© 2014 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
This blog is dedicated to coping with difficult communications and High-Conflict People. All too often, parents get caught up in a contentious split and the children hear it all. When that happens, some parents are faced with the decision of caving in to the dreaded words “I want to go live with Mom/Dad.” In this article, Bill Eddy shares his view on handling parental alienation.
Here are some thoughts on one of the most important issues for parents coping with an alienated child. Many alienated parents ask whether they should just let go. The child may ask you to just get out of his or her life, or you can see the tremendous stress your child is experiencing by having to please one parent by rejecting the other. It is a painful decision and many “rejected” parents do decide to stop all contact with their child, to relieve the child’s pain, especially after talking with their lawyer or the child’s counselor. It is often seen as a regretful, but necessary decision, as a way to end the conflict in the family.
As a social worker and family law attorney, I strongly encourage parents not to just let go. While it may make sense to back off some, I don’t believe it is in a child’s long-term interest to have a parent say goodbye. Children need two parents (as well as grandparents and other adults) to learn skills for life and an attitude that important conflicts should not be resolved with all-or-nothing decisions.
For many years it was common for professionals to advise their clients to just let go and simply wait until the child was 18 and could act (and supposedly think) for him or herself. Then the alienated child would reconcile with the alienated parent and they would get along just fine. But from my professional experience and recent research, many children remain alienated well into adulthood.
For example, in her recent book, Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome, Amy Baker reports that it was 20 years before many of the adult children reconciled with their rejected parents. However, once reconciled, many of these adult children said that they wished that their alienated parents had not let go. They desperately wanted to know that the rejected parent still loved them and had tried to maintain some contact, even if it was an occasional card or gift.
After 30 years of working with children and families, it is clear to me that children maintain a relationship with each of their parents in their minds. Children need their parents’ love – both parents’ love. Even if a parent has restricted contact with a child, because of court orders or requests from a child, all children want to know that they are loved – even by a “bad” parent. Many years ago I drove children to see their parents in prison – and the children loved their parents and learned from their parents, despite all of their extremely bad behavior. It’s not healthy or normal for a child to reject a parent.
So what’s an alienated parent to do?
I think it’s best to say or write to your child something like this:
“I love you and I will never stop loving you, even if you try not to listen (or you tear up this letter). You need both of your parents, to learn from and to know there is more than one way to solve problems as you grow up. I can see the pain and frustration you are going through by having your parents in so much conflict these days. But losing contact with one of your parents is not a healthy solution. I wouldn’t want you to lose the important relationship you have with your mother/father, either. You need both of us in ways you can’t know or understand at this time. Therefore, I am going to back off a little bit, but I am going to send you occasional notes, cards and small gifts, to remind you of my love and to give you suggestions for how to solve life’s problems as you grow up. You can reject all of these, if you want to at the time. But I won’t abandon you in my efforts to help you as you grow up.”
Then you can send occasional notes, cards and small gifts, and include examples of successes in your life. Children love a winner, even if they can’t admit it. Share lessons you are learning in life that your child can also learn – especially life lessons that teach flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviors (rather than all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors). Include support for the other parent in regard to some of his/her positive contributions. Don’t make it a parenting contest, even if the other parent does.
Whether or not your child has shut you out, it’s your child’s needs that are most important, and your child should know that you don’t think abandoning him or her is a healthy alternative. If the other parent hides these from your child, at least you will have them to show when your child is an adult and open to hearing from you.
Of course, it is best if you have the other parent’s support or court orders for an active relationship with your child. However, if you have tried your best to assert your parental role for your child’s benefit, and you are seriously considering letting go of your relationship with your child, then “backing off without letting go” seems to be a healthy compromise for some parents facing this dilemma. In the long run, you’re likely to be appreciated regardless of what they say now. Find more in my book “Don’t Alienate The Kids!”
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.