I get a lot of emails asking for help with older children who are emerging from ‘alienation’ and so I thought I would share with you Polly’s tale.
Polly is a twenty year old woman who has not had a relationship with her father for the past eleven years. Polly was separated from her father when she was nine years old after her mother moved out of the family home and took her with her. Polly recalls spending the odd Saturday with her father but nothing more, her memory of him is hazy and she is worried when she first arrives at our Clinic, that she has idealised him and that he will let her down.
Polly and I worked together for six months before she felt able to connect with her dad on Facebook. She arrived for one of our sessions one day looking furtive and slightly anxious. She said that she had sent her father a message and that he had replied straight away. Now she had no idea what to do. She was terrified that her mother would find out that she had been in touch with her father and that her step father would be upset because ‘he had brought her up as if she were his own.’ Together we pondered on the possibilities that might arise from her impulsive action and I tried to help her to see things from her father’s perspective as she descended into an anxious review of the implications of being back in a relationship with him.
That anxious review included a lot of concerns about her mother and her step father. What would they think, how would they feel if they found out that she had contacted her father. I asked Polly to tell me about these concerns, which sounded to me like worries about being seen as betraying her mother. ‘Of course’ she replied, ‘of course I am worried that my mother will feel betrayed, she has been the one who brought me up, who was there when I needed her, why would she not feel betrayed?’ It didn’t matter which way I put it to her, Polly could not let the theme of betrayal go and when she moved on to expressing feelings of anger, I could see that there was some way to go before she would emerge from her current position.
In the months of our work together Polly had long conversations with her father on Facebook and eventually they arranged to meet. It took two cancellations and a series of text conversations before Polly felt she was in a good place to see her father face to face.
For her father, being on the other end of this process felt like torture. Having long let go of any hope of ever seeing his daughter again, he had been overwhelmed by the feelings of longing and missing her that came surging up through him in an almost Tsunami like reaction. Speaking with him on the phone, something that Polly had asked me to do on her behalf, I could sense that he too was struggling with feelings long repressed, which he had thought were gone forever. His anger came and went in waves, mirroring Polly’s who flailed around from being angry with him for ‘abandoning’ her to being angry with herself for betrayin gher mother. Her father was quite simply bleached by the fury that his daughter, from whom he had been kept for so long, was still unable to see things from her own, individual perspective. It took many more months before each were able to gain some sense of balance in the maelstrom of emotions that washed around them.
Polly eventually, after appearing and disappearing from her father’s life for nineteen months, settled into a pattern of seeing him every weekend and speaking to him on the phone several times in the week. From their first meeting, some seven months after Polly’s first message to him on Facebook, to the current day, Polly has only ever once spoken to her mother about being back in touch with her father. Her mother’s response? Silence and what Polly called a ‘hurt and troubled look’ which is deployed whenever her mother feels that Polly is not balancing her time and attention evenly enough between her parents. Polly asked me what I thought she should do to try and make things better with her mother. I asked her which she felt was more important, her mother’s need to be top of her list or her own needs to have a relationship with the people who brought her into the world. Her answer was unequivocal. “My needs’ she said, to be in relationship with both of the people who brought me here, I may not like them and I may find those relationships difficult, but to be without one of them meant that I missed out on such a lot.’
Polly’s father, who never thought he would find his little girl again, spoke of his shock as he opened the message from her on Facebook. ‘I thought I would never see my daughter again’ he said, ‘and that if I did I would be nothing to her.’ I asked him to describe the journey that the two of them took from that first message to the present day. Like a rollercoaster ride with an unknown ending was his description. A frightening time when Polly would appear and then disappear without explanation and without warning. A time when all of the monsterous thoughts of loss and fear and sorrow would come rolling back around to torment him. Sometimes, he confessed, it was so much worse than when she was not present in his life at all. The unpredictability and lack of control being the very worst thing of all.
I have often likened this stage of emergence in older children to a game of ping pong in which the child has the task of bringing together the two split off psychological parts of themselves first, before the outer reunification can occur. I have also often said that the route out of alienation follows the route in and that in my experience, the psychological splitting, which heralds an alienated reaction, has to be healed permanently before a young person can move into a relationship with both of their parents. For some children this can take years and for others a lifetime and it is still not healed. Working with Polly made me realise that this game of ping pong, is as much about time limited exposure to what has been rejected, almost as if the young person has to take reunification in chunks of experience rather than in one smooth flow.
And of course, with a parent who has encouraged rejection and a society which supports the dislocation of a parent from a child’s physical, psychological and emotional world, the task of reorientation is made so much harder when the instinctive drive to reconnect kicks in.
For anyone out there who is experiencing this game of ping pong, know that however hard it is, it is part of your child’s struggle to become psychologically free. Have courage, have patience and whenever your child is in contact with you, be strong, be calm and most of all be there. The journey is a long one, there are no midwives available for this rebirth, but with patience and time and that love that you felt on the day that they were born, one day soon, your child will come home for good.
Polly is a pseudonym for a young woman I worked with in 2012. Her father and I worked together after Polly asked him to talk to me on the phone before she felt able to. From Polly I learned much about the reconnection process for children who have completely lost their parent through separation. Facebook being one of the modern phenomenons that I believe will play an increasingly big role in supporting the instinctive drive to find the lost other parent in generations of our children.
I am particularly interested at the moment in hearing from anyone who is experiencing this kind of ping pong behaviour in their children. I would like to compile a multi sided account of the process of re-establishing relationships after long term loss of this nature. If you would like to tell me your experience please email using firstname.lastname@example.org
I am delighted to be able to say that Facebook is hosting our Professionals training day on Understanding and Coping with Parental Alienation in London on November 21st. This is the first of a number of professionals training days and it will feature Thomas Moore, the father who wrote the book ‘Please let me see my son…’ which tells the story of my first encounter with severe parental alienation as well as the story of Thomas and his family and their struggle to free their son. I will report on this training in the weeks to come and Thomas will be holding a question and answer session on this site very soon.
This training day is full, but there are many more to come, so do check back at the Training and Workshops section in the new year.