Last weekend I was at a conference, listening to Joe Ehrmann, author of InSideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives, explain the psychological foundations for how he coaches youth sports participants. Two of the things he mentioned have applications in the world of parental alienation.
First, he talked about attachment theory and how some coaches must break through damaged or unhealthy attachments. On the one hand, some kids have very little, or no, attachments to their parents and have a hard time trusting adults. On the other, some kids are overly attached to their parents (and their parents to them), causing a bond that must be loosened for the children to benefit from coaching.
For the child who is in the throes of alienating a parent, both of these come into play. Children who are under the influence of an alienating parent are overly attached to that parent and under-attached to the other. Those kids may find it difficult to separate from the parent they are most bonded with and equally difficult to respect or work with an authority figure that disagrees with the bonded parent — or worse, is too much like the targeted parent. It would be interesting to study the extracurricular experiences of children who have severely alienated one parent in favor of the other. Are they more, less or equally likely to participate in sports or the arts? Are they easier, harder, or the same as other kids in terms of coachability?
In my lay-experience with several families who deal with alienation, some of how a child reacts to extracurriculars and outside adult influence is dependent on when the alienation started. For instance, the earlier extracurriculars became conflict triggers (events where the warring parents might see each other or have to interact) the less likely the kids were to participate. After all, how could it be fun for them if it causes so much anxiety? And the less likely the children were to participate, the less opportunity they had to build relationships with coaches, band leaders, club directors, etc. who could influence their world view. They then became more likely to remain overly bonded with the alienating parent.
The second thing Mr. Ehrmann explained was the process by which all of us, including kids and adults (and for purposes of this blog, targeted parents) decide to make changes to our lives. It’s a process that acknowledges how we often approach a problem–with fear.
Here’s the formula: Discontent, vision, and first steps must be bigger than our resistance. Our unhappiness with the status quo must be met with a vision of how it could be different, as well as a plan (even just a rudimentary first step) and the sum of those three things must be bigger than our resistance to change.
In the life of a targeted parent, participating in any part of that process has permutations that can be paralyzing in their scope and substance. Each of the three (discontent, vision, and first steps) can create so much resistance that targeted parents fall back.
It’s a no-brainer that targeted parents are unhappy with their situations. They want to have good relationships with their kids, but can’t.* Their discontent has a wide range — from those days when it’s tolerable to those days when they want to scream and cry because of the injustice of what’s being done to them. But it’s there, all the time. It hurts, though, so the potential of spending increased amounts of time, of indeterminate durations, in the worst of the discontent is daunting. One parent I know goes back and forth constantly, some days feeling like she can take on the world and other days feeling like she’d rather stuff her feelings inside than internalize her kids’ rejection. When she’s stuffing, she’s stuck.
While some targeted parents can visualize what it would be like to have a healthy relationship with their kids, it’s possible that those visions are more like ideals: smiles, hugs, I-love-yous, bedtime stories, baseball games, common interests, respect, etc. When those idealistic visions are overpowered by the more realistic visions: anger, silent reunions, resentment, hurt feelings, emotional trauma, drug or alcohol abuse, and deprogramming, a targeted parent may question whether he or she is capable of creating and sustaining a realistic and hopeful vision of the future. Sometimes a parent doesn’t know what a healthy relationship with his kids looks like because he’s never had one. The fear of the worst-case scenario, with its own emotional roller coasters, legal and psychological bills, and unpredictable outcomes can be enough to squash any butterfly and lollipop dream.
Many of the targeted parents I know have thought long and hard about taking first steps. They make plans to stand up to the alienating parent by sending letters to the court, calling the police department, or talking with the children. They think about documenting the alienating parent’s illegal and inappropriate behavior. They reach out for support, thinking that once they’re stronger, they’ll be able to commit to action. Sometimes they even tap a toe in the water, trying something small like forcing a child to visit when she doesn’t want to or contacting the child’s school or church. Inevitably, though, those baby steps are discovered by the alienating parent (sometimes when the child is coerced into reporting them). And, as anyone who deals with an alienating ex can tell you, they don’t like to be crossed. They don’t like to lose control. So they push back hard on any attempts the targeted parent makes. A forced visit is reinterpreted as cold-hearted and uncaring. An attempt to make contact about the child is cause for lies and restraining orders. It only takes a few times of getting spanked for trying for a targeted parent to think twice about trying again. No one likes to get beaten down.
As a targeted parent, it’s okay to cut yourself some slack if you’re not barrelling your way through the court system or championing national reform. It’s also okay if you take days to just live your life the way it is and free yourself from the guilt of feeling like you haven’t tried hard enough.
If you eventually decide to seek change, regardless of whether you actually achieve the desired relationship with your kids, know that you’ll face a lot of resistance within yourself, very understandable resistance that will be difficult to overcome. If you fight your fears and move forward, though, you will have broken free of your ex’s control. And that change will be the first best thing in the next chapter of your life.
* A targeted parent is a parent who wants to have a relationship with his or her children, not someone who has voluntarily disengaged from his or her kids.
What is your experience with your own kids? Are they eager to participate in outside activities or do they resist new things, preferring instead to orbit your ex? What are your biggest roadblocks to making a change in your life as a targeted parent?