Richard Hogan: Alienating a parent is damaging for the whole family

Richard Hogan: Alienating a parent is damaging for the whole family

Richard Hogan: As you sit next to your children tomorrow night watching The Toy Show, think about all those parents out there sitting on their own, denied access to their children.

THIS time of year can seem kind of magical. Everyone wrapped up, little eyes shimmering taking in the lights walking up Grafton Street. The magic of Santa in the air. I love this time of year. There is something special about walking around the neighbourhood and the warm lights like butter inside happy homes and chimneys with smoke swirling gently into the sky.

It can be a long, cold, lonely winter, as the song goes, and we are all a little pandemic fatigued. Despite what we hear about rising cases, everyone is trying to make the season special. But in all this magic, there is a group of people I cannot help think about during this time of year — those denied the right to love their children; alienated parents. As a family psychotherapist, you often get invited into some very difficult stories. Watching a once loving dad or mom struggle to maintain a relationship with their children after a conflicted separation or divorce can be one of the most unsettling experiences for a clinician. Everything about alienation is disturbing.

Of course, some parents are estranged from their children because of bad behaviour or neglect. Some children reject their parents because it is too painful or dangerous to be around that parent, and this is what I call, normative estrangement. However, there is a significant difference between rejecting a parent who is abusive or controlling to rejecting a parent who is loving and nurturing. And when a loving parent is denied access to their child or children it has devastating consequences for everyone in that family unit.

Alienation is designed to break the parent being alienated. The destruction of an alienated parent can be absolute. Financially ruined by the cost of the court system, spiritually and emotionally exhausted by constant rejection, and riddled with guilt as they watch their own parents, the grandparents of their children, become rejected as collateral damage in the post-separation landscape. As I said the devastation of alienation is absolute. But the parent who is coercively controlling their children into a narrative about a once loving parent often doesn’t understand the damage they are doing to their children. They need help, too. This is why therapists need specialised training.

Of course, in extreme cases, the alienating parent is fully cognisant of the damage they are doing. In these cases, their desire to hurt their ex-partner is stronger than their desire to safeguard their children. 

I have worked with these cases and they are extremely difficult. I have noticed that alienating parents often seek out young or inexperienced clinicians. They do this under the pretence of hoping to reconnect their estranged partner with their children. The real intention becomes clear later in the sessions as they attempt to align the therapist to their narrative, ‘dad/mom is abusive and doesn’t care for the children, and they have done everything to get dad/mom back into their children’s lives but the children are safer without them in their life’.

Once the therapist is aligned, they will be asked to write a report of their experience. Nothing seals the faith of an alienated parent more than an inexperienced or aligned therapist’s report. When a parent, child and therapist are saying the same thing, the alienated parent is powerfully out-maneuvered and the court’s decision is a fait accompli. The loneliness and isolation experienced by an alienated parent is intolerable and they are often at the receiving end of a false allegation. So, the alienated parent starts to lose their friend network too, no smoke without fire and all that. The fight seems futile, fighting for a child who alleges you abused them. What can you do? To fight means to challenge those accusations and they are reputationally very damaging. So, they give up. Desperate and alone many parents, in my experience men, feel like they have nowhere to turn to. I have spoken with many men who were on the verge of taking their own life. Of course, women experience this too, and I have worked with many loving mothers who have been alienated from their children.

Last week was International Men’s Day. This is an area that men need support in because there is an inherent bias that ensures they suffer from this issue. We need a higher standard of training in our courses, so inexperienced therapists are not so easily manipulated. Currently, there is no training on this issue. The court system needs to be updated so that anyone found guilty of coercing a child into a narrative against a loving parent is dealt with severely. And we need better supports for parents, whose only crime was to separate from their partner.

As you sit next to your children tomorrow night watching The Late Late Toy Show, think about all those parents out there sitting on their own, denied access to their children.

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