After the Divorce: What Happens When One Parent Tries to Turn the Children Against the Other?

Francis King

By Francis King

A subject I often encounter in my family law practice is the matter of post-divorce parental alienation. When one parent substantially interferes with or undermines the other parent’s relationship with their children, a claim of alienation can arise. Such alienation can result when a parent succeeds in manipulating a child’s emotions so as to turn him or her against, or to reject, the other parent.

A prime example of how parental alienation occurs is when a parent makes statements to the child that are demeaning to or belittling of the other parent ( e.g., “You know I love you more than your father does, and he only wants to spend time with you so he doesn’t have to pay me as much child support,” or, “Your mother is taking me back to court because she doesn’t want you to spend so much time with me.”) Amazingly, some parents are foolish enough to make comments like those in text messages sent to their children! Another example is the situation where a parent induces a child to not want to go to the other parent’s home during his or her parenting time by bribing the child or offering some reward or incentive to enlist the child as an ally against the other parent (e.g., “I’d love to take you on a trip to the mountains this weekend with your cousins, but it’s your mother’s parenting time and she is never willing to trade weekends, so I guess you’re going to miss out …. But, maybe you can talk to her. If she knows you really want to go, she might let me take you. But, knowing her, she probably won’t.”)

In these situations, the aggrieved parent may attempt to obtain a modification of a parenting plan based on a material change of circumstances. Conduct constituting parental alienation can constitute such a change, which triggers a consideration of whether a modification of the plan is in the “best interest” of the child. In that regard, T.C.A.§ 36- 6-106(a) sets forth a number of factors for trial courts to consider, including,

(2) Each parent’s or caregiver’s past and potential for future performance of parenting responsibilities, including the willingness and ability of each of the parents and caregivers to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and both of the child’s parents, consistent with the best interest of the child. In determining the willingness of each of the parents and caregivers to facilitate and encourage a close and continuing parent-child relationship between the child and both of the child’s parents, the court shall consider the likelihood of each parent and caregiver to honor and facilitate court ordered parenting arrangements and rights, and the court shall further consider any history of either parent or any caregiver denying parenting time to either parent in violation of a court order.

Also of relevance to assessing a claim of parental alienation is T.C.A. § 36-6-406(d), which recognizes that a “parent’s involvement or conduct may have an adverse effect on the child’s best interest, and the court may preclude or limit any provisions of a parenting plan, if any of the following limiting factors are found to exist after a hearing … (5) The abusive use of conflict by the parent that creates the danger of damage to the child’s psychological development.”

Proving parental alienation can be difficult because of the problems entailed in seeking to call young children as witnesses in court. Often, the child’s side of the story can be better ascertained by a counselor or psychologist, and a custodial evaluation by a clinical psychologist can be very useful in getting to the bottom of what’s really going on in these cases … and then proving it in the court through the psychologist’s expert testimony.

If parental alienation is found to have occurred, there are a number of potential remedies available. Depending on the severity of the circumstances, courts have: (1) changed custody, sometimes changing the primary residential parent designation or even granting exclusive custody to the aggrieved parent; (2) suspending all contact between the offending parent and the child for a period of time; (3) requiring the offending parent and the child to attend counseling and follow the counselor’s recommendations; and (4) requiring that the offending parent’s visitation with the child be supervised.

If your client thinks he or she has become a victim of parental alienation, or that such alienation is beginning to occur, it can be very useful to have the client maintain a journal of incidents to communicate to you (under the attorney-client privilege) that will serve as a record of the other parent’s offending activity that can be used in the preparation of the client’s case. (And, of course, as with all issues in litigation, preparation is everything.)


Francis King has handled a diverse range of civil litigation matters since 1981, and is admitted to practice in Tennessee, New York, Massachusetts and several federal courts. For the past nine years, he has concentrated primarily on family law matters, including divorce and child custody cases. He graduated cum laude from Clark University, in 1978, with a Bachelor of Arts in government, and magna cum laude from New England School of Law, in 1981, where he was an editor of the New England Law Review. He has offices in Nashville and Franklin, and practices throughout Middle Tennessee.