LOOKING FOR THE THREADS OF CONNECTION By Dr. Rebecca Bailey
Over the past ten years, many families have reached out to our program looking for ways to reconnect with their alienated children. Many of these calls are heartbreaking in that there really is no answer. The hardest to fathom are the ones in which it seems professionals have aligned with the favored parent pushing the rejected parent further away. One custody evaluator stated succinctly there was no reason for the child to reject the mother “besides the obvious hurt the father experienced from the mothers affair”. It was further stated as fact that the daughter’s rejection of her mother could be addressed in therapy. Evidently, the therapist told the evaluator that she was working diligently with the daughter to help her overcome her hatred of her mother. The confounding variable to making the outcome successful was the fact the mother had not been allowed near her daughter in 5 years. The child was now 17. Those types of calls are the most heart wrenching and are the ones we consider “legalized abductions” with multi-headed perpetrators. So what is the solution for these families? Rather than parsing the legal complexities, we should reduce it down to the most obvious solution. If your child is in therapy, demand and insist that the therapist identify for you the reason the child is in treatment. If the answer has anything to do with the child’s resistance to seeing you, the rejected parent, challenge and question the treatment protocol. Feel free to inquire what other phobias allow for a complete avoidance of the feared stimulus. Continued avoidance of an irrational fear leads to even more of a phobic response. As a parent, you have the right to question the treatment protocol and to question the effectiveness of continuing to practice avoidance.
If alienated or estranged parents do not have the opportunity to connect with their children, what paths can they pursue? Options can range from participation in time-limited (3 1⁄2 day, 5 day, and extended day) Intensive treatment programs such as our workshop-based interventions to activity-based interactions. Our workshops create opportunities for the building or re-building of connections in a safe and supported environment. Whenever possible we include both parents in the intervention with the hope of providing children age-appropriate skills to manage their complex relationships. Sadly, a number of our families come with only one parent, usually the rejected parent. In these situations, if there have been no legal interventions such as a flip in custody or sanctions for a favored parent’s undermining behavior after the intervention, the child or children, after positively re-engaging and reconnecting with their rejected parent, may be returning to the care of the favored parent whose behavior remains unchanged. The workshops focus on connections and forward movement. We model to the families how to stay focused on solutions and how to address conflict without digressing into chaos. Not all families can problem-solve conflict. Some merely need to be directed to move forward and not regress. Universally, children have taught our team and their parents to avoid blaming the
favored parent. Children simply want permission to love both parents without having to choose.
What are options for families who can’t afford or access a program such as Transitioning Families, Stable Paths, Family Bridges or Forging Families?
Optimally, it is crucial that the message these parents give to their children is that they are spending time with them for the sake of being with them. It is their only motivation. Children smell rats easily. Any attempts a rejected parent makes to prove herself to the other parent through the child will cause the child to withdraw and continue to block contact with the rejected parent. One of the toughest issues without patient reunification is what happens when the favored parent hears of a successful session between the rejected parent and the child. The result is what Richard Warshak calls “blow back”. The favored parent retaliates, whether intentionally or not, and applies pressure to the child resulting in the child pulling even further away.
In one of our workshops, a 17 year old was reassured by her father that he would not let on about the “fun” they had while participating in the program. The child relaxed and what resulted was a positive time for father and child. Not too long ago, we learned the father and daughter continued to develop a positive relationship, which has extended into college for the young lady. To this day, the mother is unaware of any positive connection between the formerly rejected father and their daughter.
So what are we advocating for alienation, estrangement or hybrid cases? Obviously, we see a great need for programs where family members spend an extended period of time with each other in order to positively reconnect. Given this is not always possible, we need other solutions. We look for solutions that serve to alleviate pressure and build connections. In our program, cooking together and playing together are great bridges between distanced family members. Away from our program, rejected parents need to look for creative ways to entice connection. A rejected parent who bakes a highly aromatic cookie can bring a child out of isolation. In some cases, leaving it on the kitchen counter with a note or a subtle verbal connection can begin the process of reconnection.
Rejected parents need to look for what we at TF and SP call bids for connections. It can be as subtle as a child repeatedly playing a video game in the living room. The rejected parent should consider playing the video game when the child comes over as a silent bid for connection. Look for any way to connect slowly, subtly and with an abundance of caution. Caution is for slow reconnection. Sudden movements can rock the tentative connection propelling the relationship backwards. Success in a workshop can be strengthened when observant staff detect and highlight small victories that a rejected parent often misses.
During a recent workshop, the chef observed a young boy serving dessert to his mother. Not a word was spoken but clearly something had shifted. The young man had avoided any prior contact with his mother. Often parents avoid bringing a third party with them during visits. Admittedly, a new girlfriend or boyfriend on a visit can be a loaded subject and in many cases should be avoided but an individual who can serve as an icebreaker can be immensely useful. This individual should not be someone too emotionally invested with making one parent right and the other wrong. This person’s role can be defined as a bridge between the rejecting child and the rejected parent. Recreational activities like basketball, cooking, and monopoly are great distracters. The emphasis here is on “doing” as some things can’t be resolved by talking. Doing is really what changes the game.
Often, fear is identified as the reason the child is resistant to being with an estranged or alienated parent. In some cases the other parent, extended family members, and even a well-meaning therapist have induced the fear. Because we know fear cuts off the cognitively rational part of our brain, one can imagine a child whose fear is supported, can’t see past the fear to reconnect with the rejected parent, the object of his fear. The simplest solution is to attempt to engage in non-threatening ways, create a new reality by allowing the child to see who you are rather than whom the other parent has irrationally portrayed you to be. It takes action, movement, and patience. Be creative. Think outside of the box. Connect thoughtfully, slowly and diligently.