What can be more painful than experiencing your children—your own flesh and blood—rejecting you? Telling you they hate you. Saying they never want to see you again. Declaring they never had a loving relationship with you: Not even during the times you built forts with blankets in the basement—“that was boring, I never liked doing that.” Not when you snuggled together during bedtime stories—“I don’t remember you tucking me in.” Not when you excitedly rode the ski lift together for another vigorous run down the slope—“I wasn’t excited; I was always scared of you.” Not even when you volunteered at the school, helping at the Halloween party—“You did it just to show off.” You knew divorce was going to be a difficult adjustment. You anticipated having to watch the dream of your family unit disintegrate and having to closely watch your finances. But you never dreamed divorce would include watching your children slowly fade away, possibly out of your life forever. You have been cast as the antagonist—the monster—in your own divorce horror show.
Tip: Remember this. Although your children say they don’t love you, they don’t want to be with you, they hate you, this isn’t the truth. Don’t believe the lie. Your children are only looking to reduce stress, and unfortunately, seeing their world as black and white, good vs. bad, winners and losers gives them temporary relief. Don’t get caught up in this world of polarization.
The Destructive Power of Parental Alienation
Many parents living this scenario think, “What happened? What the hell is going on? How did I get here?” The answer: They are caught up in one of the most dangerous currents in high-conflict divorce, a current made all the more powerful by the fact that, like a riptide, it is difficult to see. Just as a riptide lurks under the surface with no apparent waves to signal its presence, parental alienation can be difficult to spot for anyone not experiencing its destructive power. Parents involved in difficult divorces can find themselves struggling against this powerful force pulling them further and further from the shores of where they used to play, love, and hug their children. It seems as if the more they fight the further they are swept away into the open ocean, alone, frightened, and wondering if they’ll ever get back to shore. They search frantically for a judge, the children’s counselor, even their own attorney—someone—to throw them a lifeline but it seems as if no one appreciates how difficult it is to remain buoyant in these deceptively normal waters. This is where you now find yourself.
Although you thought counseling for your children would help, you are aghast. It is getting worse. The counselor believes the children’s exaggerations, lies, and false allegations. You might even find yourself in the middle of a child protective services (CPS) investigation, trying to prove you’re not abusive and neglectful. Your co-parent may have filed an ex-parte order and now you find your parenting time suspended until the investigation is complete. You float out to sea and tread water. You’re getting tired, not sure you have the endurance. But you love your children and that love gives you strength and hope to stay afloat.
Maybe the CPS report exonerates you—seemingly giving you a lifeline—but the allegations created turbulence and time for fears to foment. In fact, the time away—a cooling-off period the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) said would help during the investigation—has made things worse. And while the professionals might suggest the resumption of parenting time—and this may initially seem innocent and reasonable— the incremental and shorter parenting time in public spaces (i.e. malls and restaurants) only creates new barriers to normalcy. It seems to validate and perpetuate the irrational fears of your children and strengthens the relentless current of their hatred, rejection, and resistance. The once warm and refreshing temperature of your relationship has turned cold and shocking—they seem emotionally dead to you or robot-like.
Your children continue to cite mistakes you made in the past—mistakes you regret, but thought were forgivable or even overlooked by them, let alone a reason to hate and divorce a parent. Mistakes you thought other loving and imperfect parents also made: yelling, working too much, missing an important event, showing up late to pick them up from soccer, etc. Nothing you say or do helps. Your children’s intense emotionality of fear and agony seems so disproportionate, and the “abusive” or “neglectful” incidents to process are laden with distortions, exaggerations—essentially reinventing family history. Their emotions are palpable and pitched. You’re told you don’t listen; you just argue. But you believe orienting to facts and reality could help. The children may ask you to show them “empathy” and propose the unthinkable: If you love them, you will leave them alone; walk away. You tell them you can’t do that, you love them too much. They retort, “You don’t get it, you’re so selfish, it’s all about you.” You remain the monster in the horror show you can’t escape from.
Tip: Your children aren’t the enemy—even though it seems like it is their word against yours. Never stop loving them unconditionally. To help you cope during this difficult and hopefully temporary time, reframe their resistance and rejection as not against you personally, but as their way of coping as children caught in the scary and stressful turbulence of high-conflict divorce.
Fighting Against Parent/Child Estrangement
Over time, you grow angry—angry at your ex-partner, angry at the counselors, and maybe even angry with your children. The hurt is too painful, the fear is too overwhelming. Anger feels like it gives you power: power to fight the current and swim to shore where you belong. You think, “It’s been long enough, I deserve stable ground, a place where I can safely love my children again.” You want the professionals and the court to see the current, see where the source of it is, to confront it, stop it, rather than being deceived by the “calm” waters. You believe your ex-partner has poisoned the waters, turning your children against you. You may have some insight into how the children were put in the unfortunate situation of having to choose one parent and reject the other because there was no way for them to love both, but you’re tired of understanding. You know it isn’t their fault, but you’ve grown weary and impatient of their rejection and increasingly angry at their flagrant rudeness and hostility, seemingly encouraged by your co-parent and enabled by the silence of professionals. As you continue to tread water, you become more and more pissed and eventually find yourself ready to either give up or go down fighting.
In this surge of anger, you might begin to confront your children, the professionals, even speak out of turn in court. And what happens? You unwittingly begin to follow the script of the antagonist—the monster you were cast as. No one is helping, so you turn into a warrior, fighting to win each battle so you can restore order, civility, and sanity back into your life and your children’s lives. You think, “This is crazy; since no one else will expose and speak the truth, I will.”
Tip: Although professionals working your case may be causing more harm than good, most of them ultimately want what is best for children. They just aren’t trained in parental alienation, or they have been seduced into believing the lies and misrepresentations being told them. Still, don’t approach them as the enemy. See them as a potential advocate for your children. Acknowledge their desire to help and protect your children from harm and work to help them understand parental alienation family dynamics. This way they might better be able to help or refer you out to a specialist. If this approach fails, work with your attorney to possibly have them removed from the case provided it is in the best interests of your children’s overall welfare.
Recognizing Reject and Refuse Dynamics
I have worked with divorcing parents since 1992, providing a variety of family court psychological services including custody and parenting time evaluations, parenting fitness evaluations, parenting coordination, parent-child reunification counseling, and counseling for moms, dads, and children. I’ve worked with a variety of dynamics, including estrangement dynamics—which are characteristic of families in the throes of domestic violence, mental health problems, child abuse, and substance abuse. But families experiencing parental alienation dynamics are some of the most difficult families to work with because of the spurious, insidious, and entrenched nature of reject and refuse dynamics (RRDs).
It is difficult for mental health professionals and courts to understand and appreciate parental alienation dynamics, as most have been trained and predisposed to prevent and intervene in estrangement dynamics—to protect children from unfit and abusive parents. Also, most professionals are biased towards believing what children say, in keeping with the twenty-first century ethos of “children are to be seen and heard.”
The dynamics of parental alienation have many contributing variables: the alienating parent, the children’s response to high-conflict divorce and their survival strategies for coping with an alienating parent, untrained and incompetent professionals, and the lack of swift and judicious court decisions. The one variable that’s often overlooked is the response of the rejected parent. Because the rejected parent experiences the stress of being caught in the riptide of parental alienation, he/she is at risk of being misunderstood by others and of making several untoward mistakes. Just as a riptide victim instinctively makes the mistake of swimming into the current in order to get to shore, the rejected parent is at risk of expending their energy in ways that end up working against them. For a victim of parental alienation, the way back to one’s children requires special knowledge and skill and sometimes counterintuitive moves.
Assistance for the Rejected Parent
It’s jarring for loving parents to be faced with hatred and resistance to contact from their children. They shouldn’t have to learn how to effectively cope with being unnecessarily rejected. Counselors trained to prevent and address parental alienation can help rejected parents cope with the painful and frightening alienation process. Time is the enemy.
Tip: The longer your children marinate in the toxicity of false beliefs, irrational fears, and polarized ideations, the prognosis worsens for their recovery into wellness and restoring relationships.
You need professionals on your team who can help you respond smartly and swiftly. They can:
- Help you find an attorney who knows how to effectively fight alienation dynamics,
- Help you understand the alienation process so you can have more compassion for your children and respond to their reject and refuse dynamics (RRDs) without unwittingly playing into them,
- Help you work and engage more effectively with the professionals involved in your case—or strategically work to have them removed—so you don’t present and react in ways that perpetuate the unfit monster narrative,
- Help you cope and deal with the alienation tactics your co-parent utilizes so you can better avoid traps and manipulations, and
- Help you practice and maintain good and healthy self-care.
Essentially, rejected parents need specialized coaching and counsel on how to safely, smartly, and strategically respond to the riptide of parental alienation so they can optimize their energy and efforts in order to get back to safer waters and avoid total and permanent severance of parent/child contact. Although you may not be accountable for the circumstances and behaviors of others that lead to the disproportionate level of RRDs, you are responsible for what you say and do and who you become under these painful and scary circumstances.
Tip: Don’t forget about self-care while fighting for your children. In a flight emergency, you’re told to put on your oxygen mask before assisting others. The same is true here. Golf. Read. Walk. Run. Hang with friends. Pray. Whatever it is that will help keep your head above water, do it.
The good news is this: There are lifelines so that you don’t have to go it alone.