When Children Lie and Why They Lie: The Shared Psychotic Delusion in Parental Alienation

When we assess a case of a child’s rejection of a parent we begin by looking at the outward presentation of the child.  Is the child refusing to see the parent partially or completely, is the child rejecting the parent vehemently or inconsistently, what is the narrative used by the child to explain their rejection of a parent and how does that echo the narrative used by the parent to whom the child is currently aligned?  As we dig deeper, alerted to the existence of psychological splitting by the child’s display of the signs of alienation, we encounter along the way those behavioural clues which tell us that a case of a child’s rejection may be a pure case of alienation in which the child has entered into a shared delusional mindset with the parent they are aligned to.  In such circumstances, which are in my experience, far less common than some would lead you to believe, the child will behave in a particular way.  Understanding how a child in shared psychotic delusion (sometimes called folie a deux ) lies is part of our differentiation of a case of parental alienation.  When shared psychotic delusion is seen, this is the situation where immediate removal from the parent with whom the delusion is shared is the answer.

I have a particular interest in case of shared psychotic delusional disorder, because I have worked with a number of children who have experienced it and I have seen first hand the manner in which these children lie and I have begun through this experience to understand why they lie.  I have also begun recently, through my research,  to more deeply understand the line over which the child crosses when they no longer know they are lying.  A child in this state of mind becomes very ‘infectious’ because they become very convincing, even when their stories are monstrously and manifestly untrue.  This is because, in my view, the lies they tell interact with the unconscious beliefs of those around them, causing those who hear the tales being told to suspend their rational faculties and along with that their disbelief.

I first fully understood shared delusional disorder back in 2009 in a case I worked in which is documented in Thomas Moore’s story of his struggle with the Family Courts ‘Please Let Me See My Son.’  In this case, the boy in question shared many beliefs with his mother about the damage his father had done to him.  On working to raise awareness of the dysfunctional presentation in the boy to social services, I understood how this phenomenon influences and causes others to suspend their ability to critically analyse facts, so much so that the courts had failed over many years to properly recognise the harm being done.

Since then I have worked with many children who have displayed shared delusional disorder and those who have, in my view, teetered on the edge of it.  I have also worked with many alienated children who lie and I have come to understand why they lie even when they are not in a shared delusion with a parent.

It never ceases to amaze me, how many parents can conveniently blind themselves to the reality of what is happening to their children.  Or how many become conveniently deaf when it comes to hearing the underlying meaning of what a child is saying.  Neither does it ever cease to amaze me how many parents enter completely and fully into the belief that the child feels EXACTLY the same as they do about the parent who is being put at distance.  Or how many bends and twists a parent will make to ensure that they are able to support their child’s entry into the psychologically split state of mind where one parent is designated an angel and the other a devil (no longer in disguise).

It is as if, in so many of these parents, a temporary delusional state of mind descends.  However, before the chorus of voices telling me it is always delusional state of mind pipes up, this presentation is seen in parents who turn out to have personality profiles as normal as mine or yours as well as those with diagnosed personality disorder and so it is simply impossible to make such blanket assumptions.

I cannot ever really fathom how a parent can bend their mind to the belief that the other parent is so bad that their child must reject them completely.  And I have worked with parents who have bent their mind, along with those of their children, to the belief that a parent has done the most extraordinary things.  On a spectrum however, there are parents who will believe that their child has been harmed by a parent and others who believe that the child has been inveigled into a child molesting cult even in the face of all evidence to the contrary.  The line between the two is defined when a parent is psychologically assessed.  Personality disorder in a parent is on one side of the line, temporary behaviours which uphold the child’s rejection are on the other.

Every so often in the UK we have an outbreak of ‘Satanic Panic’ that phenomenon where someone is accused of killing and eating babies and other such gruesome acts.  Regardless of evidence to the contrary, the belief in ritual satanic abuse in our society continues (of course ritual abuse does exist to some degree because one could easily consider the grooming and sharing of children as sexual objects in places like Rochdale to be such a ritual) and cases of spontaneous recalling by children of vile acts of depravity upon them erupts from time to time.  In such cases, parents appear able to believe that the other parent has sexually, physically and mentally and emotionally tortured the child, without any evidence to substantiate this at all.  In these circumstances, the lies that children tell in these circumstances are essential understand, because the nature of the true shared psychotic delusion, is the reason why they tell such lies.  This is the presentation of pure alienation, in which a parent has a personality disorder which has spiralled out of control into a shared belief that a parent has done great harm.

These cases of pure alienation where a parent has a personality disorder are, in my experience, the easiest of all to treat, because on removal from a parent, the delusion pops like a bubble and the child returns to being able to hold perspective and show all of the normal love for a parent that has been buried under the delusional belief.  What happens to the child over the longer term however is significant because in my follow up work with families, it is becoming ever more clear that the popping of the delusional bubble is only the beginning of the child’s recovery process.

Other cases of pure alienation, in which the parent does not have a personality disorder but the child has entered into a fixed false belief about a parent, are less easy to treat.  This is because the child tells lies and the parent believes the lies, being unable to see that the lies the child tells, are reflections of the parent’s belief about the parent who is being rejected.  In this state of mind, which is caused by enmeshment (the parent is unable to see that the child’s feelings are different to their own), the parent will really struggle to understand how the child is telling them what they want to hear about a parent and will become increasingly offended by the idea that their child is telling lies.  These are the parents who appear to find it comforting that their child has finally ‘understood the truth’ about the parent who is being rejected, the message being that the child has finally understood that the other parent is not to be trusted.  Children in these circumstances will not tell such fanciful lies as those trapped in shared delusional disorder, but will instead tell ‘confirmation lies’, which basically means they will confirm to the aligned parent those things they know the aligned parent believes about the other parent.

This kind of parental alienation case is more difficult to deal with because the lies are not sourced from a delusional belief in a parent but from an experience that parent has had.  Which means that when they hear from their child that the parent has been angry or has treated them unfairly, it confirms their sense of the other parent not being good enough and sets up a determination to ‘protect the child from what they went through’.

At the Family Separation Clinic we have treated cases of shared psychotic delusional disorder and cases of alienation with AND without personality disorder in a parent and we have come to know the difference and record the clinical markers of that difference.  In all of our work we have been guided by those who have done this work before us so that we can build upon that knowledge and develop the nuanced responses which are necessary.  In all such cases we aim to ensure that the child resolves the split state of mind and that they continue, as far as possible, in a relationship of some sort with both parents.  Almost a decade after my first encounter with shared psychotic delusional disorder, I still hear from Thomas Moore, whose son was removed from his mother’s care and who recovered his relationship with his father.  I hear how his son has a relationship with both of his parents and how in his ordinary everyday life he is absolutely healthy and well.  This is our aim, to restore the child to full health and capacity to relate to both sides of their family, even if for a time, the relationship with the previously alienating parent has to be supervised.

Understanding when children lie and why they lie and how to tell the difference between the child’s lies in a shared psychotic delusion and confirmation lying in enmeshed parenting is a critical skill for practitioners working in this field.  It is especially critical in an environment which is governed by the ‘we believe you’ movement and the focus upon a child’s expressed, rather than ascertainable wishes and feelings which is seen in social work these days.

All of this and more will be unpacked and explained and debated at the European Association of Parental Alienation Practitioners Conference in London on August 30/31st where we will hear case studies of shared psychotic delusional disorder from Linda Gottlieb and myself and about the route to treatment of the same.  This is an essential learning opportunity for anyone who practices in this field and we are increasingly excited about the interest being shown in this conference by policy makers and practitioners from around Europe.

Buy tickets for the conference here

Check back for some more exciting announcements about the conference shortly.

32 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post – it explains a confusing, head spinning, scenario we are probably in the middle of. Regular accusations from Mother that child has complained about xyz (usually something extremely unpleasant and untrue). We had been putting it down to her twisting innocent remarks – but maybe he is actually negativising things to be please her (as she is very hostile and opposed to him coming). It might even be a bit of both as some of the language is adult.

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  2. Thank you for addressing the topic of shared delusional order within the framework of parental alienation. And certainly when it exists I think the pathology of the alienating parent projects on to the child victim as the latter is affected by proxy. And while the making of false child sex abuse allegations is, arguendo, the quickest and most egregious form of Parental Alienation, I think the older teenager population of children cognitively lie much more so than younger children. The younger population is more vulnerable to suggestibility and confusion and resultant source misattribution errors.

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  3. In our situation it has got to the point of child seeming to have a faith that we know it isn’t him and will not reject him for it but he doesn’t actually talk about it. Just shows relief when all seems normal when he gets here. – but I do wonder if, when he is there, he is in a different world and colludes with Mum. What really worries me is one day it will be some very serious allegation from the mouth of a child. So far it has been things we can ignore.

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  4. Put that last bit badly – not just worried for ourselves – worried for child. We’ve tried to get things recognised but it has led to us now being accused of making false allegations (which isn’t sticking as we have had so many against us that have all been dismissed). But it clouds the waters when you are trying to get something recognised and trying to keep him coming.

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  5. I found this very hard to read as , from the very outset, it seems to largely describe what has recently been happening to my youngest daughter. We have been separated for over two years now, (a direct result of The Family Courts ignorant and prejudicial handling of my petition) after previously having been very close for ten. Last September my youngest wrote that she loved me and wanted to write to me more often. That never happened and this week, (after her Step-father threatened to have her and her sister make a tape recording he would send me saying they didnt want to see me), she has written, in a very, very unpleasant letter, to more or less say she wants nothing to do with me. The letter is so close in style and phrasing to the way her mother used to speak to me when angry that it is almost as if my Ex wrote it herself. This article has helped me to realise that perhaps my 12 yr old, adopting all of her mother’s ill will, did write it and believes now that she should reject me completely. For me this just renews the heartbreak. For her, it may be storing up some very serious and long term problems for later life. I have resisted this conclusion for a long, long time, but I cannot escape the reality: her mother truly is a monster.

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    1. Rob, you are not alone, my situation is very much like yours except I am the mother and my son lives with his father! He did so at 13 and made some horrific allegations but as years went by and courts and social workers who cld see what was happening but could do nothing, my heartache deepened and my belief my son will be in my life once more began to wain! He is 18 now and has on many occasions had contact with me but every time daddy put a stop to it! You keep on fighting cause it may come good for you, I fear my son is lost to me forever, but who knows? Keep the faith hun!

      Frankie x

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  6. Our daughter in law displays what I think are narcissist characteristics and I’m very afraid of what she might do to her chikdren should our son win custody of them, how can we be sure that she is under surveillance?

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    1. I don’t know where you are in the world Marcia so I can’t give you explicit advice, I would need to know more but if there is a custody change then supervision of the alienating parent is very necessary at the outset and monitoring is very necessary for some time to come after that. If there is PD then it may be impossible for non supervised contact to take place. K

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  7. So much lying. My stepson lied to his mother about his father, to his father about his mother, to his teachers, to his therapist, to his attorney, and finally, just before he was completely alienated, right to the judge’s face in her chambers. Much of it was about how “vicious” and “evil” his father was, and how terrified he was of him. Some was just ordinary, every day lying to get himself out of trouble at school and play his parents against each other; but most, I believe, was under pressure from his mother, who also lied to teachers and therapists and attorneys and judges, and who bribed and used guilt very effectively. My stepson twice admitted his lying – once to me, saying he lied to get the court proceedings over with; and once in a hateful text to his father, when he said that yes, he had lied, but because my husband deserved it for treating him badly. It was easily the most stressful and toxic experience I’ve ever had, to deal with so much lying everywhere, all the time, and to find many people actually believing it.

    The final court judgment, after he lied to the judge in chambers, said that my husband and I had tried to alienate him from his mother and had pressured him to lie and say he wanted to live with us (when it was stepson’s idea to come live with us). Part of me feels sorry for him for all that he had to deal with in this situation, but another part fears that his prognosis is poor when it comes to his moral compass ever functioning right, since all evidence suggests he continues to lie and cheat to this day.

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    1. unfortunately the prognosis isn’t great in these circumstances because the lying creates guilt which begets shame and this is covered over by self righteousness which is toxic in itself. It is a problem which in my experience, emerges later in adult years – around the mid to late twenties and it causes severe anxiety and difficulties in relationships. If he is lying and cheating now that won’t stop sadly, in my experience of treating adult children who were alienated, there is a particular approach which is necessary to evacuate the guilt/shame build up and get at the underlying reality which is the breaking of perspective as a child and the interruption of the unconscious experience of childhood. We should all have been unconscious in our childhood of adult matters as much as possible, when adult matters are brought to us as children it steals our childhood and ruptures our innocence and puts us in the wrong place in the family drama. Treatment requires confrontation with the misaligned internal objects and then head on collision with the shame which develops from that. K

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      1. In addition to the damage suffered during the alienation, he also comes from a long line, on his mother’s side, of people who engage in the same lying, stealing and cheating behavior. I fear he’s doomed and my husband is doomed to never having a positive relationship with his only child, even if he does come out of the alienation. The only glimmer of hope is that he hasn’t been self-righteous directly to his father in over a year and a half.

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      2. that’s a start Cara, if that continues there is hope, there is always hope, no child is completely ever lost but many disappear on a long diversion before they reappear and some get lost on that diversion….it is up to the healthy parents to keep sending signals…

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  8. Cognitive dissonance creates liars so that they can survive. How utterly vicious of their puppet masters. Certainly they lie to third parties, but more importantly they lie to themselves, and surrender their authenticity to the pathology.

    What a horribly disordered path they are cursed with.

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    1. it is an utterly disordered path Peter, likened this week by one of my clients to a diversion of the soul across and around a land which is littered with mines, it is a wasting of the psychic and psychological energy of life which should be wholly the child’s but is stolen by the parent for their own gain and the child remains entirely unconscious of the fact that they are being vampirised and sent off on a diversion – grim stuff which is why the fight to get it recognised continues. K

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      1. My son married a woman that’s only interest was money. She didn’t get what she wanted and has used their two children as pawns. It’s a never ending battle. She uses her own children to get what she wants. There are lies upon multiple lies. One now 14 will not talk to her dad, the other if she talks about wanting to be with her dad gets grounded. The oldest stays with friends 90% of the time, is allowed to do whatever she wants as long as she goes along with her moms lies. Parent alienation is real and it’s sad and sadistic!

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      2. So so true. The lives of the children co-opted by their loving (sic) parent. So much energy expended on a zero return game. Go your own way if you must, but why, why why drag the children along?

        My search for sanity has taken me the religious route. This resounded with me the other day:

        “But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

        Mathew 18:6

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  9. Thank you for this article.
    One question arises to me when I read your text and making a parallel with my own current story with my children.

    Terror.

    What is the place of terror ?
    In my case, children lie because they’re terrified of saying something else. And to lighten this terror, they think these lies.
    The matter of the terror is important as regards possible inversion of custody. The custody inversion will reactive the terror of not thinking what the violent parent wants them to think and there will be no hope of resolution.

    I naively thought that terror was a common feature in the phenomenon of child lying. Is it not ?

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    1. terrorised children will tell lies yes and in shared psychotic delusional disorder, all of the children I have worked with have, in my opinion, been terrorised. Those who lie without the presence of shared psychotic delusion, are usually terrified that the parent they are trying to keep with them, will leave them if they do not use confirmation lies to keep that parent content. Terror is a big part of it yes, I just don’t have enough space to fully unpack everything in one blog post. K

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  10. I’m glad I came across this article. I was recently divorced in 2016 and to this very day have been to court 11 times. My Ex wife brain washed my kids to making horrible allegations against me. The story kept on changing. My oldest daughter claimed I suffocated her then switch to I suffocated her and put a gun to her head and punched her. My youngest claimed I touched her in a sexual manner then at my trial changed her story. I represented myself in court and won against my X wife’s lawyer every time. Non the less me trying to make sense of this is overwhelming and I’m emotionally destroyed. I even had recordings of my daughter admitting that they were lying and still yet DCS sided with the kids. That God for good detective work and our attorney general seen pass all the lies and never charging me. This was one of the scariest moments of my life and still haunts me.

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  11. A complicated issue Karen. You write “…..This is because, in my view, the lies they tell interact with the unconscious beliefs of those around them, causing those who hear the tales being told to suspend their rational faculties and along with that their disbelief.”

    My question is HOW can / does the child (ren) KNOW what those around them believe, if those beliefs are “unconscious” to those holding them? If they are “unconscious” how are these beliefs being communicated to the child (ren)?
    Not sure if I’m explaining this properly Karen, but hope you get the drift of what I’m asking!!!

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    1. I do SS – it is in the inter psychic communication – those things not said between parent and child – in psychology. occurring between two or more minds a shared belief which is communicated by looks, behaviours and assumptions, things passed between people so that they become commonly held. A child who says his father hits him (when he has not hit him) will trigger the beliefs of those who interact with the child, if they believe that all men are dangerous, for example and they will show sympathy as if the father had hit him and the child will then reflect that back. A child who says that his mother hurts him will trigger the inter psychic relationship with others around him if their belief is that the mother is dangerous…it is an odd phenomenon but it is a real phenomenon. Professionals who are not able to know the difference between their personal beliefs and those of the people they are working with will project those beliefs onto children in the inter psychic world.

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  12. You hit the nail on the head again Karen! Unfortunately the system is such that even when the professionals do see it they are scared to act on it!! Bloody red tape and lost children!!

    Frankie x

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  13. I thinking about how to say to your alienated child, that their lies are the result of the alienating parent and his/her delusional believes or/and their pressure on the child.
    I have heard: Don’t talk or write to the child about the alienaton, it can backfire. Are there no circumstances when the alienated parent have to write/talk to the child about the real situation?

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  14. Very good question Johan!

    Within an intact marriage my husband relentlessly turned my daughter against me. He started when she was 15 and within a year I knew that if I ever left him I would never see her again because she would cut me off totally. I stuck it for 19 more years (because I couldn’t bear to lose my daughter) until they both cut me off. Before I left them both I was so upset I was admitted to hospital as an emergency (their hospital machine couldn’t even measure how high my blood pressure was it was completely off the scale). Apart from the fact that my 33 year old daughter said not one word about my health crisis afterwards or during, she continued to ignore me. In the end I pleaded with her live in partner (who became her husband) and in great distress I broke down and told him what my husband had done. He of course told her and she of course rang my husband/her dad to repeat it, tell him I’d been “calling him evil” and to of course, sympathise with him. He then really turned on me and she told me to get out of her life. I did. That was almost four years ago.

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  15. Karen, I got the book “Please let me see my son”, it was harrowing in so many ways! I keep it in my car just to remind me things can change! I think the older the child is the harder the fight, cause older children can be persuaded to say what the alienating parent wants whether true or not! Some day I hope I can put my story into words….. Frankie x

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  16. Willow, I suppose you thought that your daugther were ready to know the truth at 33 years of age. If not her, so at least her husband.
    Have I roger that right?
    The backfirereaction from your daugther follows the pattern, when the alienated child defends the alienating parent.
    I think, there must be a way to reach the child and tell the real situation. How can we alienated parents break throug and with words explain? Is it impossible? Do we have to wait so many years until the child eventually reach out?
    Karen, do you have some advice?
    Willow, I hope your daugther some day will react in another way with you. My four children between 9 and 17 don’t communicate with me now. I write to them, and tell them that it is not their fault. I also write that their mother not always speaks the truth about me. Because she had told lies and distorted versions about me and how I behave myself.
    I don’t know how the children process my words, they never answer me. Only silence.
    Is that a bad sign for the future?
    Should I not write to them about this?

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    1. Karen you hit it on the botton. I don’t want to waist year’s that we’ll never get back. I knew I should’ve never married someone from another country and I don’t regret what I told the judge. As he ordered that out teenage daughters cannot and will not be kept from me and my visitations will continue. Am I wrong for telling the judge I rather not spend time with them because I’m scared of them and didn’t want more allegations to be brought up against me and I didn’t trust them. I feel I did the right thing and stud my ground. I will not put myself in that predicament again.

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  17. Thank you Karen Woodall – your wisdom, bravery and willingness to really delve into and address this …gives all of us – the locked out , deleted, alienated …you gift us hope

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  18. As Johan asked, I too am haunted as to how to proceed with my daughter, who’s father and new wife started Allienating her Affection towards me from the time she was 5 years old. We had Shared Custody here in the States with me the Primary Caretaker. My ex-husband was a very powerful attorney. My son being Autistic, could not be swayed by their behavior. Not too say he didn’t suffer mental abuse, he certainly did. My daughter would go back and forth with her feelings much of the time. She could see I wasn’t any of the things they said I was. But many times, she would echo their words against me. They had absolutely no boundaries with her when it came to calling me horrible names, punishing her if she expressed missing me, ever. So many atrocious things went on over the years. But then, when she was 18… Her father actually had me falsely arrested, using my son’s medication, giving it to me in an unmarked bottle and paying off now, ex-police officers to pull me over the next morning, search my car, find my son’s meds in that bottle, arrest me, sexually assault me (two officers) while in Custody and then it all came crashing down on my ex-husband. As soon as the FBI came too me about my arrest & as soon as she knew her father was being investigated for that crime & participating in a huge Ponzi Scheme with another attorney… My daughter’s first words to me were “If my dad goes to jail for anything, I will sever my relationship with you forever & I’ll get (her brother) to do the same”. This ordeal went on for years until everyone involved pled guilty and are just getting out of federal prison. My ex refuses any contact with our son because my ex still insists he is innocent, even though the actual Police pled guilty & told the truth. My daughter and I do speak occasionally. Yet she insists she’s terribly worried about her brother, but protects and has an excuse for everything her father has done to hurt her brother. Simply because my ex-husband’s own personal persona means more to him than his own son & than telling the truth.
    I simply do not know how to proceed with my relationship with my daughter. It’s so devestating, it’s so tense & fake when we do have contact. Frankly, the way she protects her father, if one didn’t know who was who, you would think my daughter was a wife protecting her husband. Yet this is her father.

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  19. I am completely alienated from all 4 of my daughters. My youngest, who is now 16, was suicidal in February. My ex-wife called me, in tears, because she had to enter her into a psych ward. I flew the next day! Visiting is limited to 7PM-8PM per night and noon to 12:30PM during lunch. She was hospitalized 1 hour from her home and my mother;s home, so I drove to see her at lunch, in a snow storm. She rejected me and said she wanted to “eat lunch with her friends” This is NOT NORMAL and it crushed me, despite my clear understanding of PA and the influence it has had on all of my daughters. I had no say or influence over her in the months leading up to her problems, and I had no say or influenced and have had no communication accepted by her since, however my ex wife was kind enough to make the responsible for the bill…I’d rather have time with my daughter(s)….but it will never be.

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