Few legal issues are more emotional than child custody. Custody-related disputes tend to bring out the worst in people. Desperate not to lose their children, parents may resort to extreme or inappropriate tactics to turn their kids against the other parent – a move that can quickly backfire, harming both the children and the instigating parent’s custody prospects.

What is parental alienation?

The term “parental alienation” refers to one parent’s efforts to alienate the child (or children) from the other parent. These efforts include a wide range of behaviors, such as:

  • “Talking trash” about the other parent in front of the kids
  • Pressuring the children to choose between parents
  • Failing to honor the other parent’s custody rights
  • Refusing to communicate or cooperate with the other parent
  • Limiting the children’s contact with the other parent’s extended family
  • Emotionally manipulating the children to turn them against the other parent
  • Involving the children in details of the divorce or separation

While these behaviors are often intentional, sometimes, parents engage in alienating behaviors without even realizing it.

How alienation impacts custody

Under Virginia law, the “best interests of the child” is the governing standard in custody decisions. Numerous factors go into determining what is in the child’s best interests. One of them is whether either parent has tried to harm the child’s relationship with the other parent – and to what extent each tries to maintain a successful co-parenting arrangement. Alienating behaviors can thus work against the instigating parent with regard to child custody. Parental alienation can also be grounds for holding the instigating parent in contempt of court for refusing to comply with court-ordered custody arrangements.