There is hope: M’s story

I just wanted to share this with you, with the permission of the father who sent it to me.  I am always incredibly grateful to receive your feedback on work that we have done because it helps us to understand how we help and what we can do to help more.  This father came on one of our workshops and I worked with him a few times individually to support him through a very difficult period.  It is wonderful to hear how he and his children have come back together.  In the period after separation, if children are captured by one parent’s psychological and emotional reaction, it is imperative to work through this carefully.  Waiting can seem such a difficult task when all hope feels as if it is slipping away, but with the right analysis and the right action, children can and do pull through.  I will let this dad tell his story now, any comments and thoughts, as usual, are always welcome and I am sure he will read and respond.

I just wanted to send you a quick email to share some events that have been happening in my life and to again thank you for the advice you have given at key moments.

It was about 18 months ago that I attended your all-day workshop in Euston, as my three teenage children had just become alienated from me, due to my wife (now ex-wife) reacting so badly to me moving back to this part of London into a flat a mile or so from the former matrimonial home. The two boys (J now aged nearly 16 and D, 19) managed to get through that time and I managed to re-establish a good relationship with them, where they would stay maybe one night a week, without any agreement or discussion between me and their mother. But my daughter R, completely conflicted and very aligned to her mother, was very hostile to me and refused to answer my texts or to meet up. That was around the Autumn of 2012, not long after having had a really nice two-week holiday with all three children in the summer.

As time went on, I realised my youngest son was struggling at school and his attendance had fallen to 88%, meaning he was missing a day of school every two weeks. So I rang his school and made sure I attended his parents’ evening, where the full picture of my ex-wife’s neglect of his education became clear (and she is herself a primary school teacher). J and I had a long chat after that parents’ evening and I basically said to him that something had to change in his education and that something was he should stay with me for at least two nights a week to make sure he did his homework. He agreed that this was the only real solution. I offered to tell his mother but he said he would do it himself – three days later on a Saturday morning, he told his mum that he was going to be staying with his dad for two nights a week – Monday nights and Tuesday nights. It was an incredibly brave thing for him to do and from the start of the following week he did exactly that – and has done so ever since. At the start of the year I said to J that I wanted him to increase this to three nights a week and he said that was ‘cool’ – so J now stays with me three nights a week, every week, without my ever having discussed or agreed that with his mother. 

Christmas 2012 was sad in that my newly-alienated daughter (she is 18 in April) did not get in touch and so I had some days up to Christmas Eve with my two boys but not my daughter.

However, I followed your advice of just sending texts, never ringing though, and sometimes I would get an acknowledgement, more often than not though I didn’t get anything back. For all of 2013 I was missing my daughter, occasionally hearing news that she had a boyfriend or that she was doing well at college, which is 10 minutes walk from my flat. I rented this flat so that she would be able to stay here and walk to college. As the year went on, the boys were staying more, I had a fantastic two weeks abroad with just me and my youngest J and we were settling into a good routine of me seeing both my boys regularly, again without ever having discussed or agreed this with their mother, so simply refused to engage with the issue. I was learning more about my two boys, seeing them as the young men they were becoming and allowed to have a relationship with them without a depressed, angry and often screaming mother standing between us. I essentially made my home a happy and welcoming place for them, lots of food and fun, without anything heavy. But I missed my daughter, prayed for her often and hoped that what you had said, about the mist lifting one day, would happen soon.

In the run-up to last Christmas I began to send R more texts and she began to reply more often. If I was away I bought three presents, gave the boys’ theirs in person and sent R’s home with the boys and would get a ‘thank you’ text. Little steps that meant a lot.Then one evening I was at work and I sent her a text asking her about university places and she began to reply and we had a long text exchange lasting around an hour. I had to go, so I signed off and said ‘Hope to see you soon’ and she said ‘yes, I would like that’.

About a week later, the two boys were coming over to decorate the Christmas tree and I sent R a text saying ‘would you like to join us’. She replied immediately and said ‘yes, I wanted to come over but didn’t know how to ask’. So she agreed to come over to the flat on Saturday morning. (I think J agreed to meet her outside the flat, so they came up together – safety in numbers).

J walked in first, gave me the usual ‘hi dad’ and a hug – and my lovely daughter R was standing here on the doorstep, looking nervous and a bit uneasy. She had dyed her hair blue, had pierced her nose and lower lip and had massive ear-rings actually embedded into the full ear lobe. I could see she continues to struggle with her weight. But I just thought she looked lovely. I remembered at that moment what you had said – that the alienation between a parent and child will lift in an instant, as if it had never been there. I stepped forward and gave her a hug and she came in and sat down and we watched TV, I went to pick up the Christmas tree, we then all went shopping in Bromley, came home and had a nice meal and then R went home. Before she went home, though, just as she was watching TV, she just said in a very matter-of-fact sort of way, ‘Dad, would it be OK for me to stay here a couple of nights a week so I can walk up to college?’

Within a week she was staying two nights a week and now stays two or three nights a week. She is an amazing young woman, studying hard for her A levels, including in philosophy, and we have lots of thinking-type conversations. She is so caring, so lovely, she has really found herself and knows who she is and where she is going and I am very proud to call her my daughter. I lost about 14 months with her, time she needed to take, but time that has made her an amazing person, wise beyond her years.

We’ve not had any big ‘why did you stay away’ type conversations, no blame, no recriminations, no explanations really, it just was what it was and now that phase has ended and R is back in my life. We sometimes go to the pictures together (still not sure what the Hunger Games is all about), haven’t met the boyfriend yet, but just having her back in my life is the most amazing thing. She said to me this week, ‘Dad, I’ve got a study month at college in May, can I stay here five nights a week’. I rented this flat so she could have access to college, so it is here for her as she prepares for her all-important A levels this year.

I just wanted to thank you, Karen, because you give people real advice about real situations and you set a real expectation for what they can hope for, but you also fill people with hope, real hope, that eventually our children return to us. I have had barely a taste of what some people (mostly men) endure, often years of silence from their children, losing them as toddlers and only having them return as young adults, and that must be utterly heart-breaking. I have had just a tiny taste of that, and it was at times unbearable, but your advice to hope, to keep in touch as best you can, to be ready for when they return, was a real life-saver. So thank you for all that you do.

18 comments

  1. Anonymous · February 11, 2014

    That brought tears Karen! Well done Karen and well done Dad.

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    • karenwoodall · February 12, 2014

      All credit to dad here for his patience and dedication. K

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  2. Rachel B · February 11, 2014

    Karen, thank you for sharing this. I have read it with mixed feelings – renewed hope that my husband will, one day, be reunited with his children – but mixed in with that hope is fear.

    The expectation that one day, I will welcome my husbands children (I no longer refer to them as my stepchildren after that label was used in the alienation) back into our lives and home, as if the disruption, allegations and pain of the last few years have been forgotten, is a big ask. My husbands daughter, who has ‘ping-ponged’ in and out of our lives for years, bringing chaos and drama with her, has caused significant pain to her younger stepsister, my daughter, who idolised her at one point, only to be (as she saw it) rejected without thought or consideration.

    While I am sure it is best for these children to be able to return to their Dads life unconditionally, I fear that if it ever happens, there is a risk that the expectations on me will be too great, and my husband will regain his children only to lose me and my daughter.

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  3. Jane Jackson · February 11, 2014

    What a great lift this is Karen.
    I have to keep reading it, so ,so good.
    Thank you to the Dad who has allowed us to look through the window of hope.
    I wish him and his family love , health and happiness.

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  4. Yvie · February 11, 2014

    I agree Rachel – the children ought to be able to move seamlessly between both homes without fear of upsetting either parent.

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  5. Kat · February 11, 2014

    That is a wonderful story, thank you for sharing.

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  6. d · February 11, 2014

    Dear Karen,Thankyou for sharing such a great human story . Many people have been in this situation where the whole family unit is destroyed by separation through difficult relationships sometimes through no fault of there own and its nearly always the case that the children are ferried from place to place never knowing why or what for.I too have a real story that is still ongoing but have to wait it out until they , family, accept why something occurred many years ago. I am still very alienated by two of my siblings but still waters run deep as they say.So it is ongoing and may take quite some time for them . I will always love them as the day they were born.No matter what happens
    Thank you again Diane

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  7. Johnnie · February 11, 2014

    Great story. It’s so lovely to counterbalance all the tragic tales out there with something like this – and they do exist in abundance. Great work Karen. Like the man said, you deal with real issues in real ways. As Ali G would say, “Keep it real.”

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  8. chris beard · February 11, 2014

    Lovely story Karen and you do offer hope and sanity.
    My kids have been alienated over Three years now, I receive no news except occasional school reports from my sons school, he is thirteen, a difficult age I remember, and my daughter sixteen, I can write with cards at special occasions only,three times a year. Because of the high conflict my ex caused and her arrest for assault, as you have previously explained,the kids made the decision,to have peace in their lives, and remove me completely, heartbreaking and stressfull , do I have to wait,till they have their own kids to realise,actually I am a good dad?

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  9. Anonymous · February 11, 2014

    What a clever and thoughtful man you are M. You planned the return of your children making all the things that they needed in life readibly available and accessible to them, and then drew them in like a magnet………………no malice, no confrontation and bags of empathy.

    Kind regards

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    • karenwoodall · February 12, 2014

      He did it just right for his own situation. Other situations may well be different. But the key thing was he remained in charge of his own responses all through. K

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  10. Mark · February 11, 2014

    Thanks for all the kind comments, it was good to share my story and put into words what has happened, it gives it shape and so I am not overwhelmed by it. As my daughter was being alienated she sent me the most disgusting and horrible text a daughter could ever send her father; that is all forgotten now, she is back in my life and is it like it never happened. I know many parents go through much more pain than me, and are hurting tonight even as I write this, but keep hoping, be ready for their return, but all along they desperately wanted to anyway. Take care, everyone. Thanks again for your feedback.

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    • karenwoodall · February 12, 2014

      Thanks so much for being willing to share it Mark, I cannot tell you how delighted I was to get your email. K

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  11. Chinny · February 12, 2014

    Well done and congratulations Mark!

    It is important though to note that Mark’s strategies worked, because he was communicating DIRECTLY with his children, by-passing his ex.

    This brings the approach of sending cards, letters, email and/or texts through the alienating parent (for the younger children who can’t read yet) to a critical evaluation as to when its use would be effective.

    My personal experience was that the communications (and presents) were not passed on to my 4-year old who was instead told that if he comes to live with me that he would be killed.

    Anonymous

    Please post this as anonymous, because that aspect of killing was discovered by Cafcass by employing an unusual approach of interviewing the small child alone. The Cafcass report, as you know is confidential. Their adoption of an unusual approach is a demonstration also of what can be achieved when things are done differently, rather than sticking to the same routine (which may not work in all cases).

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  12. nick234678 · February 12, 2014

    Thanks Mark and Karen for sharing this story. As well as hope, it raises some interesting reflections, I think. But to raise those questions is to break further into confidentiality, and also to break into the important “the past is all forgotten now” approach.

    So, I’m really not looking for answers here when I note these ideas: The alienation seems to have happened when the children were into their teen years, that is, they’re a bit older than many. Perhaps that allowed them to have developed and to retain more of their independent thinking than younger children do. One wonders what their mother’s experience and story was of the separation that influenced especially her daughter. One wonders what the children faced from their mother as they each made their own decision to see and stay more with their father. Maybe she had moved on a bit from the original emotional high of separation, maybe she wasn’t that dedicated or skilful at the alienating project.

    Anyway, this is an important different story than the usual one where there is no getting around the conflicted parental responsibility – and court and other agencies involved with them – to resolve things better for their children’s sake. Usually we would emphasise that it should NOT be up to the kids to have to resolve the impossible split loyalties. Alienation happens as a result of children being given too much of that responsibility; naturally most of them will come up with a more one-sided solution than Mark’s children did. The result is: alienation from the other parent.

    Again, I’m asking Mark to please not feel he has to tell more of his particular story here. But I’ve seen newly separated families (both parents and kids separately and together) where the teenagers join with their mother in hurt at (say) discovering a much loved and trusted husband / father was now having an affair. The daughters refuse to see the offending dad who has lost their trust too. Of course they may be upset on their mother’s behalf. But in the families I’ve seen this has not been because the children were being alienated into the feelings – in fact, the mothers have often been very careful to allow the children to have a good relationship with their dad despite their own furious personal hurt and rage. For whatever reasons – Oedipus or other – girls are more likely to identify with their mothers when dad has an affair. Boys may well identify with their dads if the mother has an affair – I’ve not seen so many of those, perhaps because dads don’t come to family therapy so much.

    Whatever the details were in his family, Mark’s huge practical commitment to get a flat so near-by was a major statement of hope and intent. Such a concrete statement – if you can afford to do it! – when it is done quietly and constructively not provocatively, speaks louder than any words and discussions. It certainly paved the way for what followed. And that too, with Karen’s guidance, was also to just “be there” and keep a steady quiet caring (even if it was one-way) presence going, a flow of contact that by-passed any parental conflict.

    Nick Child
    Edinburgh

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    • karenwoodall · February 12, 2014

      I think what we are thinking about here as we reflect is the need, when working with alienation, to utilise a differentiation route. The guidance I gave to Mark is very different to guidance I would give in other cases – to use the well worn phrase, every case is different, every case has its own marker and its own unique set of indicators that have to be understood fully by the practioner in order to be able to advise. There is no such thing as a generic case of alienation and so there is no such thing as a generic approach to treating it. I think in looking for more information Nick you are probably wanting to do that differentiation work that comes with being a practitioner in this field. Differentiating between stages, categories, typification and then planning a treatment route, intervention or guidance is the key difference between being a therapist and being an alienation specialist.

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  13. Vincent McGovern · February 13, 2014

    This man has done brilliantly well. However he had the financial means to enable him to rent a suitable largish flat in a convenient area. Logistics is such a big part of the equation and his children were older so he and they also had that advantage. The majority of dads do not have such financial recourse, money does not solve everything, but it sure helps. Still a wonderful result nonethless.

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  14. Anonymous · February 14, 2014

    It’s not easy is it. Lack of money can be an impediment, but love determination and empathy win out in the end.

    Like

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