It can be heartbreaking when a parent and a child are no longer in contact. The parent-child relationship is one of the strongest human bonds, and most of the time, parents and children want to keep that bond intact, even if they disagree with one another’s choices. In some cases, however, this is not possible. Two reasons for the breaking of this bond are estrangement and parental alienation.
When the child is living with or close to one parent and not in contact with the other, it can be difficult to tell the difference between these two situations. Keep reading to learn the difference between parental alienation and estrangement so you can take the steps needed to salvage your relationship with your child if that is what you would like to try to do.
What Is Parental Alienation?
Parental alienation is when one parent, usually the one that the child lives with or is closer to, tries to get the child to think poorly of the other parent. This can be done blatantly or very subtly. There is often manipulation involved. Parents might accuse, exaggerate, or outright lie about their ex to their child in a blatant case of parental alienation.
For example, they might say, “your mom never wanted you,” or “your father always puts himself before the rest of the family.” They might tell a young child that their other parent tore the family apart or “chose not to live with us anymore.” If the other parent has remarried and had more children, the offending parent might say, “they’re choosing their other children over you.”
In this case, the offending parent is coming right out and saying that the child should not have a relationship with their other parent. A more subtle form of parental alienation might be sighing when the other parent does not show up for visitation, saying, “well, what did you expect?” rather than trying to find out what happened.
Or they might say, “It’s not your mom/dad’s fault – all of the women/men on that side of the family are like that,” if the child and the other parent disagree. These comments cause the child to conclude that they might be better off without a relationship with their other parent.
What Is Estrangement?
Estrangement happens when children decide that they are unwilling to have a relationship with one of their parents. Generally, this happens with older children and adult children, as young children do not make these decisions independently. This could happen because a parent has been absent. After all, they are abusive or have a personality disorder or some other issue that prevents them from parenting their child.
Estrangement is not always deserved; there might very well be circumstances that the child is unaware of that have caused their parent not to behave the way they expect. However, it is usually based on the actions of the parent in question. In some cases, estrangement is based on an adult child’s behavior, such as drug abuse or mental illness, but beyond this article’s scope.
If You Are a Victim of Parental Alienation
It’s important to understand that parental alienation is not something that the court will support. If your child’s other parent is telling them not to have a relationship with you or subtly steering them away from wanting to spend time with you, then you should speak to your attorney or legal advocacy group.
The family courts do not look kindly upon parental alienation, and this is something that might require you to go to court to prove. If a judge finds that parental alienation did occur, you might be given custody or more visitation with your child. Your and child will also be likely to need counseling so you can heal your relationship and re-cement the parent-child bond.
If You and Your Child Are Estranged
If you are estranged from your child due to your behavior, you will need to change your behavior and ask your child to forgive you. If you have been neglecting your child because you are remarried and must spend the bulk of your time with your new family, then that is not your child’s fault.
You will need to be the one to reach out and fix the situation, finding ways to incorporate your child into your new life. If this has been going on for some time, be aware that it will not be an overnight fix. If you are estranged from your child because you moved far away, look for ways to connect digitally.
If the issue is that you have a substance abuse problem or mental illness, get the help that you need and let your child know that you are trying to fix your situation. Letting things go or just sitting back to wait and see is not the proper response to parental estrangement.
You will need to prove to your child that you have changed, and it is going to be hard work. Many parents find that the relationship with their child is worth any amount of work that it takes, so if you are in this situation, do not give up on letting your child know that you are trying, that you love them and that you.
Coping With Estrangement or Parental Alienation
While you are going through estrangement or parental alienation, it is essential to get the emotional support you need. Once reunited with your child, you also might choose to go to family counseling to help the two of you reconnect and improve your relationship.
Never hesitate to reach out for help, whatever the situation is. If you cannot reconnect with your child, you will also likely need some help to get past your grief and accept the position. National Family Solutions might be able to help. Contact us to find out what resources we have for people in your situation.