Richard Hogan: How to navigate Christmas as separated parents

Parental alienation is one of the most challenging issues for therapists. And for many parents, in particular those recently separated, Christmas can be a really difficult time
Richard Hogan: How to navigate Christmas as separated parents

For many parents, and in particular for parents recently separated, this can be a really difficult time of the year. Picture: PA/thinkstockphotos

With all the cloying, happy songs telling us it’s the most wonderful time of the year, decorations in every shop front, and children excitedly anticipating the arrival of Santa Claus, it can seem like everyone is sharing in the complicity of the season. 

However, for many parents, and in particular for parents recently separated, this can be a really difficult time of the year. One of the most challenging areas to work in, as a family therapist, is the area of parental alienation. It presents so many challenges. I have witnessed, first hand, the devastating consequences this behaviour has on the entire family unit. And it can leave a therapist reeling not knowing how to proceed therapeutically in the knowledge that children are being coerced into a negative narrative about a once loved parent. 

That is the difference between normal estrangement and alienation. With alienation, the child has no real reason to take such a strong position against their parent. Of course, children often reject a parent because of the difficult relational dynamic between parent and child. 

But it is distressing to watch a child desperately search for reasons why they dislike a parent so vehemently. The work, as a therapist, can be to gently untangle the child’s feelings from the mother/father’s negative feelings towards their ex-partner. But it is not easy and the damage to the child can last a lifetime, as they are forced to turn their back on someone they love.

Covid-19 has impacted every facet of our lives. We see the disruption this global health crisis is having on us every day on the news. Yet, an aspect of Covid-19 that we haven’t heard about is how it has been weaponised as a tool to further alienate the parent not in the house. 

I have heard so many painful stories from separated parents who have not seen their children since March because the primary care giver has used the pandemic to increase the gap between the children and their parent. I often hear the voice of the alienating parent in my clinic too. They are hoping that they can keep their ex-partner from the child as long as possible or until the child is old enough to be heard by the court. There have been huge strides forward in this area, as the court is more interested in hearing the voice of the child than ever before. But often that voice has been corrupted and the court doesn’t hear the true voice, only the voice that has been manipulated into a particular narrative. 

We must not shy away from this difficult area because children are suffering every day and loving parents are being deprived of their right to love their children. Of course, women are alienated from their children but the majority of cases I see are men struggling to see their children. There is an inherent bias in family law that ensures men do not get a fair hearing when it comes to their children. We must look at how family law is designed and what impact it has on families during the vulnerable process of separation. Many fathers are left representing themselves in court because they cannot afford the exorbitant fees of representation. We must look, as a society, and rethink how we support families going through a separation, and how we support the parent who is not in the family home. Too many parents are left adrift, with nothing.

There is a terrible irony at the heart of parental alienation. Children who have been forced to think a certain erroneous way about a loved parent eventually alienate the very parent who created the narrative. So, the alienating parent becomes alienated themselves in this terrible destructive process. 

A child’s brain doesn’t develop fully until their mid-20s. During adolescence, the brain isn’t sophisticated enough to really think in abstract and complicated reasoning. But when it does, the child often asks, ‘how could I have said that about dad/mom?’ This realisation brings with it a further, more devastating realisation: They were lured into a position against a loving parent by someone they thought had their best interests at heart. It is hard for many of us to imagine how such hurt felt by a parent could become the motivating factor to use their children in a game of total war with their ex-partner. 

I often think of the Yeats line in 'Easter 1916': "Hearts with one purpose alone through summer and winter seem enchanted to a stone." Often the pain is so great that it turns the heart to a stone. Alienating parents need help too. They need compassion, because, in my experience, they do not know the damage they are doing to their children.

So, this Christmas, as you sit down to enjoy your feast with loved ones, remember there are many loving fathers and mothers out there sitting down to an empty table. It’s time that we heard their voices.

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