I wrote this post after the period of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, a time when most people will contact their parents or certainly think of them and their family. For most of us, this is pleasant. But for a few, including alienated children, the thoughts will be unhappy and troubled because they have no contact with family.
A gradual, consistent and patient approach is one of the best ways to reconnect with an alienated child. Take small steps and be willing to work through any issues that may arise along the way.
What you say depends on the situation. But there certainly are some universal truths about what to say to an alienated child. And it’s not just about what you say. Listening to your child, respecting their views, and working together to rebuild your relationship are also elements of the process.
Let’s explore the best ways to talk with an alienated child, including what you should and shouldn’t say.
Checklist When Speaking With Your Alienated Child
Reconnecting with a child after a period of alienation is difficult. The specific approach will depend on the individual circumstances. However, some things that may be helpful to say to a child in this situation include the following.
1. In a case of parental alienation, be honest about what happened.
When the other parent is responsible for causing alienation, such as by abducting the child and/or abusing the family court system or domestic violence procedures, the situation can be particularly challenging. The alienating parent may have said bad things about you, the targeted parent, and led the child to believe you’re a bad person. This can lead to your alienated child having feelings of anger, resentment, or mistrust towards you.
Address the child’s concerns and feelings directly. Let them know that you understand how they may feel, and you are there to support them. You can validate their feelings and tell them that it is normal to have doubts and concerns after parental alienation.
Parental alienation is a challenge, not a life sentence. Keep fighting for your child and never give up hope.
Provide accurate information and counteract any false statements made about you. But also be sensitive when doing so. Kids can find it hard to accept new information that contradicts what they’ve been told before. It may take time for them to come around to new information.
Be patient and don’t push the child to change their feelings about you too quickly. Be consistent and persistent in your efforts to reconnect with the child. Show them through your actions that you are committed to being a positive and loving parent.
2. Express remorse for any mistaken actions or behavior on your behalf.
Expressing remorse for any actions or behavior on your behalf that may have contributed to the alienation is a step towards rebuilding trust. It can be difficult to admit that you made mistakes. But acknowledging your role in alienation can help to show your child that you are taking responsibility for your actions; that you are committed to making things right.
When expressing remorse, be specific about what you did wrong and how you plan to make amends. Avoid making excuses or blaming others for your actions. Focus on your behavior and your feelings about it. Be sincere and genuine in your apology, and avoid being defensive or dismissive of your child’s feelings.
Also remember that expressing remorse is not a one-time event. Regaining trust is a continuous process. You’ll need to consistently demonstrate your remorse through your actions and behavior over time. And, most importantly, be ready to work on yourself and the relationship with your child, even when it is difficult or uncomfortable.
3. Assure the child that you love them and want to be a part of their life.
Children need to know that they are loved and valued; that their parents want to be involved in their lives. This can help to counter feelings of rejection and abandonment that may have arisen during the period of alienation.
When expressing your love and desire to be a part of your child’s life, be specific and genuine. You can tell them how much they mean to you, how much you miss them, how much you are looking forward to spending time with them, or how much you want to be there for them. You can also express your love through actions, such as sending cards, small gifts or arranging special time for them.
Be realistic about the current state of the relationship. Keep a lid on expectation because going back to normal instantly may be impossible. It can take time for the child to trust and open up to you again, especially if the alienation has been prolonged.
Be ready to listen and be patient. Show that you understand that the process of reconciliation may take time, and that you are willing to be there for the child and work through any issues that may come up along the way.
4. Listen to the child and hear their feelings about what happened.
Children often have a lot of pent-up emotions and feelings as a result of alienation. So, they may need someone to talk to in order to process and understand what has happened.
When listening to your alienated child, give them full attention and avoid interrupting or dismissing their feelings. Let them express themselves freely, even if you disagree with what they are saying, or if it is difficult for you to hear. Validate their feelings and let them know that their feelings are important; that you understand and care about how they feel.
Provide a safe space for your child to talk by not making any judgement, criticism or any negative reaction to what they are telling you. This will make them more likely to open up and share with you. Acknowledge the pain, hurt and disappointment that they’ve felt as a result of the alienation.
The process of healing may take time, and your child may not be ready to talk right away. Be patient, and let them know that you are available to listen whenever they’re ready.
5. Be open and honest about your feelings and intentions.
Children need to understand where their parents stand and what they can expect in order to feel safe and secure. Be specific about your feelings and intentions, and avoid being vague or evasive.
Be clear about your expectations for the relationship going forward and be willing to set boundaries as necessary. This can help to create a sense of stability and predictability for the child. Also be honest about your own limitations and be realistic about what you can and cannot do, both for yourself and the child.
6. Make a commitment to build the relationship.
Reconciliation after alienation can take time. And it may be a difficult and uncomfortable process. Be patient and persistent in your efforts to repair the relationship, and be willing to work through any obstacles that may arise along the way.
Be willing to make changes in your behavior and actions that may have contributed to the alienation. Also, be open to feedback from your child about what changes they would like to see from you. This can help to demonstrate to the child that you’re committed to making things right and building a better relationship.
Seek help if necessary. Consider if the alienation was caused by a specific issue such as substance abuse, anger management or other problems. It may be beneficial to seek help from a therapist or counselor to work on these issues and to learn new ways of interacting with your child.
Approach the reconciliation with a mindset of long-term investment in the relationship, rather than expecting immediate results. Be ready to put in the time, effort and emotional energy to heal the relationship and earn your child’s trust back. Showing consistency, understanding and patience, can help to build a strong, positive relationship over time.
Communicating with an Alienated Child
In a circumstance where children are separated from family because of an acrimonious divorce or separation, things can be very difficult. The parents’ residual emotions about their former spouses can complicate matters and make conflict-free communication challenging.
What the custodial parent needs to do
The parent with whom the child lives should always strive to be kind and even-handed when speaking about their former spouse in front of and to the child, regardless of the circumstances of the divorce. This also extends to the custodial parent’s former relatives-in-law (the child’s grandparents, aunts and uncles).
Whenever safe and reasonable, allow the child to see the estranged parent or their family. Again, ensure the child never feels that the estrangement is their fault. For more advice on how to discuss the situation with a child, check out Isolina Ricci’s Mom’s House, Dad’s House.
Connection strategies for alienated parents
If targeted parents find themselves completely alienated from a child due to an acrimonious divorce, they should remember to communicate by letter and continue to send birthday and holiday gifts, through a third party if necessary.
I often tell family members in this situation to keep copies of letters and cards for themselves to show a child if the opportunity for reunification presents itself in the future. These show that you never forgot them and that you thought of them and loved them.
It is important to remember that a child alienated from one of their parents and that parent’s family is caught in a difficult emotional situation. The child has likely heard a number of things about the alienated parent from one source of another that may be true or untrue.
If the child asks the alienated parent why they did something that they did not do it is important to say, “I am sorry that you were told this about me. I have never stopped loving you.” Be kind and even-handed about the other parent when speaking to the child.
What Not to Say
When communicating with an alienated child, be mindful of the child’s feelings and the words you use. Here are some things that you should avoid saying to an alienated child. DO NOT:
- Blame the child for the alienation. The child is not responsible for the alienation and shouldn’t be blamed for it.
- Be critical or negative about the other parent. Even if the other parent is responsible for the alienation, avoid negative or critical comments about them, as this can further reinforce the child’s negative feelings towards the targeted parent.
- Be pushy or insistent on a relationship. Be patient and understanding. Don’t push the child to have a relationship before they’re ready.
- Be judgmental or dismissive of the child’s feelings. Alienated children may have complicated feelings and experiences. Be understanding and empathetic, rather than dismissive or judgmental.
- Make false promises or encourage the child to do something against their will. Don’t make any false promises to the child and never encourage the child to do something that does not align with their will.
Keep in mind that the child has been through a difficult situation. Reconnecting with a parent they’ve been alienated from can be a delicate process. Be careful with the words you use, and be mindful of the child’s emotional state. Avoid any actions or statements that may further alienate the child.
Explaining Estrangement From Family Members to a Child
Explaining estrangement to a child is often not easy. Our own emotions, as well as the child’s capacity to understand the concepts, can complicate things. But family estrangement is even difficult for adults to understand.
Research has shown that estrangement is most likely to occur when one of the adults has significant personality and interpersonal problems. I have found a good way to explain this is to say, “grandpa [or whomever] is just not good at getting along with people.”
Checklist for speaking to a child about a parent they’ve never met
Let’s consider how to speak with a child about a parent or relative they have never met. This can occur when a parent has abandoned a family when a child was very young. As in any situation, questions should be answered honestly and simply, at an age appropriate level.
- Simple statements are best. For young children, a situation can be simply explained saying, “Your Mom left our family when you were little. She loved you but she just wasn’t able to be a mom.”
- Let the child respond to the information in their own way.
- If asked whether you know where the parent is, tell the truth, but you don’t have to be specific. For example, if you know where the parent is respond with “we do know where your mom is but she’s still not able to get in touch. Being a Mom is still too hard for her.”
- No matter what, make sure that your answer never makes a child feel at fault for the situation. It is never the child’s fault that a parent chooses to leave.
Sometimes family members are estranged because of a history of extreme conflict, often involving abuse or untreated mental illness. In this case one of the family members has chosen the separation as a way of protecting themselves and their child from a hurtful relationship.
Once again, allow the child to ask questions and answer in an honest and simple manner. If the child asks why they no longer see the relative, it is appropriate to say something like, “We don’t see your grandparents because grandpa hurt me when I was young. I am still frightened and want to keep you safe.” If your child asks for details, it is alright to say that this is too difficult if it is.
If your child becomes frightened, say: “There is nothing to be frightened of now. I protected myself and I will protect you as well.” Again simple, straightforward statements are best.
When substance abuse is a factor
Many parents struggle to explain estrangement from substance abuse, especially if the child already has a relationship with the relative.
For school-aged children you can explain that the adult is using a drug or alcohol that is not good for them and changes how they act. Using the frame of safety often helps children understand situations like this better. If you explain that the relative’s actions when they drink too much alcohol or use a drug are not safe, and that you want the child to be safe, they are more likely to understand the cause and effect.
Children may be reassured by this explanation since they often realize when situations are unsafe. Children are often more perceptive than we think and they may have also noticed the change in a family member’s behavior or demeanor when they are using. It is important to confirm their experiences.
More than anything, when discussing family estrangement with your child it is important to reaffirm that the child is loved. Remember to tell them, “you are the best person. It is not your fault that your [relative] doesn’t see you. Everyone who does know you loves you so much.”
About the author, Dr. Gail Beck
Dr. Gail Beck, O. Ont., MD, CM, FRCPC, is the Director of Youth Outpatient and Outreach Psychiatry at The Royal in Ottawa, Canada. She completed medical school and her residency in Psychiatry at McGill University, beginning a robust career that is focused on championing the health needs of women and children.
Dr. Beck is a Past President of the Academy of Medicine Ottawa and of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada, the Honorary Treasurer of the Ontario Medical Association and represents Eastern Ontario at the OMA, and is the Treasurer of Medical Women’s International Association.
Her opinions and expertise have been sought by governments both provincially and nationally, and she had the honor of representing Medical Women’s International Association at both the World Health Assembly and the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Dr. Beck received the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002 and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012 for her work with children and youth, and in 2011, Dr. Beck was named to the Order of Ontario, her province’s highest honor.
Dr. Beck lives in Ottawa, Canada with her husband Mr. Andrew Fenus, and has three children and two stepchildren.