Divorce and custody proceedings are often high-stress, contentious events that can cause extreme behavior on the part of those involved. Some cases have resulted in situations tied to what was often called “malicious mother syndrome” but is now referred to as “malicious parent syndrome.” This syndrome was first theorized by the psychologist Ira Turkat to describe a pattern of abnormal behavior during divorce.
It’s important to note that malicious parent or malicious mother syndrome is not currently recognized as a mental disorder by the medical profession. Rather, the syndrome describes a type of behavior at issue in some court cases and has lead proponents to call for further study and research.
When this syndrome occurs, a divorced or divorcing parent seeks to punish the other parent, sometimes going far enough as to harm or deprive their children in order to make the other parent look bad. Though most commonly called malicious mother syndrome, both mothers and fathers can be capable of such actions.
Characteristics of Malicious Parent Syndrome
In his initial discussion of malicious mother 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 is characterized by four major criteria. Someone suffering from the syndrome:
- Attempts to punish the divorcing parent though alienating their children from the other parent and involving others or the courts in actions to separate parent and child;
- Seeks to deny children visitation and communication with the other parent and involvement in the child’s school or extra-curricular activities;
- Lies to their children and others repeatedly and may engage in violations of law;
- Doesn’t suffer any other mental disorder which would explain these actions.
Examples of Malicious Parents
The idea of identifying a syndrome or mental disorder to explain the actions of extreme malicious behavior by parents during divorce arose from examples of vindictive parents in clinical and legal cases. Some of these behaviors include burning down the house of an ex-spouse, falsely accusing the other parent of abuse, or purposely interfering with planned parenting time.
In one particular example that could be called an instance of malicious parent syndrome, a mother told her children they could not afford food because their father had wasted all their money. In another, a parent repeatedly misinformed the other parent about school activities, so that the parent could not participate in the child’s school life. In all of these actions, the intent is to harm the other parent.
Psychological Consequences of Malicious Acts
When one parent goes out of his or her way to hurt the other, great strain can be put on both the harmed parent and their relationship with the child. In some cases, a parent who is repeatedly subjected to malicious acts by their ex-spouse may withdraw from their child’s life in order to avoid further conflict. A malicious parent may also successfully manipulate a child, resulting in them disliking and wanting to spend less time with the other parent.
Legal Consequences of Malicious Acts
Many of the behaviors associated with malicious parent syndrome can have legal consequences and may constitute civil and criminal law violations.
Some actions related to malicious parent syndrome can be easily understood as criminal acts, such as attacking the other parent or damaging their property. Depriving children of food or money, in order to make the other parent look bad, could constitute a form of child abuse, which can violate both family and criminal laws. Similarly, should a malicious parent lie under oath, he or she may be charged with the crime of perjury.
Other acts related to this pattern of behavior may be violations of civil law. For example, denying a parent their court-ordered visitation rights can constitute illegal parent time interference and can result in fines, court-ordered counseling, and adjustments to custody and visitation plans. Lying about the acts of the other parent in a way which 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. If a parent has been involved in alienating, cruel or illegal behavior, this conduct can be considered a factor in any proceeding to gain or adjust custody.
If You’ve Been the Victim of a Malicious Parent
If you or your children have been the victim of an ex-spouse’s vengeful behavior which may be a result of malicious mother/father/parent syndrome, you’re not without recourse. You may be able to:
- Have custody and support agreements modified;
- Seek court-ordered counseling for the malicious parent; or
- Obtain supervised visitation.
Parents want nothing more than for their children to have the best possible start to their lives, so it can particularly upsetting when a malicious parent stands in the way. But there are legal processes in place to help resolve these issues, which are best navigated by an experienced family law attorney.