Parental alienation is active child abuse by another parent, whereas parental estrangement can be a child’s form of protection from further abuse.
In the previous blog, I covered the main difference between parental alienation and parental estrangement.
Case 1: Parental Alienation
In this section, I will be looking at a real case to exemplify parental alienation. Please note that all confidential information has been removed, and names have been changed, for the sake of privacy.
Bob is divorcing Mary after suffering from many years of extreme conflicts and abusive episodes where Mary would seldom apologize for the chaos that she created by throwing things at him, public raging episodes, and yelling at their growing daughter for small or non-existent issues. Bob and his daughter frequently enjoyed their time together away from Mary through their mutual love for basketball. Bob went to every single one of his daughter’s basketball games, he took time off from work to drive her to games, practices, and tournaments. Mary rarely attended these events or took the time to drive her daughter, even though she was a stay-at-home mother.
After years of therapy and failed attempts to fix their broken marriage through a marriage therapist, Bob built up the courage to finally leave Mary when their daughter was 10. After an extended court battle and numerous custody hearings, failed mediation attempts, and after hiring extremely expensive professionals like custody evaluators and attorneys, Bob was awarded every-other-weekend visitation with his daughter. At first, his daughter was eager to see him, and she counted down the time between visits. However, at around age 11, Mary began coming up with excuses as to why visitation couldn’t occur.
Bob and his attorney decided to seek a contempt action against Mary, and the court awarded him additional visitation time. After this occurred, his daughter, now age 12, slowly took over Mary’s role by coming up with her own excuses as to why she didn’t want to spend time with him. Bob was blind-sided when Mary accused him of sexually inappropriate behaviors, claiming that because of these behaviors she would be seeking sole custody. He was even more surprised when his daughter backed up these stories to a court-ordered guardian.
As you can see, this case didn’t involve anything active on Bob’s behalf. Rather, we find that through slow manipulation and messages from Mary to her friends and daughter, Bob has been labeled as a scary person and his daughter has learned to fear him.
Case 2: Parental Estrangement
In this section, I will be looking at a real case to exemplify parental estrangement. Again, please note that all confidential information has been removed, and names have been changed, for the sake of privacy.
Chris and Clara are going through a contentious divorce after unsuccessfully trying to make a 10-year marriage work. While both unhappy, and they otherwise have normal levels of insight. Both blamed the other for the demise of their marriage and, in the end, they were unable to resolve their differences through a custody agreement, so they ended up in court. Chris ended up with one week of custody each month, while Clara had the other three weeks of caring for their son, Bailey.
Chris subsequently remarried and, although he tried to see Bailey for his custodial time, sometimes he failed because he was raising a stepchild from his second marriage, along with a new baby with his new partner.
Clara, on the other hand, was always the one to take Bailey to his doctor’s appointments, attend his school functions, and she was the one who attended all of Bailey’s football games. Although Clara worked full-time, she was the one who had to miss work when Bailey was sick, and she was the one who stayed up during those wee hours completing school projects with Bailey, driving him around town, and nursing Bailey through countless fevers, the Chicken Pox, and bouts of intestinal ailments followed by a diagnosis of Chron’s Disease. This led to weekly trips to see a specialist, unreimbursed medical expenses, and then, a layoff because Clara was missing too much work. Luckily, Clara found another job, but with Chris now seeing Bailey only one weekend per month, she had been relegated the responsibility of raising Bailey alone.
Clara would come home from work tired and, often, with very little energy or patience to fight with Bailey to do homework or finish his chores around the house. Clara and Bailey often argued, sometimes resulting in extremely loud shouting matches and, a few times, Clara telling Bailey that he could live with his dad. One day, during a shouting match that led to Clara telling Bailey he was free to leave if his dad wanted him, Bailey stormed off after packing his bags. Clara called Chris and begged for him to return Bailey, but Chris refused, telling her that Bailey, now 14 years old, should be able to decide where he would live.
Clara decided to file a contempt action against Chris for Bailey’s return. Clara was convinced that Bailey was actively being manipulated by Chris and his new wife, and that the son she doted upon had no reason to fear her or decline talking to her. During litigation, Clara learned that Chris said negative things about Clara and that her parenting style, constantly criticizing and yelling, was the main reason for their divorce. Clara believed this was a clear case of parental alienation. However, she learned that Bailey was recording Clara during their arguments, and she had no choice but to listen to the recordings to prepare for the upcoming trial. During each video, Clara’s yelling at Bailey to go live with his dad is clear, and then, Bailey in one recording says, “Dad, can I come live with you?” Bailey’s sudden cessation and estrangement was found to be just that: parental estrangement, not one of parental alienation.
According to the parental alienation expert in our previous blog, the child’s rejection and subsequent refusal to cease contact with a parent was one of degree between parental estrangement and parental alienation.
If a child ceases contact and rejects a parent, was that rejection way out of proportion to anything the parent did? In other words, an absence of serious abuse or neglect and highly deficient parenting?
While there is no such thing as a perfect parent, accumulated experiences can unexpectedly lead to estrangement or alienation. Having more life experiences typically helps estranged children reach out to their parents, sometimes years later. However, parental alienation, if left untreated, and if the alienating efforts by the preferred parent were more than mild, may yield little or no opportunities for reconciliation between target parent and rejecting child.
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