The Damage Done by Parental Manipulation of Children

If a divorce turns sour, the damage that can be inflicted on children caught in the crossfire can be staggering. Parental manipulation of children has a significant impact on that child's psychological health and well-being. Family courts are keen to avoid any damage caused to children in a divorce, no matter how acrimonious the parties are.

An Overview

Parental manipulation of children can be considered a form of brainwashing. One parent tries to target the other parent, ultimately undermining the chances for a healthy relationship with the other. In the worst cases, the child will reject the other parent completely. Some of the most common tactics of this ‘programming’ are:

  • bad-mouthing the other parent
  • erasing the existence of that parent from their lives
  • intimating that the other parent is dangerous
  • limiting or preventing contact between that parent and child.

This game puts the children in a position of inherent conflict. A malicious parent will use that child as a pawn or weapon against the other party, often to get what they want, or to punish the other parent for the pain they feel during the divorce.

Statistics of Harm

Unfortunately, this behaviour is more common than you’d think. Some studies have revealed that parental manipulation of children is present in 11 to 15 percent of divorces with children. Children who are victims of this conduct often suffer from depression, low self-esteem, and trust issues, all of which increase their chances of developing substance abuse problems.

Severe cases of parental alienation can lead to self-hatred. Children learn to internalize the hate exhibited by their parent to the other party. Often, they believe that the alienated parent did not ever love them, making it difficult to form attachments to others in the future. And it’s a perpetuating cycle: one study has revealed that half the children studied who had experienced alienation later were alienated from their own children. Children of manipulative parents learn how to create drama instead of resolving disputes.

Denying children, a loving and functional relationship with one parent is often considered to be a form of abuse in family law circles. Evidence shows that when children have undergone forced separation (excluding cases of physical abuse) they are more susceptible to post-traumatic stress.

Their lives are inherently unstable: they become expert manipulators. They use their relationships with others to extract a result they want. An otherwise successful reunification to the alienated parent can be derailed when the child returns to the alienating parent, and the cycle continues.

Red Flags

Once a couple separates, you will never be able to monitor what happens in the other parent’s house. Therefore, it is important to recognize some of the tell-tale signs of parental manipulation of children.

  • Contact is limited: either your ex-partner or your child starts making up excuses to reduce the time you have with the child.
  • You no longer receive updates on the child’s extracurricular activities, grades or medical appointments.
  • The other party will monitor the conversations you have with the child, often instructing the child what to say. During visits, the other parent will try to disrupt that period of possession by frequent calls or texts to the child.
  • A once-healthy relationship with your child suddenly becomes distant without explanation.
  • A manipulative parent often lies or distorts events to make themselves look better and the other parent look worse
  • In especially bad cases, one parent might threaten suicide or self-harm if they do not get what they want (like sole custody or full child support).

If some of these patterns begin to emerge in your case, tell your lawyer or seek advice on which steps you can take to mitigate the fallout.

What Remedies Exist?

Family law judges have some remedies at their disposal when it seems like parental manipulation of children is occurring. Often, judges will appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL). The GAL is essentially the attorney for the children. They become the bridge between the child and the alienating parent, which can reduce conflict and the effect the manipulation has on that child. The GAL can determine what is in the child’s best interest and communicate the desires of that child with less interference from the manipulative parent.

Using professionals to mitigate the effects of parental manipulation of children is another sound option for courts. Psychologists and counsellors can be appointed to determine whether or not parental alienation is occurring. They can also offer advice and programs on reunifying the alienated parent with the child and introduce tools to ensure it does not continue happening the future.

Evidence of parental manipulation of children can be persuasive to a family court judge when making custody determinations. Because of the serious damage such conduct can inflict on a child, the judge might feel that it is necessary to eliminate any contact the alienating parent has to that child. Efforts made by the manipulative parent to gain sole custody over the other have backfired spectacularly in some cases.

The Court can also use its power of contempt. Should the court decide that one party should not have any discussion with the child, and the party violates that order, the court can hold that parent in contempt. This is a serious remedy, and while it is not often resorted to, it has been effective in deterring future violations of the order.

When there is parental manipulation of children, parenting styles should be customized to the circumstances. Co-parenting may not be possible in all divorce cases. Therefore, parallel parenting should be utilized by the courts, GALs, and parents to reduce conflict. Limiting communication between the parents and monitoring exchanges can mitigate and pre-empt manipulative behaviour by one parent. Software and digital programs can allow a neutral third party to observe the communications of the parents and thwart potential conflict.

Parental Alienation Syndrome

In extreme cases of parental manipulation of children, a label of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) might be appropriate. Sometimes called Malicious Parent Syndrome, it is not currently a recognized mental disorder by the medical profession. However, it is a phenomenon recognized by legal practitioners and has been studied and recognized in more recent years. Parents with PAS engage in irrational conduct, often violating the law or exposing themselves to criminal liability. Damaging the other party’s property or lying under oath about the other party are crimes. Interfering with court-ordered visitations can result in civil liability and be detrimental to an ongoing family law case.

Parental manipulation is damaging to children and the entire family unit. If you are worried about the potential for this behaviour in your family law matter, call the Law Offices of Peter Van Aulen at (201) 845-7400 for a free consultation.

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