There is a growing community of parents of adult children across the globe that refer to themselves as alienated, abandoned, or neglected. This phenomenon has several developing theories that span from beliefs that current societal trends are causing these aging adults to be left behind, to blaming the loss of the traditional family system (man/wife/kids) and inherent old-American values. Here’s the perspective of a parental alienator and trauma therapist who treats such cases from both sides.
I caution you from reading further if you cannot hear hard truths. And, if you find yourself as one of the parents whose adult children have left you behind, I encourage you to find a support group and therapist. Parental alienation support groups are necessary. You cannot move through difficult times without help of some kind, and support groups are an important means to connect with others that are experiencing the same stresses. I would like to make clear that seeking support of any kind is not wrong. It’s the right thing to do. I do ask that you keep an open mind before you make up your own meaning of the relational fracture. There are many reasons this occurs, and not one explanation fits all across the board.
At the age of 9, I began voicing to my family the particular abuses that occurred, fears, and sought safety in their care. Rather than investigate, my parents chose to shame, belittle, and devalue my existence as a child. Not considering there was any bit of truth to my reports, they instead scapegoated me into silence. At least, they tried.
That didn’t work very well. I left home officially at age 14 and was legally emancipated at age 16.
After that, everybody knew. From how everything unfolded, the very secrets they worked so hard to keep hidden became public knowledge. I fought through the thick lines of shaming, denial, and debasement, to build a life of my own, without guidance. It sucked, but I wouldn’t have changed it for anything. It came down a decision of survival. Leave, and have a chance at normality, or stay, and become the spitting image of my attackers. I chose life.
Throughout my adult life, I have let various family members back in on a limited scale, for a “second chance.” I learned what it means to truly change oneself versus give a bunch of lines of bullshit and false promises, to only fall back into the same overtly offending behavioral patterns in 4 months. But again, I would not change this for anything. Because, throughout these experiences, I learned several key lessons about relationships. And, having these lessons early on prevented me from entering into some really terrible relationships later in life. Because, I recognized the signs of abuse instantly. I’d been there before, and never wanted to go back.
For me, it was easy. My parents are abusive. After years of outright exploitation and dismissal of my concerns repeatedly, and intensified abuse after speaking out, I got up and left. I created a life of my own. There’s just one thing. This process started at 9 years old for me. I was moved out by the age of 15. If your 9 year old is detecting and voicing concern for their own wellbeing, are you listening? Or do you blame and accuse them for creating problems in your life and making you uncomfortable?
Because mine sure did. They tried to silence me. That didn’t work out very well for them in the end. Hey, wrong choice mom and dad.
True change takes incredible amounts of time and energy. It’s in your actions, and not in your words.
I learned this from a very early age.
Making the outside pretty on a turd or spraying perfume on it still doesn’t change the fact that the turd is a piece of shit. Polishing poop not only wastes time, it makes everyone smell bad things in the end. True change comes from doing the things that you don’t want to do. This includes looking at the ugly parts of you and considering that the other person just may be right, at least a little. It still doesn’t mean that you are an abomination. It just means that there are areas to improve in, and that your learned behaviors are a little shitty and need disposing of.
My situation is not the same as others, and there are many types of parental alienation that have different causes. From a therapist’s perspective, I enter into all trauma relationships with the assumption that parents did they best they could with what they had. We do what we were taught, unconsciously. As humans, we cannot practice something that we did not know. So, I make it very clear that healing and personal growth does not involve vilifying those that abused us. It’s like getting shot. We didn’t ask to be shot. We surely didn’t want to get hurt or feel excruciating pain. But, the shooter certainly isn’t going to stick around and help you heal. It is your responsibility at that point to go in deep, find the bullet, remove it, clean up the wound, patch it up, and nurture it while it heals.
Parents are not the enemy.
There is no enemy. This is not a black and white world. We live in a society with many sicknesses that are passed on from one generation to the next, through traditions, beliefs, and social norms. While some are great, others are incredibly damaging. Take the Man Rules and Woman Rules, for example. Those alone have gone and fucked us up for at least another few hundred years. It takes a long time to get rid of these damaging ways of thinking from civilization.
So, then who’s to blame? Why are you looking to blame someone- becomes the question that I start with.
For parents, the sudden feeling of being cut out of your children’s lives is devastating. For the very children you worked so hard to bring into a tough world, it feels unfair and unforgiving. I certainly empathize. But, it’s not quite this cut and dry. You’re children didn’t just decide one day to leave you. There’s always something deeper, and it’s usually what people have worked their entire lives to avoid.
Those painful core beliefs about yourself are hiding underneath it all, secretly driving your bus. And, if the light is cast upon them, the world will forever know who it is you truly are. This is usually the process that unfolds under someone’s harmful behaviors. This is also a result of abuse itself. The truth is, we are all good and bad, right and wrong, and a wonderful mix of characteristics that make us- human. There are no absolutes. People get into trouble when they begin to view the world in a more unbalanced perspective, like believing everyone is going to hurt you, or that the world is a terrible and unsafe place.
Breaking News: People are typically good, have a mix of characteristics that serve them at times, and are harmful at others.
Being a workaholic is wonderful in a career, and will get you ahead financially. But you will probably lose your family and friends after neglecting them and dismissing their concerns. Being a workaholic would not doom you to be a worthless or bad person.
So when it comes to parenting, we do the best we can. I struggle. We all do.
It is how you handle feedback that makes the difference, in my experience.
When children speak, we should listen.
90% of the trauma I treat include people abused in their developmental years who told adults who either shamed, blamed, or ignored the information their kids entrusted them with. Or, they had no one they felt safe enough with to seek help from, because either their home environment was so dangerous or there simply was no one there. Even if there was no physical abuse, psychological unsafety taught them that if they told, they would be humiliated or disbelieved.
It is more damaging than the actual abusive event when you go unbelieved after trusting someone enough to divulge such information, while being scared to death for repercussions or judgment.
I highlight all these key bits of information, because these were the earliest, most important lessons I learned. From that age of 9, I experienced the consequences of what happens when you are not heard nor believed, and outright shamed for “causing problems” in very serious, very dangerous, familial environments.
So, I explore how the information was received by the caregivers. With caregivers in counseling, I encourage them to search their own handling of such information and to identify the truths there may be in the other person(s) story. Again, shaming or vilifying caregivers or adult children never works. If they are willing to be open enough to do the work, then they are the bravest people I know. So, from both ends, children and adults are both right. And, there is a truth somewhere in the middle of all the stories.
With cases of parental alienation, the common thread of reaction I experience from the children were they felt unheard, unseen, or outright shamed for voicing their experiences. It may be religious beliefs, fear of damage to community reputations, or judgment, that keeps the parent(s) from exploring the truths of these events. This propels parents to find an easy solution to their problem and blindly accuse their children of inherent defectiveness. This also prevents them from looking further into their own harmful behaviors.
When the door shuts on these kids, they learn other ways to survive. They quickly identify who cannot and who can be trusted. If you take that sensitive information and use it against them, you will be deemed unsafe forever. And once you have been pushed out completely after repeated attempts of communication from their end, and you become desperate enough to begin the process of change, it may be too late.
It’s that simple.
If you yell, accuse, call names, belittle, compare, or engage in any of the other types denigration famously defined by Pia Mellody, then you are abusing your children. Abuse is not defined by simple physical boundary violating like hitting, kicking, or molesting. It goes much further. The physical wounds heal after a short time, but emotional and psychological damage last a lifetime.
So, I ask that people consider the truth of both sides. I encourage each to explore their part in the damage, and to work on correcting what they can about themselves. Because, you cannot force someone else to change. And, you certainly cannot heal if you expect someone else to fulfill your needs. Your life is yours, and is driven by each choice you make.
Adults cannot be abandoned.
This is the single most important principle I drive home. Relationships are two-way streets. If your are distanced, there is a reason. Finding that is the hard part. It takes all parties. And, children don’t make these decisions up easily or overnight. They happen for a reason. And likely, it includes some truth to aspects that parents are either scared to face, or unwilling to deal with. Children are born into this world geared to depend upon and form strong attachments with their caregivers. It’s a natural process to stay close to your parents. While there are cases where the children are just tough and distanced emotionally from the start, like in those with autism. However, this counts for a small part of the phenomenon of people leaving the relationships with their parents in their adult lives.
Blame and side-taking works to only further the gap and decrease safety in those relationships.
If only he would change. If she would just see things my way.
So, what can you do?
Be open to the fact there may be some truth, and empathize. Find understanding in the situation, and let the other have their feelings without discrediting or dismissing their concerns. Hear them out. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with everything, or shoulder all the responsibility. Rather, be open to the possibility they might be a little right, and have some willingness to do work on yourself. Because, that is the only thing that you have the power to change- not other people.
Find balance, and work to heal yourself. Identify what worked and what didn’t, and push yourself for betterment. We all are human, and we always have that capacity for growth. We have all made mistakes. Admitting to those does not make you any less of a person than another.
For my parents, enough chances and time have passed that I realized only walls will work. I cannot change who they are, and I do not want to expose my family to those same patterns. Since they chose the easy route of scapegoating and are completely blind to their perversions, I keep them out. I don’t regret this decision, and it will never change.
Society’s understanding of abuse is growing, and people are becoming more empowered to protect themselves. For those like me who were forced early-on to do this, we know what the costs are. It is never easy, and always painful.