Child estrangement – not the best situation for a parent or adult child to be in. 

Parent/ adult child estrangement occurs when an adult child attributes something about their parent’s present or past behavior as being so uncomfortable or hurtful to them that they decide to stop most or all contact with the parent. The concept of attribution theory is central to understanding estrangement.

How Do I Deal with Child Estrangement?

It’s difficult to manage estranged children, and further difficult to attempt to reconcile with children that feel incredibly hurt by a parent. But here’s a couple of recommendations to start with:

  1. Get support! Being cut off by your child, with no ability to understand, communicate and resolve things, is difficult enough.
  2. Don’t cut off in response to them! Always be there, and let them know that you’ll be there if they need you.
  3. Don’t feed the anger! Fighting fire with fire is not a good idea, especially when dealing with your own children.
  4. Listen to your child without defending yourself. Follow attentively, don’t cut them off – and be quiet! Wait until they get it all out of them before calmly responding. 
  5. Focus on yourself, not your child. Your child – whether they resent you or not – is still looking up to you and following your every move. You can’t take care of your family and other problems anyone else has if you yourself are not in great health, financial stability, and mental stability. 


It Takes Practice and Expertise, but if You Take the Right Steps in a Timely Manner, Then the Estranged Child Has a Chance to Form a Healthy Relationship with Both Parents!

This is what you want! Not an all-out war against mom or dad. Despite irreconcilable differences with your previous spouse, you don’t want to be feeding negativity to your child about their other parent. This isn’t fair to you, your child, or the other parent. 

In child custody proceedings it is very dangerous for one spouse to turn against the other and use their children as leverage. More often than not, this ends with complete loss of parental contact and this can have drastic consequences on the child’s well being for the rest of their life. One of the most devastating consequences is the lesson the child learns: that avoidance is the proper solution to difficult situations and conflict. 


The Big Question: “Is the Child Justified in Rejecting the Parent Due to Some Danger Presented by that Parent, or is there Active Alienation Occurring?”

If the estrangement is justified, then the ‘gatekeeping’ coming from the favored parent is appropriate – e.g., the rejected parent is physically or emotionally abusive or a danger to the child as a result of drug abuse, alcoholism, or intimate family violence. 

More often than not – the case is a hybrid case – a mix of inappropriate gatekeeping on the part of the aligned parent, poor parenting from the estranged parent, the child’s personality and age, and outside forces in the family’s environment. Ferreting out the factors that went into creating this toxic cocktail is the important job of both mental health professionals and the attorney. 


Best Practices for Family Lawyers

Lawyers working in the child estrangement arena should focus on three main themes:

  1. This is a case requiring intervention with the whole family, not just the child or the child and rejected parent. 
  2. It takes a team of legal and mental health professionals acting as a team – pulling in the same direction and not pulling against one another. This team creates the container of expectations, close monitoring, and consequences for failure.
  3. Because estrangement can become more entrenched as time goes by, time is the real enemy. So work fast!

Characteristics of a good family lawyer for these cases include:

  1. An inquiring mind and healthy skepticism;
  2. Openness to seeing the vulnerabilities or your client;
  3. Willingness and ability to be a team player; 
  4. Ability to acknowledge the possibility that what your client wants may not be what’s best for the child; and
  5. An appreciation of the complexity of the case.

4 Do’s and Don’ts for Lawyers

  1. Don’t adopt your client’s story without question. Do keep an open and inquiring mind about the whole family system.
  2. Don’t interview the children. Do refer the children to an ethical, experienced therapist for an assessment.
  3. Don’t scream “parental alienation” – that’s a conclusion, not a description and you’ll embarrass yourself if you use the term “syndrome.” Do describe the behaviors, facts, concerns you are seeing.
  4. Don’t delay the process or hearings. Do get to the judge quickly and ask for a team meeting.

The Ideal Team

The judge is an essential member of the team. They are the role model for good parenting – spelling out expectations, using the bully pulpit to educate and persuade, and creating accountability by responding appropriately to misbehaviors. The judge also has the authority to order appropriate interventions that can reintegrate the family system.

The ideal team is made up of the judge, the attorneys, the therapists for the family members, and a therapeutic coordinator, and perhaps minor’s counsel. This is an expensive prospect, and it can be whittled down to the absolute essentials of a family therapist and a judge. The judge is the team leader and active participant; the lawyers are supportive of the team process and not adversarial; the parents give the therapists authorization to talk to one another and to the coordinator who talks to the legal team members. 

The team creates a specific and detailed court order regarding the parenting schedule and the parents’ roles and responsibilities as well as the intervention process and description of the roles and responsibilities of each of the team members. The orders will state the objectives of the intervention, the timing of the frequent return to the court, and the consequences of a violation of the court orders. 


Conclusion: A Healthy Relationship with Both Parents

It takes practice and expertise, but if the team of legal and mental health professionals avoids delays, creates detailed court orders, and meets frequently to manage the case and share information, then the child has a chance to form a healthy relationship with both parents. 



Special Thanks to Law Clerk William Taylor Gleason for his assistance with this article.


H. Van Smith
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Trusted Virginia Attorney Serving Richmond to Williamsburg