It is well established that a child’s attachment to each of his parents is essential to healthy mental development. Although it begins in infancy, the attachment process continues as the child ages. Any action by a parent which undermines this can result in the child suffering lifelong psychological problems.

California family law recognizes both physical and legal custody. When parents divorce or separate, the decisions as to who gets what type of custody, how much visitation and the like should always be made based on what is best for the child. Whatever the custody arrangement, however, it is ordinarily expected that both parents will have a role in the child’s upbringing and that neither will use the child as a means to get back at the other.

Sadly, there are times when one parent seeks to harm the other by undermining or even destroying the other’s relationship with the child. This is known in family law as parental alienation.

Examples of Parental Alienation

The dictionary defines “alienate” as causing someone to be isolated. Parental alienation refers to one parent isolating a child from the other parent through words or conduct. Aside from the harm to the victimized parent, alienation causes lifelong psychological damage to many children. It is child abuse. Below are some of the forms it can take.


Disparagement means making critical or negative comments about the other parent. Examples include telling the child that the other parent is to blame for the divorce or separation, telling the child details of a custody battle or simply “I am a good parent, your father is a bad one.” One parent may even say that the other no longer loves the child.

Allowing others, often grandparents or siblings, to make these sorts of negative comments in a child’s presence can also be considered disparagement.

Undermining Authority

Parental alienation can also occur when one parent undermines the authority of the other. In the best case, the parents share equally in decisions about the child’s education, safety and general welfare. They require the child to follow the joint decisions; they present a united front on issues involving the child’s upbringing.

Undermining of authority occurs when one parent contradicts or ridicules one of these decisions. Say, for example, the parents agree on a 10 PM curfew for the child. Unbeknownst to the mother, the father extends this to midnight when the son or daughter is with him.

This sort of contradiction encourages him to play one parent off against the other. As with all forms of alienation, this mixed message can adversely affect how the child interacts with the outside world.


Parentification is the act of allowing the child to make decisions when he is not old or mature enough to do so responsibly. The classic case is allowing a young child to decide whether to visit the noncustodial parent, but other examples include allowing the child to choose between doing homework or playing video games or decide what time to go to bed.

Parentification is typically part of a pattern of undermining authority. By giving the child more freedom, no matter how inappropriate, the parent signals the child that he is the better and more loving parent T

Parental Substitution

As the name suggests, parental substitution occurs when by words or actions a parent leads the child to believe that someone other than the other parent has the same authority as mom or dad.

The classic case is when a divorced or separated parent enters into a relationship with a new partner. If it’s not otherwise made clear to the child, he can come to believe that the new partner has the same authority as his “real” mother or father. Parental substitution can be encouraged by an act as simple as telling the child to call the new partner “mom” or “dad.”

It’s important to distinguish situations in which one parent abandons the child. In these cases, it may be perfectly appropriate for a third party (often a grandparent) to step into the role of parent. This is not alienation.

Proving Parental Alienation

As with any dispute between parents that they can’t work out by themselves, a parent who believes that the mother or father is doing things that are causing parental alienation should consult with an experienced family law attorney.

A single disparaging remark is unlikely to be considered alienation. Showing a pattern of misbehavior is critical. Keep a written record of when the misconduct occurred. Statements by third party witnesses, such as a babysitter or housekeeper, about the alienating behavior can also help a great deal.

Ultimately, you will need to persuade a judge that it’s necessary to make changes in the other parent’s conduct in order to protect the child from lasting emotional harm.