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Child Custody | Divorce | Family

How Do Courts Handle Parental Alienation in Child Custody Cases?

8 min read
Philip Ahn, Attorney

by Philip Ahn, Attorney

Parental alienation occurs when one parent attempts to sabotage the relationship between the other parent and the child by badmouthing them or denying access to visits, phone calls, or emails, instilling negative feelings in the child towards the other parent that can affect his or her life.

The court recognizes the damaging effects of parental alienation and will take steps to protect the child’s best interests. If parental alienation is suspected in a custody case, the court may order supervised visits, require counseling for the child and/or parents, or appoint a guardian ad litem to investigate. The court may also modify the existing custody arrangement if necessary.

If you suspect parental alienation, consider speaking with a family law attorney. A lawyer can help you understand your rights and take action to ensure that your relationship with your children is protected.

Connect with an Unbundled lawyer to learn more about how parental alienation affects child custody cases.

How Does Parental Alienation Violate the Child’s Best Interests?

Parental alienation goes against the fundamental principle of the child’s best interests, the primary consideration in child custody disputes. Courts recognize that children generally benefit from strong and healthy relationships with both parents. When one parent engages in alienating behavior, it undermines the child’s connection with the other parent, causing emotional and psychological harm, similar to what a child may experience in a child custody case involving child abuse.

Parental alienation syndrome may manifest through various actions, such as speaking negatively about the other parent, interfering with communication, or creating a hostile environment that discourages the child from spending time with the targeted parent. These actions can lead to feelings of confusion, guilt, and anxiety in the child, potentially damaging their emotional well-being and development.

Courts acknowledge that parental alienation deprives the child of a nurturing and supportive relationship with the alienated parent. This deprivation is contrary to the child’s best interests, as it may hinder their ability to form healthy relationships in the future, diminish their self-esteem, and impair their emotional and psychological development.

What Legal Action Can Be Taken Against Parental Alienation?

Parents who have experienced emotional or psychological abuse due to the alienating behavior of another parent may pursue:

Contempt of Court

If the alienating parent violates the terms of the custody agreement or court orders, you can file a motion for contempt of court. In severe cases, this may result in penalties for the alienating parent, such as fines, the requirement to attend parenting classes or even jail time.

Restraining Orders or Injunctions

If the alienating parent engages in harassment or other harmful behavior, you may request a restraining order or injunction to limit contact and communication between the alienating parent and your child.

Tort Claims

In some cases, you may pursue a civil lawsuit against the alienating parent for intentional infliction of emotional distress or other torts, seeking monetary damages for the harm caused by the alienating behavior.

What Evidence Is Needed to Prove Parental Alienation in Court?

Proving parental alienation in court can be challenging, as it often involves demonstrating a pattern of behavior that has caused harm to the child’s relationship with the targeted parent. The following types of evidence can help establish parental alienation:


Keep records of any incidents, such as missed visitations, canceled plans, or instances where the alienating parent has refused to facilitate communication between the child and the targeted parent. This documentation can include emails, text messages, phone call logs, or a journal detailing the incidents.

Witnesses Testimony

Witnesses who have observed the alienating parent’s behavior or the child’s reaction to it can provide valuable testimony. These witnesses may include family members, friends, teachers, or neighbors who can attest to the pattern of alienation.

Evidence of False Allegations

If the alienating parent has made false claims about the targeted parent, such as accusations of abuse or neglect, presenting evidence to disprove these allegations can strengthen the case for parental alienation.

How Do Courts Evaluate the Severity of Parental Alienation?

The severity of parental alienation can vary significantly, impacting the child and the targeted parent to different extents. When courts handle child custody cases involving parental alienation, they must accurately evaluate its severity to determine the most appropriate course of action.

While each case is unique, some common indicators help courts gauge the extent of the alienation and its impact on the child’s well-being.

Frequency and Duration of Alienating Behavior

If the behavior is continuous and has been occurring for a significant period, it is more likely that the court will consider it severe.

Evidence of Intent

If there is evidence that the alienating parent intentionally tries to damage the relationship between the child and the other parent, the court may view the situation as more serious.

Impact on the Child

If the child exhibits signs of emotional distress, anxiety, or depression due to the alienating behavior, it may be seen as a more severe case.

Degree of Interference

This can include efforts to obstruct visitation, manipulation of the child’s feelings, or spreading false information about the other parent. The greater the interference, the more likely the court will view the situation as severe.

Expert Testimony

Mental health professionals, such as child psychologists or therapists, can provide valuable insight into the alienating parent’s behavior and its impact on the child.

Pattern of Behavior

Courts may also consider whether there is a pattern of alienating behavior in the family’s history. If the alienating parent has a history of engaging in such behavior, or if there are multiple instances of alienation involving different family members, the court may view the situation as more severe.

How Can Parental Alienation Affect Child Custody Arrangements?

The effects of parental alienation can be profound, impacting the child’s relationships with both parents, their emotional well-being, and even influencing the course of the child’s life. When parental alienation is present in a family dynamic, courts may take several measures to protect the child and repair any damaged relationships.

Revising the Custody Arrangement

If the court determines that the alienating parent’s actions are detrimental to the child’s well-being, it may modify the existing custody agreement to limit the alienating parent’s contact with the child or even award primary custody to the targeted parent.

Mandating Therapy or Counseling

Courts may order the alienating parent, the targeted parent, or the entire family to undergo therapy or counseling to address the issues caused by parental alienation and foster healthier relationships between the child and both parents.

Implementing a More Detailed Parenting Plan

The court may also create a more robust parenting plan to provide both parents with specific guidance on matters such as visitation schedules and communication. This can help ensure that the alienating parent does not interfere in the child’s relationship with the other parent.

Can Parental Alienation Lead to Changes in Visitation Rights?

If the court finds that the alienating parent is engaging in behavior that is damaging to the child or preventing them from having relationships with both, it may limit their contact with the child and modify visitation arrangements. Changes in visitation may include limiting overnight visits, unsupervised visits, or even suspending visitation altogether for a period of time.

If the court believes that therapeutic intervention is needed to address the issues caused by parental alienation, it may also order supervised visitation during which a mental health professional can monitor interactions between the parent and child. Additionally, the court may require that all communication between the alienating parent and the child be conducted in writing or that a supervised exchange of the child take place. These measures are designed to protect the child from further parental alienation and help restore any damaged relationships.

Can an Alienated Parent Request a Change in Support Arrangements?

In general, child support arrangements are determined based on state-specific guidelines that consider the parent’s income, the child’s needs, and other relevant factors. However, the court may modify these arrangements if there is a significant change in circumstances, such as a significant increase or decrease in either parent’s income or a change in the child’s needs.

Parental alienation, on its own, is typically not considered a valid basis for modifying child support arrangements. This is because child support is intended to provide for the child’s needs rather than punish or reward parents for their behavior. However, if parental alienation has led to a change in custody arrangements, such as the alienated parent being awarded primary custody, the court may revisit the support arrangements to ensure they continue to serve the child’s best interests.


Parental alienation is a serious issue that can have long-lasting effects on children and their relationships with both parents. It is important for those involved to understand the legal implications of parental alienation and be aware of their rights and options when seeking recourse.

Unbundled Legal Help can connect you with family law attorneys who provide limited-scope representation. These unbundled lawyers can assist with specific aspects of your case, giving you the legal support you need without the expense of traditional full-service representation.

The attorneys in our network are not free, but they offer more affordable services with fees ranging from $500 to $1,500. They are equipped to handle a variety of family law matters, including those related to parental alienation and child custody. It’s important to note that unbundled services may only be suitable for some cases; more complex issues require a lawyer to provide advice and representation throughout the process.

Contact a budget-friendly family law attorney in your area to discuss your legal options.

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