Back from a workshop in Leicester this weekend where we met another group of parents suffering the pain of alienation and forced separation from their beloved children. Once again, far from it being a wholly miserable and gloomy day, we laughed as we discussed the different difficulties faced in the alienation process. Laughed because sometimes the recounting of the actions of the alienated child and alienating parent sound so ludicrous when they are shared out loud. Though facing those action is painful indeed, sharing them with others who recognise them allows relief to flood through and laughter to come. In a world where loneliness and isolation are feelings that arrive on the day that your child rejects you, finding others who understand can be a life saver. For some in the room it was the first time they had laughed about what was happening. For everyone faced with alienation, laughter is good medicine and protects against the most harmful impacts of the alienation process. When we can laugh at a problem we know that we have externalised it and recognised it as something ‘out there’, something which is being done to us, not something we have caused. When we laugh we have gained perspective and recognised that this is a problem shared by others. Alienation is an isolating and demoralising experience, laughing protects against the damage that it does.
But onto the subject of today’s post because it is one which is current in my mind as we continue the process of getting our new projects ready for you. So many parents who come to us ask about how to cope with a child who is in the process of being alienated or who is showing signs of heading down that slippery slope. How do I manage, is the question being asked, when my child is defiant, rude or angry with me. What do I do, when my child puts up resistance to my discipline? What you do is perhaps surprisingly different to what you want to do or feel compelled to do. What you do is counter intuitive and contrary to your urge to keep your child happy. What you do, is act like every parent would in the circumstances where a child is causing problems, what you do is hold your boundaries.
Boundaries are a critical issue for a child who is experiencing an alienation reaction. This is because in order to alienate a child you have to remove the normal boundaries that are set for them by their parents. This is done either consciously or unconsciously by a parent who is alienating and is part of the wider campaign to bring the child onside against you. If you then mirror that behaviour in the alienating parent and remove all of the boundaries when the child is in your care too, you are simply helping to escalate the alienation reaction not reduce it.
Our boundaries are critical interventions in a child’s life. Boundaries are rules, expectations, requirements and exhortations to behave in a particular manner. Boundaries are set for a child when you as the parent require a child to behave in a particular way. Boundaries are part of all of our lives, from the social inhibiting boundaries of good public behaviour to the personal expectations that someone will treat you with respect, we all grow in a world of boundaries and for the child at risk of alienation, those boundaries are what can prevent the reaction from escalating badly.
To understand how children at risk of alienation are affected by the removal of boundaries by the alienating parent think about the stereotypical portraits of teenagers that we see on the tv. Those kids who say nothing apart from ‘whatever’ with a shrug of their shoulders, those kids who sulk and refuse to engage with their parents. When children reach their teenage years they are naturally tasked with pushing boundaries, that is the purpose of those transitional years. Teenagers gradually push at the boundaries that their parents set, progress to negotiating their own boundary setting and eventually they are in charge of their personal values and expectations and capable of setting and maintaining their own boundaries as they become adults. The early years of being a teenager can be rocky as the boundary pushing commences but the child is not yet able to negotiate with ease. Coupled with parents who are at first startled by the change in their child, the early months for teenagers can be somewhat difficult and unsettling as everyone gets used to the changing regime.
For children who are alienated their behaviours have become early teenager behaviours and then some. That is because the boundaries around their behaviours in one household have been removed or distorted and they have been given more power than they are capable of dealing with. Younger children in these circumstances will become surly, rude and difficult to manage. Older children will behave like teenagers but turbo charged, aggressive, rude and impossible to deal with. When you are faced with this in your children you have two choices. You can mirror the boundarylessness of the alienating parent or you can committ to the healthy parenting that your children need and step up and stand up to your children. It won’t make for happy blissful days and nights, but it will stop the alienation reaction from escalating and give your children what they need to get them through.
Put simply, when confronted with rude, aggressive and difficult children do not give in to the temptation to back down and give them all of the control in the hope that it will make them like you again, it won’t. What it will do is escalate their sense of entitlement to tell you what to do and it will make them increasingly anxious. Entitlement comes from being over empowered by the other parent who is busy indulging them and telling them that they are in charge of what happens. Anxiety comes because children know deep down inside that they should not be in this position and that the power they have been given is too much for them to handle. They don’t want to be in this place, they have been pushed into it. Return them to the place that they are comfortable with, child to your parent and do that by setting and keeping your boundaries, even in the face of their outrage and continued efforts to be in charge.
Most of all do not take any of this personally. If you take it personally when an alienated reaction sets in you risk being entangled in the game that the alienating parent is playing. If you find yourself at risk of fighting with your child or berating your child for hurting you, walk out of the room. Similarly, if you find yourself indulging your child or failing to set and maintain boundaries with them, get help to toughen up. Even if, every time they come to you it is rocky and difficult do not give way just to keep the peace or just to have a nice time because if you do you will find that you are feeding their entitlement to make decisions about whether they stay in your life or not. Do not be afraid to set boundaries and hold them, it is healthy for your children and interestingly, can immediately stop a child from escalating aggression and other difficult behaviours.
Saying no helps children at risk of alienation. Debating, pleading and threatening does not. Practice saying no, even when every part of you is terrified that it will make things worse, you will be surprised at their reaction. When you say no, mean no, not maybe or perhaps but no. When you say no, give a reason why but keep it short and make it clear it is not for debate. One of the things that children at risk of alienation do (just like teenagers) is seek to engage you in debate so that they can manipulate you and manage you (mirroring what the other parent is doing). If you have to leave the room to end the possibility of debate do so. You have to be the leader, you have to be in charge. If you spend your time looking for their approval you will lose this ability. It is not your children’s role to approve of you, it is yours to approve of them and their behaviours, make that knowledge stick in your mind and in your behaviours and you will soon get the hang of boundary setting and when you do you will be surprised at what you find.
More on boundary setting in the book Understanding Parental Alienation: learning to cope, helping to heal which I continue to get ready for publication. Also coming soon is our new site from where you will be able to download podcasts and other resources to help you in your journey as parent to an alienated child. We are working on it all right now and will announce our launch here very soon.