Getting through the holidays, and perhaps life, under the plague of alienation
By Linda J. Gottlieb, LMFT, LCSW-R
First and foremost: BE Proactive
This time of year, tends to be the most painful and difficult—save, of course, for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and yours and your kids’ birthdays. But there are things that you can do to make the hopeful holiday message work for you or at least work better for you.
Although you have been unjustifiably maltreated and rejected by your ex and by your kids, you must nonetheless recognize that you have a right to expect others to treat you with consideration, dignity, and decency. And you have an obligation to yourself to nurture your own self-respect. My emphasis here is on the significance of how you treat yourself and perceive yourself to be. I think the fundamental message I want to convey to you is that you must not internalize the brainwashed, denigrating messages you have repeatedly heard from your ex and from your kids. As Steve Miller, MD often counsels, “Do not allow your ex to rent space in your head.” If you internalize the denigrations, it will then affect how you act—which will not serve you well. Do not allow your ex and your kids to make you doubt yourself. There is nothing you did, could have done, or are doing now that justifies your child’s rejection and maltreatment of you. The cause of the rejection was the handiwork of the alienator, who is a con artist and grand manipulator. Alienators project all blame and responsibility onto the other—which is what they have done to you.
You need to recast your role from one who has received abuse and maltreatment to one who requires respect and consideration.
Reject the negative, alienating messages about you and tell yourself that you are loveable, desirable, and coveted. Surround yourself with others who send you positive messages about yourself.
Now, of course, your loving family, friends, and others with whom you have an intimate relationship, may not understand what alienation is and what you are going through. They may therefore not know how to be helpful to. There are two main reasons for this:
Firstly, they, like many professionals, may have been fooled by the numerous counterintuitive issues occurring in alienation cases—counterintuitive issues that you have heard Steve Miller, Amy Baker, and me write and testify about. One of those counterintuitive issues is that: “It is so anti-instinctual for a child to reject a parent, that, when it happens, the rejected parent must have done something terrifically awful to warrant the rejection.” There is a rush to judgment to arrive at this explanation for the rejection. But as Dr. Miller has also discussed, the scientific method requires that all plausible hypotheses be generated to explain a clinical presentation. Well, when the experts, such as forensic evaluators and mental health clinicians, fail to generate all plausible hypotheses for the cause of the child’s rejection, you cannot expect that your friends and family will undertake such an analysis by asking themselves, “Gee, I wonder what are all plausible hypotheses I can generate to explain why little Sally has suddenly refused all contact with my brother?”
So sometimes, your friends and family need an education about alienation to understand why your children(ren) have rejected or maltreated you. How do you explain it to them? Are you defensive in explaining it? Are you self-doubting in explaining it? Is the voice of your ex, whom you have allowed to rent space in your head, influencing how you describe your situation to your loved ones? That is a natural place to be as a result of the mountain of denigrations that have been heaped upon you.
But there is an alternative way to present your situation. Be affirmative, concise, and to the point. You need not justify or self-flagellate for every little transgression you have committed as a parent. Your child did not come with an instruction manual, and parenting has always been a trial and error process because each child is idiosyncratic. Also, as we say in family therapy, experience changes feelings and thoughts. So, if you act in a way that requires respect and consideration, you are more likely to receive respect and consideration; and when you receive respect and consideration from others, then you will be more likely to believe and feel you are entitled to self-respect and consideration. Know your own worth!
Alienated parents need to be proactive and not merely reactive.
This is good advice for those of you who have contact with your kids. Require respect and consideration from them. Don’t act defensive with your kids—as when they put you on the spot by accusing you of misdeeds you did not do. Keep yourself in your parental role at all times. Respond to your alienated child with the same parental authority as you did prior to the alienation. You know exactly when your child puts you on the defensive: it occurs when your child assumes the parental role, requiring that you answer to your child, who is subjecting you to the Inquisition. Often not answering your alienated child’s accusations is more effective than attempting to correct their revisionist history—and especially if you sound defensive. Attempt to create positive experiences and corrective interactions with your child so as to belie their distorted beliefs about you. Actions speak louder than words.
I know, this is all easier said than done! But practice it. Maybe take a page from Dr. Miller’s playbook: google Oliver North’s testimony before Congress regarding his actions in Iran Contra. If nothing else, it will pass the time! North brilliantly and effectively models how not to be defensive when under attack; and he skillfully puts his accusers on the defensive. Wouldn’t that be nice to turn the tables on your alienator!
Be proactive with the reunification therapist as well. This is the non-specialist therapist who requires that you accept your children’s delusional beliefs about you and the family history and further commands that you empathize with your children’s feelings—for misdeeds you did not commit. This is the very therapist who does not recognize how you have been traumatized by the alienation and therefore does not empathize with your feelings! And boy, do your children give the therapist plenty of reason to empathize with you by the way they maltreat and disrespect you in the session—right in front of the therapist’s nose!
When the therapist fails to challenge your children for their maltreatment and disrespect of you, the therapist is sanctioning your child’s anti-social behaviors. This is negligence!
Just imagine the therapist responding in kind had your child been referred to the therapist for having, instead, maltreated and defied his/her teacher. Would the therapist write a letter to the teacher stating the following:
Dear Mr./Mrs. Teacher: I just had a therapy session with blah blah child, who reported to me that you have embarrassed him/her by asking her/him, in front of the entire class, to take a seat after he/she had repetitively popped up and down from her/his seat. Your relationship with blah blah child cannot resolve if you do not apologize to blah blah child for your inexcusable criticism. It is very important that you recognize blah blah child’s feelings and promise never to embarrass blah blah child again.
If you continue with your embarrassing treatment of blah blah child, I will be forced to write a letter to your principal expressing concerns about your relationship with blah blah child and that continued interaction with you is not in blah blah child’s best interest.
Very sincerely, Mr./Mrs. relationship therapist
Be proactive and suggest that the therapist deal with your child exactly the same way that the therapist would deal with your child if sent to therapy for disrespecting a teacher or any other authority figure. (You might want to discuss this with the therapist out of the presence of your children.)
You might also attempt to bring in videos, pictures, and memorabilia of your time with your child prior to the onset of the alienation. I would also talk with the therapist about using this intervention. If you are greeted with resistance, respectfully provide the therapist with information from my website about the effectiveness of this technique.
Now for those of you who have no contact with your child, my heart goes out to you. This is such an unimaginably painful situation. Numerous alienated parents have expressed to me that they fear their legacy to their children will their child’s beliefs that they are a neglectful and abusive parent and perhaps a demented, unsocialized, less-human being. Under the circumstances of total loss of contact, what can be done to correct the child’s revisionist family history. And how can you be proactive when you have absolutely no contact? This seems to be such a helpless situation; you have tried every conceivable attempt at contact and have been rebuffed. You fear that this revisionist family history in which you—and therefore half of your child—is a monster to be shamed, humiliated, and rejected. What can you do about it?
On my website, I wrote an article entitled, “The sacrifice of the alienated parent.” It was with a heavy heart I wrote that article because it is about alienated situations that appear to be hopeless.
First of all, I don’t think any situation is hopeless. You never know when your child will see the light or when some sort of family emergency requires contact. That’s what happened in my case when I turned 18, and I reconnected with my father. However, we know, sadly, that alienation can survive the alienated parent so you may want to leave a corrected history for your child. In the article, I suggested making a video about the family history from your perspective. I have provided sample questions in the article, but the sky is the limit on what you would like to include and address. You could record, in the video, other videos you have of your life with your child prior to the onset of the alienation. You can display and read any mementos of your relationship with your child, such as cards that your child had made for you in school for various holidays. And you might want to sit down this holiday season and write a letter to your children about how you feel about this profound loss of them. Read that letter during the video.
A few important caveats: do not bash, character assassinate, or pathologize the alienating parent. This was wrong when it was done to you, and it is wrong when done in retaliation, and it will only make your child want to defend the enmeshed, alienating parent. But it is okay to label alienating behaviors as wrong, unfair, unhelpful, and even malicious—such as the making of false child abuse allegations. Your child needs to understand that acting defiantly, disrespectfully, and even cruelly is wrong and will not serve them well in life—either in authority situations such as with a boss or in their intimate relationships. Your child has not received this message from the alienating parent; actually, your child receives exactly the opposite message. So, it is important that you convey this information sensitively, compassionately, and non-defensively. You are likely the only influence who will model socially-appropriate behaviors and how to love and be loved in a relationship. You have a right and a responsibility to correct your child’s misinformation about you—as long as you do not pathologize the alienator.
Do not show your anger in the video; but you should convey your pain. Anger is a cover for pain, which is the primary emotion in alienation situations and which should therefore be emphasized. It serves many positive purposes for your child to see your tears and recognize your sadness over the loss of your relationship. Remember, one of the manifestations of an alienated child is the absence of guilt or remorse for how they have maltreated you and for rejecting you. Your child has learned antisocial behaviors from their alienating parent. You can counter and correct the modeling of antisocial behaviors by evoking your child’s guilt for their behaviors. Guilt is good; guilt is what keeps us socially compliant individuals. Guilting your child for their anti-social behaviors is appropriate. When alienating parents guilt their children into meeting their needs, that is inappropriate, manipulative, and abusive. Take annual pictures of yourself as well as writing this letter annually and include both in this “time capsule” that you are going to leave for your child along with the video.
I would make copies of the video and whatever you create for the time capsule enough for every person whom you feel might be in a position to deliver it to your child after your passing. Perhaps you, or another trusted confidant, may be in a position to deliver the video and time capsule to your child once your child attains the age of 18 years.
This will likely be a difficult task to undertake—but it may provide some peace of mind for you that there is a mechanism to leave to your child a factual and symbolic memory of you.
It is important to remember that your child did not choose to reject you but had been brainwashed to do so by an exceptionally crafty and skillful manipulator. Your child is caught in a loyalty bind that had been thrust upon them by their alienating parent. This bind, or web, requires that your child cannot stay loyal to the alienating parent unless your child maltreats and rejects to you. Should you be fortunate to resume some contact with your child, you must forgive your child’s past maltreatment but nevertheless require appropriate treatment going forward.
Now getting back to your family, friends, and intimate relationships. I stated that there are two reasons that they may not understand your situation or may be less helpful than they would like to be. The first reason was their lack of understanding about what alienation is and how it could have happened.
The second reason is that they will be grasping at straws to figure out what would be helpful counsel.
Unless your confidants had experienced the loss of a child due to alienation, they cannot fully comprehend you or your situation. So, their counsel may or may not be helpful to you.
The loss of a child from alienation rivals no other loss. Even the loss of a child from death has closure.
You, and you alone know how you need to mourn: whether the mourning is too much, too little, too extreme, not measured enough—you must decide for yourself. There is no universally correct way too mourn.
It’s okay if you need to sometimes wear your mourning on your sleeve when in intimate situations.
Nobody can tell you that feeling your anger about the alienation is wrong, wicked, or even over the top: I said feeling it--not acting on it! Our wish for alienators is that they did not take that leap from feeling to acting.
So I have a few practical tips to help you get through the holidays—and just like the counsel from your friends, family and other intimates, my counsel may or may not be helpful. But here goes:
If you find that your mourning or your emotions are consuming you, try this: allow yourself a certain amount of time each day or each week to focus on your mourning, anger, frustrations or other emotions. Pick a time that does not conflict with something else you do and set a realistic amount of time you think you may need to mourn, to get angry, or to deal with any other feeling. Once you have determined the frequency and time allotted, adhere to that schedule religiously—even if you do not feel like mourning or addressing your emotions then. Only if you undertake this “ritual” even when don’t feel like it, will you be able to stop yourself from obsessing when it is not convenient or desirable to obsess.
Some other tips:
Get together with others who respect and value you,
Volunteer at a homeless shelter,
Visit people in a nursing home who don’t get visitors,
Volunteer at a hospital with children suffering from cancer or some other serious ailment
Hope for the best, expect the best, and be prepared to accept what you cannot control.
Best wishes for the holidays from a formerly alienated child,