Alienation can go both ways

by Carolyn on September 22, 2009

Caution: Two way street

Caution: Two way street

I was struck by a blog post this week.  This isn’t where I was planning on going with this second installment on parental alienation syndrome (PAS), but it is completely relevant and I think it brings up some interesting issues surrounding alienation in a family post divorce.

The post is from a great blog called Single Mom Survives.  She is a saucy single mom, and I’ll warn you in advance that you will encounter various four letter words throughout her posts.  I love her writing style and sense of humor, but really there is nothing funny about this particular post.  And the comment flurry came as it does with any controversial piece that is widely read.

The debate was two fold.  One issue was regarding the validity of preschool, which I’m not going to address here.  The other was whether Single Mom was participating in PAS without realizing it.  Even while declaring that she’s not because she doesn’t say anything negative in front of her child.

Now, I believe this is possible.  I think that there is a small sect of parents who alienate with a zealousness that is difficult to comprehend; confiding maliciously in their children, launching false allegations and rewarding their children for rejecting their other parent.  But much more commonly, a subtle alienation occurs.  One that creeps in, going almost completely unnoticed until it’s effects become evident through the child.  In these cases the perpetuating parent may really believe they are not alienating because they aren’t breaking any of the divorced parent’s ‘cardinal rules’.

My heart breaks for Single Mom’s daughter.  Her poor little girl is now saying that she doesn’t even want to go to her dad’s house.  She’s crying and getting sick when she knows she has to go or is there.  Physical manifestations of stress in a four year old child.  No child should be subjected to that.  I’m sure everyone who loves her wishes they could wrap her in their arms and make it all go away.  But they can’t.  This is her life now as a child of divorce.

There can be no mistake that PAS is at work here.  And commenters were telling Single Mom that despite her belief that she’s never out of line in front of her child, children can perceive the faintest hint of animosity.  And I know from experience that this is true.  Just as I illustrated in my last post, refraining from saying negative things alone does not hold alienation at bay.

But alienation can work two ways.  It’s not just something that one parent can do to another.  It’s something that parents can do to themselves as well.  As explained so effectively in a paper called “Making Sense of Parental Alienation”, Dr. Willie McCarney wrote:

In some cases, a parent may alienate themselves from a child by withdrawing from their lives, trying to discredit the other parent or by engaging in harmful, abusive or destructive behavior.

When a parent does not take responsibility for their part, children may choose to distance themselves. Expert intervention is needed to work through these issues with the parent, helping them to see how they contributed to the alienation instead of piling all the blame on their partner.

From reading the history (granted, from one side only), I think it’s very possible that this is what’s going on here.  A non custodial parent alienating themseves as opposed to the custodial parent being the one to blame.

But what can be done?  Should the little one be forced to see her dad even though she doesn’t want to?  Should it be viewed like going to school?  We don’t let kids who wine and fuss saying they don’t want to go to school that day stay home, do we?  If forced to go, can it be hoped that the relationship with her dad will eventually improve?

I wrote my comment.  I encouraged her to continue in supporting her daughter’s relationship with her father.  Wrote that her daughter would benefit if she stayed steadfast in that.  Explained that her efforts wouldn’t just be helping her ex, but significantly help her daughter too.  I’ve been doubting myself ever since I hit the ‘comment’ button.

Should this little innocent girl be forced?  Crying and throwing up be damned?  Is the potential payoff really worth it?

What if there’s no payoff at all?  What if she’s forced and her mom keeps trying, and he never steps up to the plate himself?  What happens when she grows into an adult?  Who is to take over the prodding then?  What if everyone is tired and done with encouraging him, and he simply fades into the background of her life?  What will the benefit be then…for anyone?

I never suffered like this little girl is suffering.  I was always excited and looked forward to visiting my dad.  But I’ve also been estranged from my father for over six months now.  And I can’t help but wonder if this girl ends up with the same future as me, what will she have gained to counter all her suffering?  I simply don’t know.

Standing where I stand right now, I don’t regret ever having a relationship with my dad.  Not just for the times we had together but because of all the relationships I gained through him.  Cherished bonds with siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins.  I wouldn’t trade those for the world.

But I always wanted to go….

Coming Soon: Part III – the spectrum of PAS

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Walking Queen September 23, 2009 at 2:13 am

I personally always HATED going and would experience stress, but my mom made me go. And I’ve been angry about it all these years. Talk about alienation-a child knows as a young child that they don’t really belong somewhere.

Children in these situations are screwed. We are screwed when our daddies start new families and we are alienated, much in the case of single mom’s. We are screwed because we pick up on mom’s hurt and anger and we internalize it that there is something wrong with us. Poor kids.

This is EXACTLY why I am scared to death of having children. I am hitting my mid thirties and I still can’t move past the fact that I NEVER want something like this to happen to my children, because it happened to me and I still carry it around with me until this day.
.-= Walking Queen´s last blog ..Book Giveaways =-.

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2 Carolyn September 23, 2009 at 10:13 pm

I’m so sorry you had to go through that. That was my point here. That sometimes parents alienate themselves by withdrawing from their own children. It’s easy to point the finger at the other parent and think it’s all on them, but everyone needs to own their part. Thanks for sharing Walking Queen.

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3 Theta Mom September 23, 2009 at 6:47 am

I can’t even imagine what it must be like for that little girl. You mentioned you always looked forward to the visits, so this was not an issue for you, but not every child feels that way. I can see why this is not easy …for both child and the parent!!!
.-= Theta Mom´s last blog ..Goodnight Mommy =-.

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4 Carolyn September 23, 2009 at 10:14 pm

It is an unimaginably difficult situation when it occurs.

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5 hayley September 23, 2009 at 8:01 am

Whoa. I’m in shivers as I read this because Jake often says he doesn’t want to go to his dad’s. It’s a combination of reasons, I think. One, transition is hard. He doesn’t want to leave us… his sister… Another reason. Wii. I know that sounds silly, but to a five year old boy, it’s important! I say to Jake, not everyone in life has Wii, and there are a million other things you can play with at your dad’s.

To answer your first question. Should the child be forced to go? I know this sounds harsh, but yes. Our co-parenting counselor told us this when Jake was 3. That he doesn’t dictate the schedule, and his relationship with his father … well, obviously, it’s extremely important.

Divorce is a hard situation for everyone, even in the best of circumstances. If nothing else, the mother’s insistence for the child to have a relationship with the dad will show the parents’ unity — even if they’re not at all on the same page.

This is such a multi-faceted great, yet, hard topic. I think I’ll write a post on it…
.-= hayley´s last blog ..You Have Straight Hair, Your Brother Has Curly Hair =-.

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6 Carolyn September 23, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Thanks for your comment, Hayley. I always felt the same way as you but the more I think about it, the less sure I am. I’m not sure if force feeding a relationship to a child is the answer. And yet I also believe that when a parent is willing, they should be allowed to have time with their child.

“If nothing else, the mother’s insistence for the child to have a relationship with the dad will show the parents’ unity — even if they’re not at all on the same page.”

I think this might be the key here. If both parents are united in their desire to be with and better their child, that is one thing. But from this and previous posts it seems he isn’t really united with Single Mom on that front.

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7 Melissa Multitasking Mama September 23, 2009 at 9:45 am

Stopping by from SITS…I just watched my BFF’s kids last night (they are 1, 4, 5, 9) She is going through a nasty divorce right now and I got to see first hand that the ones truly suffering from it are the kids. Separation anxiety that didn’t exist before, regression, potty accidents, you name it, these kids are showing symptoms of a life that has been turned upside down.
This PAS is something I wasn’t familiar with (or at least didn’t know there was a term for) and I am going to forward your link to my friend in the hopes that she can avoid it.
.-= Melissa Multitasking Mama´s last blog ..Wordless Wednesday- I wish… =-.

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8 Carolyn September 23, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Thanks Melissa!

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9 samantha September 23, 2009 at 9:57 am

thanks for the kind comment, yes it was my first week back from maternity as well. nice to just get ready in the morning and go somewhere…missing my little one so much tho. have a great day!

~samantha
.-= samantha´s last blog ..mini cupcakes =-.

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10 Carolyn September 23, 2009 at 10:19 pm

Thanks Samantha. Good luck with the transition!

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11 Chris R September 23, 2009 at 2:42 pm

My mother used to have to call my father the day before each of our planned semi annual weekends and explain vomiting and 102 degree fevers. He always thought it was BS.

Facinating insight, thanks Carolyn!

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12 Carolyn September 23, 2009 at 10:19 pm

Thank you Chris. Thanks for commenting!

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13 Kelly September 23, 2009 at 3:33 pm

I really feel sorry for the child in this situation. Putting myself in the mom’s shoes, I really don’t know if I could force my child to go to dad’s house. We’re only getting one side of the story, but he really doesn’t seem like the most loving father in the world. I’m sure the child senses it and that why she dreads going.
.-= Kelly´s last blog ..Let’s talk about sex, baby =-.

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14 Carolyn September 23, 2009 at 10:20 pm

That’s exactly how I was starting to feel. Thanks Kelly.

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15 Fi September 23, 2009 at 9:22 pm

I hope you’ll go easy on Singlemomsurvives. I know, and she knows, that you didn’t mean for this blog post to come off the wrong way. And it’s hard to adapt to the fact that blogging about real, raw emotions exposes us to criticism that spans a wide spectrum of harmless to heinous.

I think your post clearly falls within the “harmless” and “well-meaning” side of that spectrum, but I can also see how it looks as if you’re intimating she needs to somehow work harder to battle the effects of PAS. In my humble (and inexpert) opinion, it seems as if she’s already practically killing herself trying to do that. So, I hope that when you hash this out with her, you’ll be sensitive toward that fact!

Anyway, thank you for your input on this (clearly!) controversial topic, which certainly deserves plenty of discussion.

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16 Carolyn September 23, 2009 at 10:24 pm

Thanks for the comment, Fi. There is certainly no bad feelings on my part for Singlemomsurvives. I wasn’t expecting her to be so unhappy with the post. I agree that she has bent over backwards to try to get her ex to participate. That was the central point to my post here. Should she continue to kill herself this way? Because one day her daughter will grow up and she won’t need or have the platform to do that anymore. What if he doesn’t change? It just seems like he’ll fall of the radar completely without someone enabling his relationship for him (I think this is atrocious). And if that happens, what will all of Single Mom’s hard work have been for? What will all the tears from her daughter have been worth?

That was the question I was asking. I just wish she had been able to see that.

Thank you for your comment and for understanding.

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17 Kela September 25, 2009 at 6:38 pm

I can truly relate to this post because my son went through the same thing when he was younger. Our situation is different because my ex has lived out of the country since I was pregnant with our son. As a result, he has only had no more than 6 weeks each summer to try and form a bond with him and it hasn’t happened, yet. Not to mention that even when he is in town he is often busy with other friends or family that don’t get to see him throughout the year and/or running a basketball clinic because he is a basketball player. He NEVER made our son a priority and therefore alienated himself from him. As such, there were MANY times that my son went for visitation with his father literally kicking and screaming! It was painful to watch and in the end, my ex always ended up bringing him back. I guess I’m lucky because although my ex is selfish is a lot of ways, I can tell that he does want what’s best for our son. As such, we talked and talked and talked and talked about how we could gradually move toward extended stay visitations. His wife played the biggest role in making my son feel more comfortable, too. Now we have another problem; our son wants to go over all the time, but only when my ex is out of the country (his wife stays in the states during the year). We’re still working on that one, but at least my ex is willing to listen to solutions to fix the problem and sometimes follows through with my suggestions to bring them closer – like spending time with him and trying to get to know him.

Overall, I don’t think any child should be forced, kicking and screaming, to go to another parent’s house. It’s an indication that there is a problem and that problem should be addressed before just following through with the visitation arrangement. Visitation arrangements should be flexible and able to be modified when these types of situations arise.

Thanks for such an insightful post!

Warmly,

*Kela*

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18 Carolyn September 27, 2009 at 10:14 pm

And thank you for such an insightful comment. It’s always so nice to learn through other’s experiences. I thank you for sharing yours.

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19 Robyn September 30, 2009 at 12:19 am

My father was alienated alot of times from me. He was always on trips because his career was his first priority. My grandfather (his father) was the one I was especially close to.

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20 Carolyn September 30, 2009 at 10:17 pm

So you would say your grandfather was more of a father figure to you than your dad?

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21 Robyn October 5, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Yes, my grandfather sent birthday cards and was there at all my birthday parties/christmases etc. I think he knew his son wouldn’t be into that sorta thing because my father’s first priority was his job. I would visit my father sometimes on holidays and weekends but most of the time spent at their house was with my stepmother and my half brother that they had together.

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22 Katie January 16, 2010 at 11:03 am

My daughter who is almost 13 – has been seeing her father on and off since she was 2. From the ages of 9,10 and 11 he was busy getting divorced, dating, traveling etc….and did not make time for her. A year ago after he married again he decided it was time for him to have the everyother weekend schedule that he is entitled to. My daughter was no thrilled with the idea because she was used to doing her own thing. Is it right to force a child to see their father when their father basicly abandoned them. He has never been to her schools, he rarely attends extra-curricular events, he calls her rarely etc….. I think he has alienated himself from her, while he claims I have alientated her from him. She has stated clearly how she feels to him, counselors, lawyers etc…. She does not want to go on a regular basis. What do I do? Her father refuses to listen to her feelings, wants, needs and desires and she is miserable. We are in counseling?????? HELP

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23 Carolyn January 23, 2010 at 12:41 pm

Katie, what a difficult situation you are faced with. Although your daughter is 13 and fully capable of expressing her feelings, she’s still a child and not capable of really understanding all of the consequences of her decisions. And because of that, the weight of this issue lies solely with her father and you. Of course she is entitled to an opinion and her feelings without anyone trying to tell her that her feelings are wrong or improper, but as her parents you need to take this out of her hands. At fifteen I was given the responsibility of deciding the relationship with one of my parents and all of the consequences that stemmed from that decision quite literally crushed both me and my spirit.

So with that being said, there are really two school of thoughts. The one you discussed that tends to the facts. Facts like he has not been a present father. That he has not prioritized his relationship with his daughter as he should have. That he has not made what is important in her life, important to him. Those are things he can’t go back and change. And they are things that he is paying and will continue pay a price for. He will never get that time with your daughter back, he may never fully earn her trust again and he may never be able to create a strong bond with her. That’s the inescapable cost of abandonment. The price that you and your daughter get to levy is whether that action forfeits any chance for him to repair things.

The other school of thought is the one that says that he is her father and even if he hasn’t been a good father to her yet, he will always deserve the chance to be one. And that only through the time spent together every other weekend will he be able to truly forge a relationship with her. If their relationship is going to have any chance of succeeding, they’re going to have to have that time. Even if at first it is forced and awkward.

I think it’s really good that you are both in counseling. I hope you are seeing someone who either specializes or has dealt many divorced families. Your counselor will be able to guide you much better than I can, but based on the info you’ve given and my own experiences I’ll give you my thoughts.

Her dad acted like a shmuck. No doubt about it. Any parent who sacrifices a relationship with their child based simply on their own ‘stuff’ is a shmuck. But supporting him in trying to rebuild something with your daughter doesn’t mean that you are forgetting what a shmuck he was, or even forgiving him for it. Supporting that relationship would be an attempt at giving your daughter a gift. Because there’s something very special about the bond between a daughter and her father. It’s a relationship that can’t be fulfilled anywhere else. She may never accept it, she may never take your gift. But at least you can say to yourself and to her for the rest of her life that you offered it. The worst thing for you would be 20 years from now, explaining why you supported her in putting ‘her own thing’ ahead of such an important relationship. She’s 13. She can’t be expected to appropriately prioritize her wants and needs. But you are the adult and you are expected to do just that. No parent likes making their child miserable, but you are the threshold of her adolescence, so you’ve got a good handful of years ahead of doing just that. ;) (which also reminds me that if somehow he can forge a bond with her, it may prevent her from looking to boys her age sexually for male validation as many teenage girls with absent fathers do)

I know your fear. It’s the same as hers and something that I’ve felt before too. What if he leaves again? Why invest time, energy and worst of all love into a relationship that he may walk away from just as he’s done before? But the truth is that life offers no guarantees for any of us. Life and relationships are organic and ever changing. If he makes her grieve the loss of him again, chances are the ensuing damage will be irreparable. I’m a parent too, and I know the thought of putting a child at risk for pain goes against all your protective instincts. You decision will lie with whether the benefits of her having a relationship with him outweighs the risk of her getting hurt.

I wish you and your daughter all the best Katie. Thank you for sharing and for asking my opinion. If you want to talk more, feel free to email me.

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24 Kim February 24, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Wow, Carolyn. You nailed it. I just found your blog and I realize I’m way late to the conversation about this post, but here’s two cents . . .

“(which also reminds me that if somehow he can forge a bond with her, it may prevent her from looking to boys her age sexually for male validation as many teenage girls with absent fathers do)”

Been there, done that . . . way, way, way too young. As a child of divorce at the age of 14, there was plenty to process. I’m in total agreement, what teenager ever thinks that family stuff is important. Friends and doing stuff are important. But, look back at it 35 years later, and it was plenty important. Vital. The root of all the relationships with men and even girlfriends. I spent 30 years finding friends who needed to be taken care of. Not so coincidentally, I am now “cured” of that and it’s happening right along with being in a healthy adult remarriage where forgiveness happens on a daily basis. My thoughts are far too many to put out here. But . . . a couple of relevant ones.

What about dialogue with children of divorce, by the parents with their offspring, that is heavily weighted toward discussing grief, normal reactions to divorce, how the parent is feeling but what they intend for themselves and their child? That would be open and honest and sound something like this . . . “Sweetie, I know you are confused and so am I. I had no idea when your dad and I got divorced that our lives would be so hard and unpredictable and difficult to walk the emotional road that we have to walk. But, know what, I hold in my heart that each one of us is important. You are important and we love you. We want you to be happy and your future happiness is related to how well you know each of your parents and how well we can all talk together and process our feelings. I want you to know your father and spend time with him because even though he and I do not agree about things and even though we decided to not live together any more, I did fall in love with him at one point in time and we had a family with you. It is so important to me that you know how much he loves you. You do not have to love him in a certain way. And, you do not have to defend me or not like him because you know that I don’t want to be with him any more. You can choose, but I need you to get to know him for yourself, separate from me. I will take care of myself and my emotions. I am an adult and that is my job. As you have questions, we can talk. If there is anything uncomfortable, let’s make an agreement that we will figure out a way to do things differently. How does that sound?”

With my own mom, I really wanted to know what was in her heart. I tried over and over and over during my high school years, but she would never talk about it. I always wanted that level of conversation, but it was never offered. It could be a gift for a kid to hear that someone feels okay talking openly like that. The amount of grief that is NOT dealt with in divorce situations is staggering. In my remarriage, I feel the grief bouncing off the walls. And, I’m the last person they want to talk to about anything. So, I hold vigil and honor that’s where they are. I know of no other way to respect and support, except to bear witness to what a tough time it is.

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25 Carolyn February 24, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Thanks for your comment, Kim! It’s never too late to join the conversation! I agree wholeheartedly with allowing children of divorce to give voice to their true feelings, whatever they may be. And divorced parents *need* to understand that those conversations need to be started by them. Their children need their support in sharing those sentiments, and they need to be prepared and comfortable with the fact that they won’t always be pretty. Children of divorce (as I did) all too often work very hard on putting the veneer on that says to everyone ‘hey, I’m doing just fine’ instead of recognizing, feeling and voicing what they really think and feel. They are too scared to upset their parents or make them feel more guilty and I think divorced parents are too complacent in accepting that veneer for fear of seeing what really exists beneath it. It’s cowardly. They allow their children to suffer and sacrifice themselves so that they won’t have to feel the weight of it.

Your dialogue for a divorced parent is beautiful. And for a teenager, starting that conversation and essentially saying ‘hey, I want to know what’s going on with you and I can take whatever you’ve got inside’ is one of the biggest gifts you can give.

Well said, Kim. Thank you again!

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26 Kim February 24, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Thanks, Carolyn. What I’m appreciative of is that you are coming at this whole subject without rage and vitriole. At some point, after any kid who has a tough childhood grows up, it’s up to him or her to make the best of it and heal those emotional scars that are left from the growing time. It’s no fun, it’s not pretty, it’s hard work, and it is one of the most life-giving processes if one can come out on the other side. So, bravo to you for not falling into the victim trap. For myself, I finally got tired of being angry and upset and anxious and depressed all the time. I realized I had “inherited” those tendencies from the behavior patterns all around me in my growing up years. It was up to me to learn and grow and become who I wanted to be. The world is much, much brighter without that legacy.

And, you said it well, it’s painful for parents to witness their child’s discomfort, it’s painful for them to open the wounds of guilt and understand that something they did has caused this child to be in this situation. Now that I think of it, that’s likely why my mother didn’t go into details.

Glad to be in the conversation and brainstorming ways to find peace.
.-= Kim´s last blog ..A Tribute to Doris and Roger =-.

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27 Carolyn February 26, 2010 at 9:53 am

Thank you Kim, and welcome. I think the dialogue is what will move us all ahead. Those of us who are dealing with our histories and those of us who are creating histories today.

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28 Kim February 26, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Exactly, it’s like looking inside the trunk that was stored in the attic. You take out all those carefully stowed away treasures and listening to the stories that are told about them and deciding if that story really fits now, if it was embellished in the moment to protect someone, or if it’s one that even belongs in the trunk. Once that is done, you can retell the story in a more appropriate way so that the legacy we hand on to our kids (and I’m looking at your photo of you and your little one, so very sweet, we’re doing this for her!!) will be one that is rich and full of the freedom that comes from just telling the story. We can leave off with judgment and critique and be able to say . . . your great-great grandma got tired of living in that sod hut in Nebraska in the early 1900′s and she got on the next train with her children and never went back (or . . . fill in the blanks with your own family story).

It’s all about shifting legacies. I’m very aware that even though I’m not a biological mother, I am still passing down a legacy of how my family behaved in the good times, the bad times, the stressed times. I’ve had to watch myself when I want to go into my silence and pouting phases. I do not want to pass on that legacy to my s-kids. To anyone.

Oh, good conversations . . .
.-= Kim´s last blog ..A Healthy Stepmother . . . learns about her center. =-.

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29 Amy February 5, 2011 at 9:04 pm

I have just discovered your blog. I, too am an adult child of divorce. My parents were separated before I was two. My mom had custody and my father had visits. I had to go with him every other weekend until I was 15. I was miserable. I would physically get sick every time. I hated going. It wasn’t that he was mean to me, but things were just so different, and uncomfortable. He got remarried several different times, which of course added various step moms and step siblings along the way. I always felt out of place, and longed for Sunday evenings, when he would take me back home.
I’m glad to have found your blog and will continue to follow!

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