Shortly after Jonathan’s divorce was finalized, he lost his job. Worried that he would not be able to maintain the alimony and child support payments, he reluctantly took a job four hours away. The timing couldn’t have been any worse.
His ex-wife already blamed him for the problems in their marriage, the intensifying tension in the home, and the unnecessary verbal demands and threats. Yet she said that she wanted the marriage to work but then refused to go to counseling. Instead, she insisted that Jonathan make all of the changes because he was the entire root of the problem according to her.
When they separated, his ex-wife began bashing him to their teenage kids. Within a short period of time, one of his children was no longer speaking to him, another one gave one-word answers, and the third yelled every time he was present. The harder Jonathan tried to repair the damage to his relationships, the worse things got. Then came the divorce, the loss of his job, and a move out of town.
The agreement was that he would have the kids one weekend a month, four weeks in the summer, almost all of the 3-day holidays, and alternating the larger holidays. But when the first visitation rolled around, the kids refused to go with him. The same thing happened in the second one, and then the third. Tired of trying and not wanting to upset his kids further, Jonathan decided to give it a rest and he stopped asking.
Unbeknownst to him, his ex-wife ramped up her accusations telling them that their dad abandoned them and he wanted a new life away from everyone. The parental alienation escalated to the point that the kids no longer want to even speak to their dad on the phone. After a year of not seeing his kids, Jonathan had enough. He decided to find a job closer to home and attempt to repair the damage his ex-wife did to the kids.
But what does that look like? Here are some ideas.
- Reunification therapy. When a parent has been estranged from a child, reunification therapy is a healthy way to reunite the two. The process involves the child and the estranged parent seeing the therapist alone at first to determine the issues that need to be addressed. Then the two begin having sessions together until the therapist believes that they can see one another outside of therapy. This process is sometimes done electively or by court order.
- Hire a Guardian-ad-litem or parent coordinator. This third-party-mediator works in benefit of the child first. They can be an attorney or therapist and usually have experience in dealing with high conflict situations. They often can identify the parental alienation and mediate a solution that is in the best interest of the child. Even though they might be paid by one parent, their responsibility is to the child, not the adults. This can also be done electively or by court order.
- Offer supervision. While supervised visitation can be court-ordered and monitored through an agency, there is another way. The estranged parent can offer to meet the child with an adult friend or family member of their ex-spouse. It may be uncomfortable to do this however, the intent is to calm the unjustified fears of the child and establish a new relationship. Sometimes when the ex-spouse hears that these visits are without incident, they are more amicable to adjusting the times and locations.
Here is a list of what not to do:
- Don’t force a child. Encouragement or positive reinforcement do work on the child, but forcing a child into a situation that they are uncomfortable doing is likely to backfire. Unconditional love and positive regard go a long way to restoring a relationship.
- Don’t stop reaching out. Regardless of the situation, don’t stop sending holiday wishes, birthday cards, and gifts. This can be done by phone message, email, text, snail mail, or messaging apps. Children under the age of 5 should hear from their parent daily, 5-14 years old three times a week, 14-18 years old one to two times a week at the bare minimum.
- Don’t talk about the other parent. Don’t ask anything about what the other parent is saying or doing, this is likely to cause the child to shut down further. Instead, keep the conversation about the child and what they are experiencing.
- Don’t stop financial support. It is tempting to not send child support when a parent has been estranged from the child but this will backfire. Regardless of what the other parent is saying, keep sending the support. This goes a long way in case there is some necessary court action in the future.
- Don’t give up. Many times a parent gives-up and decides that it is too difficult to reestablish a relationship. But in reality, all children want to know their parents because they are a part of each parent. Be patient, it might take years but it is worth it. While waiting, keep a journal of positive thoughts that can be given to the child one day. Write it from a loving perspective and not a guilt-tripping, angry, or rejected viewpoint.
Jonathan decided to do the reunification therapy and within six months, he was seeing his kids on a regular basis. Unfortunately, to get the process started, he had to file several motions with the court but his good track record of child support, attempts to reach the kids, and persistence won the judge and eventually his kids over.