Being prevented from seeing or communicating with your child is a special kind of hell - but a parent's love never dies.
Imagine if you were unable to see or speak to your own young child.
You may know where they live. You may have a phone number or email address or social media handle for them.
But because they live with a hostile parent who controls their contact - your efforts to communicate disappear into a black hole of despair.
This is the reality for thousands of mums and dads who are alienated from their children.
Alienated parents, also known as 'targeted parents' are distinct from estranged parents, who have a rift in their relationship with a child for a legitimate reason such as abuse, neglect or infidelity.
Alienated children have been caught in high-conflict separations where they have been forced to choose a side, and are aligned, both physically and emotionally, with one parent, rejecting the other.
Reaching out to an alienated child: 'Never give up'
For loving parents, yearning for child who is alive but cut off from them is a special kind of agony - a pain some have described as "a living death".
Almost all targeted parents continue to reach out to their children by whatever means available, as a way to let their children know that they haven't given up. Amanda Sillars, who runs alienated support group The Eeny Meeny Miney Mo Foundation , calls these communication attempts "breadcrumbs of love".
I asked a dozen alienated parents to share some of these "breadcrumbs of love" - messages of unbreakable love that went unanswered.
Give yourself a break. Hitting the drive-through when you're too tired to cook doesn't make you a bad parent.
The responses are beyond heartbreaking:
This mum sent thousands of unanswered messages to her sons over the years before discovering their phone had been cut off. Source: Alex Carlton
Missing special events like birthdays and Christmas is some of the hardest part of being alienated from a child. Source: Alex Carlton
This dad from NSW often sends his two children pictures of street signs or shop signs with their names on them to let them know he's thinking about them. Source: Alex Carlton
This mum regularly posts messages on her Facebook page in the hope that her sons will see. Source: Alex Carlton
Caleb Jones/unsplash Source: Caleb Jones/unsplash Parental alienation is the process of psychological manipulation of a child into displaying unjustifiable fear, rejection, disrespect or hostility towards a targeted parent by the “favored” parent. If you’re not in therapy, I recommend a qualified professional to guide you through the maze of high-conflict divorce and parental alienation.
Alienated parents often try to keep their conversations light and chatty. Source: Alex Carlton
Parents never give up - no matter what. Source: Alex Carlton
What does parental alienation look like?
Never assume that a parent who doesn't see their child has done something wrong.
In some cases there may be court orders that mandate that the child must see both parents, but the alienating parent defies them with impunity.
Sometimes there may be no court orders but the alienating parent has successfully 'turned' a child against their mother or father, resulting in the child taking one parents' side in an effort to reduce the conflict between the parents.
"If evolution really works, how come mothers only have two hands?" - Milton Berle
In almost all cases, the alienated child had a loving, normal and secure relationship with the parent they no longer see before the alienation happened - even if their demeanour towards the targeted parent has become hostile.
What does the research say?
There is little Australian data available about parental alienation but according to a study from published in the Children and Youth Services Review , at least 22 million American parents may be a victim of this terrible form of abuse.
It's thought to affect both mothers and father equally. It can be a difficult concept to understand, even for professionals. Research about it is minimal and there is little consensus about appropriate remedies.
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It is recognised in courts in the US, Canada and the UK - and increasingly in Australia - but more research is needed to find out why it happens, what the effects are on children and parents and the what the legal and therapeutic communities can do to help those it affects. The Australian Institute of Family Studies has some information here.
If you are a parent who is alienated from their child or a child who is alienated from a parent, The Eenie Meenie Miney Mo Foundation has some excellent resources that may help.
Most of all, stay strong. And never give up.
How to reach out to your alienated child
Amanda Sillars urges targeted parents to keep trying to contact their children, even if they receive no response, as they may one day be the 'breadcrumbs' that their children can follow to reconnect and reunite with the parent they love and terribly miss.
Repeat: I am not a short-order cook. "It's a child's job to learn to eat what the parents eat," says Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and the author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. Instead of the all-or-nothing scenario, offer a variety of foods at mealtime: the main course, plus rice or pasta, a fruit or vegetable, and milk. This way, your child can eat just the pasta and the peas and get protein from the milk. "What a child eats over the course of a day or a week is more important than a balanced meal at one sitting," says Stephen Daniels, the chairman of the department of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, in Aurora.
"Often the children read the messages but they don’t want to be caught responding," she explains. "You might not see the positive outcomes for months or years - but your kids may one day have an opportunity, away from the house or on holidays, to try and reach out. Don’t give up."
She offers some excellent tips for parents trying to communicate with their alienated child here.
Tips for reaching out to an alienated child
- Speak with love and kindness
- Always stay calm and never react
- Focus forward
- Don’t bombard them with communications even though you may be excited to get a break through
- Expect crumbs in communication - anything more is a bonus
- No response is not always a bad thing
- Be the best version of you
- Avoid dark and heavy conversations
- Show your children that you are interested in them
- Ask them about school, activities or hobbies they may be involved in, friendships they have and so on
- Avoid talking about the situation
- Remember: actions speak louder than words
- Don’t make promises you cannot fulfil
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