“Alienation” is becoming a frequent topic for family law attorneys. If you are not familiar with the term (as applied to family law), the best way to describe it is brainwashing. One parent “alienates” the child from the other parent by repeatedly and deliberately telling the child “bad” things about the absent parent. Telling the child “bad” things about the other parent, more often than not, in the opinion of the parent making the statements to the child, is “telling the child the truth.” The brainwashing parent will try to convince you that the child “should be told the truth.” Most psychologists will tell you that the psychological makeup of a child consists of the unspoken understanding that he or she is the product of both parents and thus hearing bad things about the other parent is internalized as bad things about the child himself or herself, whether the statements are true or not. Divorce parenting classes almost always emphasize that a parent should not make derogative statements about the other parent for that reason. It works long-term to eat away at the self-esteem of the child. It’s like your grandmother always told you, “If you can’t say anything good about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

Despite the understanding of most good parents and most professionals of its harm to children, alienation is one of the complaints I hear most often from parents. Unfortunately, it is always one of the hardest things to document and to get in front of a court, making it most frustrating because it is so hard to put a stop to. Hearsay testimony or testimony from children, and virtually any testimony from a child, except in child abuse cases, is not allowed.

We are starting to see cases in which at last the topic of alienation is seriously and carefully addressed, in spite of legal roadblocks thrown up. The latest and most visible case is a New York case in which the court reversed custody from mom to dad based on alienation. “This is the case that made national news last year when there was camera coverage of the tearful, almost hysterical, transfer of custody away from the mother, with whom the 5-year-old twins had lived the entirety of their life.” (Quote from Family Law Section of the State Bar of Texas recently.) The New York case has since been overturned because the appellate court believed the trial court leaned too heavily on expert testimony from various mental health professionals in making its decision.

Despite the fact that the New York case was overturned on appeal, it is important to note that the issue of alienation is becoming a topic, which is coming to the courts and that the courts take seriously. In my opinion, it is not soon enough. The damage which alienation does to children is a to-date hidden threat, one that causes many children serious emotional damage.