A few weeks ago I put out a crowdsourcing question on Facebook to divorced/separated parents who have not had contact with their children for weeks, months or years. These are parents who have been disconnected (a.k.a. alienated) from their children as a result of messy divorces or separations and allegations of all kinds.
I don’t personally know the approximately seventy parents who responded to my question in Facebook groups dedicated to parental alienation, but these parents state that they are all currently going through the heartache of being shut out of their children’s lives. I don’t know each of their stories or the perspectives of their children and ex-spouses. I want to state that there are cases where children can be better off without a parent in their lives — in cases of severe abuse, for example.But I also know that in many, many cases, children unnecessarily lose a connection with one of their parents and it doesn’t have to be this way.
I was a child who was disconnected from a parent for no good reason. As a 4-year-old I was spirited away from my mother by my father after their separation, and I was taught to fear my mother, a sweet Norwegian kindergarten teacher, after my father told me that she was a “bad lady” and a “Nazi sympathizer.” Neither of those things were true, but as an impressionable child, and once enough time went by for me to have trouble remembering who my mother was, I believed my father and fought to keep her out of my life.
The simple passage of time, combined with the very negative things my father said about my mother, were enough to make me turn against her with a fierceness that equaled the love I had once had for her. She became my enemy, our enemy. My father and I became a team against her and in my childish view she was out to ruin our lives. The negative messages I absorbed about her, some very subtle, became very real and frightening to me and I shut down to her so completely that I would tell other children that I never had a mother.
It took many years for me to reconnect with my sweet mother, a woman who did nothing to deserve losing her child for fourteen years. As an adult I’ve worked hard to help people understand that children can and do turn against a parent they once dearly loved.
The question I posed to two Facebook groups dedicated to parents in my mother’s situation was this:
Parents, as a former parentally abducted and severely alienated child, I’d like to crowd source here and ask what the two biggest factors were in alienating your child from you?
Please name something other than simply stating that it was the other parent. What tools did they use/manipulate/threaten the child with to alienate your child from you?
I posted the above question in early December of 2016. My question brought an outpouring of replies and the ensuing discussion lasted for days. Many of the replies brought tears to my eyes. One father lost his son to cancer before he was able to reconnect with him, a mom wrote about her dying mother’s last wish to see her grandchild. So much pain, and so much of it unnecessary I’m sure. Most of the responses centered around false accusations, exaggerated claims and time and physical distance as barriers to connecting with their children.
This response from a father was powerful:
for me, the two [main factors in alienation from children] were Separation and Time. Once she had both… the fix was in. She could brainwash in the most effective manner; slowly over a long period of time. She created separation by burying me in child support, as an out of state dad, during the worst recession the country has seen in decades. She knew that would strap me financially and make it difficult for me to make my visits. I held up for a while and then bottomed out. She filed for abandonment. I didn’t have the money to fight. She had my rights as a father removed and then changed her number and moved out of state. Game. Set. Match. – it was over – I didn’t know if they were dead or alive for nearly a decade.
Another post from a mother was gut-wrenching:
Children are taught to hate their once-loved parents, bonds are shattered, they are trained to un-love you. It happens.They adopt the other parents hatred and make it their own. They are slowly, insidiously transformed. They become disgusted with you. They want to hurt you, and see you raped in court. They want to see you writhe, twisted and breaking; punished for the perceived criminal you are. Then they want you gone. They are emotionally vested in the liar’s legal, emotional, financial and parental destruction of you.
You are left without them. They want nothing to do with you and the lies they believe are real without evidence, without justification. They want to never ever again see or speak to you, or your side of the family or any one who knows and loves you and doesn’t believe all the lies which have become their reality. And they mean it.
One of the biggest takeaways for me was that these parents don’t know what to do to reconnect with their children. They’ve tried everything. “What do we do, Sarah Cecilie?” they’ve asked me. I wish I had magic solutions for them but I don’t. The trajectory is depressing similar for so many parents.
Parents usually turn to the courts first, which must determine which parent is the “better” of the two and listen to what children say in these cases. The court system can be treacherous. False allegations, exaggerated claims, contentious lawyers and rampant half-truths can make it a murky business at best. As a family court judge once told me, custodial discord is the biggest heartache for caring, ethical judges, since making a choice between two good enough parents is the kind of thing that keeps them awake at night.
“The cases that involve money, they are no big deal if you get something wrong compared to when you make a mistake on behalf of a child,” he somberly told me. I’m paraphrasing, but his message was clear: judges with a conscience understand the gravity of their decisions. A child’s and family’s future hangs in the balance when a judge makes a decision, and often there is a winner and a loser. Sadly, court cases pit parents against one another, and there is almost certain to be something negative about one or both parents that can be used against a parent in court. Contentious custody battles don’t end well for most families, especially for an already disadvantaged parent. Court battles often make things worse by creating an atmosphere of winner vs. loser, and children feel compelled to take a side.
Many parents turn to therapy, but since it’s difficult for many therapists to detect and properly address alienation, therapy can make things worse for some families. Oversimplifying family dynamics, identifying a “bad guy” vs. a “good guy,” creating alliances with one parent to the detriment of the other, and labeling mental health issues and individual quirks as dangerous, can and does turn into a slippery slope for parents and children and can make it easy for children to turn against a parent identified as unstable or difficult.
Still others turn to bribery, begging, arguments, anger and negative coping tools that further reinforce the children’s negative view of that parent, and things can get even worse.
The issue I want to address in detail is helping parents understand what is going on with their disconnected children; help them understand how disconnection happens, and how, despite their pain, parents can remain open and empathetic to their children so that reconnection can happen in the best possible atmosphere.
So many parents want to understand why and how their children can reject them, and the sense of personal failure can be so crippling that parents fall apart. I want to help them see into the mind and heart of a typical disconnected child so that they can find the strength to go on and be as strong, healthy and loving as possible despite their terrible suffering.
Parents need to understand that disconnection, alienation, whatever we call it, is terribly painful to children. Cutting off a part of yourself is a form of self-harm, and your children are hurting, too, even if they don’t seem to be. They may be in denial, but they are not okay. A child that rejects a parent is in pain. It is an abnormal state of being to deny a parent entry into your life. Every time a child looks in the mirror and sees the missing parent in their own features, they are reminded that their lives are not in balance. As a child I hated the parts of me that reminded me of my mother. My Scandinavian nose became the source of self-hate so great that I wanted to chop it off at one point! My father’s rejection of my mother was adopted by me, and I rejected myself.
“You’re being unreasonable just like your mother,” my father would say. It hurt to hear that. So I desperately tried to never be unreasonable, itself an unreasonable goal, so that I would not be anything like her.
“Sing to me,” he’d say. “Your mother has the voice of an angel, the only good thing about her,” my father would tell me. So I’d sing, then I’d stop. Even something good became a bad thing. If I sang like her it would mean I was like her, and that was bad. The messages I internalized were confusing and so painful. I was damned if I was like her when it came to her positive traits, so I cursed the parts of me that were like her.
The inevitable accusations of moral wrongness, of mental illness, coursed through me like shards of glass. “She’s crazy; bigoted; stupid; lazy..” the jabs came when he was angry or frustrated, and I took them all in. I wasn’t going to be like her, I was going to be the perfect daughter and give my father the peace and love he deserved. The standards I set for myself were impossibly high, and when I did not meet them I blamed her. It was her genes, her legacy that ruined me. When I did good I was his daughter, when I was bad I was hers.
She became a threat to my identity and existence.
“She will take you away and never let you see me,” he told me. So I clung to him and feared her. In the tug of war of his own making, he forced me to take one side, and I chose the one that was closest at hand. The one that felt safest to my own unsophisticated, sorely lacking understanding. Little did I know how terribly unsafe I was in the poisonous atmosphere he manufactured. I was comfortable in the new life we had at the time, and I thought that she was a threat to the friends, family and community that we had built.
“You won’t be beloved by God if you live with her,” he warned. As a deeply religious little girl, that filled me with the greatest fear of all, fear that I would lose my soul. She had little chance to connect with me when God was brought into the picture. If she had understood just how strong my connection to my new religion was, maybe we would have had a chance.
He told me he wouldn’t love me any more if I connected with her. When I tried to talk about her I felt a sense of dread that was so powerful that I turned silent. It became dangerous, I knew I would lose his love if I mentioned the “m” word in a positive way.
The simple passage of time caused the most powerful disconnection of all. This was made clear to me in an incident that occurred with my own son. Back in 2010, my little 4-year-old son, not alienated from me in any way and not a child of separation or divorce, while on a three week overseas trip with my husband, told me after I gushed about how much I missed him, that he “didn’t remember that he missed me.” Wow. I nearly crumpled in shock when he told me that. It brought back my own childhood so viscerally that I felt physical pain. It made my own alienation so much more understandable to me. My sensitive, smart little boy and I had talked to each other every day but didn’t get to Skype, so we didn’t see one another on a screen in those three weeks. If we had that might have helped us stay a bit more connected. But maybe not. He was engrossed in his adventure, having fun with my husband and his extended family while I was home with our younger son. My sweet, sensitive, loving boy was alienated, distanced from me with the simple passage of time and the loss of daily connection. No one was trying to disconnect him from me. No one was telling him negative things about me. Time itself worked against our years of loving bonds. It didn’t take long for Aidan and me to reconnect once he and my husband returned from their trip, but that initial meeting was so awkward. It was as if Aidan didn’t trust me anymore and I needed to prove myself to him as a trustworthy caretaker. That gave me a small taste of what parents of alienated children have to endure. What torture! I understood what Aidan was going through and gave him the space he needed, but it was painful to recognize how quickly a child can disconnect from a parent. It was a life-changing experience for me. I was able to forgive the child I once was, and the fact that I had “allowed” myself to be alienated. In reality, I had no choice. My father used my emotions and childish limitations to his benefit.
My mother and I had a short reunion when I was six, two years after I’d been taken away from her. I was thoroughly disconnected from her by then. A new religion and all of the negative messages I’d gotten from my father were working against her and I lost out on a mother because no one recognized alienation. In the few weeks we had together when I was six, I was given court supervised visitation with my mother, not because anything was wrong with her but because I was so afraid of her that the judge took my father’s suggestion for me to have supervised visitation. My time with my mother, supervised by my father’s friends, were dismal affairs. I had no time to bond, let alone form a warm opinion of the woman I barely remembered. By the time I did start to connect, my father stole me away and disappeared with me once again. I would be a missing child on a milk carton several years later.
A few weeks of supervised visits were not enough for me to reclaim the bond I had once had with my loving mother. We needed more time, and we needed it quickly, safely and lovingly. We had no chance in the atmosphere we were in, despite the court’s efforts. I truly believe that the judge wanted my mother and me to connect, but she had no experience with alienation and did not handle it well.
I want hurting parents to understand that their children are hurting. The children are losing out on the love and care of a parent and they are victims of a crime so insidious that it is hard to find the words to describe how awful it is.
When I grew up and reconnected with my mother I wanted her to forgive me and accept me. My name, religion and language had changed, and I was an entirely different person from the one I would have been if I’d grown up with her in my life. I felt undeserving and wrong just for being me. It was an awful feeling to recognize just how much we’d both lost when I was old enough and had enough clarity to understand what had really happened. I had been fooled by my own father, betrayed by him in such a deep way that I could hardly breathe for a while, and it has been an awful burden to bear.
We have healed, however imperfectly, and life goes on. There is peace to be found and love to be nurtured. Empathy and self-care, these are so important. Care for yourself so that you can care for your child, and maintain an open mind. Remember that your child is struggling, too. You will get through this, and you will survive and thrive together one day soon.