Navigating a divorce or separation is rarely an easy experience and when children are involved, it can be even harder. Among other things, one parent may seek to alienate the children from the other parent through various tactics, which may result in the children refusing to have a relationship with the targeted parent. For instance, one parent may tell their child that the other parent does not love them or want to speak with them, whereas in fact the other parent would be trying hard to contact the child.
This experience can be deeply upsetting for both the child and the targeted parent. Children may feel insecure, sad, overwhelmed, guilty, and confused. They may also feel neglected and angry. For parents who are closely attached to their children and are actively involved in their lives, the experience of witnessing their relationship with their children breaking down can trigger profound feelings of hurt, helplessness, resentment, and sadness.
Yet, there are steps targeted parents can take to respond helpfully to their child’s alienation and work towards reconnecting with their child:
- Avoid engaging in debates with the child about alienation – It is unlikely that children think they are being alienated, therefore, it is vital to avoid getting them caught up in the conflict. For instance, asking the child questions like “Is mummy/daddy saying bad things about me?” is likely to make them feel angry and get you nowhere. Instead, try to show them through your actions that anything negative they may be told or thinking about you is untrue.
- Remain empathetic towards the child – Regardless how difficult the child’s behaviour may be, their need to feel loved by the targeted parent is still hidden deep inside. It may be helpful to think of the child as a nesting doll, with the outermost doll representing the child’s hurt and anger that separate them from the parent, and the innermost doll representing the real child who loves and needs the parent.
- Be curious about the child’s wishes and opinions – Asking the child if they want to spend time with you is likely to receive a ‘no’ answer if they are alienated. Instead, offer them options to choose from and be curious about how they want to spend their time with you. This will help them feel appreciated and nurture your relationship in the longer term.
- Stick to your promises – If you have made plans with your child, for example, to take them out playing, make sure you stick to your promises. If you find yourself thinking that cancelling would not really matter as they do not want to see you, the child will still feel let down. It will also feed into any unhelpful messages your ex-partner may be giving them that they do not really matter to you.
- Stay hopeful – Alienated children may come to realise one day that they have been manipulated by one parent to give up their relationship with the other parent. It is therefore vital that the child always feels valued and loved and knows they will always be welcomed back when they feel ready to take that step.
- Educate yourself and seek support – Being alienated from your own children is one of life’s most painful experiences. Legal professionals, mental health professionals, and therapists who are experienced in this area can all help reduce alienation. There are also helpful books and resources you may wish to access:
International Support Network for Alienated Families (ISNAF) https://isnaf.info
Divorce Casualties: Protecting Your Children from Parental Alienation (Douglas Darnall)
From Heartbreak to Healing: Resolving Parental Alienation (Cara E. Koch)
The above few steps might just be a start, yet they may really help you and your relationship with your child for the months and years to come.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Dr. Ronald Zammit holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Southampton, has completed Master’s level psychotherapy training in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at the New Buckinghamshire University in the UK, as well as received training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). He has a special interest in mood and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma-related difficulties, personality disorders, and compassion-based approaches to treating difficulties related to high self-criticism and shame.