Parental Alienation Syndrome
By Dr. Barbara Steinberg
Q: A parent who has been alienated from his or her child’s life experiences extreme loss. Often we are asked by a targeted parent, “How do I deal with his on-going pain?”
A: First, know that you are not alone. There are others, both mothers and fathers, who have similar experiences, and who are in deep agony over the loss of contact and meaningful relationship with their children.
Second, know that you are not crazy. In our culture we are not encouraged to experience our grief. We are taught to be strong, to rise above it, to tough it out, to get over it and get on with life. Sometimes that is wise counsel if we linger in our pain, and our outrage becomes the complete focus of our life affecting our work, our social life and our spirit. However, the loss of a child whether by death or by exclusion from that child’s life is beyond the realm of most parents’ ability to cope.
In the beginning of an alienation process, we believe, as parents, this is not really happening. We deny that the other parent of our child is capable of these vengeful acts, and we choose not to believe our child, whom we love deeply, would ever treat us in such a hurtful ways. Denial is the strongest emotional defense mechanism we have at our disposal, and it is the one on which we rely the most. For most parents, because they truly want contact and relationship with their child, their denial does not hold up under time or with the reality of the disconnection they experience.
Third, many parents feel confusion, which suggests they are not able to identify and process the bunch of emotions; they are experiencing in their gut. Usually, these can be separated into feelings of deep sadness, intense anger, extreme outrage, and desperate blame. To keep from being overwhelmed by this internal “bucket of worms,” many parents detach from the situation that they believe is an act of self-preservation. Some bargain with them using the following logic, “My child will get what’s happened when he/she turns eighteen so I’ll just wait.” Both strategies are akin to whistling in the dark.
Fourth, targeted parents want to know how to deal with these strong emotions in healthy ways because if allowed to remain unreleased, they often gain a life of their own and emerge at inappropriate and inopportune times toward others who do not understand or deserve the depth and intensity of the feeling. Sometimes, these emotions are held internally. In an attempt to self-medicate the resulting pain, the targeted parent turns to addictive behaviors or substances. Eventually, if strong emotions are held internally for a long period of time, they can convert into physical problems, which plague the individual for the remainder of his/her life.
So the dilemma remains, what do I do with my pain? Keeping a journal or diary is helpful, but strong emotions require active self-interventions. Many parents report feeling relief from their deep sadness by allowing themselves to cry and scream. If you believe this might assist you in your process, to avoid embarrassment, it is wise to isolate yourself perhaps in a quiet, natural place so you can grieve in an unrestrained and unobserved way. It is also helpful to take a sequence of your child’s pictures so you can activate your feelings of loss.
Intense anger is a physical activator so you will need to participate in a focused activity such as bowling, driving golf balls at a range or hitting balls in a batting cage. A less expensive approach is throwing ice cubes at a sturdy wall, an activity, that parents report, gives a sense of relief and release from ever tightening bands of anger.
Outrage describes a parent who feels misunderstood so there needs to be some attention paid to “telling your story.” The problem is finding a receptive listener who has the patience and energy to hear the saga of hurt, frustration and humiliation more than once. Targeted parents can tell their story into a small tape recorder; they can write their story by hand into a journal, a loose-leaf notebook or a diary. They can use a word processor and store it on computer disc, or if they are creatively inclined, they can write poems to their children. Some parents have already published their story in books and poetry.
Of importance here is the intention to alleviate the outrage of misunderstanding that, as a parent, you are unimportant, even nonessential in your child’s life. Also, it is important that you be heard, and that you remind yourself that you are still a parent by keeping your child’s pictures around you. Another approach is to involve yourself in the parenting role with other children as a Godparent, as an involved uncle or aunt, as a Big Brother or Big Sister. Validating yourself as a parent can go a long way to heal feelings of outrage.
Finally, desperate blame is probably the most difficult bereavement issue to process. Some blame is justifiable: the other parent, the other parent’s family, the legal and social services system, your child, yourself. However, the only one under your jurisdiction of control is yourself so this is the part that you work with in three separate ways.
First, it is critical, regardless of the attitude and reception from the other parent, from the other parent’s family and from your child that you stay in positive contact with them. Civility and cordiality in face-to-face contact is essential regardless of what is said in your presence or behind your back. In addition, sending your child cards, letters and little packages on unimportant days is appropriate. Also, communicating with your child by telephone, by email and by facsimile can be effective. If you have completely lost contact with your child, then set your priority to find him/her and restore contact at least by distance. If this is impossible, then collect items and memorabilia in a special box or trunk reserved for your child and the possibility of future contact.
Second, become active as a citizen for positive change, and learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the system you blame for preventing you from having parenting opportunities with your child. This action may not change the disposition of your situation, but you may make the system a better place for other targeted parents and their children.
Third, for your sake and for the sake of your relationship with your child, it is imperative that you forgive the other parent. Notice there was no mention of forgetting what has happened, or how you have been treated, but again, for restoring your emotional balance and your ability to cope with life challenges in healthy ways, you will need to forgive the alienator. For some, this is a spiritual journey, and for others the path is a secular one. What is important is that you go about this process in a unique way that you believe will work for you so the specter of losing your child is diminished, and your health and well being are in restoration.