When a parent loses a child it is universally recognized as a tragedy. Whether by accident or disease, the sympathy, empathy, and tears flow freely. I recall a college friend who was killed by a bus on a cross-country bike trip. His parents were inundated with emotional support. To this day, 23 years later, I still think about him, and what his mother said to me on the day of the funeral.
But there are parents who lose their children and receive no support, no great outpouring of love, no tears. Instead they receive quizzical looks. People whisper behind their backs, wondering “what really happened.” These are parents who have lost their children through “parental alienation.”
Almost every separating couple goes through some level of parental alienation, which for the most part is nothing more than mom telling junior his father is a jerk, or dad telling Susie her mother is inconsiderate. For most couples going through a breakup this behavior ends and the children’s relationship with the other parent is not permanently harmed.
Then there are those high-conflict couples where one parent is so enraged, hurt, emotionally stunted or damaged, that they want to eliminate the other parent from the child’s life. Typically, they fall into the narcissistic or borderline personality disorder category. These are people for whom there is little, if any, hope of recovery.
Generally these people have abandonment issues, and are terrified of losing love. When the family relationship breaks up, they turn to the child to satisfy their emotional needs and focus their anger and hurt on destroying the relationship between the other parent and child.
This is parental alienation, and it looks at first like nothing more than a protective parent caring for their child, or perhaps there are just communication problems between the parents. But in reality, it is a long campaign to drive the targeted parent from the child’s life entirely.
There is some controversy over whether or not it really exists, but for the men I see in my office, there is no doubt. They are being driven from their children’s lives. These are cases where there is no justification for the alienation. There was no abuse, or verifiable reason for the souring of a relationship that was once loving. It is not normal for a child who once had a strong relationship with a parent to then abandon the relation entirely.
Children who no longer speak to one of their parents because they have been alienated are victims of child abuse, just as surely as a child who is beaten or sexually molested. The damage that is done is perhaps even greater, for physical wounds heal, but the emotional damage echoes throughout the child’s life.
The courts have a hard time dealing with it because for the most part judicial officers don’t want to be so intimately involved in the daily lives of the people that come before them. They want to make rulings and have them obeyed. For parents who are engaging in parental alienation, a court order is just a piece of paper they can, and regularly do, ignore.
For the parent who has been cut out of their child’s life, it is an unending ache with no closure. They don’t have the clarity of someone who knows their child is not alive, they have the constant wonder of “what is my child doing?”
These are parents who don’t see their children grow up. They miss school milestones and memories. There are no funny family stories of that crazy Thanksgiving dinner when Aunt Barbara did something memorable.
There is support though, thanks to Karen Lebow, a targeted parent herself, who started the Southern California Parents of Alienated Children Support Group. The organization of parents who have been targeted by their exes comes together to support one another, learn ways to deal with the ongoing pain, and carry hope that the future will bring reconciliation with a child they love but do not have contact with.
This Saturday, Nov. 13 is their first annual Conference on Parental Alienation. It will feature workshops and a keynote address by Dr. Amy J. L. Baker on “What does research have to say about Parental Alienation Syndrome? What are some solutions to the problems?”
The conference starts at 8:30 a.m. with breakfast and goes all day. It will be held at Cal State University Northridge, 18111 Nordhoff St. in the University Student Union. Tickets are $70, $75 at the door. You can contact me for more information, or call Karen Lebow at (310) 625-6696.
David Pisarra is a divorce attorney who specializes in father’s rights and men’s issues with the firm of Pisarra & Grist in Santa Monica. He is the author of the upcoming, “A Man’s Guide To Child Custody.” You can pre-order the book by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or (310) 664-9969.