I work with so many parents who are attempting to co-parent (I use that term loosely as the reality is that it is about as far away from “co” as you can get) with an ex who wants to punish and erase them. One thing that comes up time and time again is “how do I parent them?”. The whole process has robbed you of your real parenting role. You have been, at best, demoted to the safeguarder of your children but at worst you are now nothing more than the person your children view as the enemy and who they are “forced to see”.
Parenting, whilst being hard work, should be fun and full of shared moments, love and laughter. It’s the day to day stuff, being involved in their lives and knowing who they are – that’s what being a parent is all about. When you are dealing with alienation, those moments are few and far between and so you aren’t really sure where you stand as a “parent” any more.
Why it is so
Targeted parents are continually having their time and relationship meddled with and subverted by the alienating parent, which can make it hard to parent at all. Visits are cancelled at the last moment, plans are changed and the alienating parent (AP) bribes the children with gifts or unique opportunities just as they are supposed to be going to the TP.
Children are also used by the AP to create anxiety and conflict for the TP. They will send the child back to the TP with lots of accusations which the TP has to navigate. Children should never be involved in adult issues because they internalise the situation far too much. Being asked to choose where they want to live or what they want to do means they have to reject and hurt the other parent, which they internalise and feel shame and guilt. Even if they don’t show it, it will rear its head in self-sabotaging and harmful behaviours..
Alienated children are not always the easiest to parent due to some of the learnt and induced behaviour they exhibit. They can like they believe they are superior to you, treat you like you are an idiot, insult you to your face and be outright disrespectful. When you try to instil boundaries or use discipline, they of course claim you are being abusive and go running back to the alienating parent to share their tales of your disgusting treatment of them, which the AP loves and rewards them for.
What makes it doubly hard is when you have a great time and you see the “real” them, having fun, sharing cuddles and allowing themselves to be loved by you. Although at that moment this is wonderful, a few hours later when the AP calls to say they don’t want to see you or the social worker report states the children have no good memories of you it feels like a tremendous punch to your heart. At this point, you feel the pain of their abuse and for a parent, that is probably one of the worst things you can experience.
The most obvious difficulty though is when you don’t see them any more. When the alienation is so severe that they appear to reject you themselves.
How Do I Parent Through This?
Firstly, deal with your own emotions around the grief and loss, sadness and anger you are feeling. Under normal circumstances, we parent better when we are at our best (not that we can be that all the time, but it is the “norm” we aim for). When we feel sad and angry, it’s harder to be fun and lighthearted and in the moment. Although we may be able to “fake it” for a while, children are like little sponges and they feel our energy. So they respond to us where we are whether we like it or not. You know this is true because of those times when you have felt stressed after work and come home, tried to pull yourself out of it and sure enough the kids start acting up! They responded to your energy. So being more aware and in control of your emotions can help you to deal with the turbulent nature of parenting an alienated child.
I recommend looking at positive parenting courses or activities which encourage you to engage your children in the disciplinary process at home. This can be reward charts, behaviour contracts or family rules. These methods serve to bypass the “controlling” narrative being spouted by the AP by asking the children to be a part of the process. They also promote respect for everyone. Your child has been taught to be disrespectful so it is important to counteract that by teaching them to be respectful and to model respectful behaviour. It also teaches them about consequences for their actions and being responsible for their behaviour which in turn can, on a subconscious level, help them to begin to process and unpick the manipulation. Finally they teach them an appropriate level of independence and self-regulation. An AP does not want them to be independent because they need to be able to control them and they demand their children to regulate THEM (the AP). These activities will again, gently unpick at those false narratives and the psychological manipulation.
It is important to remember that your child is a victim too. They are akin to a soldier in war. They didn’t start the war and aren’t really sure why they have to fight, they just do as the authority tells them to do with a subtle threat to comply. Always listen to what your child is REALLY wanting from you. An accusation could be a cry for reassurance for example.
Finally, consider redefining what the term “parent” means. It has lots of different connotations. A parent is biological at the very basic level. It can also mean caregiver. What about unconditional love giver? Guardian? Constant supportive influence? When I lost my dad, he didn’t stop being my parent. Whilst I appreciate a lot of what you hoped being a parent would be has changed dramatically, there is also so much that hasn’t, and never can change. Take some time to really focus on those things. It doesn’t take away the pain but it does create a sense of connectedness that no matter what your ex does, they can never destroy.
I hope that these suggestions help you in some way. I am under no illusion that this is living grief for so many of you but I always offer hope that you can find moments of peace and maybe as you string those moments together for longer, life begins to find new meaning.
Do take care and reach out if you need support.
NB: I am aware that parental alienation can be perpetrated by and to step-parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, new partners and others but for the purpose of this post, I have assumed the TP and AP are the biological parents.