With the holiday season upon us, we are encouraged to spend more time with family and friends; many people are traveling across the country in order to do just that. For some, families are an unmixed blessing; for others, not so much.
Some form of family is essential to our well-being, whether it is the family we were raised with or a community of friends cobbled together to fill the role. A desire to relate to one’s own parents is so elemental that no one knows how to define it. In some cases, this also results in major pain from constantly being rebuffed. Plenty of people exist whose lives have been enriched by their decision to terminate all contact with family members, yet I doubt any of them would tell you they enjoy having to make such a decision.
Others benefit from reaching out, from taking the initiative to strengthen or heal family bonds. For those who would choose this season for conciliation, for making amends, there are so many ways to begin the process. We have far more options than just deciding whether to physically visit: It can begin with a Facebook posting, an e-mail or phone call, or a letter delivered via the U.S. Postal Service. This can be a good way to “test the waters,” to ascertain whether it seems wise to continue or increase contact.
If your family is too far away, too hostile, estranged, or simply nonexistent, you have even more need than the average person to develop a strong community. For many, this circle of friends becomes their family.
The holiday season is a particularly good time to focus on your family and your community of friends, to choose when and to whom to reach out. Hopefully it will set the stage for a new year that rewards you constantly with the love of your family and friends.
Yes, parental alienation is real. The DSM-V (the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, that thick book your therapist pulls out in order to define the answer to What’s your problem?)–that tome that is utilized by everyone in the mental health professions–specifies that certain behaviors are considered psychological abuse of a child. (Previous editions only acknowledged physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect of a child.) These behaviors include berating the “alleged offender” (usually the other parent) in the child’s presence, and telling the child that person will harm or abandon them. This is done skillfully and often at the hands of alienators (targeting parents).
Fortunately, most parents do not alienate their children from the other parent, at least not intentionally. It does occur sometimes by accident, as parents may be careless about the words they utter when the children are within earshot. And there are many instances of low-level alienation that tend to work themselves out with time.
Some children are amenable to becoming alienated; others are not. Thank goodness for the invulnerability of those others.
If you have a friend whose children inexplicably reject him or her, please do not reassure your friend that children always come around. Some do; some don’t.
If you or a friend sees the beginnings of inexplicable rejection, I highly recommend reading “Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex” by Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R. Fine. It is basically a workbook, an excellent step-by-step guide for parents who need to both recognize and counteract whatever is going on. Some suggestions sound counterintuitive; don’t give up before you read the explanations.
Some children are alienated by the same person who abused their mother (or father). There is a major element of control and sometimes revenge. The children are frequently so hateful to the targeted parent that it is tempting to just give up. Please don’t; your children need both parents (absent one or both parents being an actual physical danger to them).
Some of the signs of potential parental alienation that have resonated with me are:
When they complain about how awful the targeted parent is, the complaints are often over miniscule issues, such as “She/he wouldn’t buy me the $250 shirt I wanted.” Sometimes the children will blatantly lie about the targeted parent. They feel no compunction to treat this parent with even basic courtesy, such as thanking them for huge gifts. (And don’t think this won’t carry over to how they behave in the larger world.) The words they use in their tirades are often the exact phrases that have been previously used by the targeting parent.
A favorite scheme of targeting parents is “erase and replace,” meaning that children are often taught that Dad (or Mom) no longer deserves that title. Children are made to call the new stepparent Dad or Mom, and to call the actual parent by their first name whenever the targeting parent is around. Vacations are often planned by the targeting parent in direct conflict with the target’s court ordered parenting time. Or the less-favored parent is invited to come to school events and then made to sit far away from the child and to not be acknowledged in any way. Sometimes the targeting parent manages to “one-up” every gift from the targeted parent: Dad saved his money to take the child to the play she always wanted to see, so Mom then takes her to New York to see the Broadway version.
As you can see, this teaches children to be manipulative. It is clearly not good parenting. But there is hope.
Amy J. L. Baker and Paul R. Fine have done excellent research. I highly recommend “Co-Parenting With a Toxic Ex” as a guidebook to minimize and counteract the negative messages your child may receive.
While Jamahl was working overseas, he sent money to his wife to pay the rent, only to return to an eviction notice. Francine gave money to a charity purporting to help families of children with cancer, only to later learn that this group was under investigation. Tristan confided in a friend, then learned his story had been shared indiscriminately. Should these people totally stop trusting? I’m thinking No. But I’m guessing their futures will include more self-protective behavior. Jamahl may pay bills directly in the future, Francine may check charity watch websites before she donates, and Tristan is likely to share innocuous information before he reveals anything with the potential for embarrassment.
With regard to obtaining counseling, people frequently say “I’m not going to tell my deepest secrets to a total stranger.” Believe it or not, that makes sense to me. Even though I am the stranger asking you to share your secrets. Trust is a complicated issue, and is different for each of us. It’s okay to not trust a new person all at once if it makes you uncomfortable. Even if that person is bound by rules involving confidentiality. You can start with minor disclosures, then take your time and work your way up to the riskier ones as you feel emotionally ready.
For those of you who have been betrayed (and isn’t that just about everyone?), it is tempting to insist you will never trust anyone again. This will spare you vulnerability; it will also leave you detached from potential friends and allies. Holding our secrets too closely can drag us down, keep us from emotional healing when we have been wounded. So how to start?
It may help to remember that trust is not one discrete decision, it is a series of smaller ones. You have a choice in each of them. Maybe it’s good to ask yourself, Would I rather hold on to my secrets, or would I rather risk vulnerability in order to experience greater connection and healing?