Write me a river: communicating with your alienated child

The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves contact – it is silence which isolates Thomas Mann

I spend my life writing, I have done so for as many years as I can remember. Writing, for me, is easier than speaking and allows me to translate my feelings, my thoughts and even my unconscious. It is the medium through which my voice is most easily heard. Finding it easy to write, it is easy for me to forget that not everyone communicates effectively this way. Finding it easier to write than speak, you are more likely to receive a letter or an email from me than a phone call and that goes for whether I see you daily or only once each year. And so to write about writing to your alienated child, is for me, something that I find quite difficult. So much so that in order to do it, I have to step into your shoes for a while and feel what it is to find it difficult to write or to not to know what to write about or simply not want to write when all you really want to do is scream the word why?

Writing however is a medium that all alienated parents could and should (in my view) get comfortable with. Writing is good for you and it is good for your child and when you get comfortable with it, your writing can fill in the gaps that a thousand years of talking could not fill. When you write and allow your thoughts to flow, your anxiety levels drop, when you write and allow yourself to simply be in the moment, your emotions regulate themselves. When you write you can express all of those things that you would like to say to your child (and more) and even if they never read a word of it, it is said, it is committed to paper and it is, as a result, in existence forever.

Many people ask me about writing to their child. I am asked for templates to use and about things to say and about how it is possible to keep on saying the same things in different ways for ever and a day without any return. My response to this is to say that if you write for return with an alienated child you are simply continuing the same pattern of behaviours that keep your child in the same place that she has always been. When you write to your alienated child, write from the mother or father within you and tell your child what you want them to hear about how they are still loved, still missed, still cared for and about how you are still there, still well and still waiting. Write from your heart, from the place of still being the parent that you were on the day that they were born and let love flow. When you do, the writing flows and you will find it benefits you in so many ways.

Recently I have begun interviewing children who were once alienated but who have recovered. This is for our book, to offer alienated parents a sense of what is important to their alienated child. All of the children I have thus far spoken to have told me that letters and cards were a vital lifeline to their parent, that even though they did not read them or dismissed them out of hand, somewhere inside they knew that the arrival of those missives meant that they were still loved and that their parent was still out there somewhere. Some children speak of the anxiety that letters caused them and the cognitive dissonance of hearing that they were loved even though they were being told they were not. Other children have told me that they wish the parent they had rejected had written more about the lives they were leading and the world outside the alienation that they felt. None of the children said that they wished their parent hadn’t bothered. None of them said that letters, cards and emails were not important.

And so in the spirit of new beginnings, in the coldest and darkest time of the year. Why not pick up your pen or sit yourself down at your keyboard and write. Write to begin with because you have a story to tell. Write so that your thoughts and feelings begin to flow. Write about the world around you, about the light in the sky and the stark fingers of the trees against the January twighlight. Write about the wind that has been howling around us over the past few nights or the Sunshine that has been beating down upon you in that land down under. Write about the feelings and the fears and the things that make you smile on the darkest of days. If writing feels strange to begin with, try reading something new, try poetry or prose and let that flow through you and unwind the neural pathways so that your mind gets used to the rythmn of writing. When you find yourself in full flow, turn your thoughts to your child and let them know, from the heart of you, how you are feeling about them now.

Letter writing to alienated children is not easy but it can be made easier if you enjoy the act of writing and if you find yourself able to converse around the corners of the pain and the rejection that you feel. Reach out over the top of the pain and the anger and the loss and the hurt and write to that child who is still there. Here is one such letter, written by a parent I worked with some years ago. It has stayed with me ever since I read it and it stayed with her child too.

My darling child.

Today the tulips opened up their bright red faces and smiled at me in the sunshine. I thought about the day that we brought you home from the hospital on a day just like today. All the birds in the world were singing and the sun beamed its smiley face down from the sky, I was so happy, you were so perfect and we were so blessed.

The frogs in the pond are busy, it is the time of year for tadpoles and there are so many of them. Do you remember when we collected them in jars and watched them growing into tiny little frogs. That morning when we came downstairs and found them all jumping about in the sink was funny, we had to catch each one of them and carry them into the garden in our hands, they were so tiny!

This year I have planted lots of different vegetables in our veg patch, I have labelled them all with the pen that you gave me for Christmas a couple of years ago. I keep the pen in my tray by the window so that I know where it is, you know how I am for losing things! It is very useful though so thank you for such a perfect present, I think of you when I am using it, I draw funny little faces on the labels to remind me of you as the vegetables grow.

It is still frosty at night though. When I look up at the stars I wonder if you are looking up too and counting them like we used to. So many stars in the sky, do you ever think we would be able to count them all?

I have planted some peas for you again but I will bring them in at night because it is sooo cold that they would soon die if I left them out. There are some purple mange tout for you, one day when you come around we will pick them and put them in our stir fry.

My feet are still cold in the day time so I have not put my sandals on yet. This year I think I will paint my toenails bright pink, what colour will you do yours do you think? I still have our nail polish set with all of those fantastic colours, some of the pots have gone a bit sticky but it’s ok, I will replace them for us.

I hope you are keeping warm and snug through the winter. I think about you every day and send you all of my love and the snuggles you cannot have right now. They will always be here waiting for you, they will never go away.

When I interviewed the recipient of this letter recently I asked her whether she remembered receiving it. She left the room for a moment and came back with it in a frame.

I remembered it’, she said, ‘how could I forget it. That letter said everything to me about my mother and her love for me that could ever be said. When I read it I was nine years old and I was cold and angry and rejecting. But those images she painted for me went past all of that and right into my heart, I knew then that what I was doing was wrong and though it took me six more years to struggle my way free, that letter and others that she sent, let me know that what was waiting was her love for me. It what was kept me going.’

Writing is not easy for everyone I know, but writing a river instead of crying one is something that speaks to your child of your enduring love and is what could, in the end, build that road home.

21 Comments

  1. At last I am receiving your posts again Karen. I too write copious amounts. As far as some grandparents are concerned of course they have harassment orders or warnings over them for writing to their grandchildren, I suggest that they perhaps keep a journal, or write letters but keep them in a special place to be able to share them at a later date with their grandchildren. My son set up a blog for his daughter which we used to write on regularly but it has become more and more difficult, the little girl of nearly 8 years ago is now a young woman.

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    1. Yes that is a good point Jane, too many children are prevented from receiving lettes and yes, keeping them in a safe place and always keeping copies is important. That young woman will be so proud of her grandmother, somewhere, sometime, soon, I hope. x

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  2. I love what you say to parents about writing down their thoughts, Karen. And that letter written by an alienated parent is beautiful; the daughter’s response gives so much hope. She was able to feel the authenticity, even though she didn’t accept it right away. Even for the children whose alienating parent intercepts the letters, if they continue to be sent, there is a chance the child will find one of them.

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  3. “I knew then that what I was doing was wrong” The blame placed on a nine year old child or indeed the blame the child places on herself. A friend of mine was an alienated child I remember all her tears as she told me about how she had treated her dad as a child. Tears of regret, but mainly of blaming herself for what had happened when she was just a child.

    Thank you for sharing this Karen, it is very sad but also a story of hope. I wonder what you would get from an interview with someone alienated, but not recovered?

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    1. You’ve got me in tears with that Kat……its exactly what I have tried to tell my ex, the idiots at Cafcass, the Judge, etc etc etc that my son will be going through when he is older and realises what he has been allowed to do during his childhood…thank you for sharing it though….because it confirms that I need to just keep on trying….no matter how hard that can sometimes be!

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  4. Kat, my sister and I are both adults who were alienated from our mother. She is not recovered and therefore we hardly talk to each other about this topic because we have completely different viewpoints.

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    1. Thank you for that. I just wondered what these adults are thinking, my brother hasn’t recovered either, but we don’t talk at all, which is quite sad really.

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      1. I’m sorry to hear you don’t talk with your brother at all. I maintain a peaceful relationship w/ my sister (though once this memoir is published, that could change). I just know she isn’t ready- and may never be- to see what I see, and I have to let go of that.

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  5. I do write, I can only email since my daughter is away at college, she vanished out of our lives halfway through her senior year of high school and is now halfway through her junior year of college. I haven’t seen her in two and a half years, have only heard her voice once since that time last May when she was home for the summer and we went to her dad’s house to bring the Christmas and Birthday presents of the previous years, mostly things I made, the call was to tell me to stay away (she did not want to see me according to the alienating stepmother and we warned that if we didn’t leave police would be called) from “her family.”
    I gently said we are your family too and she hung up and that was that. I began emailing her regularly (monthly but have now stepped it up to every couple weeks) I don’t know that she hasn’t blocked me but they have all been just telling her she is loved and missed and that we are always here and love her no matter what. The first email I sent I told her about what was going on in our lives and that I was fully recovered from a hospitalization. No reply, however she posted on Twitter within an hour after I sent that email “why would you think I would care anything about you or your life?” It about killed me, you see I had been hospitalized for severe depression that had caused me to become suicidal and i hospitalized myself. Every email since then has been extremely careful to not say anything about our lives or even use the words I or we outside of we love and miss you. I don’t know what to do, do I continue to do as I’m doing or be myself but careful not to be negative or angry, which honestly I am not towards her, she didn’t cause this, her dad and his stepmom did and after three years the rage has burned itself out. I don’t know if I’m being too self protective. She never replies and the silent treatment to me is worse than being yelled at. I’m sorry this is so long. Thanks for all you write Karen, your story today made me cry and gave me a little hope and that is a lot.

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    1. OM…I am so sorry to hear about how your daughter has been….what I am trying to say in this piece is that if you write, write from the heart of your mothering and let it go into the wind, into the void, into the silence…if you write with attachment to her in her current state you will get nothing but hurt back because she is the conduit for other people’s anger and control and nothing but nothing is poisonous like the control of another woman against you be it grandmother or stepmother or any other person who seeks to replacement you, her real mother. Write for yourself, to that child you gace birth to, write for the mother in you for the mother you still are and always will be. Write into the silence and know that every word you say breaks it….I know it is so painful to bear nothing in return but keep doing it, keep saying it, hold her in your mind as a child held captive, which is what she is. Sending you my support. K

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  6. Thank you Karen, this is incredibly powerful, as are the comments so far.

    I have written a lot to my daughter, letters, postcards, a ‘farewell letter’ that the court grudgingly allowed, a blog, and have kept copies of most of them. Sometimes I have been very discouraged and have written little, preferring the blog to letters for fear of being accused of harassment by mother. I was able to see my daughter briefly before Christmas, with mother present. My daughter was very uncomfortable in this situation and unable to speak freely, but she told me she had received a postcard I had sent recently with greetings from her wider paternal family, and she seemed positive about it.

    Postcards seem to get through better than letters. Maybe they are less threatening to the ‘censors’ than a sealed letter, because they have nothing to hide. It’s surprising what you can write on a postcard. They can act too as reminders of important places and people the child no longer sees. Making my own postcards out of photos is something I have tried, too.

    The blog is hard work. It’s difficult enough to write to a child you don’t see and therefore you don’t know how she has changed, and it’s still more difficult when you don’t know how old the child will be when she finds the blog and reads it. It has become less important now that mother has indicated that she will allow me to write to our daughter.

    Knowing thanks to two brief visits recently that my daughter is at most moderately alienated is a great encouragement to me. But I long for her to send a reply. The only letters she has ever sent me were during the court case; they were hostile and used her mother’s turns of phrase and strange handwriting.

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  7. I have long decided that my children are like the newborn that does not respond yet to your smiles. It is the first few weeks of no smiles but just looking at you that are very hard. When you child first smiles at you, your heart opens up even more and you feel their love for the first time. I try to put my children back at that same spot. They feel the love but are not showing it. I have had many harsh and mean words come from them. Their actions have been meaner and harsher but if ever I see them, no matter what they do I always come home and write to them ( e-mail is all I have ) I just write how happy I was to see them and that they look beautiful to me. I never mention the bad behaviour but how happy I was to see them. I let them know that they have the power with just a look, to make me happy because I love them so much. I have read that it takes, ” Superhuman strength” to survive being the alienated parent but super human strength is what I aim for. My children are worth it. If they were in a cult and I had to try to get them out of it, I would have to keep happy and calm and loving. I also would have to be so strong as to not fall apart. My children need me to be an example. I am showing them how to deal with abuse. I have my head high and I smile to the world. My children need to see that I will not fall apart over this. I tell them I am certainly sad and I say that I cry for them but I am surviving and tell them happy things I do in my life. I have one of four children that have blocked my e-mail. I know this because every e-mail I send comes back to me however, I keep sending her e-mail. One day I can show her all the e-mail I have sent her. I also have books for them I started years ago. I used to write in them all the time until I started sending them e-mail. I told a grown up friend that was alienated from her father as a child, about the books. She broke into tears and said, ” I wish my dad had written a book for me.” That made me know I was doing the right thing. As parents we are not always parenting for the moment. As an alienated parent I am not always parenting for this moment either. Sometimes I am working for the future. I will not give up. My children deserve this.

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  8. Thank you. I don’t know my daughter’s address, but I will try to find it out. My daughter (for attention? some kind of relief?) often makes up lies about me abusing her, so it makes it complicated for me to try to get anything to her or have a relationship with her even from a distance, but I know she is hurting. I love her and I want her to know. Sometimes her cruel and violent responses (and no responses) make me think she is better off being left alone because she does not seem to want to hear from me. Of course, I have since found out that her dad had her texts sent directly to his email. However, her lies about me predated any of this and I am confused. Maybe she has outgrown this? All I know is that she once loved me and we had a sweet relationship when her dad was not orchestrating with mind games and threats. Thanks again for your guidance. I appreciate it so much & I will share this with other alienated parents.

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    1. I’m reading these responses with tears streaming down my face. I haven’t seen my daughters now for 18 months. Some days it is so painful, like today. Reading other people’s experiences is upsetting but gives me strength to know in my darkest despairing moments i have to keep reaching out to them. One day i hope they come back to me.

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  9. Hi
    I stumbled upon this from J4MB.
    I am an alienated parent, haven’t seen my daughter since I she was 18 months old.
    i wrote one birthday card to her at the previous addres where we last lived ( overseas) so have no idea if it was recieved. after that i stopped because the mother was “explosive” in her behaviour( she has possibly BPD and other mental health issues and was violent and abusive to myself and our child during the marriage) during the religous divorce proceedings and I had fears that with her past suicidal threats (including one to take our daughter life) that i backed off. I have for the last 3 years written letters and other cards but never sent them. They are all kept in a box along with other mementos from my family. Now I am debating whether to send a 5th brithday card, but it will have be sent c/o of my wife at her work address. I read here that people face issue of threats of harrasement for commincating with their child so ihave that in mind. Threatening me currently would have no enforcable basis as we live in very different legal jurisdictions and as yet we are not legally divorced( the one my wife obtained was religous and not recognised world wide nor in the UK, but the custody award she got in a secret hearing gave my daugther to her with no rights of anything for me). My only concern would be in that in the eventual legal divorce I will undergo in a year or so in the UK, my wife will attempt to use my attempts at communicating with my daughter as harrassement).

    I’m not sure how my child will react to any communication from me. whether she will be angry and frustrated or will take the side that her mother stated to everyone that i was abusive to her( even though it was proven the other way around in court). I know that being a disabled child( a disability we both share) that being denied the prescribed medical treatment leads to impaired childhood development( and before anyone ask, i have asked the legal side of this- its become a child protection issue as the mother has denied the disability) which in turn leads to behavioural. frustration and anger problems). even though she was very young at the time i was forced to leave she was at that point self aware and was very attached to me( i was the at home dad as advised by the doctors- something my wife resented). My UK lawyer has been honest with me about the likelhood of seeing my child again which is zilch, but claims that the court will establish a right of contact in court, but the problem will be in the inability to enforce it not just inthe UK, but outside the jurisdiction of the court.

    I am at the position which i have to ask ( and I am sorry to ask this ) but is it worth sending a simple birthday card or will it simply stir up more problems.

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  10. I cried a river when I read this yesterday. I was uplifted, engulfed, shaken up and spat out. Four hours later I came away from your posts and their replies, at last I have found somewhere where everyone understands my pain.

    I wrote an email to my very good friends during December. I needed them to understand my inability to engage over the festive season. I wrote how my beautiful 16 year old daughter had decided to cease all contact with me and how I felt I was grieving. Some of them didn’t feel able to reply, some of them instinctively understand the pain I feel.

    What I didn’t know is that in my efforts to engage I may have caused her to pull away further. BUT NOW, when her father and older brother (18) tell me to stay away and make no contact as it “makes her ill” I will listen and respond appropriately. (What do I mean? Goodness knows, but I know I should keep up the contact.)

    I went to watch her in a school performance earlier this week; she met my eye during the most poignant song of the evening, so I know, I really know, she does love me under all the hate she constantly displays.

    I’m going out to buy two special journals this afternoon. I will write to each of them when I want to I will tell them how I feel and about me and them. I am their mum, I love them more than words but I have to write it down as I can’t tell them or show them minute by minute. But you all know and understand that….

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