Preparing for empathic responding with an alienated child

I said that I would post about using empathy to respond to an alienated child this week and I have been thinking about that and how to best structure this.  It has taken some thought because alienated children are, as many of you will know, incredibly difficult to deal with at times, being variously, over empowered, withdrawn, aloof, obnoxious, dismissive and angry.  Responding to each of these manifestations of the issue of alienation as and when they arise, is your task as the targeted parent.

Lets start with the facts.  Your alienated child is not actually anything other than the tiny little tot you first held in your arms all those years ago.  Underneath the layers of self righteous indignation, unpleasantness and downright arsey attitude, your child remains there, frozen in a sort of bubble which is covered over by the impact of the role corruption they are suffering.  In so many ways, when I meet alienated children what I want to do most of all is reach out and hug them close, I want to rock them and sing to them and stroke away the oppositional defiance which is born of nothing other than fear.  Fear of the future, fear of the past and fear, most of all of the present.  What each alienated child carries with them each and every day, is the fear that if they were to drop this stance, they have no idea what might happen.  And that comes from repeated experiences of facing emotional chaos in the conflicting demands of the two people who love them most.  One of whom is helpless to do anything but sit by and watch and the other who is either consciously or unconsciously pulling the strings.  When I meet alienated children it no longer really matters to me who is doing what, all I really want to do is say ‘hush, its ok, trust me, you will be safe,’

Providing safety for an alienated child is not always possible however.  That’s because the dynamics around them are such that even within the court process it can be hard to achieve their liberation from the cross tension of competing demands.  And so the very best that I can achieve for some children is to teach the parent that is alienated from them, how to at least ‘do no harm’ if or when they do see their children.  And I can teach rejected parents how to develop the skin that allows the barbs and the hurts to roll off them like water from a ducks back and I can help them to speak in ways that alienated children can sometimes (not always) hear.

Alienated children are primed to find your ‘hooks’ and when they are near you they will come fishing for those hooks with the rod and line provided for them by their other parent.  Their other parent, being someone who knows you very very well, is well placed to teach your child what winds you up and hurts you.  When your child comes fishing for those hooks, you have to first of all remember that this is not your child who is trying to hurt you, its the other parent who has primed the rod with the information needed to hook you like a prize trout from the river.  If you are going to use empathic responding with an alienated child, remove those hooks, those things that the other parent used to use to wind you up before you start because without fail, your child will retaliate by fishing around to try and hook you into an argument or hurt you with a comment about you.

You see alienated children don’t want you to be nice to them.  What they really want, when the alienation process is underway, is for your to prove to them why they are right to have rejected you.  Neither do they want you to demonstrate any kind of empathy with them, they do not wish to feel the guilt and shame that empathic responding draws up in their minds and will become angry in response to try and drive those feelings down again.  Guilt and shame are normal and natural responses, they are the signs that our conscience is working. When we are horrible to someone or about someone, we feel guilty and ashamed.  An alienated child acts without conscience when a reaction is in full sway and so is unable to feel guilt or shame.  Couple that with the elevation of the child to the top of the family system by the other parent and you have a child who acts as if they are in charge, as if they are without feelings and as if they are superior in every way.  When you are going to use empathic responding with an alienated child, be prepared for an angry reaction.  At least at first.

Empathic responding means showing the child that you understand the position that they are in and how they feel.  Empathic responding with an alienated child however also means going a little bit further than you would in normal empathic work because you have to be able to sustain that long enough for the anger to drop and the guilt and shame to rise and then wait, whilst the child’s psychology rearranges itself.  All of this can sometimes happen in an instant, as in the case of spontaneous emergence and younger children may surprise you with an immediate switch back to their normal happy self. With older children however it often happens over time and you have to be able to keep yourself free of the hooks and protect yourself with a teflon coat for a sustained period whilst you continue to respond empathically.  You have to be able to get through the ‘whatever’ stage and the ‘you’re not going to win you know’ stage and the ‘you’re not my mum or dad stage’ and the ‘I hate you ‘ stage and more.  And you have to keep being able to do it over and over and over again.  Especially if the child continues to live with the other parent.

There is an argument going on at the moment in PA literature about whether alienated children should always be removed from an alienating parent in order to enable them to drop the reaction.  I have some sympathy with that having seen many children liberated from what is an horribly anxious position for them to be in.  For those children however who remain trapped with an alienating parent but who are spending time with you, using empathic responding can at least do no harm and at best offer your child the understanding that you know what they are going through.

But you have to be strong and able to cope if you are going to use empathic responding because it is an active and dynamic way of relating to your child and it invites the child to respond back to you.  When they do they will use the coping mechanism that they have developed in the alienation process to try and force you back into the place where they and not you are in control.  And so being prepared is a key stage in starting this kind of work.

To be prepared you must know what your own weak spots are.  Think about them.  How did the other parent used to hurt you? What kinds of things did they say that felt painful?  Get rid of your attachment to these things, they are not true, they were never true, let them go, you don’t need them anymore.  When your child starts to sound like their other parent, you are going to use distraction techniques to switch off from the game being played to try and hook you in.  Think of some music you love and hum it in your head, think of an image of calm flowing water and focus on it, imagine yourself in a cool meadow, barefoot on grass wet with rain.  And breathe.  And let love flow towards your child, however angry she or he is.

This week then I want you to find a photograph of your child and stand it somewhere you can see it. I want you to imagine that child as she or he was before the alienated set in and I want you to call that image up in your mind several times every day.  I want you to let your love flow to that child, forgetting the hurt and the pain that has been caused and I want you to feel, in the depths of your being, the love that you have for your child that fills every cell of you.  I want you to prepare for empathic responding and re-entering into a dynamic relationship of change.

You might feel afraid, you might wonder what on earth you are doing.  You are becoming, again, the parent you always were and are still.  You are preparing and when you prepare, you create an expectation of change.

Next week we will go together through the steps of empathic responding and learn more about this journey of change.

Nothing is static, nothing has to stay the same.  Your child’s fear has frozen the waters,  in time you can thaw them out again.


*This article is for parents who are still in relationship with a child who is in an alienated position.  I will write for those parents who are not in relationship shortly.

37 thoughts on “Preparing for empathic responding with an alienated child”

  1. Hi Karen,

    This and last week’s pieces has been incredibly moving and articulate, so that I hesitate to make any comment, except that you are writing very accurately about the things we are struggling with. Only one detail did I see that I would have put differently.

    Where you say “And that comes from repeated experiences of facing emotional chaos in the conflicting demands of the two people who love them most…” – I would say…”…that THEY love most”.

    Because I don’t think it is very likely that alienating parents are the kind of people who do really know how to love at all (there may be all sorts of OTHER things going on – but it is surely not love?) while the children on the other hand – are likely to be still trying to love…needing love from the alienating parent etc.


    1. hi woodman, yes I phrased it that way on purpose. I did so because even when alienating parents are very damaging the still think they are doing it out of love and the child considers it love and so we have to think about it as love even if its warped love. Remember we are trying to get close to how the child feels. K


      1. I am mindful of the varying situations being represented here…prejudice against disability as a parent is awful and must be challenged extremely strongly where it occurs.

        However I am particularly struck by this phrase you have used – “warped love”.

        Well – let us be frank about it…what we are really talking about is a very serious type of abuse.

        So yes, it is very important to try and understand the world of the child who is being abused in this way – but even more fundamentally, as a society, don’t we have a responsibility to intervene to STOP this kind of abuse?

        This is abuse of the child based on the notion that the child is a possession of the parent. Instead of giving TO the child…the parent is somehow or other extracting FROM the child. It can be money, assistance, attention. The child here exists to enhance the life of the parent – not the parent to aid the child. Whenever the parents attention is consumed elsewhere, the child is neglected. Whenever the child’s needs conflict with that of the parent – the parent puts themselves first…the child last.

        When this parent is the mother, and the child is a girl…there is an especial level of difficulty. We have such a fundamental need to believe that we have the love of the person who has given birth to us…and as a girl we are likely to believe that on some level we are also one with the mother. If the mother is acknowledged as a bad mother – then this is determining our own fundamental identity…we are also a bad person.

        The mother can even (this is quite an extreme case) openly declare that she “does not care about the children or their needs” – but it will not be believed by the emotionally abused child…for to accept that would be just too awful…even though, deep down inside – the child very much DOES know this to be true. (Obviously, the child could be at any stage of the many years of their development in all this).

        So how to we respond from the outside, in this scenario?

        Do we go (even empathetically) along with the charade that is being played out – or is it the most essential thing for us to find a way to step in to stop this kind of abuse – just as we do for any other kind of more obvious physical abuse?


      2. I think first of all we calm down Woodman and stop focusing on the issue of who is dong what to whom. Warped means bent out of shape, it describes love which is not straightforward or which has negative connotations, but love it is, from the child’s point of view at least. In this exercise we are focusing upon empathic understanding of the child’s world view, its interesting how outraged the reactions are to this. If we continue to focus in an outraged manner on the moral rights or wrongs only, are we not missing the chance to walk in the childs shoes? K


      3. I don’t want to spoil the exercise…it is a good one – but I just want us to bear in mind that there can be more than one level to the child’s reality. I.e. that which they present on the surface – and that which they are feeling deep down inside.

        Which one are we running with…or can we do both?

        They could certainly be (and I would suggest, may be highly likely to be) completely contradictory.


  2. Hi Karen

    Thank you for this initiative.

    I will be joining this journey and I have the photographs of my children ready. However, my situation is that the only contact I have with my children is through the monthly letters I send them as ‘ordered’ by the court. I receive no reply from them even though their Mother was ordered to read my letters to them and encourage them to write back to me and maintain the link with me. This court order was from October 2012 and since then I have received nothing except a letter from my ex-wife a few months ago to say that she cannot “make the children do what they do not want to”. My children are now 11 and (in a few days) 7 and it has been three years since we were living together as a family.

    I am not sure how successful this initiative will be in my case, given that my ex-wife is unwilling to allow me to be involved in my children’s lives, as she has consistently shown.

    Perhaps you might be able to help me (and other parents in such a situation where the alienation is total in every respect), by giving examples of how I might show empathic responding for my children’s situation and, as you say, “thaw out” the frozen waters of their fear, taking into account that the only way I am able to communicate with them is through the letters I send them, and also that they may not even receive these letters. In my case and similar cases, do you think I should also develop empathic responding for my ex-wife? The ex-partner, surely, plays a key part in this process if the alienation is total. What are your thoughts on this?


    1. I will do that Chris, I am going to write for parents competely alienated next week because its a different journey as you say.

      What I will do though as we go along is write about reconnecting yourself to your parenthood whether you see your children or not because that is a big step for all alienated parents and a big step to thawing out your own frozen feelings which become frozen through fear too.

      And I will write about how to write to your children, something that I get a lot of requests for help with.

      And as we go along perhaps we can all share our feelings and thoughts and ideas about children, parenting, loving our kids regardless and being a parent in the face of everything alienation does.

      More on this soon. K


  3. Dear Karen

    I have been in tears all night. My son is 19 but mentally handicapped, so in some aspects he is age appropriate but in others, especially emotionally, very very immature. It has been four years of constant battle and acrimony from his pathological father and several dozen issues at law. Never though, have I lost custody of my son. I was locked out of our home when he was 15 and had to get a court order to get my possessions. At the time, we were very close, as we always had been and I felt it better to leave him in his familiar home, with his healthy twin, and with financial stability. I cannot regret this as I don’t know how I could have done things differently.

    Over the past four years, my son has been turned more and more against me. We had a serious run in in July 2012 when he was actively encouraged by his father’s paramour to publicly swear at me etc. Communication was cut between us as having to cope with all the court cases, covering maintenance, criminal, matrimonial causes, banking, insolvency and liquidation, company law etc etc, In November 2012, I attended his school “graduation” and he was delighted I was there. Throughout last year, every time he has communicated with me, the channel has been closed. In September 2013, I saw him and found him in an utter state of neglect and established he was being parented by his twin, barely an adult himself. To cut communication between us, in his very worst interests, he was removed from the vocational training centre he attended and was taken to another country. The court process where I live does work, but it takes years. I have no doubt I will get custody of him, eventually. The divorce trial was completed in July 2013. That 2013, he was clearly ecstatic to be in contact with me but after three days, the channel of communication was “blocked”.

    This week, I saw I had been “unblocked”. I contacted him and he started off saying sorry a few times about having cut me off. his next statement was “I know you are very sick shame may the angels be with you”. This is completely a repeat of what his father is trying to sell to all, alleging that since I have epilepsy, I am “mad”, “cooked”, “cuckoo” etc etc. My son was also trying to be “bossy” with me, rude and at the same time reaching out. I know things are NOT “well” at home but still, everything that goes wrong gets blamed on me. One of the things my son said was “I want to love you again”! He also said he was not sure if I really do love him! We messaged a lot on Saturday, a little on Sunday and he has gone again… Not blocked but either changed telephone number or gone out of the country again. (Without my knowledge, permission or approval!)

    Your article has given me hope and a much better understanding of the situation. I have been desolate wondering what lies ahead as he is most definitely going to be handed to me as soon as the divorce judgement comes through. It is going to be hard for both of us to work through the anger and hurt, but I have to be the “adult” here.

    Thank you for a caring and well written article. God bless you


    1. Do not be afraid Pip, when your son comes to you, being the adult and seeing the world through his eyes is indeed the road forward for you. i think you will find it so much easier when he is with you because freed from the negative influences he will cope differently. Being the adult is about knowing that children who act out when they have been alienated are not doing so for any other reason than they are using a coping mechanism. It might help you to read Douglas Darnell’s Beyond Divorce Casualties for assistance on what to exoect and how to prepare, sending my support to you. K


  4. Sometimes ‘conventional wisdom’ helps perpetuate parental alienation.

    Living in a society, we can not help, but sometimes listen to the advice of some neighbours, friends, mates or kindred. The most popular advice a targeted parent gets is to let the alienating parent have his/her way (so as not to hurt the child); that as the child grows up she will come to know the truth. That is conventional wisdom that is very very bad for stopping parental alienation.

    A little knowledge of the law would help targeted parents. Once a child is 11, most often the court would be persuaded to accept that the lies planted in the 11 year-old by the alienating parent are the child’s wishes. Since the court has no proof that they are lies planted in the child there is not much they can do. But for any child under 11 the court (there are very good judges out there, as this writer has experienced) would turn to the alienating parent to ask who clothes this child? who decides what this child eats etc etc? And the judge would be willing to enforce an order to stop the alienation (otherwise the alienating parent would face at least community services and the costs arising from visits to enforce the contact).

    So my advice to Chris would be to go for the 7 year-old separately. But to all targeted parents whose children are under 10, and who have not fallen into several traps set out by the alienating parent to paint the targeted parent unfit to live with his/her child, do not follow this conventional wisdom. Pursue relentlessly to live with your child sooner rather than later. The court is very much helped in their decisions when the child is under 10 and the targeted parent is seen and proven to be fit to live with his/her child.


    1. Absolutely agree with your point about the destructive potential of conventional wisdom.

      However we HAVE to deal with the issue of children being alienated between 11 & 16 as well…as this is a key time in their lives also. The only remedy that I can think of is to push for mandated Family Therapy involvement in such cases.

      The alienating parent can normally easily fool a visiting Social Worker, etc (who is normally programmed to be on the side of the mother, anyway) but will find it much harder (impossible, if they do their job right) to fool a competent Family Therapist who can explore the true family dynamic.

      With the increasing feminization of the helping professions we cannot automatically assume neutrality and impartiality – but hopefully the standards will still be higher in this regard than anywhere else.


  5. Ultimately couples who have separated have to re-learn how to behave, to once again focus on what matters. They must accept that their former partner has good feelings like they do and that there children deserve to see their parents respect one another even though they may have moved on to new relationships. Considerable amounts of parenting time is vital with each parent so that the child can properly know and rely on each parent, even though their parenting styles will be different. As we know the mind of the child who has experienced the adverse influences of a controlling domineering parent will suffer those prejudiced and negative influences.


  6. One thing we have always reminded ourselves is that when you are a child you only know what you know. If you grow up being the emonional crutch of one parent, the child cannot know that this is not normal or indeed that it might be harmful. When the child arrives overempowered and demanding this, that and the other, how is the child to know that it should not be involved in financal decisions or whatever the topic? Thus you try to let the child be a child again and remove all this responsibility at least as long as the child is with you. The child does not like this because being the confidante of a parent and being over empowered does not feel to the child like the burden it really is. You can but try. A young girl recently decribed her role in her family to me as being that of making her parent feel good, effectively being a personal agony aunt to this parent. I asked her what she thought of this and her answer was “I don’t know, I thought it was normal”

    The “conventional” wisdom goes haywire here again:
    “but you should teach your children about finances” “Yes but that does not mean they are involved in the final decision making process of the family”
    “but you should listen to your children and what they want” “I do, but again I do not let them have the final say in important decisions”
    “but you should teach children that their decisions have consequences” “yes but I prefer them to test that out on smaller decisions with smaller consequences, before they have to make life changing ones when they are older”


    1. And only when we see the world through our childrens eyes can we really understand the reality they face and only then, when we really understand the reality, can we be ready for empathic responding. K


    2. Hi Kat

      I agree with you. Children who are alienated either partially or wholly by the resident parent, wittingly or unwittingly, from the non-resident parent have only one side of the story made available to them and, consequently, they have an unbalanced and distorted view of their situation. What effect must this have on their young, developing minds? They do not know of anything better than what they have and are to all intents and purposes, hostages. The younger they are, the worse their situation in my opinion… but they do not understand that they are in a terrible place as in the example of the young girl you give.

      As these children get older, and as contact with the non-resident parent becomes further reduced or eliminated by the family courts (lacking in the authority to take robust decisions that would truly be in the best interests of the children), and by CAFCASS (overstretched and over-burdened to the point where it is easier and safer for them to hide behind child protection issues) and by a determined resident parent (aiming to totally exclude the non-resident parent because they can, invoking even a minimal element of doubt about the non-resident parent’s standing in the minds of any professionals whom they meet), they become hardened and self-confident in their alignment with their resident parent. The non-resident parent is no longer an important person in the children’s life and has become a two-dimensional character in their reality.

      When these children are very young (under the age of 10-11), and their alienation situation becomes prolonged and constant, I fear it will be harder to reverse this as they get older, entering adolescence with all its attendant hormonal and physical changes and they will become immersed in and know of nothing beyond the limiting borders of this environment. To a large extent, these children need to be protected from themselves and this needs to be done as early on in the alienation process as possible, in order to avoid costly (in financial terms as well as psychological and emotional terms) therapy in the future.

      If these children at whatever age have some direct contact with the non-resident parent then that parent must aim to acquire a complete understanding of the situation they (the children) are in and I think this is part of what Karen is aiming to achieve with her initiative. A non-resident parent with direct contact has the opportunity to at least recognise the signs of alienation early on, communicate with their children and through listening and seeing things through the children’s eyes, will be better placed to deal with the alienation process and combat it directly. By dealing with the alienation directly in this way, it may be possible to avoid the fiasco that is the family courts, CAFCASS etc.

      I for one will be keenly following this latest initiative from Karen.


      1. I completely agree with you that the only way to combat this is to take robust action early on, which means training in recognizing this for social workers, CAFCASS, judges and others just for starters.

        From the children’s point of view I think the teenage years can become very difficult. Certainly many of the parents who engage in this kind of behavior do so motivated by control and hence they cannot cope with a teenage child going through a normal developmental process of freeing themselves from a parent and becoming an individual.

        It must be very bewildering for an over-empowered child. Through their early childhood they have been supported by their alienating parent in making their own decisions. The child believes these decisions were its own and has no real understanding that it was manipulated into making them and that really they were those of the alienating parent. When the child reaches its teens and truly starts to make its own decision the story is quite different and the support from the alienating parent is suddenly scare and conflict results.

        Again there is little help to be had for them: after all, all teenagers have problems with their parents and no one looks to see that the problems these children face go far deeper than what is part of the normal developmental process.


      2. Absolutely wonderful posts, Chris & Kat.

        The problem is immense. At present the helping professions have been largely hijacked by anti-male ideology. This thinking has suffused everything that the majority of these say and do. Sometimes this is active persecution…a lot of the time it is a passive acceptance of sadistic behaviour towards men (and thereby children!) by others wherever it appears.

        A key development towards turning this around – needs to be public debate. As soon as you are able Karen, I hope that you will be willing and able to start going on TV and Radio.

        For my part I have been promised an opportunity for a mixed forum at the forthcoming WOW (Women of the World) conference at the SouthBank by the extremely supportive (female) organiser of that and the BAM (Being A Man) conference that has just been held. I hope she is able to hold to that.

        We have to grab the spotlight, guys…in ways that will be intellectually effective – and catch the public mood…which is actually on our side a lot of the time – at least subliminally aware that considerable injustice and is being perpetrated so often…and with mature feministic women, for example – now realizing that their OWN sons are being targeted.

        It is time to bring that wider public sense of outrage – fully out into the open.


    3. Thank you Karen for embarking on such an important topic that’s so rarely – if ever – covered adequately elsewhere. Clearly you have us on the edge of our seats awaiting more. This is without doubt an absolutely terrifying prospect for many parents and the experience and advice you can offer will be highly prized, as will the very welcome constructive contributions from others here.

      I wonder if I can add a little to your comments about alienating parents believing they’re acting out of love and also Kat’s – about whatever their experience, this is the child(ren)’s normality – by saying that many alienating parents may also view the situation as normal (or even considerably better than normal). I wonder if it might help – when trying to view the world through the eyes of an alienated child – to be reminded that part of the issue Kat describes (about alienating parents using the child(ren) as an emotional crutch), arises from that parent’s inability to recognise and respect the boundaries between his/her self and the child. In other words these parents automatically consider that what’s good for him/her or what he/she wants or needs applies in equal measure – and without any need for separate consideration – to the child(ren). Should we perhaps try to imagine what that’s like for children? Might it also help defuse the situation, even a little, to consider that this is not likely to be something the alienating parent is doing with consious intent? Many ex-partners will have their own personal experiences of being around this bewildering ‘way of being’ and may be familiar with an ex who has an astonishing sense of (automatic) entitlement for example, but how children experience and cope with it may be qualitatively different and especially debilitating.

      I recently found this RSA Short Animation “The Power of Empathy” by Dr Brené Brown very relevant and rather thought provoking (there are also fuller – 22 & 61 min – versions of her lecture at

      I hope others might find it interesting too.

      Many thanks


  7. One common theme I come across is targeted parents who feel they must do what the child asks of them. Of course by agreeing to the child’s wishes in order to facilitate calm they are simply helping reverse the role play. i.e. Child is parent and parent is child.

    For example, if you feel it necessary to ask the Headmaster’s permission to watch your child play in the football match and he then asks your child if they feel comfortable being watched by you, and the child says no.

    1. If you decide not to go to the football match because you don’t want to upset your child you are playing the role of child, and the alienating parent has re-enforced their control over you and your child

    2. If you go to the football match despite your childs protestations , (including the Headmaster and any other) and proceed to wave encouragement and engage with other parents, then you will be fulilling the role of a parent, and most importantly not giving your child the impression that they have been abandoned.

    A child will spend about 50% of their time at school or engaged in school type activites. This is an opportunity for targeted parents to get involved in their children’s lives, despite apparent opposition. Asking to be informed about test results is not enough. You have to become directly involved and inherently interested in your child’s development, always maintaining the role of the caring parent.

    Whilst this may seem a minor way of helping your child feel re-assured by your love, as a targeted parent opportunities to help you child can sometimes be few and far between.


    1. Hi anonymous

      You make some valid points. However, I was in such a situation last Summer (2013) where I wanted to go to the school sports day to show support for my daughter as any parent would wish to do. Below is the email I received back from the head teacher at my daughter’s school. I have removed any names for the sake of privacy.

      “Dear Mr XXXXXX,

      I understand that you have been in touch with XXXXXX’s class teacher, Mr XXXXXX, about coming to school this XXXXXX June, which is our Sports Day.

      Mr XXXXXX is happy to make an appointment to meet with you at a mutually convenient time but this will not be possible on that day.

      I would also like to request that you do not come to XXXXXX for the Sports Day itself. The judgement from the recent court proceedings is clear that your contact with XXXXXX should be indirect; it would be upsetting for XXXXXX if you were to be at the school while she is here, and I want her to enjoy the occasion.

      Yours sincerely,



      I then replied with the following.

      “Dear Mrs XXXXXX

      Thank you for your email.

      As you make reference to the court order of XXXXXX 2012, you will see that this does not specifically stop me from attending any school functions, events or activities. Although indirect contact is mentioned, this is purely because Mother is unable to support contact. Indeed, the spirit and direction of the order is that we should be moving towards re-establishing contact between myself and both of my children and that Mother should be encouraging the children to write to me and have contact with me, which is clearly in their best interests and is supported by the court as evidenced by the court order.

      I appreciate your viewpoint regarding XXXXXX possibly being upset but this is not a viewpoint I share as her father. I believe that my attending the sports day is a step forward in the right direction in rebuilding the relationship with her in the longer term, as supported by and within the spirit of the court order, which is in place to reestablish contact with her and also with my son, XXXXXX.

      Given the above, I will be attending the school sports day accompanied by a fellow parent and friend. I look forward to enjoying the event this Friday.

      Kind regards


      I then received the following from the school

      “Dear Mr XXXXXX,

      Thank you for your email.

      The court order of October 2012 makes clear the level of contact between you and the children, and the forms it is to take. It also says ‘such further other contact as may be agreed between the parties’.

      I have sought advice from the local authority’s legal department and our solicitor has advised from her reading of the court order that if XXXXXX’s mother does not agree to ‘further other contact’ it should not take place. I have asked XXXXXX’s mother this morning whether or not she agrees to ‘further other contact’ in respect of Sports Day and she has written to me that she does not agree. School premises are private property and I have been advised that I will have to ask you to leave.

      I fully understand your wish to re-establish contact with the children but I do urge you not to come to Sports Day in the current circumstances.

      Yours sincerely,

      My point is that it is the resident parent that has the school’s ear. The school is then galvanised into reacting in such a way that every effort is made to keep the non-resident parent at bay and the resident parent uses any court order as a weapon against the non-resident parent, hiding behind allegations of potential upset or harm to the child(ren).

      I have spoken to other fathers who have attempted to go to the school to see their children and it has resulted in embarassing situations at the school reception, or at worse, the police being called to ‘enforce’ a court order where ‘indirect contact’ is cited or the mother has stated she does not want the father at the school.

      What ultimately kept me away from going to the school was the fear that my ex-wife would make a scene with the school, that the school might ask me to leave or even call the police and that this might play out in front of my daughter. Even the friend who said he would accompany me said he would only do so if my ex-wife was informed that I wanted to attend. I was in a lose-lose situation and I feel that it just reinforced in my daughter’s mind that Daddy wasn’t there either because Daddy ‘doesn’t care’ or because he is ‘not allowed to be there’. I also tried to look at this from my daughter’s point of view and I felt that if, as the school was telling me, she would be upset if I were to attend the Sports Day, then that would be extremely distressing for all. No parent wants to see their child upset and no parent would deliberately set out to upset their child. I felt that if I went to the school, it would set in motion a series of awful events.

      Ultimately the children lose out because the court order is imprecise in its aims, the non-resident parent is afraid of upsetting anyone and everyone, the school is afraid and/or takes the easy way out i.e. keep the non-resident parent away, and the resident parent is secure in the knowledge that she can use this fear with determination and the backing of the family court to continue to exclude the non-resident parent from the children’s life.

      What do my children truly think about all of this?


  8. Again, Karen, thank you. Beautiful, clear and moving accounts of the most difficult work in the world, I think. How to be empathetic to something in your child that is not showing just now.

    You may be going to add this idea in later, but it seems to me to help whether you do or do not have contact with your child. That is Amy Baker’s report that adult children say they trusted that the alienated parent would somehow know not to believe what they were saying. They describe a kind of keeping alive but on a shelf their relationship with their alienated parent.

    So it seems to me useful, if I were the parent getting such huge rejection, to keep in mind the hidden child that wants them not to believe what they are saying. Keep in mind the real but shelved relationship the child keeps alive in the back of their mind.

    If you can hold that hidden present and future child and relationship in mind – as well as the earlier version you talk of Karen – then I imagine that the empathy will be easier and more accurate.

    Nick Child


  9. One of the traps that parents who percieve themselves to be targeted fall into is the idea that solutions come from opposing the other parent’s (alienator) point of view.
    As a targeted parent the time you have with your child is often curtailed or drastically reduced. It is essential you make the most of this parenting time by just being a parent. One parent told me since his separtion he has had to learn how to become a superparent.
    In my experience this is very true. The methods and techniques you learn on the “parenting course” become more important because these are the tools which help you connect with your child in the right way.
    The fact that you feel you no longer have a supportive other half to back up your attempts/gaffs at being a parent means that you have to work harder at the parenting skills yourself. Part of that education involves not being derogatory toward the other parent (alienator).
    This is a tricky road for many of us and it’s very hard to view the blocking behaviour of our former partner as anything else than “red rag to a bull” but once you see that what your partner is expressing is no more than, “a point of view” you will begin to concentrate on the needs of your child.
    Your child needs you to be there for them as a parent fully in tune with them as a unique and special person. You have to express that love, care and attention in any way you can. It is the reaching out we do to be there for our children that will secure our relationship for the future.
    If we have a belief that our children hold a candle for us, no matter what (perhaps a dream on a shelf as someone has said) then it is through empathy and our proper response to a child in need that we are more likely to be able to re-engage with them should we be unfortunate enough to miss out on a large part of their upbringing through the process of alienation.

    Kind regards


    1. I try to bear in mind the last words of my eldest child when she still truly had her own mind – and before the alienation process had really been started in earnest.

      “Dad…I’ve got one gentle parent – and one rough parent”.

      Although that was nearly six years ago, these are the most authentic and insightful words that she has ever uttered. For now, the ‘rough parent’ has pretty much taken over her mind – as they are inclined to do…using the mechanism of money, in this case.

      The child has to discover fully for themselves…that “money can’t buy love” – normally a pretty grown-up discovery.

      Our ‘holding a candle’ for that most authentic aspect of our children – may indeed be the key to a long term recovery of the situation…as much as may be possible.


  10. A “super parent”…i like that. I am far from it but i can see what you mean. The target parent has to face something that at times feels like a weird dream. Like one morning you will wake up and find that none of it is true. The children will be there, hugging you, laughing like they always did. Sadly though your harsh reality will begin to bite. It will hurt you deep in your soul like no other hurt you have ever ever imagined. There will be times when you will even wish that you could be released from it. This half dream world that you and your children wander through. The hardest thing too is that the bubble that envelops you are your children is invisible to others. It is like you all carry a dark secret.

    You as you rightly say will battle this often alone. Or you will feel alone. In all those dark moments you will not realise that you are never alone. Slowly you will find that, My greatest support is from a dad who has lost his two beautiful daughters for now. He has helped me save my bond with my children. There are others too. A step parent and mother who visits here, Karen of course, forums here and in another place.

    Wonderful posts as always Karen…My then eight year old would not come for months. He would stand terrified on the doorstep crying like he was terrified of me. Separation Anxiety? Perhaps. PA? Perhaps. His mother ( a childrens social worker) and maternal generations within would not come to the door. I would look down at the tiny frame, the tears, the fear etched on every inch of his beautiful face. There was more than that to take me scurrying to Amy Baker and yourself of course. I remember the fear. The disbelief.

    I consumed every book i could about divorce and children (karens was the most helpful) and as the months and years passed have come to realise that you are far from powerless and passive. The reality is that children are to unconditional love what the bees are to a honey flower. Your obsession with time (and you need it) will become less and the importance of what you do with your time will become paramount. You will also come to realise that your ex is a prisoner as we all are of her childhood parenting. The alienating parent is not an emotionally happy person. Their transference, that rage of often broken attachments or emotionally dysfunctional childhood experiences is not a pleasant gift to deliver. If i sound smug forgive me. I can see my own parenting in the demise and fall of our relationship. My own responsibility. We are in any ways prisoners of our childhood parenting.

    Your first step must be to come to the point where you understand that you cannot control or change what the other parent does. When you get to this place it is like a huge boulder lifted off your shoulders. This is your starting point. If PA is about undermining the authority and love of another parent then it is about power. Your shuffling steps towards acceptance and an understanding of the other parent will place that power back in your hands. Your next step then is what do you do with it?

    This is where you are different but in many ways still the same parent. You will make choices. Sometimes they will feel like your putting your life on hold. I despise the “parenting as a sacrifice” mantra of course. Usually the diatribe of the single mums, the contact blockers. I find their FB posts nauseating.

    You have to make choices though. I have accepted that i will live alone until the children are older. The new paramour and the blended family beckon for our children and that is not an easy process. The landscape will change often to your advantage. The changing dynamic in my case has led to more subtle and less intense patterns of behaviour. The old adage as i have said before that PA is not an aphrodisiac to most divorced dads rings true. I never question them but at times the little one will find it hard to hold his water. Perhaps they tire of keeping secrets from their dad? They have been told that they will get a games room and laptop when they move in with “new dad” as she fondly once termed him. I will be the last to be told and neither will the court be told as she drags me through the finances quagmire. It will make an interesting contrast to the family court circus mind although i will miss the nice but dim CAFCASS officer fawning over mum and recommending a WAF report which the judge thankfully ignored.

    He is a good father to his son. I envy his five nights a fortnight care and his avoidance of court in any shape or form. His son is a beautiful wee boy who sits near our youngest boy in class. Fragile in some ways. He has attachment issues and will not venture far from his dad or mum. Once when his dad was ill and his mother away with her new partner, he stayed with our boys at mine. He had never stayed with anyone other than his parents. He was perfect. My halo as they say is surely in the post? Its a challenge because you have to actually do what you have asked all along of the other parent. To put the children’s needs first. Its far from easy.

    Do they begin to vote with their feet? Yesterday i was supposed to have them daytime only. They came here with two friends and before the evening return they asked to stay. Their mother was out and i suspect the presence of two friends-a public scrutiny- meant that we agreed they could and i would drop them off this morning at their nans. I am wary of course of the danger of them choosing contact. It can no doubt be a poison chalice. My next giant leap will be their independence as they grow older but in many ways that would be the case if we were still an intact family.

    Until then there are things to do. When the finances allow i will take them to see their cousin in Holland. Ironically alienated from his father (my brother) and since reunited. We will go and watch Ajax. Cuba may even beckon. As i once remarked here watching them play with the children from Maggies porch in Colon will for me be end game. It will be over. We shall see. As they drift into their late teens and adulthood it will be my time too. Perhaps then i will feel able to expose myself to the concept of leaving the heart open. I think so.

    I still get flashbacks. That tiny boy, those tears. The child who spat on his birthday candles. His older brother once screaming at me that he would tell court that he hated me. I get them less now. There are things that take their place.

    last Christmas our eldest boy drew me a picture and put it in a frame. he did one for mum too. Mine is of a certain hero of mine. He has a cigar planted in his mouth. Below in neat letters “Merry Christmas Dad”. An arrow pints to Che.
    Last year i also got a card from his younger brother. It had been drawn in school. A Greek warrior adorned the front, sword in hand. Below the words “you are my warrior, you will always protect me.” Beneath the warrior the word “me”. Inside the card is another soldier with a shield and spear. Below the word “Dad”.

    I am Lucky. Very lucky. Empathy? Of course and all the other things that you must learn about and do. I am friends with a grand dad on the school playground and we take the boys often to watch a local lower league team. We sit in the stand talking nonsense while the boys cheer and wander. The boys are great chums. His grandson once told my son “you have the best dad in the world”. I felt like crying when he told me.

    I often think of my mother. She was from east Cork and they have a term there they use…”backbone”. You will need that and more. I loved her dearly and she was as good a parent as she could be. Thats what i hope to be. I often think of the old man. He guides me every day. I hope my latent narcissism is in check? You see i could never ever be the best dad in the world. Nor would i want to be. The truth is that with all his flaws and human frailties i had and still have my warrior. He protects us still. Guards over us. Shelters the child who stands there on the doorstep. His tiny heart broken by the madness of an adult world that swirls around his shaking frame.

    Therein lies your power and of course your strength.


  11. Dear Chris
    If I were going through what you have experienced I would be angry, saddened and extremely frustrated. Far be it for me to comment but I will make suggestions that you may have already considered.

    What sticks out for me is how the school and the courts are mother focussed rather than child focussed. They seem intent on widening the divide between yourself and your lovely children. The Head seems to be coercing with your Ex.
    I like your letter to the Head which outlines the intent of the court order to encourage re-establishing relations with your children. My only additions would be…”in the light of the court order and my right to be fully involved in my children’s education I would like you to invite me to as many of the school functions as possible. Perhaps you would be good enough to explain to my ex the needs of the children in this respect. I will be spending Sports Day with my children, but in the spirit of being sensitive to the aspirations of my ex I will endeavour to keep my distance from her. I trust you will explain to my ex that should she approach me or be aggressive or violent to me in any way her behaviour in public will be recorded and any detrimental effect that may have on my children. I have also taken the liberty of informing the local press who will be interested to know why you think you can deny a father a day at his children’s special event.
    I empathise with your desire to make Sports Day a good day for all concerned and you have my full support on this. Looking forward you know my special interest is ………………and I would love to share this with my son and his friends at……………….on …………………… Thank you for sending me details of my son’s latest school project, I remember his special interest in ………………from 2011 when we all went to ………………………….on holiday together.
    You ask what your children think about all this. I think they will be missing you and hoping you can do something to bring about reconciliation (although I don’t know this, and of course if they are alienated they will be telling you that they don’t want to see you).
    Ultimately you are doing all the right things, but don’t fall into the trap of “Mummy control”. You don’t want to end up being a pawn like all the other players. Work on your positive relationship with the Head. Sympathise with your ex and with the Head, who doesn’t want this problem to upset the reputation of his school. But, be firm and whilst acknowledging the view of the other persons state your own, which seem much more reasonable to any sane person.

    The friend you mention who says he will go to Sports Day with you. You need to make more friends like him.

    Kind Regards

    Go to Sports Day, every time, and squeeze the flesh as they say………..promote yourself


  12. This has been extremely enlightening and I certainly do hope that this topic is presently underway. Maybe these are “old” articles and posts?

    Karen thank you kindly..


    1. Hi Karen,

      Brilliant articles which show great understanding. Thank you. I am being alienated at the moment by my ten year old daughter’s mum. We spilt up 9 years ago and she has recently escalated breaches of the contact order and is saying nasty (untrue) things to my daughter. At present, my daughter stays quiet during the handover but had started to just say no. I’ve no idea why she won’t come to me and neither the mother or daughter will tell me. In entering mediation but I’m afraid that it’s a delaying plot whilst the mother takes my daughter further away from me. The good news is that when I actually get to see my daughter she is great and we have a brilliant time. I just need to nip it in the bud pretty soon. Any thoughts on how I might get my daughter back on side or able to speak to me about how she feels please? Thanks.


  13. All I can say is thank you.

    This article speaks to me and my family. So perfectlywritten for us. This article will be put in my notes and I will read it before I get to see my children each and every time.

    Our situation is nothing of the sort that I have read about We are fortunate in this manner, but my ex-wife has put us through years of hell The love my children and I had keeps the alienation from being entrenched, but this article speaks so perfectly to us and to me
    Thank you for making a difference in our lives


  14. Fist I want to say how good it feels to read your texts. Thank you! I would also like to learn on how to react when Alienation from the other parent has taken its grips in the community – school – church, etc. where you feels that its not only your child that reject you, but the surrounding of your child as well (his world) where you hurt just to see your child hurting in that environment. “do no harm and at best offer your child the understanding that you know what they are going through” this meant for me to make the hard decision to distance myself to safe his young soul and further psychological harm, giving him peace, hoping that time may help. This is the hardness thing I had to do in my life knowing that either way my child was going to hurt. Choosing between a) him suffering from constant alienation strategies and me trying to be in his life or b) him suffering in the long run that I am not around anymore as his loving father and parent. I had to choose b) for his sake. Yes I love my child and miss my child everyday.


  15. Hi I’ve just finished reading this article with floods of tears rolling down my face and I know I have got to carry on reading so I am able to understand as much as I can. I’ve raised the issue in family courts about the impact alienation can have on both child and target parent. One problems I am now facing is I have got to put my trust in cafcass/local authorities to prove alienation in order for anything to be done about it, but if they have any form of wit about them, then I can’t see them not doing just that as things just seem to be so accurate . I am sad that I have had to look for information but happy that I have come across your information. If only I had someone around me with the knowledge you have because it’s eating me up alive and only God knows what it’s doing to my little girl who’s eleven and its been going on two almost three years she doesn’t even want to spend time with me anymore where as my eight year old boy does. I only wish I knew what alienation was a few years ago when I noticed that mither was trying to turn my daughter against me. Funny thing is I know she was turning my child against me but didn’t think I could do anything about it.

    I’m now going to carry on reading the next article.


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