How Family Courts Treat Severe Parental Alienation Cases

In divorce and high-conflict custody battles, one parent will often try to alienate the child from the other parent. Parental alienation may be an act of revenge against the other parent or an effort to hang on to the relationship with the child. Many parents fear that the child will side with the other parent if they don’t act to alienate the child from that parent.

Courts view parental alienation as harmful to the well-being of the child. In moderate to severe cases, it can be considered an act of child abuse.

In recent years, clinicians and courts have tried clarifying the difference between mild, moderate, and severe cases of parental rejection. Advocates have also proposed a new approach to intervention in severe parent-child contact cases—a method called “Blended Sequential Intervention.”

Measuring Parental Rejection Severity

When a child of separated or divorced parents rejects one parent or refuses to see them, the court may inquire into the severity of the problem. Family courts and associated professionals have attempted to define the signs of parent-child rejection cases, which are behaviors exhibited by the child.

In Parent-Child Rejection cases, the child may show the following behaviors:

  • Unrelenting rejection of one parent
  • Reasons for parental rejection are disproportionate or trivial
  • Extreme refusal to consider alternative explanations or viewpoints
  • Frequent repetition of words or phrases said by the favored parent
  • Speaking in a rehearsed manner as if reading a script
  • Rejecting family, pets, and friends associated with the rejected parent
  • Complete lack of empathy, regret, or compassion for the rejected individuals

If a child exhibits these behaviors, the court will seek to address the problem. The first step is to assign a measure of severity—either mild, moderate, or severe. The severity of parent-child rejection cases can be measured by investigating the behaviors of the parents and child further.

Mild Parental Rejection Cases

Mild cases of parent rejection by the child most often occur in younger children (< 9 years). The alienating parent may talk negatively about the other parent to the child or try to disrupt contact. Still, this behavior is infrequent and sporadic, indicating a lack of intent to alienate the child from the other parent.

In mild cases, the parent wants the child to have a relationship with the other parent. They can cooperate and communicate with the other parent on decisions about the child and have minimal conflict with the other parent.

Moderate Parental Rejection Cases

Moderate cases of parent rejection are most often seen in older children but can be seen in children of any age. The child exhibits all of the behaviors listed above are present but are more severe than in mild rejection cases. They may throw a tantrum every time they have to visit the rejected parent or take longer to adjust during visits. In moderate cases, the child may show signs of anger or sadness about the separation. These signs of emotion indicate that the child is not “alienated” from the rejected parent (unlike a child who shows no emotion over the situation).

Severe Parental Rejection Cases

Severe cases of parent rejection are seen as emotional abuse of the child by family courts. The favored parent is psychologically controlling and intrusive. They may make false allegations of child abuse against the other parent. They claim their actions are done with the intent to protect the child regardless of the evidence showing that their actions may harm the child. They often suffer from mental illness, including severe personality issues (antisocial behaviors, narcissism, borderline personality disorder, paranoia).

In severe cases, the court may order custody reversal, suspension of the favored parent’s contact with the child, and an intense intervention to mend the relationship between the child and the rejected parent. Still, this approach could ultimately harm the relationship between the child and the favored parent.

Blended Sequential Intervention for Parental Alienation

To help protect the child’s relationship with both parents in cases of severe parental alienation, advocates have proposed an approach called Blended Sequential Intervention (BSI). In this scenario, if professionals detect a case of severe parental rejection, the court would award the caretaker role to the rejected parent, order therapeutic treatment for the rejected parent and child, and incorporate the involvement of the favored parent in private therapy from the start.

The BSI approach to parental rejection cases has limitations. Currently, there is no requirement that the parents' therapists collaborate or communicate. Advocates of BSI suggest it is used in cases of:

  • Ongoing non-compliance with court orders or agreements
  • Previous failed therapy attempts, and
  • The presence of distorted thinking or emotional pathology in the parent, child, or both.

For example, say a 13-year-old girl has had a rocky relationship with her father for the past year since the parent’s separation. The girl and her mother are very close. The mother shows signs of a potential personality disorder. Mom continually talks badly about the father, blames the father for the separation, and shares her beliefs that the father abused the daughter in the past. The mother’s discipline of the daughter is unpredictable, enforcing rules and then letting prohibited behaviors slide.

The daughter and mother have both tried therapy with no positive results. The therapist describes the daughter as rude and disrespectful of authority (including toward the mother). The father is considered a capable parent, and the child’s rejection of him appears unreasonable.

The court deems this a severe case of parental alienation in this hypothetical case and decides to implement the BSI approach. The court orders custody reversal, therapy for the father and child, private therapy for the mother, and future evaluation.

The BSI approach to parental rejection cases has limitations. Currently, there is no requirement that the parents' therapists collaborate or communicate. There are no defined goals the favored parent must meet before resuming contact. Suddenly removing contact with the favored parent could cause the child further emotional distress.

Not all families will have easy access to the required therapy programs, and not all clinicians are trained to deal with cases of parental rejection. In addition, more research is needed to determine whether the BSI approach has advantageous results over the current approach of removing the favored parent from the picture entirely.

In the meantime, parents involved in the divorce process or custody cases should be aware of how the courts measure parental alienation and the potential consequences of failing to promote the child’s relationship with both parents. Overall, the court will tend to side with the rejected parent in cases of parental alienation.


Karen Rosenthal

Karen B. Rosenthal is a partner and co-founder at matrimonial litigation firm Bikel Rosenthal & Schanfield LLP, where she brings 35 years of matrimonial law experience to bear in matters involving high-net-worth equitable distribution, contentious custody battles, and other high-stakes disputes. Certified as an Attorney for the Child and a frequent speaker on topics related to children going through high-conflict divorce, she has been recognized as a leading New York lawyer by Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers, Crain's New York Business magazine, and New York magazine.

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