Terri is eight and she knows all about how difficult her father was when he lived with her mother. She is getting bigger now and notices that her father shouts sometimes and sometimes forgets to bring her coat when she is going to school. Terri decides that she will stand up to her dad and one day shouts back at him. Instead of being shocked though, Terri’s dad lets her shout it all out and then sits her down on the sofa beside him. Terri expects he will shout some more, after all her mother has told her that all about what he does when he loses his temper. Terri’s dad puts his arm around her and surprises her by saying instead, ‘what’s up buttercup, you feeling a bit fed up with my big loud shouty voice?’ Terri sits quietly thinking, this isn’t what she expected. She peers up at dad and asks him if he is ok. ‘I’m fine little one’ he says ‘just having a bit of a moment, I’m sorry I shouted, no need to shout back, I know it’s not nice when someone is shouting at you.’ He puts on the tv and pulls a rug over their knees, Terri feels warm and safe beside him, snuggles in and they watch a film. She forgets about sticking up for her mum.
Back home with mum Terri goes up to her bedroom, mum follows and lingers whilst putting her clothes in the drawers. ‘You ok sweetie’ says mum and seems to expect something, Terri is not sure what to say, ‘yeah am fine mum’ she says and goes back to putting her dolls back in order. Her mum says no more but Terri doesn’t miss the stiffness in mum’s shoulders as she closes the door.
Next time it’s time to see dad Terri’s mum says ‘I hope he is not going to be shouty this weekend’ and sighs. Terri feels anxious and worries he will or he won’t, is unsure which one is better. On arriving she stomps into the house in a huff and says crossly to dad ‘you’d better not shout at me this weekend cos mum says there’ll be trouble if you do.’ Dad feels attacked but knows that it’s the alienation reaction that’s talking and so rolls with the punches and smiles and says ‘no worries pumpkin, if I shout it’s only because of the gremlins that live in my stomach, you know the ones, they look just like trolls, that’s what this is you know’ and he pokes out his stomach and stomps round the kitchen looking silly til Terri can’t help it and laughs, suddenly she cannot remember why she felt cross. ‘What’s for supper?’ she says and dad pulls lasagne out of the oven, ‘my favourite’ says Terri and safety and warmth fill the kitchen, dad lays the table and silently says thank you for empathic responding. Now he knows what to do, when to do it and how, he is no longer terrified everytime Terri walks in through the door. By walking in her shoes and knowing the journey from mums house to his in psychological terms, he knows how to disarm her and how to prevent her from carrying mum through the door in her mind. His home feels much safer, his child feels scary and his life, which was starting to fragment feels back in control and happier now than ever before. He hasn’t changed and neither has Terri, neither in fact has her mum but his responses have changed and the focus has switched from what Terri is doing and why to what he can do and how. Which means mum isn’t controlling everything Terri does anymore and he isn’t falling down manholes that swallow him whole.
There’s a long way to go, Terri’s mother won’t stop and empathic responding will have to be polished and practiced and perfect as far as its possible to be. There’s a long way to go til Terri sails safely into the place where her mother’s dislike of her dad won’t harm her but the antidote dad holds should ward of the worst of the poison.
I love this because it shows how an understanding of the family dynamic is essential. This Dad has a sound understanding of the best responses to a child troubled by loyalty conflict. The situation you describe is fairly typical perhaps commonplace amongst separating families.
The outcome could have been so different if Dad had condemned his daughter or his former partner.
Some of us take this Dad’s response for granted but far too many of us say the wrong things because we are hell bent on justice or are in despair at what we see as the impending loss of our children.
I feel confident this Dad has more tools at his disposal that will ensure Dandlebear bridge remains strong.
Which brings me on to what I really wanted to talk about.
All the Dads and the Mums from parting families going through separation would clearly benefit from education/coaching to help them through into a manageable co-parenting situation.
I have been talking to someone at the family separation clinic and understand you don’t train up “parental alienation awareness coaches”. I think you could devise a hugely practical and useful course that would empower those of us with the desire to skill up to become more confident in helping people get through this difficult period. I for one would gladly attend.
It would be true to say that some useful tips can be gained from Counsellors or parenting courses but there seems to be a huge skill gap when it comes to empathic parenting, such that might be essential to parents who are in the process of separating. The skills of the target parent are often key to managing a successful co-parenting relationship. When the target parent begins to regain control, by understanding the behaviour of the participants he/she regains the self-confidence and strength necessary to make the family function in a way to suit all its players.