What is 'Malicious Parent Syndrome'?

Divorce and custody proceedings are often high-stress, contentious events. Parties may engage in extreme behavior at times. Social scientists and psychologists have undertaken efforts to explain such behavior. Some have identified certain excessive behaviors as a recurring problem. They use the label "malicious mother syndrome" or "malicious parent syndrome" to describe what happens.

Psychologist Ira Turkat first proposed "malicious parent syndrome" in the academic community. He believed the syndrome described a pattern of abnormal behavior during the divorce process. Turkat developed the idea of malicious parent syndrome along the same lines as "parental alienation syndrome" in children. Richard Gardner proposed the concept of "parental alienation syndrome" in 1985.

It's important to note that neither "malicious parent syndrome" nor "parental alienation syndrome" are medically recognized. Health care professionals do not treat either as a mental illness. Neither is a recognized diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Rather, malicious parent syndrome describes a type of behavior at issue in some court cases. It has led proponents to call for further study and research.

In cases of malicious parent syndrome, a divorced or divorcing parent seeks to punish the other parent. Sometimes, the offending parent will go so far as to harm or deprive their children in order to make the other parent look bad. Though commonly called malicious mother syndrome, both mothers and fathers can be capable of such actions.

Characteristics of Malicious Parent Syndrome

In discussing malicious parent syndrome, Dr. Turkat sought to identify and describe a condition where one parent acts purposefully and vengefully towards the other during or following divorce.

Malicious parent syndrome presents four major criteria. Someone alleged to be a malicious parent engages in behaviors that:

  1. Attempts to punish the other parent by alienating their children and involving other persons or the courts in actions to separate the other parent and child;
  2. Seeks to deny child visitation, communication with the other parent, and the other parent's involvement in the child's school or extra-curricular activities;
  3. Lies to their children and other persons repeatedly and may engage in violations of law;
  4. Does not suffer any other mental disorder which would explain these actions

Examples of Malicious Parents

The behaviors of malicious parents are often divorce-related. They can also occur in later custody battles. They may also appear with unmarried parents. Oftentimes, malicious parents engage in excessive litigation in the courts.

Social scientists have observed the behavior of vindictive parents in a variety of clinical and legal settings. These observations led to the idea of identifying a syndrome or mental health problem to explain the actions. Some behaviors of malicious parents include burning down the house of an ex-spouse or engaging in other criminal acts. They may also include false accusations of abuse against the other parent. A malicious parent may interfere with parenting time in subtle but persistent ways.

In one example of malicious parent syndrome, a parent told the children they could not afford food because the other parent had wasted all their money. In another example, a parent misinformed the other parent about school activities. This prevented the other parent from participating in the child's school life. In these actions, the intent is to harm the other parent.

Psychological Consequences of Malicious Acts

When one parent goes out of their way to hurt the other, this places great strain on both the harmed parent and their relationship with the child. A parent subjected to such acts may withdraw from their child's life. They seek to escape the conflict. A malicious parent may also successfully manipulate a child. The prompted child may state they dislike the other parent. They may request to spend less time with the other parent. In such instances, the child may refuse to follow the parenting time schedule. They may make a false claim of abuse or neglect by the non-custodial parent.

Legal Consequences of Malicious Acts

Many of the behaviors associated with malicious parent syndrome can have legal consequences. They may also constitute civil and criminal law violations.

Some actions related to malicious parent syndrome are easily identified as criminal acts. This includes physically attacking the other parent or damaging their property. What if a parent deprives a child of food or money to make the other parent look bad? This may constitute a form of child abuse, which can violate both family law and criminal law. What if a malicious parent lies under oath? When a person lies under oath, the State can consider charges for the crime of perjury.

Other acts related to this pattern of behavior may be violations of civil law. For example, denying court-ordered visitation rights can constitute illegal parent time interference. It can result in contempt of court findings in Family Court. Contempt of court may lead to fines and jail time for the offender. Courts may also impose mental health assessments or counseling in such situations. Lying about the acts of the other parent in a way that harms his or her reputation and results in actual injury can constitute defamation.

Malicious behavior by a parent can also impact parenting plans and custody arrangements. Parents may file for a modification in the custody and visitation plans. The court will decide if a modification is in the best interest of the child. A court can weigh evidence that a parent has been involved in alienating, cruel or illegal behavior. Consideration of such factors may cause a change in child custody.

If You've Been the Victim of Malicious Parent Syndrome

If you or your children have been the victim of a malicious ex-spouse, you are not without recourse. You may be able to:

  • Have custody and support agreements modified
  • Seek court-ordered counseling for the malicious parent
  • Obtain supervised visitation

Obtain Professional Legal Counsel for Your Parenting Issues

Children deserve the best possible start to their lives. They need both parents to cooperate for their best interest. It can be frustrating when a malicious parent stands in the way. You can seek legal advice to help you resolve these issues. Contact an experienced family law attorney in your area.

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