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Some dads approach Father’s Day with a bittersweet sense of dread

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!  — Shakespeare, “King Lear”

Rod MartelRod Martel

In 1972 Richard Nixon established the third Sunday in June as an “an occasion for renewal of the love we bear to our fathers.” While many fathers will, no doubt, experience pure joy in the bounty of the day, there is another group of fathers who approach the day with, at best, a bittersweet sense of dread.

There are no reliable numbers for the amount of families that experience parental estrangement or alienation, but in my personal and professional experience I have found that it is an extremely common phenomenon and under-reported for  a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the perceived shame of giving others  a glimpse of one’s less-than-perfect family dynamics.

In talking and working with estranged families, I’ve  almost always seen more pain experienced by the parent than the estranged child. I wondered about the reason for this and eventually came to the conclusion that the answer has something to do with the fact that parents have simply had a larger quantity of memories associated with the parenting process.

Parents begin building positive memories about their children at least nine months before they are born. On the other hand, most children have trouble remembering anything before their third or fourth birthdays so that the estranged children have “forgotten” at least four years of childhood memories. Since the first four years (including the nine months of pregnancy) are often the most positive and emotionally intense, parents who suffer estrangement/alienation almost always, feel the greatest loss.

Complicated family dynamics

Families who haven’t experienced this type of loss imagine that for this to happen, a parent must have to have committed an egregious offense, but more often than not, there are no clearly identifiable antecedents (or villains) to the estrangement, just a complicated set of family dynamics. Unraveling this ball of twine  becomes an almost insurmountable task, even in the hands of highly trained professionals. When one or both of the parties won’t participate, then the task becomes that of accepting the cruelest of life’s rejections. 

While no one would want to minimize the tragedy of losing a child through an early death, parents of estranged children often describe the experience of estrangement as a slow, tortuous death, complete with all the stages of grief with the added element of rejection. Of course, estranged parents almost always harbor a modicum of hope for reconciliation, while parents who have suffered the death of a child, struggle with the non-negotiable finality of loss.

Mostly they avoid talking about it

How do parents of estranged children deal with the other people in their lives? Mostly they avoid talking about it. There seems to be a great deal of shame attached to “losing” a child through rejection. When they do bring it up with friends, the responses often reflect a trivialized understanding of the situation such as “Why don’t you just call them and talk it over?”

After a while, friends stop asking and the parents stop bringing it up in conversations, but it is there, always there, for the loss of a child, whether through death or rejection stings like no other injury.

So, what is the proper way to support fathers of estranged children? Ask them once in a while how they are doing with the issue and in the same way you would comfort a grieving parent, ask them if they would like to talk about it. Don’t offer gratuitous solutions (they have already thought of all of them), but offering your help, if needed, is always acceptable.

Father’s Day is a great day to remind them that the estrangement of a child does not negate their years of dedicated parenting, and that is something to celebrate!

Rod Martel is a licensed psychologist and parent.


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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by dave rabos on 06/15/2012 - 01:20 pm.

    Parental Alienation

    Thanks for this article! The alienation of my children has been the most difficult experience in my life. You’ve captured a lot of the issues, including the difficulty in discussing it with others, either out of embarrassment or simply because it’s too painful.

    Parental Alienation is real, and we must raise awareness. Anyone married to a high-conflict spouse should do everything they can to protect themselves and their kids prior to divorce/separation. Here is a video I put together to help others in similar situations:

  2. Submitted by John Brosnan on 06/16/2012 - 12:07 am.

    Parental Alienation

    Thanks so much for this article. This is such a terribly under-reported problem for as common as it is. And for as horrible as it is.

    There are clearly identifiable antecedents to the estrangement, and in the majority of cases, it is a mother who has bad-mouthed a father. And it’s usually in a joint custody situation. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. The reason so few people talk about it is because children seldom return and the parent has to forget they ever had their children and move on. They hate talking about it. But I want someone to do more than talk about it. I want someone to talk to my children and tell them the truth, and to confront the targeting parent. It’s time to meddle when this happens.

    There’s a reason it’s called the sickest of the abuses. Parental alienation is emotional abuse of children. For a father it’s nothing less than the death of a child. Dave Rabos’ video is awesome and is exactly what happened to me. It made me cry.

    Father’s Day would be a great day for others to help us get back together with our kids.

    John Brosnan, Mankato

  3. Submitted by mike jeffries on 06/16/2012 - 09:27 am.

    Parental Alienation

    Perhaps another reason the estrangement is more difficult for parents is because as parents we love our children unconditionally. A child also loves his or her parent unconditionally, but in parental alienation the child receives very unhealthy, damaging messages from the alienating parent that the child’s love for the other parent can be based on whether or not the other parent has hurt, disappointment or angered the alienating parent.

    Parental alienation is a very unhealthy, co-dependent relationship between an alienating parent and child that leaves little, if any, room for the targeted parent. Longstanding, unresolved fears around abandoment drives the alienating parent, and he or she pulls the child into the adult conflict in order to keep those old fears away.

    All alienated parents should remember that parental alienation is not a referendum on what kind of parent you were/are. Rather, parental alienation is all about the alienating parents unhealthy needs and the childs fears.


    mike jeffries
    Author, A Family’s Heartbreak: A Parent’s Introduction to Parental Alienation

  4. Submitted by Sarah Meier on 06/16/2012 - 02:51 pm.


    Thanks to Mr. Martel for this article. Parental Alienation is a pervasive problem that has received little attention. But that is changing, thanks to dedication of people concerned about child abuse.

    For those who’d like to learn more about Parental Alienation, I’d like to offer the following resources:

    “Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing” by Dr. Richard Warshak. This book has been far and away the most useful piece of information I’ve encountered regarding parental alienation. Providing numerous tools to the targeted parent for dealing with a co-parent (or anyone) who attempts to sabotage the relationship between you and your child, it comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

    This website seeks to increase the visibility of the parental alienation phenomenon. It provides links to chapters of PAAO and events that promote awareness so that you can become involved and feel less isolated. You are NOT alone.

    “Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind” by Amy J. L. Baker, Ph.D.
    This book sheds light on the aftermath of severe parental alienation (defined as the moment when the child begins to actively participate in the fracture of his or her relationship with the target parent) from the perspectives of adult children.

    I would also like to respectfully take issue with Mr. Martel’s characterization of parental alienation, in that “there are no clearly identifiable antecedents (or villains) to the estrangement, just a complicated set of family dynamics.”

    There are “aggressors” and “reactors” in the dynamics of parental alienation, and it is true that they can swap roles when alienating behaviors begin to rear their ugly heads.

    But I think it must be recognized that the unfavorable reactions of the target parent are frequently the result of simply not knowing how to combat the aggression. Very few target parents know how to respond without engaging in alienating behavior themselves.

    My point here is, while there may be enough guilt to go around, there is commonly one party who shows a strong pattern of instigating alienation, though it may not be obvious to a casual onlooker.

    To say that parental alienation is “just a complicated set of family dynamics” further victimizes the target parent and abdicates the primary aggressor of primary responsibility. When the alienating parent is abdicated of that primary responsibility, any hope of recourse for the child is also abdicated.

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