Parental Alienation in California

Parental alienation is harmful to you and your child. When one parent alienates a child from the other parent, it chips away at a very valuable relationship. If you’re in this situation, you know how bad it can feel.

What is parental alienation?

Sometimes, one parent seeks to alienate their child or children from the other parent. This is parental alienation, and it may occur through manipulation, verbal statements or abuse, and even brainwashing. Often, the goal of parental alienation is to gain an advantage in a child custody battle or to punish the targeted parent.

Many acts or behaviors may be considered parental alienation, although they are not enshrined in California law. Below are some signs of parental alienation:

  •       Refusing to allow the other parent to see the child
  •       Telling the child bad things about the other parent
  •       Refusing to show affection or love to the child if they show any interest in the other parent
  •       Thwarting the targeted parent’s attempts to communicate with the child
  •       Encouraging the child to disobey the targeted parent

When a child’s behavior toward one parent is negative due to a co-parent’s campaign of denigration, the result is something called parental alienation syndrome (PAS).

How does parental alienation affect children?

One parent’s alienating behavior can have a serious and devastating effect on a child's relationship with the other parent. This extremely damaging behavior can wreak havoc on the child’s life and developmental health in many ways, causing them to feel confused and torn between their parents and potentially leading to problems with low self-esteem, substance abuse, and conflict with family members.

In a study published in 2022, researchers examined the mental health of 20 adults who were exposed to parental alienation in childhood. Their study participants had the following types of issues:

  • Poor mental health, including anxiety disorders
  • Lingering emotional pain
  • Addiction and substance abuse

Researchers also said that children exposed to parental alienation often fail to trust their own perceptions and feelings, which can lead to low self-esteem and deep-set feelings of insecurity.

In a separate study published in 2021, researchers found that children who were exposed to parental alienation become adults who repeat this behavior with their own children, ensuring that the cycle repeats.

Researchers say that alienated parents also have challenges. These parents struggle with feeling powerless, hopeless, and socially isolated. They may feel a loss of identity due to the loss of their role as a parent, and some attempt suicide because of it.

What is parental alienation in California?

Parental alienation isn’t defined in the California family code. However, as part of your divorce in California, your child custody arrangements are spelled out and legally enforceable.

Sometimes, parental alienation can lead to a parent violating a child custody arrangement. Some parental alienation cases may involve a parent brainwashing a child into skipping visits, too.

Is parental alienation a crime in California?

Parental alienation itself is not a crime in California. However, evidence of a parent’s behavior in this regard may be used to legally change child custody, parenting time, or visitation arrangements.

If a parent is found to be engaging in parental alienation, they might not face criminal charges, but they may face an angry family law judge. Courts in California are always looking out for the child's best interest, and in most cases, this includes solid parental relationships – not poisonous relationships in which one parent speaks negatively about the other.

As a result, a judge could hold the offending parent accountable by changing their child custody arrangement or reducing their visitation hours. The court might also order them to complete counseling or parenting classes.

Reconciliation counseling is a specific type of counseling aimed at repairing damaged parent-child relationships. Read about reconciliation counseling here.

What legal steps can I take to react to parental alienation in California?

Since California codes don’t define parental alienation, you can’t use the court to help with all sorts of bad behavior. However, if your partner’s actions impact your child custody arrangements, there are things you can do.

Here are some steps to take:

  1.  Review your documents. A clear and detailed child custody and visitation plan is critical. If you need help enforcing your arrangements, a plan that includes time for drop-offs, where you exchange your child, and how it will work can be very useful.
  2.  Keep a record of every violation. If your partner doesn’t drop off the child at the agreed time or doesn’t bring them at all, make notes about those choices. Keep any texts and email messages about visits, too.
  3.  Get legal representation. You can work with the court and ask the judge to formally enforce your order or place your spouse in contempt of court for not doing so. California doesn’t offer the forms needed for this step online, instead recommending that people seek legal counsel for this kind of case.

If your spouse is engaging in parental alienation without violating your custody orders, your next steps are more difficult. You might try speaking with your partner directly, or you might use counseling to help you find ways to discuss the problem and find a solution.

What else can I do?

It's heartbreaking to be separated from your child, especially when it feels like the other parent is doing everything they can to make that happen. There may be some things you can do to regain your relationship with your child.

  • Try to stay upbeat regardless of what the other parent says or does. Your child is always watching and listening, and they need to see that you're strong and fighting for them.
  • Communicate with your child however you can. Send letters, emails, text messages, or whatever it takes to stay in touch.
  • Put your child's needs first. No matter how angry or frustrated you may be, don't let those feelings show to your child. Remain a calm and stable force your child can rely on.

If you’re struggling with possible parental alienation, Hello Divorce can offer guidance and support. Click here to view our services page, and read about our flat-rate attorney consultations, which you can book in increments as short as 30 minutes.


Division 8: Custody of Children. California Legislative Information.
Enforce a Custody Order. Judicial Branch of California.
The Impact of Parental Alienating Behaviors on the Mental Health of Adults Alienated in Childhood. (April 2022). Children.
Long-Term Emotional Consequences of Parental Alienation Exposure in Children of Divorce Parents: A Systematic Review. (November 2021). Current Psychology.
Parental Alienation: A Valid Experience? (April 2023). Scandinavian Journal of Public Health.


Divorce Content Specialist & Lawyer
Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Legal Insights

Bryan is a non-practicing lawyer, HR consultant, and legal content writer. With nearly 20 years of experience in the legal field, he has a deep understanding of family and employment laws. His goal is to provide readers with clear and accessible information about the law, and to help people succeed by providing them with the knowledge and tools they need to navigate the legal landscape. Bryan lives in Orlando, Florida.