for the other parent to pick them up. The parent, sitting home worrying, is quick to jump in the car and come to the children's rescue.

When a child is rescued, he or she calms down and feels relieved. The immediate relief from leaving the visit reinforces the desire to be rescued. The next time the child is with the other parent, the problem gets worse: The child expects to get rescued, even though there is no threat to his or her safety. Therefore, parents should not rescue their children from the other parent unless there is a very real threat. Taking such a drastic action can cause alienation. Wanting to come home because of boredom is not a sufficient reason for rescuing. 

7. "One of These Days, I Know He's Going to Hit Me Again."

Sometimes there is so much bitterness between the spouses that the mere sight of the other's face triggers intense rage. Whether the rage is justified is not the issue; parents always have a way to rationalize their anger. When parents cannot control their anger and be civil with each other, contact between them may need to be limited to a public or a supervised setting.

Many parents don't understand the limits of a restraining or protection order. Some question the value of a restraining order, but it can be effective with parents who respect the law. A restraining order is no guarantee that a parent's safety is protected, although it is more helpful than harmful. Some parents not intimidated by the legal system may ignore a restraining order, perhaps because they do not believe their ex will call the police or sign the complaint. They may also simply not care. Unfortunately, this happens too often with high-conflict divorces. Police and counselors at battered person's shelters will attest to their frustration when a spouse makes a complaint but won't follow through *342 with prosecution. An alternative to a restraining order that offers a helpful alternative in controlling the threat of violence is visitation centers.

Recently, visitation centers have emerged as effective methods for providing a safe and supervised setting for picking up and dropping off children after parenting time. Counties and courts without such centers may want to consider starting one. They are also very helpful in providing parent mediation and possible counseling for high-conflict parents. Domestic violence is a difficult issue, and unfortunately it is beyond the scope of this essay. However, it is crucial for attorneys to be aware of the role of domestic abuse in cases of divorce and parental alienation. 

8. "Sorry, Sweetheart, I Can't Come to Your Recital. It's Not My Time to Visit
You."

Courts can prevent much misunderstanding by being specific in outlining the parent's rights to attend the children's activities. Often, the noncustodial parent believes that he or she must have the custodial parent's permission to attend the children's activities. This sets up a potential power struggle between parents. Many parents, usually fathers, feel very humiliated by asking for permission. To avoid a possible fight and the humiliation from losing the argument, noncustodial parents refuse to ask permission. They just don't show up. Unfortunately, the children do not understand this. The children often interpret a parent's absence as rejection, not understanding the hurt the parent may feel not attending the activity. The child may assume the noncustodial parent does not want to attend, even if the rejection is caused by the custodial parent's lack of cooperation. The noncustodial parent misses the opportunity to see their children perform. The children are hurt. Everyone loses, except the alienating parent.

To avoid misunderstanding, court orders outlining parental rights should include a specific statement encouraging both parent's participation in the children's activities. If possible, a parent should not have to ask the other parent's permission to attend the children's activities. Both parents need equ