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When "Parental Alienation" Is Not Quite What It Seems

The dynamics may be more complex than what first meets the eye.

Key points

  • Parental alienation results from one parent maliciously turning a child against the other so that a relationship is lost.
  • A child may become "alienated" from one parent because of the behavior of both parents.
  • It is essential to evaluate the personalities of both parents in depth before assuming that "parental alienation" is why a relationship is lost.

In the Trumball family*, both children rejected their father not long after their mother abruptly spirited them to a distant out-of-state location to establish a new life. This case appeared to be a textbook example of “parental alienation” that can occur when one parent methodically and maliciously turns a child against the other parent resulting in a rupture in that relationship. Although Ms. Trumball appeared to be the alienating parent, Mr. Trumball also contributed to the outcome.

An unexpected move

Myra Trumball picked up 12-year-old Lois and 8-year-old Michael from school and, instead of returning to their home in Virginia, drove to a small town 150 miles away where her family lived. She did not act on impulse. This relocation had long been contemplated, and Ms. Trumball was eager to begin a new life. She rented a house and enrolled her son and daughter in the local school. She selected the particular location because she would have the emotional support of family nearby and the cost of living was much lower than that of the Washington, D.C., suburb where they had resided as a family ever since the children were born.

Ms. Trumball did not notify her husband Ken in advance of the move nor did she inform the court as required by the current custody order. She told her husband that she would propose a visitation schedule so that Lois and Michael could spend time with him in Virginia and so he could visit the children in their new location.

Innumerable barriers arose when it came to arranging for the children to spend time with their father who was sharing joint custody of them. Lois and Michael were not living among strangers but among grandparents and cousins whom they had known all their lives. They quickly adjusted to the new school, made friends, and became immersed in extracurricular activities, including a busy athletics schedule.

As an independent child custody evaluator, I was to make an assessment of this situation. Ken Trumball claimed that his wife had essentially “kidnapped” the children and was doing everything in her power to destroy his relationship with them. Myra Trumball contended that her husband had alienated himself from the children. She said that only after she and her husband separated did he engage more with their children.

Negative attitudes of the children

The following is indicative of Lois’s deteriorating attitude from tolerating her father to wanting him removed entirely from her life.

  • Lois said without enthusiasm, “I like going, but there’s not enough fun.” Asked what she would like to do with her father, she replied, “I don’t know.”
  • Although she wanted to spend time with friends in Virginia, Lois didn’t want to live in the same house with her father. Lois said, “I don’t like staying with him. I’m a lot more comfortable with my mom.” She added that it would be acceptable for “my mom to move back to Virginia and live in the same house with me and my brother.”
  • One month later, Lois said tersely, “I don’t like seeing him in general. I don’t like being around him. He’s annoying.”
  • Lois grew increasingly emphatic about not wanting a relationship with her father. She said, “He’s not the kind of person I enjoy being with at all. Every time he does something, he makes the situation worse. I don’t want to be anywhere near him.”
  • Several months into her new life, Lois exclaimed, “When it’s just me and my dad, I walk away.”
  • Lois denounced her former school as “really boring” and spoke of how “really cool” her new school was. She said, “I don’t want my dad at any of my sports.”
  • Lois’s negativity increased to a point that she asserted that her father was harmful, that he made her “nervous” and “upsets me so I don’t work well when he is around.”
  • When Mr. Trumball called on the phone, Lois would not answer or call him back.
  • Lois refused to let Mr. Trumball escort her to a father-daughter dance. She commented, “I wanted to go, but not with my dad.” She declared that she could not “think of anything” that she enjoyed doing with him.

Lois asserted that her father could do nothing to make the situation better. “He can’t change himself,” she declared. Moreover, Lois complained, “He asks, 'Why don’t you like me?’ He won’t leave me alone.”

When I showed Lois photographs of activities indicating that she was having fun with her father, she did not have warm recollections. As to a photo of her playing on the beach, Lois commented snippily, “The beach was fun. Being with my dad wasn’t.” Responding to another photo, Lois said sullenly, “I enjoyed the swing, but not being with my dad.” Asked if her dad had read to her when she was little, Lois replied grudgingly, “He might have read to me.”

Michael was less emphatic in denouncing his father. He said that he didn’t like the long ride to Virginia. Moreover, he preferred living in the new location better than in Virginia because he was able to see “more cousins than I can count” and because “my mom can get help if she needs something.”

Not long after the move, Michael acknowledged that he and his father “play fun things” during visits. The boy said, “I don’t like talking to him on the phone,” but then added he does not like talking to either parent on the phone. Michael grew increasingly negative about visits in Virginia: “Truthfully, I don’t like coming to Virginia … Me and my sister think he’ll keep us there. We don’t want to live with him.”

When Michael drew a picture of his family, he omitted his father. When I inquired about this, he explained, “I was drawing everyone in the family here.” Michael added. “I don’t like him being around me.”

Michael had adjusted quickly to his new surroundings. He said about his school, “I love it. It has really good kids and great teachers. The principal is really nice.”

More impediments to the father-child relationship

Myra maintained that, although her husband was a good financial provider for the family, spending time with Lois and Michael was not his priority. She said that Ken removed himself from her and the family by working all the time, by having an affair and spending nights away from home, and constantly undertaking “projects” so that he didn’t have time for the evening routine, to drive the children to doctor and dentist appointments, or even to play with them. Ms. Trumball said that she had been willing to forgive the affair if he would just spend time with the family. She asserted that her husband made her into the culprit for damaging the relationship he had with Lois and Michael. Only after the separation did her husband start doing what she had begged him to do for years—participate more fully in their children’s lives.

Mr. Trumball acknowledged the affair and said that his wife seemed forgiving and was ready to resume their relationship. He claimed that he stayed in the marriage because he sensed that his wife would limit his access to the children if they separated. He was determined to convince me that he was far more involved with the children than his wife was giving him credit for. And he provided names and contact information of people who would attest to how involved he was.

Ken suspected that his wife might want to move after they separated. He made financial offers so that she and the children could remain in the same area even if they had to move to a smaller house.

Although he claimed that his wife had poisoned Lois and Michael against him, there was more to the story. Whereas it was true that Ms. Trumball wanted as little to do with her husband as possible, she professed that it was important that he have a relationship with the children. She encouraged them to have visits with him both in their new location and on designated weekends in Virginia. If she knew that their father called, she told them to talk to him. She even suggested that he move to where they had relocated or at least closer to the area, a proposition that was not feasible due to Mr. Trumball’s work.

If one considers the children’s perspective, the following was true:

  • They were living among relatives whom they loved and who adored them;
  • They had become enthusiastic about their new school;
  • They had immersed themselves in the community including extracurricular activities;
  • They saw that their mother was more relaxed;
  • Traveling 150 miles each way to Virginia constituted a major intrusion into their lives. They would miss practices and games while wasting hours in the car traveling to and from Virginia. Their new social activities would be interrupted;
  • When Mr. Trumball visited, he’d stay in a hotel, and the children would have to spend part of the time there.

As if these were not significant enough impediments to the father-child relationship, Mr. Trumball introduced another. Both Lois and Michael complained that their father would besiege them with questions about why they did not want to be with him. Lois said, “We get into a long conversation. I don’t want to hear it … a lot of things about the divorce. We want to have a good time. He talks about that stuff and ruins everything.” She said, “If he wanted us to be happy, he’d let us live with our mom. He’s being selfish. He wants us to live with him in Virginia.” Lois particularly resented her father because “he starts talking to me about things I’m not comfortable about—all these questions about the divorce and 'Why don’t you like spending time with me?’” She recalled Mr. Trumball inquiring, “What did I do to deserve this? You used to like me.”

Perhaps most distressing to Michael was that his father continued to blame his mother for their situation. Michael told me, “He says, 'I don’t understand what I did to you. Mom has taken control of you.' He tries to make my mom feel like the guilty person. Dad brings us nice things to bribe us. He gives me things I like. My mom doesn’t have everything he has.”

Not surprisingly, Michael at first just wanted the conflict to subside. Asked what three things he would wish for, the boy replied, “That the whole family would be in one house, to stay [where they had recently moved but all together], and that my mom and dad would stop fighting.”

Although the quality of family life had long been eroding before the move, both children wanted what most children want—a stable, secure family life in which both parents love them and where they love both parents and do not have to choose between them.

A complicated assessment

It was apparent that by moving out of state, Myra Trumball damaged the children’s relationship with their father. Once removed, she rarely spoke positively about Ken to the children, and they absorbed her attitude. Barely tolerating Ken, Myra did the minimum to help the children maintain a relationship with him. Lois learned about her father’s infidelity from her mother and was not about to forgive him.

On the other hand, Mr. Trumball had started digging his own grave, so to speak, long before his wife whisked the children to an out-of-state location 150 miles away. He cared deeply about the children but failed to demonstrate it because he attended to other priorities.

Ms. Trumball’s move (without a court hearing) and her long-simmering resentment of her husband imperiled the father-child relationship. But Mr. Trumball sealed his own fate by his inquisition of the children during visits and his persistent discussion of adult matters. Ken Trumball’s past neglect and his unrelenting quest for what he considered “justice” in the custody case was at the expense of Lois and Michael, dooming his relationship with them.

Parental alienation results from what some writers have termed a “parentectomy,” referring to a child losing a parent when one parent mounts a campaign to eliminate the other from his life. However, as this case illustrates, a parent may alienate himself by his own behavior.

*The name has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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