Postscript to Last Post: Parental Alienation

I just stumbled on something related to my last post, something that wasn’t even looking for, and I didn’t realize had a name: parental alienation. It occurs in a divorce when a parent manipulates a child into siding with (or only spending time) them and excluding the other. One parent might suggest that the other isn’t to be trusted. My mom did our visitation with my father, making sure the visits were brief and in “safe locations.”  It all seems so crazy now, because there was no basis to the claim, and I missed out on spending more time with my dad.

Parental Alienation is a stain on what might’ve been my best clothes. Though I wish I could’ve been more for my dad, it wasn’t really in my abilities at the time, age twelve. Although I was naturally timid and withdrawn, my father became as a subject to be feared; my mother use it as a punishment, “Why don’t you go ahead and live with John!” When my mother’s lips, traded “your father” for “John,” on my own lips “dad” began sounding odd.

There’s no way to change the past but sometimes we can learn from it, and perhaps, help others who might have gone (or be going) through some of the same things. Here are the articles I found on the website for Psychology Today:

The Impact of Parental Alienation on Children

Caught Between Parents: Alienation is Abuse



3279073629_5266926242_z(Flickr Image by Steph Bales)

We all begin in the back seat in life. Somewhere around two, pretty much all of us go through a phase of self-assertion, saying “no” to everything. By age three, we can assert our personal taste, saying what we like and don’t like. Throughout youth and adolescence, we learn to express our opinions with increasing social awareness and sophistication. An emotive, “No, it’s yucky!” simply won’t do past age four.  Hopefully, as we grow, our differing personalities and perspectives are acknowledged and given room to grow in the midst of being taught manners, obedience, and morals. Moral lessons teach us to respect—for we all have feelings that shouldn’t be overlooked or belittled.

In the home of my youth, plenty of sounds asserted themselves. Sometimes the sound was the high-pitched hum of a sewing machine, as my mother compressed the foot petal and pulled the fabric onward beneath the needle. Sometimes, my mother’s voice filled the house in clearly enunciated words–phone conversations, her recollections of recent events. Sometimes, rooms carried shouts to us, as my mom called us on to bring her something from another room, or called us to the kitchen to eat. Often, my own voice and a brother’s filled a room of the house with play, as we animated our stuffed animals. Sometimes, when my father was home, and my mother and father were still together, we could hear arguments and the common remark “not right now [in front of the kids].”  Often after that was the sound of silence–the silence of my dad–as he got quiet or left the house. Those sounds–the arguments and the silences that followed–made us feel sad.

When my mother and father divorced, the worst part wasn’t the physical separation of parents (that was for the better); the worst part was the schism that erupted long before the divorce, my mom falling into bitterness and criticism, and my dad into defensiveness or retreat. Sounds, for a while, were out of balance: mom became louder and louder, pointing out my dad’s faults, both real and imagined. She was the scribe, the interpreter of events, the conduit of truth, reminding us that he was the villain.

In times of trial, false dichotomies propped up her self-esteem. She saw the truth, the only truth, while others told lies or held less principled perspectives. Our childhood disobedience was an intentional slap in the face of goodness, a step towards the devil—or “witchcraft” was the word my mom tended to use. The marriage was failing because my dad gave up his faith. This, in truth, was just an after-the-fact attempt to explain why the relationship was falling apart. The false dichotomies were reflections of the way that she felt, but really only made things worse.  She felt like she was always in the right, when she, quite possibly, was the main problem.

I can see clearly now that there wasn’t much basis to what she claimed. My father wasn’t slipping away because he was too secular, worldly, or fallen. Still, to this day, I do not know of a single thing that he did to deserve his status as the bad guy. My mother’s arguments weren’t based in fact; they were emotionally based rather than Christian or morally based.  She had a right to feel the way that she did; it must be scary to be a mother and wife for years, and then, without knowing why, your husband’s love starts slipping away from you. She didn’t know what the problem was; she only felt very strongly that he was the problem. He must, therefore, be cheating, have a malicious heart, or be incapable of love.

Even as strongly as one may feel something true, it’s wrong to assert mere suspicions as facts.  It’s wrong to rally your children’s support, to rely on them, because you feel you’re the good one. Even if one person is obviously in the wrong,  and if children are old enough to handle the truth, children should be given, to some degree, the facts, which can speak for themselves. They shouldn’t be asked to support you in your muck raking and name calling (unless, of course, they’re adults and happen to share your opinion).

If I could have said, if I could have known (though I couldn’t have), I would’ve said this: I am your child, not your support system. Relationships can break. It feels awful. All those unsolved arguments add up and weigh you down. But that doesn’t make you or the other a bad person. Bad moments that you had together shouldn’t eliminate my chance of having good moments with my father.

It breaks my heart that I spent a good part of my youth feeling uncertain about my dad. He’s a terrific person. But I couldn’t see it then. I could hardly know what I thought about a number of things, because I was in the back seat for the longest time, being steered, instead of given room to assert my own feelings and voice.

Have you ever been around someone who pushed your center of gravity out of balance? Have your feelings been criticized? Have you lost touch with your own feelings, as you attempt to respond to the stronger, more volatile body of emotions? Trying to please others with such a temperament can be difficult, if not impossible… Sometimes, normal things will amass praise and sometimes best attempts will garner criticism. And the more you try, the more you lose yourself.

As we grow up, we tend to break away our from parents and develop our own independent voices. If you weren’t encouraged to have your own voice, it’s more of a struggle to find your place in the world. Who am I? What do I like? You must give yourself more time to discover.

If silence was rewarded in the past, you must find ways to reward speech. Friendships that are of the understanding and patient variety. Learning that interests you. Books or poems that are best read aloud.

If you’ve lived off-balance for a long while, with someone else dictating your world, you might search for a stronger, more reliable, center of gravity.  You might seek philosophy, a better faith, a mentor, or a new worthy influence.

In the aftermath of an overpowering influence, I tried to strengthen my own voice, to learn the less-common truths. I looked for arguments that made sense instead of just voicing emotion.  I know that there can be a difference between what we feel is true and what is actually true, even if the two are easily confused.


As you may see, I’ve been thinking a bit about rivalry lately, particularly sibling rivalry. Many of the ideas in my last two posts are inspired by my life and some psychological principles. I can see good things coming from rivalry, but I also remember painful moments brought on by personality conflicts. We can’t always understand our differences; can’t understand why some people are the way they are,  their intuitions opposite to our own.

Since I seem so stuck on the subject of sibling conflict, I figured I should read a book and enlighten myself further. The book, Siblings Without Rivalry: How You Can Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too begins by refuting the too common anecdotes dispensed for parents: “Sibling rivalry is good and normal. All kids are going to fight. Live with it.” While the authors acknowledge that some sibling rivalry is good, they also establish that some isn’t; we shouldn’t just overlook or label rivalry as normal, when it’s such a complex issue. The book also says that the root of much rivalry is competition for parental love and attention. I have seen this competitive element before, but I can’t recall too much competing for mom and dad in my childhood. Of course, my memory isn’t the best for the earlier years. Of course, we never want to let our parents down (at least, unless we truly despise them and love ourselves).  But I think that parental approval is the last thing in our mind as we argue about the (in-)edibility of sushi, or fight for a racer’s remote. Does competition for parents seem seem like a sufficient cause to you?

I haven’t yet touched upon, but I do want to discuss the darkest side of antagonism–cruel and intentional antagonism–where someone methodically tears down a target. Among the enemies of individual happiness, having someone abusive in our lives, or in the background of life (memories), can be the hardest to overcome. I will get to this later, but I will first attend to another thought. As I had mentioned in my post last week, shyness.

I used to blame my scarcity of opinions on my lack of interactions in youth, being sheltered and home-schooled. I can definitely see how isolation, and having a mother who’s strongly opinionated, drove my own thoughts underground, where they didn’t grow into expression for ages… But isn’t it the case that some people develop strong opinions within a small social bubble? Someone with a similar upbringing to me just might ground themselves and let their opinions shoot up like weeds.

Is there something philosophical, something perhaps common amongst philosophers, about initial silence? Was Rousseau at all right in his Emile when he asserted that it’s best to leave minds in a unpressed and playful state when young, and request academic fortitude later? Perhaps I wish to justify myself a little, but isn’t there something inherently good about shyness and questioning, pausing and uncertainty?–at least, when it comes to bigger questions in life?

The Average Antagonist

My last post was a bit idealistic, to say the least. Sometimes rivalry simply sucks. Those who know us best also “best know” how to judge and belittle us. Why do they do this? Why can’t we just get along?

These flamingos can't get along, either.

These flamingos can’t get along, either.

It’s only human to favor our own qualities (loud and expressive) and feel scornful towards the opposite traits (quiet and withdrawn). If we are loud and opinionated, we might view quietness as boring; after all an extrovert can feel deathly bored when quiet. We may even find that culture (or a subculture) agrees with us, confirming our attitudes and inclinations. Modern culture values confidence and quickness. So, Buddy, you better speed up!

We might even consciously ask ourselves, “how can anybody be so _____ (fill in the blank here)?”  We’ve survived, afterall, by being exactly who we are, by possessing the qualities that we do. We’ve seen how our strengths have helped us. Without our strengths, we wouldn’t have accomplished anything that we’ve accomplished. And we might wonder, how could anyone get by without this quality? They just need to learn how to be more like us. We wish we could change the world and make it think more like us. And wishing we could speed up the driver in front of us, we internally become the antagonist.

You’ve been there… The antagonist may be thinking, how can we get their attention? If I tease you, it’s because I want you to change.  It’s the “here’s a dose of reality,” they assert, believing your personality can’t survive a certain circumstance.


Ruffled feathers

So, some antagonists bring us down because our qualities only grate them, being opposite of their own. We cannot judge the aversion—their feelings are their feelings—but we don’t have to agree with the conclusions.

If someone criticizes something which is actually a vice, something that is actually harmful to ourselves and others—then the negative remark may sting but it might also be helpful; if someone points out something that we didn’t realize, something that we’re capable of improving, a comment might be helpful. But, if someone points out something that we can’t change, or something that is a part of us, it hurts. Criticism suggests something is wrong with us and can leave us feeling pretty bad about ourselves. It’s the “Look at you, you’re just too ___ (fill in the blank – happy-go-lucky, too serious, too fat, too skinny, too quiet, too uptight, or too wild and free, and so on…”). In reality, our differences do have a home in humanity. We’re not all meant to be alike.

It’s up to you to realize that your “weaknesses” might not be so weak after all. If you’re slow, maybe it’s because you’re thorough, or maybe it’s because your brain just processes things differently. So what? The world needs you. If you’re shy, maybe you are more sensitive than some. We might try to change our deep-seated attributes, but to what effect? If we change to be more like everyone else, the world will lose an important angle only found in our uniqueness.

When we are at our best, we are acknowledging and valuing ourselves and others. We should appreciate our personalities instead of over-writing them. As we live and grow, we can come to see that so-called weaknesses are actually strengths.

For further inspiration…here’s a fitting example from a song by Plumb and Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (highly recommended).