Boomerangst: Turning Dilemmas Into Discoveries – When Parents Are Alienated From Their Children

Here, some advice for an alienated parent who misses his daughter

Q. I’ve been divorced for 10 years and I’m now in my mid-50s, happily remarried.  My ex got custody of our two young children and I paid spousal support for years and I’m still paying child support. Originally, I was very close to both kids but for the past three years my daughter (now in her early 20s) will have nothing to do with me after we had an argument about us going to an event on my side of the family. I pay a third of her education costs and child support, yet I have never seen her marks or heard about her courses. She won’t visit. She ignores my emails, calls and cards and I’m bitter. I know my ex hates me and I believe she has poisoned our daughter’s mind where I’m concerned. I don’t know what to do. Give up? 

– Greg, Calgary

A. This is a toxic situation – for you and your daughter. And it’s got a name that’s increasingly being accepted by lawyers and psychologists as both definable and actionable. It’s called Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). It’s when one parent poisons the mind of a child against the other parent. It’s one of the most severe forms of emotional abuse and it has dire and potentially long-lasting implications. It often impacts siblings as well, who take sides and turn against each another.

American psychologist, Dr. Amy Baker, wrote a book called Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Of her 40 adult research subjects, 75 per cent were the products of divorce, 58 per cent were divorced themselves, 70 per cent suffered depression, and a third developed drug or alcohol problems. Other research has shown, not surprisingly, that the alienated child is also at risk of eventually becoming an alienator as well, since the alienating parent has been the primary role model.

In the meantime, Dr. Guy Grenier, a London, Ont.-based clinical psychologist and author, has some practical advice for you. First, he suggests you stop contacting your daughter since it’s not working, plus she may see it as harassment. Second, he recommends you wait six months then write her a paper letter (too easy to delete an email). Make it light, conversational and newsy, ending off with ‘I’m willing to try this if you are’.

If that doesn’t work, he suggests you start keeping a daily journal with the future – and your daughter – in mind. Perhaps years from now you can give it to her. It won’t make up for all the missed time but it will show she was always on your mind. At the very least, it’ll be “a soothing exercise.”

You may also consider seeking professional help from an expert in PAS. For some people though, giving up is a reasonable option in the face of frequent and repeated rejection, especially by a family member.

If Dr. Grenier could offer just one piece of advice directly to your daughter?: “Go to therapy. Not because you’re broken or sick, but because you need to talk to someone objective. You need to express your anger and be heard.”

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Send Diane a brief description of your dilemma, along with your first name and where you live, to [email protected]

A professional journalist for more than 25 years, Diane Sewell has written for some of the top newspapers and magazines in Canada and is a baby boomer herself. Her new blog “Boomerangst: Turning Dilemmas into Discoveries” is interactive with readers and focuses on life issues – like aging, dating, second marriages, sex, death, family and fashion. Diane will use her expertise to find the right expert to help solve your predicament, unearthing kernels of truth and quickly getting to the heart of the issue.