Friday, December 28, 2012

Rejected Parents: Learning not to forget

   Rejected Parents often feel taken aback when their children deny recalling their fun times and loving experiences with one another.  It is as though the positive never occurred, that the relationship was just one bad moment after another.   If enough time passes, the children may say the relationship was never important: “It doesn’t seem like I had a father at all.” “I don’t recall my mother ever having a real place in my life.”  It’s hard to comprehend.
   But one father recently gained insight about his children’s changed reality about him—and themselves.  He noted that he felt so confused by his children’s rejection that he lost track of his contributions as a father.  He wondered if he had been a good father, if his prior picture of himself as attentive and loving was not real, if his children's portrayal of him as self-absorbed and uninvolved was accurate.  The self-doubt triggered by his children’s rejection caused him to question his identity as a father: “Maybe I was never a good father, maybe I wasn’t who I thought I was or as involved as much as I recall. Maybe we were never close.” 
   This father regained his bearings when he spoke to neighbors and relatives and viewed family photos.  They reminded him of the activities he shared with his children, their weekends together, the family outings, and the school events he attended.  The common response from others was: “Don’t you remember the times that…?”  But until their recollections and the photos reminded him, he didn’t.  And with this realization, recognizing how thoroughly disoriented he had become, even with an adult’s maturity, he gained a better understanding of how vulnerable his children had been to becoming similarly disoriented.
   But why? How does this happen?  You might find one answer if you listen and watch a family interact as it goes about its day. You will notice that family members tell stories, a lot of stories. Sometimes in just a sentence or two, sometimes as a shared narrative. They relate incidents from the past, tease one another about prior missteps, remind one another about “the time that we…”  In effect, family members do naturally what this father prompted from his neighbors—smoothly and naturally reminding one another through stories and recollections of their shared experiences and bonds.  The stories bring forward to the present what is important and binding from the past. Absent these continual reminders, the past can become distant, something no longer recalled, no longer part of present experience, no longer part of the present narrative of what it means to be a family.  
   We encourage Rejected Parents to do the same thing with their children that this father did with his neighbors—bring out pictures of happier times, tell stories, reminisce.  One rejected parent and the four children, for example, spent two months in therapy eating pizza and telling stories about past meals—thereby reaffirming that they were, indeed, a family.  

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rejected Parents: Get Help!

   Rejected Parents must contend with multiple sources of conflict—both with others and within themselves.  Despite the complexity of the issues they face, however, Rejected Parents are oftentimes reluctant to seek help until matters become critical or even beyond remedy.
   Consider one example. When a mother became severely depressed, she was unable to take care of her three children. While she received psychiatric treatment, her children lived exclusively with their father and stepmother. When she recovered and tried to resume parenting-time,  the father refused her access to the children and persuaded the children she was a child sex abuser. Her informal attempts to improve matters met with heavy resistance. She hired a lawyer to handle legal matters, but fearful that seeking informal problem-solving help would be taken to mean that she was still depressed and unable to function, she did not seek consultation until many months later.  
   In another instance, a father had been trying for several years to reconnect with his two sons. His ex and the boys’ therapist agreed that the boys needed a relationship with their father. But whenever he identified opportunities to spend time together, he encountered foot-dragging, excuses, and overt opposition. When one of his children had school difficulties he didn’t hesitate to hire a tutor—but he was unaware that he needed help developing a problem-solving strategy to address the estrangement.
   One reason such parents don’t seek help is embarrassment. Anticipating that others will assume they did something wrong to trigger the children’s rejection, they are reluctant to speak openly about their difficulties. And their concern is not unfounded; many Rejected Parents report encountering this bias when they reveal to others that they are estranged from their children.
   A second reason is that they—and their lawyers—are not aware that such help is available. They may not know that even in the worst situations, specialists familiar with the problem of parent-child alienation may be able to identify opportunities and strategies to make a positive difference. 
  Rejected Parents have three interests when seeking help. First, they need advisors who can be trusted to understand the pressures they are under, to maintain confidentiality, and to be free of conflicts of interests. A psychologist hired by the Favored Parent to work with the children, for example, may offer consultation to the Rejected Parent—but just how much will they advocate for repairing the relationship if it would jeopardize their working relationship with the parent who hired them?  Second, Rejected Parents need advisors with specialized knowledge about parent-child alienation. It is not enough for a psychologist to be generally familiar with family systems dynamics or divorce issues. Rejected Parents need practical advice specific to parent-child alienation. Finally, Rejected Parents need advisors who can invent strategies and suggestions tailored to their unique situation rather than promoting a one-size-fits-all method.
   For more tips and strategies, read early posts on this blog or obtain Welcome Back, Pluto – a DVD specifically written and produced for children and family members dealing with this tragic problem. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Parent-child alienation: What’s a Rejected Parent to do?

December 11, 2012

   In the event of damaged parent child relationships, many Rejected Parents don’t know what to do when faced with their children’s opposition and disrespect.  Whereas before they could correct their children’s behavior with a simple warning or restriction, now such consequences trigger further defiance and contempt.  But tolerating their bad behavior seems like giving up on one’s responsibilities as a parent.
   Rejected Parents inadvertently make the situation worse when their trial and error efforts to improve their relationship lead them to vacillate between resigned passivity and angry assertiveness.  Indeed, such inconsistency may be used as further evidence by the children and the Favored Parent that the parent being rejected can’t be trusted. One politically minded, but alienated, teenager commented: “He’s just like what my mother said about Romney, a flip-flopper. I can’t respect him.”
   The Rejected Parent ’s behavior may be frustrating for family members and the professionals trying to help, but it isn’t hard to understand what lies underneath—profound helplessness to restore what had once been loving, rewarding relatedness: “Whatever I do is wrong; I send a text saying ‘I love you’ and it’s presented to the court as evidence that I’m overbearing; I stop sending texts and that is presented to the court as evidence that I don’t care. What can I do?” The renowned psychologist, Martin Seligman, has a term for this state, learned helplessness, and it’s a horrible state to be in.   
   Even in the worst cases of parent-child alienation, however, there are still things that a Rejected Parent can keep in mind, and do, to improve the situation. Most importantly, Rejected Parents must remember that no matter how unfairly they are being treated, the bigger victims are the children.  They didn’t ask for this mess, they don’t really understand what they are doing.  It also helps to remember what adults alienated as children tell us—no matter how badly they treated the Rejected Parent, they didn’t want that parent to give up.  One man recalled: “I was drawn into a different mindset, reflexively rejecting everything my father said and did. But unconsciously I wanted him to win the battle, I knew if I won it would be wrong. And I did win. And now I wonder if I was ever worth fighting for.”
  Not giving up is the key.  Apart from legal remedies, we encourage Rejected Parents to persist—but in a calm manner devoid of drama.  Sending a birthday card without expecting a thank you.  Texting “I love you, have a good day” without demanding a response.  Sending congratulations for their report card or extracurricular success, knowing they may say “leave me alone!”   Attending their events without intruding on their experience. Providing modest gifts that say “I love you” rather than “I am trying to buy your love.”  One father, for example, asked his daughters every two weeks if they would like to accompany him to dinner. For one year they said no, and he never said more than “maybe next time.”  But on the occasion of his parents’ 50th anniversary, the older one said yes, she would like to go – and from there the rebuilding began.
  For more tips, go to to learn about Welcome Back, Pluto, the only DVD of it’s kind about parent-child alienation.