Many clients come to see me with family problems and this particular one is unfortunately a widespread problem, This post looks at the reasons for it.
Oscar Wilde once warned that children begin their lives loving their parents, then grow up to judge them. If so, surely there is no harsher judgment of a parent than to be deliberately cut out of a child’s life for ever. Parental estrangement by adult children is a national epidemic, and it’s not always the parent’s fault.
Psychologist Dr Ludwig Lowenstein believes this generation have been empowered to judge their parents. He hears from up to six parents a day, a third of them women, asking advice because they fear estrangement from their children.
There are no official statistics to show that the problem is increasing. But numerous leading psychologists claim it is, and online chatter suggests it is.
We know loneliness in old age is a terrible problem, with as many as one in ten of our elderly (over-65s) left without any form of family contact for weeks on end. This may not be evidence of sudden estrangement, but it is proof the ties that bind families together are no longer holding fast.
For decades, therapists have been interested only in the pain parents cause children when the relationship breaks down. Now a few are beginning to focus on the suffering parents endure.
David, 28, blames his parents for his low self-esteem, which he feels is at the root of his alcoholism.
‘Mum and Dad are always complaining I haven’t done well enough after all the chances given to me,’ he says, showing me a photo of himself graduating from Oxford.
The Londoner, recently married, who works in advertising, says: ‘My mum used to leave messages on my phone with helpful career suggestions, the implication being things weren’t working out as well as she’d expected for me career-wise. She was always making “helpful”, derogatory remarks about my hairstyle, my clothes or my flat… it just wore me down.
‘Then, when they thought my wife wasn’t good enough for me, I exploded. I’d had enough. They make me unhappy, and it is my right to protect myself and that means keeping them away.’
‘My daughter has told my grandchild I am dead. I cannot tell you what that does to me’
David has talked to his therapist about his parents. But he has never been able to talk directly to them about why he has shut them out of his life. Perhaps their crime was to want too much for and from him. Their punishment is to have nothing of him at all.
Christine Northam, a counsellor for Relate, says parenting today can be harder than it has ever been.
‘Mutual respect has to be at the heart of this,’ she says. ‘They need to be sure they relate to their children on an adult-to-adult basis. The generation now in their 20s are likely to be more free-thinking and independent. Parents have to move with the times.’
Relate offers family counselling which Christine says can prevent the risk of estrangement. ‘Open communication is the key to good relationships in life,’ she says.
No one understands this better than Sarah Rafferty, from Yorkshire, who hasn’t seen or spoken to her eldest daughter Rachel, 27, for six years. She still cries herself to sleep at night because of the rejection, particularly as she has never seen her only grandchild.
‘When she had her baby, that was the hardest time — I cried all night,’ Sarah says. ‘All I have ever wanted is to be a mother and grandmother, and she has denied me that. I think she takes pleasure in that. I cannot imagine we will ever be reconciled — there is too much hurt on both sides.
‘The most awful thing is I have been told by a friend that Rachel has told her daughter I am dead. I cannot tell you what that does to me. I tried all my life to be the perfect mother.’
As a child, I was taught by an inspirational music teacher who never saw her daughter. We, her pupils, used to feverishly imagine what crime she must have committed.
When, as an adult, I received a letter from her telling me of their reconciliation, I felt shame for my childish imaginings. My former teacher had never been guilty of anything. Her letters had finally melted her daughter’s heart.
Jane Stewart, 49, from Kent, understands how precious — and precarious — a mother-daughter relationship can be. Twice-married Jane, who works in PR, first fell out with her rebellious teenage daughter Laura when she was 14.
‘There was the normal teenage rebel behaviour, with shouting and door slamming,’ Jane says. ‘Then my marriage to her stepfather ended. I remember shouting at her: “But it’s what you wanted!”
‘I needed her to help around the house and a lot of our arguments centred on her lack of help. I suppose I hoped she would be around for me more now I was on my own.
‘I’d lie awake in bed, desperately needing to sleep, wondering where she was, only to hear the door bang at 4am.’
The arguments continued and Laura finally walked out for good in the middle of her A-levels. ‘We had an almighty row about her not helping — I remember her scrabbling around in the loft looking for a suitcase while I shouted: “Get lost! You’re not coming back!” She moved in with her boyfriend, who was ten years older than her.’
But a year later, they were reconciled.
‘I did think at one point I might lose her for ever, which would have broken my heart,’ Jane says.
When Oscar Wilde used his wit to warn that children end up judging their parents, he used his wisdom to say something else, too. He counselled that some of the children who judge their parents might, also, learn to forgive them.
Let’s hope that our children will remember those words and look back with compassion and not anger when they come to cast their verdicts on us.
Otherwise, as the ties that bind us unravel, we could grow old as our children grow up and find ourselves joining the growing ranks of the unloved, unvisited and estranged.
- mental illness, addiction, or personality disorder on the part of the adult child
- parent is in a lower economic station than the child, and the child is embarrassed
- Stockholm Syndrome, in which the child has been basically brainwashed to side with another party (usually the other parent)
- child rejects parent as a survival mechanism because the rejected parent, while devastated, will not make their life as miserable as the other parent or spouse does (there are studies that show that children who alienate one parent often choose the LESS abusive parent)
- entitlement or similar behavior on the child’s part when the parent refuses a request (may be encouraged by previous overly indulgent parenting or may simply be accepted behavior among Millennials)
- child has different memories of being parented but lacks the communication or emotional skills to discuss it openly with the rejected parent (may be due to events the rejected parent doesn’t even know about).
Karen Woodall wrote:
One of the most painful experiences for targeted parents is when the alienation process begins to escalate and children begin to become difficult, challenging and sometimes downright obnoxious.
We may not be familiar with the child who is overly empowered within what is called a ‘fused dyad’ with the other parent and so when that behaviour appears it can seem almost as if your child has turned into someone else. Some parents liken it to their child being possessed, others worry that their child is mentally unwell. Understanding what has happened and why is a very important step to learning how to deal with it.
In an alienation scenario, when one parent is angry or holds unresolved frustrations or is quite simply determined to drive the other out of a child’s life, it is often the case that the child will be elevated to a position of power within the fractured family system. This position of power, is often equal to that of the parent who is angry, who upholds the child’s ‘right’ to do as he or she pleases. Parents who are in this position will often speak about their children being ‘more emotionally aware’ than they are and will tell you and others that they are only being guided by their children because if their children say something is wrong then that must be the truth. This is a very dangerous position for a child, who should not be wielding decision-making power at the top of what is called the ‘attachment hierarchy.’ To be in control of the broken family system in this way is, in fact, extremely damaging to children over time.
A healthy attachment hierarchy is when two parents, in relationship together, share the decision-making and guiding power that runs a well-functioning family. Contained within this hierarchy, children know that their parents are in charge and that they, as children, do not need to do anything other than concentrate on their own developing selves. When families separate however, the sharing of the decision-making and guiding power often breaks down, creating a space in which the children themselves become elevated to the top of the hierarchy, often sharing power and decision-making with the parent they now live with on a daily basis. The other parent in this scenario is pushed to the outer margins of the family system and quite often begins to be viewed by the parent and child as being unnecessary in daily life.
Children who are at the top of the broken family hierarchy are placed in a position of risk. Children should not hold the same level of decision-making power as a parent, the role of a parent is to be the guide and decision maker in a child’s life, gradually handing over the reins to the developing young adult. When children are taken by a parent into a fused dyad in this way, they are often what is called ‘spousified’ which simply means that they have replaced the role of spouse in the parent’s life or they are ‘parentified’ which means that they are taking care of the emotional needs of a parent and not the other way around. Both of these corrupted roles within a family system are damaging to children and are signs that the attachment hierarchy is broken and harmful to the child involved. When a child is in one of these positions, they can very quickly become extremely difficult to handle when with the other parent as they refuse to recognise that parent’s validity in their lives and actively fight them for the decision-making power.
A child in this position will often –
Use sarcastic statements when with you.
Try to undermine everything that you say.
Refuse to come with you when you turn up to collect them.
Act aggressively towards you and your family
Sneer at you and call you names
Act as if you are somehow ‘less than’ they are
Tell you that you are no good, that you don’t do anything right
Demand to be taken home to their ‘real’ parent
Blow hot and cold, they may drop their defiance for a while only to pick it up again when its time to leave
Make false allegations against you
Remain silent in your company
There are many other behaviours that children who are elevated to this position will use, the main thing that targeted parents must be aware of is that when they begin to act like this, the alienation process is well underway.
The end game in an alienation process is when the children simply refuse to make the transition to you. This is often the result of a ‘trigger’ event which enables the child to justify complete withdrawal. A trigger event can be engineered by a child who is in this elevated position and many children will push continuously to try to create this just so that they can ‘decide’ to completely withdraw. It is important to remember at all times, however, that trigger events, just like the behaviours that the child is displaying are unconsciously driven by the child who is using the only coping mechanism available to them. Children in these circumstances are extraordinarily vulnerable, they are hurting inside, they are psychologically harmed and they are doing whatever they can to survive. All targeted parents MUST, at all times, keep in mind that their children would not behave like this if the pressure upon them did not force them to do so. With that in mind, target parents can assist their children to avoid the trigger event by following these golden rules.
When a child is in an elevated position of power and is displaying the symptoms above you must:
Not try to reason with them, they are not in a position to listen
Not try to use logic, there is nothing logical about what is happening to them
Remain patient, calm and collected, do not become angry and feed their self-righteousness, it only pushes you into the trap set for you by the other parent.
Develop a thick skin, your child is in a vulnerable psychological state, you can help if you let their commentary about you flow by you without reacting.
Be firm as much as you possibly can but avoid scenes which could become the trigger event your child is unconsciously seeking. Remember, they want you to confirm for them why you are the bad person they have been told you are. You must avoid that at all costs.
The most powerful tool in your toolbox is empathy
Children in this vulnerable position want you to confirm for them their desire to reject you. Their desire to reject you is born of trying to cope with the terrible pressure placed upon them by the anger and unresolved frustration and the conscious or unconscious determination of the other parent to evict you. If you fall into the trap of confirming for your children why they should reject you by, for example, being drawn into arguments, by shouting at them, by becoming angry at their unreasonable behaviour or other such scenarios, you will unwittingly give them the justification they are seeking to withdraw.
Empathic understanding and the ability to emphatically respond to their behaviour will protect them and you from arriving at that trigger point.
Empathy is the ability to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ to step into their world and see things from their perspective. To walk a mile in your children’s shoes when they are in this position is the most powerful thing that you can do, for yourself and for them.
Children do not want to reject their parents, it’s not in their nature to say I choose this one or that one. Children who reject are in a vulnerable place and if you are the target parent your role from now on is to understand, as much as possible, the pressures placed upon your child. When you do understand that, from your child’s perspective, you are in the place where you can really start work on interrupting what is happening.
Remember, empathy, it’s not about your experience it’s about theirs. It’s not about what is happening in your world, it’s about what is happening in theirs. It’s not about you feeling good, it’s about making them feel good.
You are not powerless as a targeted parent. When you have walked a mile in your children’s shoes you are ready to begin the process of using empathic responding to disarm your child and change their perspective. When you do this you actively interrupt the messages they have been given about you. When you interrupt those messages, you are acting against alienation. Equipped with the right knowledge and the right tools you can make a difference to what is happening to your child. Not all will agree with this resolution and many find their own way of dealing with the situation. All parents can do it try, but parent and child both need to contribute to solving these matters.