(To protect confidentiality, names and details have been modified)
When I met Daniel, he was 11-years-old and somewhat frail and emotionally young for his age. He was terrified to be in the same room with his dad. It was my job as a reunification therapist to help him and his father reconnect. They hadn’t seen each other in two years. In our first meeting, I asked Daniel to tell me why he was so afraid. He said his dad was mean to him. I asked him what his dad had done and he said, “He’s just mean.” I was concerned there had been some trauma and that he might be afraid to revisit it with a stranger like me. So, I backed off and decided to get to know him a little more before any further probing about his past experiences. I did that for a few sessions, never really getting at what the actual problem was. I had spoken individually to his mother and she was more interested in telling me how Daniel’s dad had controlled her in the marriage than helping me explore why Daniel was so afraid to be with his father. She said she wasn’t sure why Daniel was so angry with his dad, but because of her experiences with dad in the past, she was certain Daniel was feeling the same way she did. That was my first clue that Daniel may be experiencing some alienation. When I met with dad, he seemed mild-mannered, but anxious to reconnect with his son. He described a healthy relationship with Daniel until the divorce. Then it all fell apart. He and Daniel’s mother fought about everything. Dad thought mom was coddling Daniel too much. Mom thought dad was incapable of caring for a child and took too many risks. It was the classic over-protective mom and the toughen-up-the-kid dad.
After having met everyone in the family and spending a few sessions with Daniel, I finally told Daniel that unless he revealed to me what his dad had done to him that caused so much fear, I would probably begin joint sessions with him and his father soon. That jarred him out of his silence and he nearly cried, telling me that he couldn’t see his dad. He was too afraid. I was prepared to finally hear about his father’s secret abusive behaviors. Instead, what I heard was a sad account of a child who had been coached by his mother to give me reasons, even if they were bad ones, for why a relationship with his dad was just not possible. He first said he was upset because dad made him eat cucumbers. I was picturing a father holding the child down and forcing vegetables down his throat. Instead, he said dad wouldn’t let him leave the table until he had eaten all of the food on his plate, including the cucumbers. He said he didn’t like them because they were cold and slimy. I smiled and said I didn’t like them too much either. I asked him to tell me more. He said that he remembered his dad being “unsafe” when he last saw him (which was two years before when he was nine). I asked for an example and he said his dad lived in an apartment and had a swimming pool. He said his dad wouldn’t let him wear a life vest in the pool. That confused me so I clarified, “You mean like floaties or a pool float?” He said, “No, a life vest.” I asked, “Like what you wear on a boat in the lake?” He said, “Yes.” I was perplexed. I wondered if that’s what he normally did with mom and he said that he didn’t ever go swimming with his mom and in fact, he didn’t know how to swim. I suggested that maybe instead of wearing a life vest, he might have his dad teach him how to swim. I asked if his dad accompanied him to the pool, and he said that he did, but that Dad wasn’t too interested in playing with him. We moved on from the pool subject and I asked if there was anything else he wanted to tell me about his dad. He hesitated, and said, “I don’t think he’s that good of a parent.” I asked why and he said, “He never did homework with me. He always wanted to play video games.” I asked, “But you’d rather do homework?” He looked down, almost embarrassed to answer, and said, “Yes. If he cared about me, he would make sure my homework was done.” At that point, I just felt sorry for Daniel. I have raised two children and have met hundreds of elementary-school-aged kids. I’ve never met one who would fault a parent for allowing him to play video games over homework!
This was clearly a case in which there was no real reason for the child to be afraid of his dad. He had become enmeshed with an anxious mother who had convinced herself and her son that dad was a monster. Dad could use a few parenting tips for sure, but mom was conditioning the child to think poorly of his father, even if she wasn’t aware of it. I spent several months working with each parent and the child, and Daniel eventually began spending time with his dad on the weekends. I had mom seek her own therapy to help her cope with the anxiety of allowing Daniel to be parented by his dad, who she distrusted and feared. She eventually began giving Daniel permission to love the man she hated. This was one of those cases that made me wonder what would have happened if they had not had any therapeutic intervention. What kind of adult would Daniel have turned out to be had the alienation progressed?
These kinds of difficult resistance cases require support for the whole family. That is why our CNFC team always approaches reunification cases now with a two-therapist model. We assign one therapist to the custodial parent and one to the estranged parent and children. That way each adult is getting the support they need, and the two-therapist team can work together to ensure that alienating behaviors are stopped and support for the parent/child relationship can grow. Parental alienation is a popular buzz phrase but it is a complex issue in which many variables play into why a child might not want to visit with a parent. As part of reunification therapy, we are always assessing for parental alienation and determining who holds what responsibility for the child’s resistance. But ultimately, we take the position that it’s not about assessing blame or punishing either parent. It’s about finding ways to help the child survive and love the parents they didn’t choose.
For more information about treating visitation resistance kids, please call me to talk about the best approach for your client’s particular family situation.