Rebuilding your relationship with your alienated child

Today we are working on putting some finer details down for the book and we have been thinking about the complexities of reconnection.  However your child eventually reconnects, you have challenges ahead of you. One of the biggest is when your child returns and wants to reconnect whilst still in relationship with the alienating parent.  This is a difficult one but ultimately, if you can help your child to do that you are serving them well because you are supporting the reintegration of their split thinking and helping to normalise their understanding of themselves in a world where people are both good and bad all at the same time.  Here is a snippet from our Healing section in the book.

The child who is still in relationship to the alienating parent must be helped to achieve the psychological tasks of reframing the past into a healthy future. In this respect as the parent of an alienated child you are charged with a most difficult task of helping the child to go through stages of healing without separation from the parent causing the problem in the first place. Here is a stage by stage approach to doing this.

Stage Psychological task for the child How to help the child achieve it
One Disconnection from the alienation Help the child to see themselves as separate from the alienating parent through discussion and affirmation of their ability to reconnect to you.
Two Retrieval of their ability to think their own thoughts. Help the child to reality test by making statements and asking questions. Am I the person you thought I was going to be? Am I still here and helping you?
Three Suspension of disbelief that the target parent is dangerous. Set and keep boundaries, do what you say you will do, let the child challenge without being aggressive but hold the boundaries firmly.
Four Reframing of their understanding of the past, in which they begin to see that their behaviours were not based on fact but on what they had been lead to believe were facts. Be who you are not what the alienating parent has told the child you are. If the alienating parent has said you are aggressive tone down your behaviours and be calm and relaxed. Understand what the child has been told and be other than that consistently.
Five Rebuilding of trust in the once targeted parent which takes time and which requires that the child is given the forgiveness they seek when they seek it. A child who has been alienated knows that their behaviour has been damaging and they do need to feel that they can ask for and be given forgiveness. If the child asks for forgiveness give it. If the child asks you to acknowledge things that happened acknowledge them but if the child asks you to acknowledge things that didn’t happen begin the process of helping them to understand that their memories may not be as real as they think they are. Some exercises to help with this are at the back of this book.
Six Reframing of the relationship with the alienating parent in which the child must learn how to relate to the alienating parent in ways that are safe for them. This can involve helping the child to understand which of the behaviours that the child encountered in the parent were those which lead to them behaving as they did when they were alienated. When the child begins to speak about the alienating parent confirm that which you know to be true but do not allow the child to continue bad mouthing behaviour by turning their rejection onto the alienating parent. This only prolongs the split thinking and creates a guilt reaction which can provoke the child to bounce back to the alienating parent.
Seven Learning how to live an integrated internal life in which people are seen as both good AND bad and learning how to disappoint people without feeling that the world is going to fall apart. This is a very important task for all children who have faced having their psychological self split into seeing the world as good and bad and can take longer than any of the other tasks above. Help your child to learn that everyone is good AND bad and that she doesn’t have to split her feelings into all good and all bad. Speak well of the things that the alienating parent has done which have been good for the child and encourage her to see this and acknowledge it. Recognise the things that have not been good and name them. Help the child to understand that it is not their role to care for the parent’s needs.

This work with your child may be sporadic or it may be intense, it all depends upon whether or not your child is able to withstand the influence of the alienating parent or whether they are still strongly affected by them. However your child comes back into your life, whether it is a one off event which does not repeat itself for several months or whether it is a rapid reconnection in which the child reappears and does not go away, when a child is prompted into a reconnection process it is rare that it simply stops and is not completed. The level of involvement that you may have with your child will vary, some will want to be very involved in your life from now on, others will be more distanced as they try to work out a balanced way of relating to you. This will reveal itself over time as your child seeks to achieve those psychological tasks that help them to build an independent sense of self. Working it out alongside your child requires you to have patience and understanding as well as knowledge and willingness to act to provide for your child what he has been missing for many years, a stable and consistent relationship with a parent which is predictable and healthy.

12 thoughts on “Rebuilding your relationship with your alienated child”

  1. Karen, I recognise many of these stages though I have never articulated them. As so often before, you manage to put word to the higgledy piggledy feelings and observations of going through this process. In my experience many of these stages happen in parallel rather than completing one, before embarking on the next. Six is today’s experience. Seven is also about seeing themselves as both good and bad and learning to live with who they really are rather than who they were told to be.


  2. Am going through this currently with my eldest child (who is trying to come back to me after about effectively 6 years) for support in the run up to exam time – but has completely misunderstood the basis on which it is possible for a parent to help with A level work, especially in subjects that they have not done – and she is now becoming angry with me on that basis.

    The help she needed all along was never someone to do her work FOR her, but rather someone to help her structure her approach to subjects that were demanding. In effect, she still needed to be “watched over” in this respect – on a ‘day to day’, ‘week by week’ basis. Her mother is completely incapable of providing such support – but removed the only person who could.

    Of course a young person themselves is easily seduced into the idea that they DON’T need such help…only to find out too late that they DID all along – and their despair at realizing that critical life periods have been significantly wasted and they are now faced with the consequent frustration and humiliation…is hard to bear.

    For the rest of my life I will remember the cruel, derisory, pathetic, contemptuous words of the female Judge – “that’s unfortunate”…when she was told about my daughters previous failures at GCSE – in which she had herself been complicit by allowing what were patently absurd allegations…to be taken seriously…compounding the problems for my daughter even further – into the 6th form period.

    Judges should know that their power to harm children by siding with a resident parent is simply overwhelming – when removing the main (and sometimes only) parent capable of keeping the child emotionally and intellectually safe. One lesson I bet they DON’T get in ‘Judge School’.


    1. Woodman, I fear that by taking an active interest in your daughter’s education, you are falling straight into the feminist stereotype of the over-intellectual, unfeeling, authoritarian father. Girls just wanna have fun, after all…

      You should have heard the CAFCASS officer and my ex-wife’s counsel denouncing me in court for reading books (age-appropriate story books) to my six-year-old daughter. Maybe you don’t need to read books to become a CAFCASS officer, or a barrister. It reached the point where my solicitor was advising me not to read to my daughter in contact sessions, although reading together had been something we both especially enjoyed, and had formed an important part of the bond between us, quite apart from the educational benefits.

      I felt like some hapless Soviet-era intellectual being accused by the Party of bourgeois individualism, or some such deviation. If only I’d left the books in the library and parked my daughter in front of the TV!

      Karen & Nick, I am really, really looking forward to this book, as I’m sure many other readers of & contributors to this blog are, too. From what we have seen so far, it is streets ahead of anything else available, at least from this side of the Atlantic.


  3. I can’t understand why my daughter wants me to give her rabbit (who lives at my house) over to her mother to look after while she is away at Uni. On at least two occasions she has said, “Why don’t you give the rabbit to Mum to look after”. Her reasons have been that because I work shifts I might find it difficult or even forget to feed the rabbit.

    This just doesn’t make any sense because Mum works shifts too and besides the rabbit has always lived here.

    Some history.

    It was me and my daughter who bought the rabbit back in 2009 from the RSPCA. We rescued it in effect; it’s a grey male lop and at the time rather overweight having been living in a restricted area for some time (i.e. not enough space for sufficient exercise).
    Over the past six years me, my daughter and the rabbit have been through some tough and some very happy times. On some occasions the rabbit has featured as the main stay of a difficult family dynamic in which child is torn between fractious parental demands and reluctant compliances. There is an emotional history here. I have grown very fond of the rabbit as I am of my daughter.

    I am upset to think that my daughter doesn’t appear to understand why I am emotional about the rabbit or about her. Does she not think that me, as her father, is neither capable of nor responsible enough to look after a rabbit?

    Then, as I began to disentangle the way my daughter might be thinking I wondered as if she thought that Dad’s go to work and earn money whilst Mum’s care for the children and extended family (i.e. the rabbit). Of course I thought it was up to me to try and do something about my daughter’s understanding of my emotions (and for that matter other Mums and Dads too).

    I had tried the direct approach, saying to my daughter that my attachment to the rabbit was strong and we had become friends; I didn’t mind looking after the rabbit while she was away; I arranged with my neighbour (who also had a pet rabbit) to look after the rabbit while I was away…….e.t.c.

    This hasn’t discouraged my daughter from suggesting that her mother is best suited to look after the rabbit.

    I am determined that my daughter should see me as a caring nurturing Dad who is interested in her and her well being. I have torn a leaf out of a book by Warshak in which he describes how you can talk to your children in “third party” terms. In my latest re-enactment of the world according to Brer Rabbit, the rabbit is relaxing outdoors in the Summer sunshine whilst his carer (that’s Dad) cleans out his hutch and replaces old bedding with fresh; cleaning and replenishing food dishes. This hutch is fit for a King, let alone a rabbit.

    Brer rabbit sends text messages (enhanced with a photo of himself relaxing in spring like sunshine) to his owner away at Uni. Brer rabbit says he wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. This is his home. He misses you away at Uni and looks forward to seeing you at the end of term. x

    Kind regards


  4. Reblogged this on Moms' Hearts Unsilenced and commented:
    I am working to reconnect with my alienated child. I am making a 13 hour drive to see my alienated child and two other children. My heart is on my sleeve. Will I get to see her (she hasn’t responded to my texts the last few days, though our last conversation was very congenial)? How are we going to feel when I have to leave back for work in a few days? I know that will be so hard for me. I am trying to go with hope, but not expectations. I am trying to take it one day at a time and I am trying not to feel scared and like I need to take control of the situation to make everything okay. I have learned the hard way that making everything okay is not in my power. I can only control my own actions and pray for peace.


  5. I read this excerpt/blog with particular interest due to the way events have dramatically unfolded for my family over the last few days.

    Over the previous six months it looked as though the relationship with my daughter, previously alienated for five years, had progressed quite smoothly through stages 1-3, and we were about to negotiate stages 4-5.

    Now something has happened, which anyone who had no experience of these types of situation might have expected to speed us through stages 4 & 5, to stage 6 and beyond, when in reality it has put the relationship right back to zero.

    I won’t go into detail about it now, other than to say I am hoping she will realise that what she had been led to believe were facts, are actually not the facts, she will seek those out, and as a consequence, we will get back to where we were, and beyond relatively quickly.

    However, I am not going to hold my breath, and this is why. You went on to say in your article Karen that……

    ‘This work with your child may be sporadic or it may be intense, it all depends upon whether or not your child is able to withstand the influence of the alienating parent or whether they are still strongly affected by them’

    ….and my question is, what are the chances of a child withstanding the influences on them if that does not just come from an alienating parent, but also the new partner, and their respective extended families, such that there could be half a dozen, maybe even a dozen adults very deliberately exerting their influence over one vulnerable child.

    In such circumstances….do those children really ever really stand a chance of breaking free from those adverse influences… least whilst they are still living with the alienating parent, and in direct contact with all those other adults?

    I should stress……I am not looking for an excuse to give up …. I would just realistically like to know what I am likely to be up against in working through the stages described …. especially if it has to be from the start again and with so many other adults trying to undermine progress..


  6. Whilst our goal is to have a meaningful relationship with our children once again we cannot expect our children (now perhaps young adults) to accept that they have been done a great injustice or have been living a lie.

    It is far too much for our child to bear; emotionally.

    As one who considers themselves to be the target parent that has been done a great injustice (the separation of me from my child) any attempts to explain “the history of events as I see them” may very well end with my almost reconciled child choosing to reject me once again. This is their fail/safe mechanism protecting them from more emotional harm. I don’t know, but can only imagine the transition from living almost exclusively with one parent (and being led to believe the other parent has abandoned you or is not “fit for purpose”) to one where the target parent is now considered “fit for purpose” must be an extremely difficult and painful realisation for any reconciling young adult to accept.

    Something to be wary and guard against is the tendency to blame our previous partner’s for the alienating years. Whether this is true or not, venting our spleen on a young adult whom we wish to regain a relationship with will do one of two things. 1. Switch their allegiance from the other parent to us. 2. Entrench the negative feelings they had towards us forcing them back to the alienating parent.

    What we are trying to do is find a way forward that includes everyone. This will involve a substantial amount of humility on our part. The good work we are doing with the reconciliation of our child will also benefit our former partner; this is because the alienator will realise we are not a threat to their relationship with our child. Our attitude of acceptance, understanding and humility rather than contention should serve the situation well.

    The future relationship with our formerly estranged child should be served well by good parenting technique, a healthy interest in our child‘s interests and an accommodating and empathic approach to their feelings.

    Kind regards


    1. I have to agree in principle, but whilst that all sounds okay in theory, I am not sure in practise it is ever going to be quite that simple.

      I do think that knowing what to tell children as they appear to emerge from the fog, and what not to tell them is like walking on a tightrope.

      The alienating parent, and cohorts, will often have re written history, and like Karen has said, led the children to believe in facts, that were not actually the facts.

      I do think that if ultimately we tip toe around that too much, and allow the children to avoid ever finding out the true facts, then we are doing them no better service then the alienating parent.

      The truth can and often does hurt. Just like when its physical pain, its that pain that prevents us making the same mistakes, and in the case of an alienated child, would surely give them a better chance of standing up to any future attempts by the alienating parent to coerce them into not seeing the targetted parent.

      The difficult bit is know which facts will help them to heal, and which facts will hinder that process, striking the right balance so that relationships with the alienated parent can be restored, whilst still being able to maintain their relationship with the alienating parent.

      And drawing from my own experience, that mechanism becomes complicated beyond belief when there are adults other than just the alienating parent involved who are all attempting to keep the children under their control.

      If it wasn’t already like walking across a tightrope, in these situations its like walking across a tightrope during a tornado!


  7. Hi

    I empathise with the feeling that you don’t want to upset anyone, and have to face the consequences of your actions. This is why I find the direct approach to “putting things right” so difficult. My understanding of all relationships is that they are based on feelings and ultimately trust based on good feelings is the bedrock of any relationship and not facts.
    We talk about “facts” and relationships as if they were interwoven commodities having dependency upon one another.

    Is the lover you hold dearly in your mind just so because you have the same colour car as him?

    Do clouds scudding across open blue skies move you because they have respect for the beaufort wind scale?

    Our capacity to love one another is not restricted by any constraints of fact. When we feel love, passion, sorrow, grief we find it difficult to help ourselves feel anything else.

    When someone so delicate, hurt and misunderstood of broken years stands before you what do you see, how do you feel?

    Is your immediate response to redress the facts, or is it to communicate love, understanding, empathy.

    Our ego tells us that we must redress the facts, but it is our ego which is forming a barrier to the communication we yearn for.


    Alienated children know they have been forced to choose between parents. They know their parents don’t get on. They miss the alienated parent, they may blame them for their absence, but it is their heart that has suffered. No correction of facts nor re-write of history will mend a broken heart. This is a personal view, but future happiness will depend on present moment happiness. If your child should question you as to your supposed neglect of them I wouldn’t dismiss that thought nor try to “correct” it. I would welcome it as an interesting opinion. I would trust that in the fullness of time my child would reconcile the matter in their own mind.
    If your child should exhibit the emotion “sadness” this is an opportunity to soothe the sadness. Put your arm around the child in a comforting way, express empathy for their feelings. “It must have been really tough for you”.

    In the fullness of time as you become a confidante of your children they are more likely to turn to you and say, “you must have missed me, how did you cope?” ………… which point you can cry……………

    They have learned from you how to express empathy; you did that by expressing genuine sadness for their predicament.

    Kind regards


  8. How can I start this process both my boys have been turned against me. They do not want to see or talk to me. Once a month I try to talk to them on the phone I have to go through their step mother. They are always asked if they want to talk to me but the say no. I say I love them and miss them and ask, how are the doing? I am their mother and I really feel it’s so important for them to be reconciled with me. Thank you for your help.


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