Four Tips To Ensure Divorcing Parents Do Not Engage In Alienating Parenting Behavior

by Dr. Charles Sophy


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Parenting can be difficult at times even when there are two of you at home to share the parenting duties. As a divorced parent there are many more stresses to deal with. Even when marriages end, families remain. Your choices and behaviors in parenting can have an enormous impact on your children's adjustment to the losses and stresses of your divorce or separation.

Children can react in very different ways to separation and divorce. The way they react depends on a number of issues, including their age at the time of divorce and the degree of animosity between parents. This is a stressful period for children, but most recover and end up leading normal healthy lives. Their adjustment is enhanced when parents remain sensitive to the children's needs.

Let’s take a look at the Adams family

Jane was 1 year old when her parents divorced. Mom became the custodial parent. Dad’s court arranged visitation schedule included one mid-week visit and split weekends (Friday afternoon to Saturday PM). Jane and Mom moved to another city – an hour’s drive from Dad’s home.

When Jane turned six, Dad’s work schedule did not permit him to travel out of town for the mid-week visit. The parents verbally agreed that the mid-week visit be forfeited. The weekend over-night visits continued.

Another change in the schedule occurred when Jane turned nine. The weekly visitation was often cancelled by the custodial parent or Jane who wanted to attend school birthday parties and sleepovers. Dad felt that the overnight visits did not give him enough time with his daughter. Both parents tried to agree to an acceptable visitation schedule. After three months of fighting, the case was referred to a mediator who worked out a schedule of every other week visitation (Friday after school to Sunday 7 PM) and alternating long weekends and split Christmas / New Years holidays.

The schedule was adhered to for two years with both parents and child commenting that the schedule was better because Jane had no question as to where she had to be on any given weekend or holiday.

At age ten, Jane started to shut Dad out of her life, alienating him from events big and small. When formerly talkative from the minute she was picked up to the minute she left, she soon became quiet and sullen, always asking to have the radio turned on instead of talking. Dad chalked it up to pre-teen moodiness.

At age eleven, Jane began speaking back to her father and refusing to let him buy her clothes for school and help with schoolwork. When asked to help with chores, she flatly refused or spoke to her father in a belittling tone. School performance began to suffer. Formerly a straight A student, Jane started bringing home Bs and Cs. Again, Dad chalked up the behavioral change to teenage moodiness but set a goal to have a discussion with Mom if the behavior persisted.

After three months, weekends with Jane’s father were punctuated with daily calls back home to mom. Phone calls from dad while she was not with him were rarely returned. The relationship deteriorated to the point where Jane would lock herself in her room when visiting dad and did not actively participate in any family activities. When she was with Dad, she spoke to him badly and was often rude and belligerent. She clearly had little respect for her father.

Dad expressed his concerns to Mom who replied “I don’t believe you” so he turned to external support. Dad arranged for counseling with Jane. Through active discussion with Jane during these sessions, he discovered that Mom often shares her anger and bitterness towards Dad with Jane. She makes disparaging remarks and listens when Jane is on the phone with Dad and is clearly annoyed when Dad phones during the time that Jane is not scheduled to be with him. Mom was engaging in parental alienating behavior with the aim of, consciously or subconsciously, severing the relationship between Jane and her father. Together with the counselor, Dad and Jane bridged the gap with open and honest communication and started to counter some of the negative feelings that Jane had inherited from Mom.

Here are a few positive behaviors and strategies that divorced parents can use to ensure they do not engage in alienating parenting behaviors.

1) Resolve your own feelings about the divorce and life changes

2) Solidify a workable custody agreement keeping in mind that your child(ren) will be evolving through this agreement.

3) Allow your children to have a safe space with both parents to communicate their feelings.

4) Never have your children pay the price for your feelings.


Dr. Sophy is board-certified in three clinical specialties, including adult psychiatry, child/adolescent psychiatry and family practice. He serves as Medical Director for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which is responsible for the health, mental health, safety and welfare of nearly 40,000 foster children.

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