Empathic Responding with Alienated Children

One of the most painful experiences for targeted parents is when the alienation process begins to escalate and children begin to become difficult, challenging and sometimes downright obnoxious.

We may not be familiar with the child who is overly empowered within what is called a ‘fused dyad’ with the other parent and so when that behaviour appears it can seem almost as if your child has turned into someone else. Some parents liken it to their child being possessed, others worry that their child is mentally unwell. Understanding what has happened and why is a very important step to learning how to deal with it.

In an alienation scenario, when one parent is angry or holds unresolved frustrations or is quite simply determined to drive the other out of a child’s life, it is often the case that the child will be elevated to a position of power within the fractured family system. This position of power, is often equal to that of the parent who is angry, who upholds the child’s ‘right’ to do as he or she pleases. Parents who are in this position will often speak about their children being ‘more emotionally aware’ than they are and will tell you and others that they are only being guided by their children because if their children say something is wrong then that must be the truth. This is a very dangerous position for a child, who should not be wielding decision making power at the top of what is called the ‘attachment hierarchy.’ To be in control of the broken family system in this way is, in fact, extremely damaging to children over time.

A healthy attachment hierarchy is when two parents, in relationship together, share the decision making and guiding power that runs a well functioning family. Contained within this hierarchy, children know that their parents are in charge and that they, as children, do not need to do anything other than concentrate on their own developing selves. When families separate however, the sharing of the decision making and guiding power often breaks down, creating a space in which the children themselves become elevated to the top of the hierarchy, often sharing power and decision making with the parent they now live with on a daily basis. The other parent in this scenario is pushed to the outer margins of the family system and quite often begins to be viewed by the parent and child as being unnecessary in daily life.

Children who are at the top of the broken family hierarchy are placed in a position of risk. Children should not hold the same level of decision making power as a parent, the role of a parent is to be the guide and decision maker in a child’s life, gradually handing over the reins to the developing young adult. When children are taken by a parent into a fused dyad in this way, they are often what is called ‘spousified’ which simply means that they have replaced the role of spouse in the parents life or they are ‘parentified’ which means that they are taking care of the emotional needs of a parent and not the other way around. Both of these corrupted roles within a family system are damaging to children and are signs that the attachment hierarchy is broken and harmful to the child involved. When a child is in one of these positions, they can very quickly become extremely difficult to handle when with the other parent as they refuse to recognise that parent’s validity in their lives and actively fight them for the decision making power.

A child in this position will often –

  • Use sarcastic statements when with you.
  • Try to undermine everything that you say.
  • Refuse to come with you when you turn up to collect them.
  • Act aggressively towards you and your family
  • Sneer at you and call you names
  • Act as if you are somehow ‘less than’ they are
  • Tell you that you are no good, that you don’t do anything right
  • Demand to be taken home to their ‘real’ parent
  • Blow hot and cold, they may drop their defiance for a while only to pick it up again when its time to leave
  • Tell lies
  • Make false allegations against you
  • Remain silent in your company

The end game in an alienation process is when the children simply refuse to make the transition to you. This is often the result of a ‘trigger’ event which enables the child to justify complete withdrawal. A trigger event can be engineered by a child who is in this elevated position and many children will push continuously to try and create this just so that they can ‘decide’ to completely withdraw. It is important to remember at all times, however, that trigger events, just like the behaviours that the child is displaying are unconsciously driven by the child who is using the only coping mechanism available to them. Children in these circumstances are extraordinarily vulnerable, they are hurting inside, they are psychologically harmed and they are doing whatever they can to survive. All targeted parents MUST, at all times, keep in mind that their children would not behave like this if the pressure upon them did not force them to do so. With that in mind, target parents can assist their children to avoid the trigger event by following these golden rules.

When a child is in an elevated position of power and is displaying the symptoms above you must:

  • Not try to reason with them, they are not in a position to listen
  • Not try to use logic, there is nothing logical about what is happening to them
  • Remain patient, calm and collected, do not become angry and feed their self righteousness, it only pushes you into the trap set for you by the other parent.
  • Develop a thick skin, your child is in a vulnerable psychological state, you can help if you let their commentary about you flow by you without reacting.
  • Be firm as much as you possibly can but avoid scenes which could become the trigger event your child is unconsciously seeking. Remember, they want you to confirm for them why you are the bad person they have been told you are. You must avoid that at all costs.
  • UsetThe most powerful tool in your toolbox which is empathy

Children in this vulnerable position want you to confirm for them their desire to reject you. Their desire to reject you is born of trying to cope with the terrible pressure placed upon them by the anger and unresolved frustration and the conscious or unconscious determination of the other parent to evict you. If you fall into the trap of confirming for your children why they should reject you by, for example, being drawn into arguments, by shouting at them, by becoming angry at their unreasonable behaviour or other such scenarios, you will unwittingly give them the justification they are seeking to withdraw.

Empathic understanding and the ability to empathically respond to their behaviour will protect them and you from arriving at that trigger point.

Empathy is the ability to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ to step into their world and see things from their perspective. To walk a mile in your children’s shoes when they are in this position is the most powerful thing that you can do, for yourself and for them.

Walking a mile in alienated children’s shoes

Terri’s story

Terri was six years old when her parents separated, she can remember the day very well that her father told her that he was leaving. He asked her if she was alright, far from being alright, Terri felt as if her world was spinning out of control. She watched him carry his bags to the car, after that night all she could hear was her mother crying and alternatively raging about her father. Her hurt and pain about losing him became thoroughly mixed up with her mother’s all encompassing rage.

For short while she saw her father every weekend but each time she did so her mother would come crashing into the time with complaints, demands, tears and shouting. terri began to feel that she didn’t know her father anymore and felt that he was the cause of all this chaos.

Back home with her mother, Terri began to hear that her father was not a very nice man, that he had done this and done that in the marriage to her mother and that he was pretty much worthless as a father too. Together, as Terri grew up, she and her mother shared all sorts of good times together, cosy times, nice times. In the middle of this was a sense that it was she and her mother against the world.

When Terri reached eight years old she felt that she was big enough to take on her father and stand up to him. After all, her mother hadn’t been able to but she would show her mother how it was possible. She would make her mother proud and safe again by rescuing her from her father. Terri began to tell her father how bad he was and ‘stand up’ to him and ‘put him straight.’ Terri’s father, on seeing his daughter becoming more and more defiant against him spoke to her mother about it who told him that his daughter was ‘twice the man that he would ever be’ and praised and thanked Terri for doing what she had been unable to do. Terri’s father, increasingly shocked by his daughter’s behaviour, took to trying to reason with her and be logical, he told her she was being poisoned against him by her mother and that she was brainwashed and alienated. Terri didn’t know what that meant but she did know that her father was turning out to be everything her mother said he was, mean and shouty and angry with her.

The mistakes that rejected parents make

Terri’s dad fell into the trap set for him by Terri’s mum. Not knowing that his daughter and her mother were in a fused dyad in coalition against him, when Terri began to show the signs of this he went straight to the source of the problem and demanded that her mother share decision making power with him again to try and bring Terri back into the role of a child in his life. Terri’s mother however, had elevated her daughter to the role of replacement spouse in her life, using her as a confidante, friend and comforter. The only thing that Terri’s mother could do was uphold that position when challenged by Terri’s father. Role corruption in this family system was well established.

If Terri’s father had known about how alienation arises he would have been equipped to deal with it in a smarter way. Simply using the word alienation and knowing that it is happening is not enough, target parents must know how alienation arises, how it progresses and how to react when it is clear it is happening. The most powerful tool to use against alienation is empathy. If your child is behaving in ways that seem like an alienation reaction to you, your first task is to step into your child’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. Walk a mile in those shoes and understand the way in which your child perceives what happened in the separation, the kinds of behaviours in the other parent that your child is being subjected to and the ways in which your child is acting in the only way he or she knows how in such difficult and painful circumstances.

Children do not want to reject their parents, its not in their nature to say I choose this one or that one. Children who reject are in a vulnerable place and if you are the target parent your role from now on is to understand, as much as possible, the pressures placed upon your child. When you do understand that, from your child’s perspective, you are in the place where you can really start work on interrupting what is happening.

Remember, empathy, its not about your experience its about theirs. Its not about what is happening in your world, its about what is happening in theirs. Its not about you feeling good, its about making them feel good.

You are not powerless as a targeted parent. When you have walked a mile in your children’s shoes you are ready to begin the process of using empathic responding to disarm your child and change their perspective. When you do this you actively interrupt the messages they have been given about you. When you interrupt those messages, you are acting against alienation. Equipped with the right knowledge and the right tools you can make a difference to what is happening to your child.


15 thoughts on “Empathic Responding with Alienated Children

  1. 2 thoughts Karen on this helpful piece, and thank you for writing it.

    What does empathic responding look like? Can you write how Terri’s father could/should have spoken to her.

    Secondly, what happens to the child who is elevated in this way, in their dealings with the parent who has put them there? What do their conversations look like? Does that behaviour leak over into conversations with that parent ie do they try to use the same dismissive arrogant language?


  2. Thank you Karen for another enlightening piece. I am sure it will help many targeted parents. In a future piece can you explore what can be done,if anything, if the child has reached late teens and has already passed the trigger point and does not respond to or acknowledge the parent in any way.


    1. I am new to this blog, but I would also like to hear about the older child. And if there is any thoughts on the mother (me) of the targeted parent and how she can help her child and regain access to her beautiful much loved grandchildren.
      Also I am following this from the US where I think we are far behind your society in the recognition of this behavior. I see the society and the Courts very Mom centered in how things are seen.


  3. Thank you so much for another wonderful post. I’ll be sharing it with a support group for parents of adult alienated children.

    I have empathy for the part of my adult daughter who was alienated when she became involved with a man who would become her second husband…not easy because it was her choice to marry the man she did. I have anger for the part of her who alienates her children, who doesn’t think twice about destroying her own family because she’s demoted them to the status of ‘unnecessary,’ and who blocks out the damage she’s done and continues to do to people she’d claimed to care about, big and small. It’s getting clearer how to react to my grandchildren, though I’m still looking forward to reading more from you on the topic when alienating parents do everything in their power to erase a grandparent from their child’s heart, mind, and life…severing bonds which had existed for years. Having conflicting feelings makes it difficult as hell to know how to react to an adult child who, for the past 5 years, has been two different people at once…especially when it isn’t healthy for me to have one of them in my life. How exactly do you reach out in any way possible to one part of her while understanding the necessity of maintaining no contact with the other? Must be even harder to be in her shoes, because both of those people are hurting inside.


    1. Having, for several years, been alienated from my 4 adult children I’d be very interested in joining the support group you mention – both for myself and my mother (who has suffered this plight for over 12 years now). Are you able to let me have the group’s details?


      1. Not sure what the protocol is for sharing that information through WordPress. If you send me a private message through the Facebook page Notes from Grandma – “Gamma” we could discuss it there.


  4. Thank you Karen for this. There is a lot of fact in what waiting33 declared above. The scenario equates to the power the alienating parent has as always in this situation with those children up to, on and passed the tipping point. You are correct children should never be put in this role of “choice masters/mistresses. This is the fault of the 89 Children’s Act; “wishings and feelings.” and the now psychological abuse (now a criminal act) used to deny part or full access of normal engaged relationships with not only the other parent but all in the first and second filial family support team. This is pernicious and highly devastating to society. John Henning (MP) in all his holistic support for families should be encouraging all parents in Parliament and across our society to help prevent this when the carrot and stick of a parity of full engaged rights to parental responsibility legislation will control these willful sycophant parents who use children for their psychologically abusive ends. Facts and only facts to support the best interests of our children. (Copy kept for Families Need Fathers- and all parents and engaged family members).
    Will be passing this scenario on to Mike Buchanan at J4MB and their partners.


  5. Hi Karen, I am a big fan and love every article you post on your blog.  I need to ask you a favour, I drafted a letter to my severely alienated adult children whom I have not seen in over 4 years.  Would you be willing to review the letter before I send it? Regards, Victor


  6. Once upon a time I met a man who was an honourable advocate of 50:50 shared parenting.
    Once upon a time I met a man who declared war on the biased and prejudiced judicial system.
    Once upon a time I met a man who ranted and raved at his former partner for not being fair.
    Once upon a time I met a man who was consumed with grief and he became the master of despair.
    Once upon a time I met a man who said goodbye to his children because he just could not cope with the sheer power of the alienator.

    They all came to this blog and were made to feel welcome. They were listened to and their stories were pondered over and great sympathy was felt for their predicament.

    And then there was Teri’s Dad.
    Although he sympathised with the plight of others and drew solace from the fact he was not alone in trying to find ways to regain his relationship with his children, he didn’t spend too much of his waking day trying to put the world to rights. In truth he wasn’t a master of facts like so many of his friends, he had become a master of emotions.

    It wasn’t easy, his instincts often were in contrast to his considered emotional response.

    He made mistakes upsetting his children and putting impossible burdens on their shoulders at times.

    He began to disentangle the thought processes and behaviours that had brought him to a perilously delicate and dis-empowered state of mind. He deduced that relationships were based on emotions and that whatever a persons beliefs it was the emotional stability that would determine the longevity of a relationship. In a way it was quite a relief that the judiciary and all its paraphernalia were, for the time being no longer involved.

    He was child focussed in a positive sort of way, finding out as much as he could about their lives often using third party sources. When he did see his children he found himself being able just to focus on them and allay all fears, accept all opinions and sooth them with understanding and acknowledgement. He was the comfort to them that he always had been and he began to see ways that his life would have good purpose for his children. This empowered him and he understood what it was he had to do in order to feel like a purposeful Dad once more. It wasn’t his broadcasted opinion that mattered, it was his capacity to empathise.

    Whilst his colleagues worried and fretted about their alienators he simply smiled and chuckled when his alienator tried to put a spanner in the works. He knew his alienator like no other and he could predict her behaviours; how she would persuade and cajole, often involving the children as her shield and protector. He had sympathy for his alienator because he knew it was her insecurity that was making her wrap the children around her like an extra skin. None of this worried Teri’s Dad too much because he knew what to say to the children and he was more confident in his own ability. His primary intention was to soothe his children. In the long run this helped calm the alienator down (although the alienator never admitted to this; Teri’s Dad understood how important it was for the alienator to save face and he was sympathetic of this feeling). Teri’s Dad’s friends called him the sponge.

    Teri’s Dad said that he took that as a compliment but he said there was more to it than that. You must stay in touch and be attentive and available to your children. If you encounter anger, sadness, rejection, you deal with it in sensitive ways. It has been a long road learning the “art” of co-parenting but in retrospect there are definitely better ways to behave than others.

    Kind regards

    At the next meeting John described how upset he was when his boy told him how his real home was at Mum’s and how he didn’t have to come to Dad’s place if he didn’t want to. Someone mentioned child abuse and another suggested John should go back to Court. James said he had had a similar experience and blamed feminism.

    Sponge said to John, “that must have been hard for you to take”. John said, “I felt lousy, angry, shocked and dis-empowered. I can not believe that his Mum would be doing such a thing”. “This happened last Saturday just after you picked him up in the car?” “Yes, it was almost as if it had been rehearsed and was delivered with some force like you would a threat”

    “So how is dandlebear handling things?”

    Oh! He thinks it’s ok for Mum to feel that way. Mum is fond of the boy and it makes her feel more secure to know that her boy would want to feel comfortable with her.
    But your boy must feel bad having to declare a preferential home just to satisfy his Mum?
    Yes I know but thanks to Dandlebear my boy knows what to expect of his Mum. By the time we had got back to my place he had told me he was going to call this Dad’s place and the other house Mums. You see thanks to Dandlebear my lad finds it easy to express himself and I wouldn’t want it any other way.


  7. I’m looking forward to seeing seeing former alienators speaking out about what they have done, and why – so that the problem can become well known and preventative action taken as early as possible by all those who could have an influence…and in my experience there are many, many such individuals within all the services which impact families, as well as the wider community, who currently refuse to act.


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