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Tips for the Alienated Parent

(1)  The alienated parent must make every effort to erode the image of being the evil villain by acting in such a way as to provide incongruent information. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that people cannot hold in their mind two incongruent (mutually exclusive) beliefs. They have to give up one or the other.
You must be extraordinarily kind, patient, and sympathetic, especially in the face of the child’s verbal attacks, acting out, and noncompliance. Many parents succumb to these attacks and are thus “baited” into rancorous arguments about the divorce and its aftermath. The result is seldom one of positive resolution but usually results in the target parent (TP) undergoing more rejection. Therefore, the TP must gently deflect these attacks and keep the focus and the conversation on neutral ground. He should be patient and tolerate their anger without reacting. These children are typically “good” children who are only disrespectful toward the TP and no one else. Remember that they are “being loyal soldiers” for the alienating parent (AP).

Be sympathetic and understanding of their situation. Do not take their attacks personally. The children are in a no-win situation. If they are friendly to the TP they betray the AP. If they are to continue to be loyal to the AP, they have to resist contact with the TP. They cannot be loyal to both. Rejecting one parent is the best solution they have found so far for getting out of the middle and reducing their internal distress.

Examples:
“I understand how hard this is for you.”
“I understand how stressful these visits must be for you. I feel bad about it. Sometimes I wonder if you’re better off not seeing me.”
“I don’t mind you being loyal to your mom. I know you’re all she has, and she needs you.”
Be willing to apologize to the children for your mistakes. Admit to the part that is true.
Accusation: “Mom said you didn’t care about us. You worked all the time. All you cared about was money.” Apology: “Yes, I did work long hours and neglect the family when I was building a business, and perhaps it was wrong.”
Accusation: “Mom said you were an alcoholic.”
Apology: “Yes, I did drink too much in the early years of the marriage.”
Accusation: “You went out with other women. That was wrong.”
Apology: “Yes, I was unfaithful once many years ago. It was wrong and I deeply regret it.”
Accusation: “You didn’t care about us. You moved away, you left us.”
Apology: “Yes, I was offered a job in another city, and I thought that taking the job was the best thing for everyone. Perhaps it wasn’t.”
You can make a gracious apology that doesn’t acknowledge any wrongdoing.”
Ex. “I don’t know what I’ve done to cause your mother so much pain, but I am truly sorry if I caused her any harm.
Ex. “I deeply regret that the divorce has been so hard on you kids. I never meant for it to cause you any grief.”
Ex. “I took your mom back to court because I thought it was the best thing. I never meant for it to cause you so much stress and I am sorry for what you’ve gone through.”

Continue to erode the negative image of you by drawing on past memories of good times together. Show photos of previous vacations, birthdays, Christmases. Recall funny stories of when the children were little. Tell old jokes the children used to love.
 
(2)  The alienated parent must withdraw from any actions that put the children in the middle and cause them to feel they must take sides. Arguments and confrontations only force the child to take a side in the conflict. Naturally the child is going to ally even more strongly with the parent on whom they are emotionally dependent and/or the one who is more needy and dependent on them as well.
 
Don’t vent anger at the alienating parent—ever.
Even if justified, even if it is rational, just don’t go there. Any anger that is expressed (i.e., “Your mother is nuts! She should go to jail for this!”) is used as evidence to bolster the belief that the alienated parent is a villain and mom is the victim. The targeted parent should be cautioned to vent his anger somewhere else. Even phone calls to the alienating parent are overheard by the children. The targeted parent should monitor the comments of relatives as well. Often it is the aunt, uncle, or grandmother who announces, “Your mother is an evil person and we’re going to take her back to court, and this time we’re going to win,” and so on. These people will have to comply with strict limits to follow the same guidelines as those set out here for the targeted parent or their contact with the child should be stopped.
 
You must help the children to compartmentalize. Children who do master the difficulties of transitioning back and forth between warring parties have coping skills that serve them well. They may ignore questions about the
other parent, redirect the conversation onto a neutral topic, or filter out any mention of the other parent in their conversation. As one child said to me, “When I’m with dad, I shut the mom half of my brain and open up the dad half of my brain, and when I’m with mom I open up my mom brain and shut my dad brain.” The alienated parent can assist this process by not asking questions about the other parent, redirecting the conversation to easy subjects, even allowing the child several hours of quiet alone time to adapt to being in dad’s care again.
 
Be willing to make positive statements about their mother. It is not enough just to refrain from saying negative things. Making positive comments eases the black-white polarization that is the reality for these children. The targeted parent need not make false statements but only what is true and genuine.
He should be reminded that he once married this parent because he deeply respected and cared for this person. Ex. “You’re good at math just like your mom.”
“Does your mom still cook great lasagna?”
“Does your mom still help you with English papers? She was always better at that than I was.”
 
Don’t make reference to court actions, show them court papers, or any legal information. Older children and teens may demand information on detailed legal arrangements as they attempt to get at “the truth.” While this
may seem like a reasonable effort to explain the truth to them, it forces them to review the issue of whose side they will be on. Many become mired in the nuances of the various agreements, the difficult language, the conflicted accounts of what the court agreements actually mean. One would do better to redirect them and again help them compartmentalize.
 
Don’t argue with your child in an attempt to get him to give up his view of reality. 
Don’t say, 
“You’ve been brainwashed by your mom” or “These aren’t your words. These are your mom’s words.” This is insulting and humiliating to children and teens, even if it is true. Listen to them as they express their opinions. Accept, acknowledge, and try to understand. Redirect or change the topic of conversation.
 
Don’t challenge their loyalty to mom. The more you challenge it, the more they will resist. Go with it. Support them in their enmeshment. There is a principle in psychotherapy called, “Go with the resistance.” Often when go with the resistance, the person feels no further need to defend it and can eventually consider giving it up.
 
Ex. “I’m proud of you, how you take good care of your mom.”
“I’m proud of you that you’re good kids and you don’t cause your mom any trouble.”
Listen for signs of growth and gently support them. Rather than try to drive a wedge between the children and the alienating parent, listen for any disagreement between them and the alienating parent. These are signs of growth and an effort toward separation and individuation. Capitalize on them whenever possible.
Ex. “So you and mom had a disagreement. What was it about?”
Ex. “So I guess you and mom don’t see eye to eye about this boy you’re interested in. Tell me about it.
Ex. “I understand these are your feelings, not your mom’s. I accept that.
I know you’re capable of having your own opinions about many things. So give me an example of how mom tries to influence to change your mind on something and she isn’t able to.”
 
(3)    The alienated parent can consider ways in which to mollify the hurt and anguish of the alienating parent. This may require some soul-searching and acts of conciliation. Recall that the custodial parent in these cases often feels unusually humiliated, betrayed, and helpless. Have your client consider what he can do to bolster the alienating parent’s self esteem.

Be open to apologizing. This is no time to be proud or blame the ex spouse for all the wrongs in the marriage. Much litigation and thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees can be avoided with the judicious use of an “I’m
sorry.” This is not an easy task when the parent feels he/she did nothing wrong. One key is to apologize for any wrongdoing that has a kernel of truth. You might have the alienated parent send the other parent a card with a note or letter. You can help your client craft an apology that is somewhat vague, admits to partial wrongdoing, and apologizes for the outcome more than the actions.
Examples:
“I don’t know what I have done to cause you so much pain that it has lasted so long and affected all of us so much. For however I have hurt you so deeply, I am truly sorry.”
 
“We both made mistakes in the marriage. I know I said and did some things which were reckless, and/or self-centered, or hurtful. I deeply regret them. I had no idea that they would cause such harm to all of us.”
 
 
“I regret the hurt you and the children have gone through these last few years. I have grown through all of this and feel I am a better person now and can give more to the children. Please forgive me.”
 
Have your new wife be deferential to the children’s mother. This honors the mother’s unique role in the children’s lives, is ego enhancing, and hear some of the humiliation. It also sends the message that she is valued and important and her role is not threatened.
Examples:
“Would you mind if I take them to get their hair cut?” “Would you mind if I attend their game?”
“You’re such a great mom to have such wonderful kids. It’s a privilege to be their stepmother. You must be so proud of them. I envy you.”
Delay remarriage as long as possible. Remarriage, before the other parent remarries, reinjures that parent’s wounded ego and intensifies the feelings of rejection, humiliation, and betrayal. The alienated parent would do better to keep the new relationship a secret.

(4)                           The alienated parent must realistically appraise the coalition and its strength and look for ways to dismantle the coalition, even convert some of the enemies to allies.
Make allies where possible. By rejecting the members of the coalition, the alienated parent often acts to strengthen and tighten these coalitions and they unite against the hostile father. A better strategy is to be very positive and complementary toward these people and thus build bridges. This also works to dismantle the coalition as the various parties have difficulty seeing the alienated parent as an evil person since he is “so nice.”

Examples. Send cards and letters to the grandparents of the children, thanking them for taking such good care of the children. Offer to meet with the children’s therapist. Be extremely conciliatory and thank the therapist for working hard on the children’s behalf. Meet with the children’s teacher and/or coach and ask about the children’s progress. Follow up with a thank you note, card, or small gift as a way of saying “thanks for all you do” or “Thanks for being there for (my child). Being in your class has helped him through the divorce.”
 
 
(5)                           The alienated parent should be advised to never give up contact altogether. Absence of contact is often interpreted by children as abandonment.
In the words of Janet Johnston (1994), “stand in the door and hold a cookie.” By “standing in the door,” the parent remains at a physical distance and does not attempt to exercise visitation or have a face-to- face meeting with the child/teen. Instead, the parent may wish to have a brief meeting at the courthouse, or in the therapist’s office, and say their good byes Such a meeting may not be feasible for a variety of reasons. If so, the alienated parent may send the child/teen a letter explaining how it is their wish not to put the child through any further distress or court actions by pursuing contact through the courts. The letter should not be antagonistic but sympathetic to the child’s position.
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