As a young teenager, I had a brush with parental alienation.
While standing at a sink washing dishes it was declared to me that one of my parents must not love me. Then I was assaulted with all the twisted evidence to prove their claim. The lack of phone calls, the apparent lack of interest, and of course the lack of child support all while I was assured that my ‘other’ parent had always provided all of those things for me. The propagator of this garbage got incensed when I asserted that I was indeed loved by both my parents, and I was shrilly asked what evidence I had to prove it. When I couldn’t provide any, I was told that my lack of any ‘real’ counterpoints merely confirmed their argument. And the debate was over. I was told again that I obvously wasn’t loved by ‘that’ parent.
I remember that night so well. Each word felt like a rock being hurled against my skin. I remember the anger that raged within me and the sadness that threatened to overcome me. I fought with all my might to hold back the tears because crying felt like defeat and I wanted more than anything to appear strong in the shadow of my perpetrator. Even twenty years later, remembering that night and writing this post, I can feel my heart beating faster and a tightness in my throat.
On that night, the alienation was not done by my biological parent but that didn’t matter. It was an adult. An adult who knew better and who’s care I had been entrusted. I was alone and they had all the power. The damage was done and that moment of our lives can never be retracted. Over the years, my hurt and anger has faded, and has been replaced by a sliding scale of disdain, pity and indifference. But trust is another matter. The trust is gone and no matter how many years pass, it eludes me. At the time I felt like I was the one being attacked, but now I know that I was merely collateral damage in an attempt to hurt and gain power over ‘that’ parent.
Yet understanding only brings me that, understanding. Everything else remains.
Sunday April 25, 2010 is Parental Alienation Awareness Day. And although there is much debate about what actually constitutes parental alienation or if the syndrome even exists, this grown child of divorce simply wants to spread this message: kids of divorce have enough on their plates without having to negotiate the impact of someone negating a parent. Chances are, they are already dealing with anger toward their parents, guilt about those feelings, shame about the characteristics they have from their other parent, and of course the stress of living through the trauma of divorce and anything else that came before and after it. They really don’t need anything else.
The other thing I’d like to inform parents, step parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and the like, is that the damage inflicted by this kind of abuse is significant and leaves very deep scars. You may be angry and you might even feel a bit better after lashing out or having your say. But for that child, whether it be for days, weeks or even years, that child will hear those words you spoke to them every time they look at you. Even long after you’ve forgotten them. Truly whatever benefit you may feel by getting things off your chest will be far outweighed by the negative impact you will have on that young person’s heart. And if you are able to force your way of thinking on that child, realize that your short sighted gain will one day be lost and a day of reckoning will come. And in those particularly heinous cases, know that it will come even harder.
I remember witnessing one day a child of divorce coming home from her non custodial visit. Her mother became displeased with her behaviour and said to me and all those around that she always acted that way when she came home from her dad’s house. The mother also added that she felt her daughter’s poor behavior was a reflection of her father and was evidence of him rubbing off on her during their time spent together. A moment later, after her daughter said something out of line, she sarcastically called her daughter by her father’s name. Her daughter crumpled into a pile of angry tears and my heart couldn’t help but break a little as the scene played out before me.
When it comes to putting down a child’s parent, the rules are simple. Don’t do it. It’s not like telling ‘yo mama’ jokes with your friends. That child is not your equal and with your power comes a great responsibility. Your words carry a sense of authority and will cut more deeply than you know. And what’s hardest of all for us kids is that we will undoubtedly see some truth in what you say, no matter how loudly we dispel it. I think the author of The Divorce Encouragist said it best when she wrote, to speak ill of your co-parent is to tell your child, “Honey, I love you. But biologically, you are 50% jackass.”
Yes, that’s exactly how it feels.