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Normal Emotions Versus Manipulation and Alienation: When Parents Cross the Line

During family law litigation, parents face a spectrum of emotions, ranging from frustration, anger, and a sense of loss, all interacting with one another. This is quite frequent when child custody disputes are in play. In almost any domestic litigation scenarios, aware parents can use these emotions to deal with stressors in an incremental fashion to return to a state of normal physical and mental health.

One way parents handle this stress and frustration is to discuss it directly with the other parent. More effective is for a parent to talk with a therapist or trusted friend about the issues and litigation, and may have negative comments to share about the other parent and receive constructive feedback

However, what many parents do not properly take into account is how their negative feelings toward the other parent may negatively and significantly influence and affect the child. For example, if one parent is on the phone, with the child in another room, but is bad mouthing and generally pointing out the flaws of the other parent to a friend on the telephone, the child may overhear this and be influenced by same.

This can be unintentional (or sometimes part of a pattern): Children are perceptive to the feelings of the parent they are with, and this parent’s feelings may become the child’s without the other parent doing anything to negatively impact the child. If a child knows that one parent frustrates and saddens the other, they may begin to internalize those feelings, being protective of their parent.

As noted, with some parents these behaviors may be more than occasional and unintended and be a systematic and unrelenting course to change the way a child views the other parent. For instance, parents in particularly nasty litigation may divulge some of the “details” of the divorce to the child or say that the other parent does not love the child as much.

These negative thoughts being explicitly planted in the child’s head can make for a very difficult relationship with the other parent, and can ultimately threaten the relationship for life. Lies or even truths exposed out of frustration, bitterness, jealousy, or anger can cause the child’s relationship with the other parent to end, obviously not in the best interest of the child.

In many cases of domestic litigation, the Court will order parties not to speak negatively about the other parent in front of the child. This is to protect the child from having negative information which could affect their parent/child relationship.

In fact, the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines directly address the issues of communication, both between the parents and between a parent and child. The IPTGs provide that parents are not to speak negatively about the other in or near the presence of the child, should discourage family members from doing same, and should encourage the child to respect and love the other parent1.

Aside from the emotional harm that alienation inflicts on the child, many child advocates, clinical psychologists, and trial courts readily see this pattern. That may well rise to such a level that the parent loses the merit of his or her custody case, is ordered to counseling, and perhaps be ordered to have supervised visitation. Thus, parents should take great care to air their issues with each other, not make it a part of the litigation to the end of swaying the children to want to live with them or dislike the other parent.

Domestic litigation is a stressful time for all parties involved, but frustration and anger over same should not be allowed to erode a parent/child relationship. The best interests of the child are always paramount, and a parent’s best avenue to vent frustration and anger is when the child is not present, and when the information will not be overheard or get back to the child. A mental health professional may be helpful in working through the emotional issues for parents during and after litigation.

Understanding the distinction between how to address normal tension caused by a divorce in a therapeutic way, even the children do get some information they should not, is the way to divorce in the children’s best interests. And it is far different than overt and systematic brainwashing of children.

Ultimately, every child will experience some transitional difficulty in moving from one parent to the other in a divorce situation. And even the best divorcing parents sometimes are not aware of what their children know about their case and dispute. This is far different from overt and systematic brainwashing, which will cause long-term harm to both parents and their children.

We hope that this blog post has provided you with information about normal parental disputes in custody cases, and the dangers of negative comments from parents who are suffering emotionally and play this through the children through the litigation.. Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. practices law throughout the state of Indiana. This blog post was written by attorney, Jessica Keyes.


  1. Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines
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Ciyou & Dixon, P.C., is a law firm located in Indianapolis, Indiana. We serve clients in six core practice areas: family lawappellate practicefirearms lawgeneral practicepersonal injury and criminal law.

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Based in Indianapolis and founded in 1995, Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. is a niche law firm focused on successfully dealing with the complexities of divorce, high-conflict child custody and family law. Known for their ability to solve extremely complex situations with high quality work and responsiveness, Ciyou & Dixon will guide you every step of the way. The family law attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. will help you precisely identify your objectives and the means to reach your desired result. In addition, this practice focus is augmented by the firm's other three core areas, namely appellate advocacy, civil practice, and firearms law. Life is uncertain. Be certain of your counselSM.

Indianapolis Divorce Attorneys, Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. of Indianapolis, Indiana, offers legal services for Indianapolis, Zionsville, Noblesville, Carmel, Avon, Anderson, Danville, Greenwood, Brownsburg, Geist, Fortville, McCordsville, Muncie, Greenfield, Westfield, Fort Wayne, Fishers, Bloomington, Lafayette, Marion County, Hamilton County, Hendricks County, Allen County, Delaware County, Morgan County, Hendricks County, Boone County, Vigo County, Johnson County, Hancock County, and Tippecanoe County, Indiana.