One of the saddest and most frustrating situations occurs when a child has been bribed or manipulated to turn against one of the parents. The child might previously have had a wonderful relationship with the so-called "target parent."
Manipulations can range from very subtle, like the parent who looks sad and distressed when the child goes off to visit the other parent, right on through the entire spectrum to the other extreme, where the parent actively damns and condemns the target parent.
The parent will say things like, "It's all his fault; he deserted us," right on through to saying that the target parent has all kinds of drug problems or alcohol problems or that he or she left us to run off with some low-life.
Unfortunately, subtle forms of bribing or manipulating a child will work as well as the more blatant strategies. In fact, the subtle ways work best, because even a savvy child, who might recognize (and better deal with) blatant alienation, will not recognize more subtle forms.
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It might be a mother, for example, who says: "Well you know you're father; he has a drinking problem. He tries, but he really is just an alcoholic." Or the father who says, "You know your mom; she means well but is just so uptight you can't have any fun around her." These kinds of subtle strategies might work every bit as well as the more blatant ones.
First of all, the target parent must learn to recognize situations that look like a bribed or manipulated child, but in actuality is not. It is frequent for older children, for example, say from twelve years of age and up, to basically want to have one home. It simply is a matter of convenience for them. They want to be around the friends with whom they socialize.
Also, a child of older years may simply want to switch from where he or she already lives to the other house, based on the-grass-is-always-greener-on-the-other-side-of-the-street. This is the child who believes the "other house" is the place where he or she can stay up later, where there is less discipline, less insistence on cleanliness, less insistence on chores or homework.
Regardless of the cause of a child's not wanting to see you, the core skill needed is what we call non-adversary communication. This is a skill which we also teach to businesses. It is a very powerful tool, but very subtle in its power. It will sound simple enough when we run the rules by you, but it will take a little bit of dedicated practice to use it well.
First, you must see the value in using it. It brings two main benefits. One benefit is that it will make your own communications more powerful. Second, it is tremendously self-therapeutic. It would take us too far off point to explain this fully right here, but the fact is that any piece of "output behavior," an angry face, tight vocal-cord muscles, a tense body, accesses in you your worst and most fearful memories at an unconscious level, memories of times you felt helpless and scared. You are unwittingly hurting yourself.
The first principal is that whatever the issue is you are dealing with, you immediately seek a solution.
This next point is extremely hard for most people to implement. It simply states that you never blame or make the other person wrong, not even in the slightest way. No matter how angry, hurt, or vindictive you feel, you do not use a time where some problem needs a solution to air your anger.
There are not only blatant ways of making the other person wrong e.g., "You idiot! You never understand anything!" There are also subtle ways. The use of the word "but" is subtly making the other person wrong. If you tell me your position, and if I answer you, even in a very gentle and warm voice, with a phrase that starts with the word "but," you know that shortly thereafter I am going to make your position "wrong."
Suppose one of my children says to me: "You always talk to me in a loud voice."
Suppose I answer: "But honey, it is so hard to get your attention."
The third point is to learn to not give more than one (short) explanation of your own position. To do so is not only strategically ineffective, but self-damaging. When you spend a lot of motor-output time trying to justify your position, that is, trying to get the other person to accept the wisdom of your explanation, you are accessing in yourself, at an unconscious level, all of the memories of when you felt helpless, vulnerable, misunderstood and "on the carpet."
Here are some brief examples of non-adversary statements. Instead of saying "You're late every time you drop Mary off," (making the other person wrong), say: "What can we do to make drop-offs and pick-ups work better for all of us?"
We absolutely know your thinking at this point: "You don't know my ex. He wants to hurt me! He doesn't care about solving anything!" We know this might very well be true. But what you don't know, and we do, is the subtle, cumulative power of the strategies we want to share with you. Give us a chance. Master them, and try them before judging how you think they will work.
Further, our purpose here is to teach you how to use these skills with your children, especially those from whom you may have been alienated.
This skill of non-adversarial communication is necessary to make most of the other strategies that you might use work better. It is an amazingly powerful tool when used the ways we will describe. It is so subtle that the other person might not even consciously know you are using it. But it definitely moves people off of aggressive or hostile positions.
Here are some other examples. Take the, child who complains the parent speaks too loudly.
The parent might respond to such an accusation with: "You may be right. Help me to find better ways to get your full attention." Now, since the child has no position to bother defending (which would have been the case had the parent said, "You don't pay attention," to which the child would have said, "Yes, I do," and the conversation would go nowhere), the child can begin wondering what options the parent may have to get his or her attention without yelling.
As long as anyone has to defend a position, no creative thinking goes on. As soon as you make someone wrong, all they will do is endlessly explain to you why they're not; we are genetically engineered, one might say to "defend our territory." It is an almost irresistible urge.
The final strategy, but one which we recommend you do not use until you have thoroughly tried the others is to seek help through the legal system. This is something you definitely would like to avoid, unless there are no other options available.
You will have to initiate these steps through your attorney. There are two important pieces of information you may need, since not all attorneys are aware of the mental health options that may be available and not all options will be available in every state.
Dr. Bricklin and Dr. Elliot are nationally-known child custody experts. They have written many publications offering help and guidance for mothers, fathers, and grandparents involved in child custody issues. Their publications can be found at http://www.custodylibrary.com
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