Parental Poison, Part 2: The Search for Sanity
by John Calabrese Huntington
The voicemail message was horrifying. It was 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday night, and I’d just called in to check office messages. "Please call me," pleaded the mother.
"I don’t know what’s happening. Jamie’s acting crazy, like he’s two different people. I’m so scared."
In the background, 9-year-old Jamie was alternating between screaming curses at his mother, and crying and apologizing. It was the most chilling message I’d ever received.
Jamie’s father hadn’t intended to poison his son, but he did. The frustration from a failed marriage, the unwillingness of both spouses to get along, the nights spent alone in a small apartment—it all spilled out. Jamie would overhear his estranged parents’ conversations, how the father cursed the mother (on the phone in front of his son and during visitations), and how he blamed everything on her. Struggling with his perceptions, Jamie gradually adopted the belief that mommy had "kicked daddy out," and thus the father’s hatred was passed on to his young, fragile and vulnerable son. The night Jamie’s mother called me, he could no longer contain such conflicting feelings for her—the love he’d come to know, and the hatred he’d come to learn—and spiraled into a confusing miasma of rage and sorrow.
Children can be alienated in many ways, by either parent, intentionally or unintentionally. Although in the majority of cases the custodial parent is the one alienating the child, sometimes it’s the other way around. And so it was for Jamie.
Leaving a relationship is, as one mother put it, "Death without a body," an unresolved sadness that, in cases of alienation, becomes focused and blamed on the alienated parent. Many alienating parents go to churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. Yet, several times a week, they put those values on hold and engage in inappropriate and damaging behavior. They rationalize it by talking themselves into believing it’s best for the child, but the real reason is hatred for the ex-spouse. They want them to pay for their pain, for the loss of a relationship and—especially—the dream of what might have been. And what better way to get back at someone than to turn their own precious child against them?
Alienation is a propaganda war, with the prize being a child’s misguided allegiance. But many times, as children become adults and develop the ability to think for themselves, this strategy backfires on the alienating parent. When the truth is finally revealed, or the child becomes determined to uncover it as they become older teenagers or young adults, they may then need to deal with anger towards the alienating parent.
In those cases where parents are no longer able to see their children, I advise them to treat it like a grieving process, and really experience the emotions that surface: Denial, anger, bargaining (the "what-ifs"), depression, and acceptance. Also, it’s best—although painfully difficult to do—for the alienated parent to resist the urge to strike back verbally. It is essential for them to provide a healthy contrast, because one day the child will draw upon this distinction as a frame of reference, using it to support their intuition about "what’s really been going on."
For parents who are partially or completely alienated from their children, a support network is essential. Finding refuge from this emotional storm can take many forms, from the empathy and love of friends and perhaps even a new partner, to support groups, establishing (or reestablishing) a spiritual base, and—ultimately—the cultivation of acceptance and letting go.
"Change what you can, change your mind about the rest" is an old Buddhist axiom that has saved countless souls from the hell others would otherwise have inflicted upon them. And one other suggestion, so commonplace as to be often overlooked, involves the simple practice of prayer. There have been many double-blind studies done on the power of prayer, showing how belief and the transmission of positive energy over long distances can influence outcomes.
We have so much power at our disposal, if we would only pick up our heads from the pain long enough to see what’s out there. One of the most powerful tools is acquiring the skill involved in not taking someone else’s negative entreaties personally. Jamie’s mother consistently remembered to not take her ex-husband’s pain personally. She learned to see that the horrible things he said about her were just a thin veil for his own frustrations, the unwillingness to admit any culpability, and self-loathing. She views the father as ill and therefore strives to operate from a place of compassion instead, calming her own mind and serving her son as an example.
In the harshest of circumstances, meaning must be created for a person to endure, learn and evolve. Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning, recounts his years in a Nazi concentration camp, detailing how the conscious cultivation of gratitude allowed him to navigate a course through a variety of daily horrors. Frankl focused on the most seemingly mundane aspects of his life there—the extra crumbs he could find, the sunlight on his face, the warmth of sleeping bodies squeezed together at night. He was one of the first psychiatrists to urge patients to purposely emphasize the positive aspects of their experiences, and his philosophy boiled down to: What will you consciously choose to do with the circumstances which have beset you? Frankl emphasized using the negativity of an ordeal to take nothing positive for granted, urging patients to open their eyes to whatever was still good about their lives. He was emphatic about reevaluating everything and focusing on creating meaning, using conscious thought as the primary instrument of change.
Another extremely powerful tool available to alienated parents is the practice of forgiveness. There are many who equate forgiving with forgetting; they think that since they’ll never forget what happened, they won’t be able to forgive. You’ve probably heard it before: "How am I supposed to forget what they did to me?" But forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. It means letting go of the hostility that’s been twisting your insides.
You forgive first for yourself, then for the other person. You forgive because it’s the healthy thing to do, whether or not the other person appreciates what you’re doing. Forgiving does not mean that you are condoning or forgetting what happened. It does mean that you are making a conscious choice to "unstuck" yourself and move past what happened. This is done over and over: First, by making a conscious choice to "let go," and then practice, practice, practice each time the urge surfaces to be angry and hateful again.
In such intense situations hope is often eclipsed by regret and despair, but it is an underrated and often forgotten component of mental health. Understandably, alienated parents worry about the future, imagining that the present scenario will continue indefinitely. Yet hope does indeed exist, as authors Stanley Clawar and Brynne Rivlin outline in Children Held Hostage: Dealing with Programmed and Brainwashed Children:
• Radical positive changes in behavior, attitude and/or emotions have been observed in programmed/brainwashed children once they are freed from the process.
• Only a very small percentage (five percent) of children reached the "point of no return," meaning that they could not be helped or disengaged from the process.
• Children who are deprogrammed are usually happier, symptom-free, and develop a better relationship with the target parent.
Jamie was one of the fortunate ones. In the course of therapy, he was finally able to see that his mother was not to blame for his father leaving the family home, how both parents had agreed to the arrangement, but that his father was still upset and therefore would say unkind things out of frustration. With this new understanding, Jamie gradually stopped acting out with his mother, and the terrifying "splitting" episodes finally came to a stop.
Alienation is a term that needs to become an accepted part of the legal vernacular, and ultimately used as a tool in service of every child’s best interests. At present, it’s not even considered as admitting evidence (due to the difficulty proving its effects), but hopefully with enough time and mention, enough people in the right places will take notice and change the laws. Until that time, if meaning is truly in the eye of the beholder, then it’s up to every alienated parent to seek out and create their own paths to acceptance and peace.
John Calabrese is a transpersonal psychotherapist with a private practice
in Huntington. He specializes in transitions, separation and divorce,
career changes, effective communication, relationships and couples counseling,
and spirituality. For a free telephone consultation, call 631-549-4852
or email: TransPsych1@aol.com.