April 25th is Parental Alienation Awareness day. It isn’t something we “do” here in the UK; maybe we need to. Few people have heard of it or understand what it is. Parental alienation is the unwarranted or illogical rejection of a parent, by a child, where there was previously a normal, warm, loving relationship. It most often occurs in highly conflicted relationship break-ups. I would contend however, that many a parent slips into potentially alienating behaviour and reflecting on our actions and understanding the processes involved can prevent potentially damaging outcomes for our children.
April 25th is also my daughter’s 20th Birthday. Reflection is at the essence of who I am as a person – as a mum, a colleague, a friend, a practitioner, a researcher, and events such as a child’s birthday naturally initiate even more reflection. But I have to admit, this year I seem to have succumbed to reflection overload – undoubtedly due to very fact that the anniversary of my daughter’s birth coincides with Parental Alienation Awareness day.
I look at my daughter, and my other children, with immense pride. I couldn’t always do that. For many years, I just felt “lucky” and “grateful”. I felt fortunate that some ethereal being or mystical fortune had endowed me with these bright, intelligent, diligent, inquisitive, considerate, caring, loving tiny packages, which blossomed of their own accord into adolescents and adults with all of these qualities intact. Through my self-reflection, personal therapy and grappling with the challenges life has presented me, I can now acknowledge that this is not the case. My children are the wonderful, unique individuals they are because of me – and because of their dad and their grandparents, and other family members; because of their friends and their teachers; because of all the interpersonal experiences in their lives to date.
Each of us is the product of our lifetime of interpersonal experiences – and each time I meet someone who is separated from their child due to parental alienation, I become more acutely aware of this. I try to understand their experiences, to be compassionate and to empathise with their pain, the hurt and the loss; but I cannot truly feel what they feel. Lately, I have found myself considering the immense courage and strengths that these individuals have. I know it is a struggle, a nightmare, a devastation that brings many to the edge and pushes some over. Yet the majority learn, or manage, to function, to live their life as they fight for their child’s right to a relationship with them, or come to terms with the loss, hopefully temporary, of that relationship. I am far from convinced that I would have the resilience to cope in similar circumstances.
I think about those children who are victims of their circumstances – those who are explicitly alienated by one parent against the other. I ponder those who are lied to, manipulated and physically prevented from contact. I consider those youngsters who have to supress or deny their love and affection, who must hide their thoughts and emotions, who are prohibited from speaking to, communicating or being with someone they love. I wonder about those children who subliminally acknowledge the risk of losing a second parent if they do not succumb to the alienating tactics. I contemplate how children learn the benefits of compliance and complicity in the alienation – greater “love and affection”, or at least a more safe home environment and less likelihood of punishment or disregard.
I consider too, those children who are subtly, maybe unconsciously, manipulated to gradually withdraw from one parent in favour of another. Some children never hear a bad word about the absent parent – but they never hear a good word either. When they excitedly report an enjoyable visit, it goes unacknowledged or is instantly dismissed. Conversely, reports of minor disagreements are dissected, commiserated with and alleviated with a special treat. The excessive sadness expressed by mum or dad before a contact visit is matched by equally excessive joy on return “home”. There is a failure to share important, or even routine, information about school events, social activities, illnesses – or to communicate at all.
I reflect too on the alienating parent – whether or not they are conscious of their actions. I try to understand their shame and damage and the hate that they may hold for their former partner. How they may believe that this individual is so hateful, such a despicable human being that they need to protect their child from him/her at all costs. I try and understand the lengths they go to – moving to opposite ends of the country; creating a web of lies, misinformation and half-truths; breaking court orders. I try to put myself in their shoes and wonder whether I would behave in that same way given the same circumstances. I can absolutely appreciate the feeling of loss and emptiness, of handing over care, relinquishing “control” that can accompany periods away from a child – knowing that you are missing out on a part of their life, and desperately not wanting that.
My life has changed because of the people I have met who have been impacted by parental alienation. However, it is not just my life that has changed, my parenting has changed too. As a consequence, my children are who they are because of my awareness of parental alienation. At times I have been tempted to put my needs before theirs. There have been occasions when I have been tempted to seduce one or more of my children with more attractive opportunities than those offered by their dad, just to keep them close. On reflection, there have been times where I inappropriately shared adult information – about finances or relationship issues – with one of my children. I have so wanted to “rescue”, and make everything better, when one has telephoned me in tears – because dad has done this or that or won’t listen or doesn’t understand. Good parenting is about supporting our children in the many relationships that they will have in their lives, encouraging them to develop communication, negotiation and problem solving skills, and fostering respect for others. We do not serve our children well if we continue to rescue them and prevent them from developing those important skills.
Awareness of parental alienation isn’t just important for conflicted parents. I believe all separating and separated parents would benefit hugely from an understanding of the behaviour and psychological processes in play when there is family break-up. Divorce, separation and break-up are difficult for all involved, but good outcomes are possible if we stand back and reflect on our own role in this process. Failure to reflect and to put our children’s needs and rights at the centre can lead to alienation, and the devastation and enduring emotional damage that results. Our children have a right to a relationship with both parents and their wider family.
So, my hope today, on Parental Alienation Awareness day, on my daughter’s 20th Birthday, is that just one parent, somewhere, stops, stands back and reflects on the possible consequences of their actions and enables the loving relationship between their child and the other parent to flourish.