I am seeing an increasing phenomenon called parental alienation. Whether I am working with seven-year-olds, 17-year-olds or 27-year-olds, I am noticing that children are choosing to divorce one of their parents. It's an interesting phenomenon because I do not necessarily believe that it's caused by the other parent. What I am noticing is that children are making decisions that are angry and avoidant. They believe that they can decide how they are going to spend their lives based on their feelings about their family circumstance. In many situations, a child is mad at his parent for having divorced his mother or father or for having cheated on his parent. This child is watching the other parent be devastated and severely impacted by these decisions and consequently he/she takes it upon himself to not want anything to do with the other parent.
Now I know that it's normal to be angry, hurt, and to feel abandoned when a parent makes such a selfish choice but it is not healthy for a child to alienate and divorce his parent. This decision will have many emotional consequences.
Parental alienation gives a child too much power and control and teaches the child that they can dictate a relationship instead of working through it.
Sometimes parental alienation occurs because children have been verbally abused by their parent and they have chosen to withdraw from them. When this has occurred, I set up a session so that the parent can hear what the child has to say and then make an amends for being too harsh or cruel. My experience is that most parents don’t want to verbally abuse their children but that they may lack the skills to relate differently. In these cases, I encourage the parent to seek professional guidance to work on anger management. It is therapeutic for the child to feel heard and understood and see that conflict can breed a sense of intimacy when two people are willing to work on things. If a parent cannot empathize with the child and cannot make the proper amends it may not be safe for that child to have additional contact with that parent.
Regardless, it's always helpful to work on making a relationship healthier as opposed to avoiding it altogether.
If you have a situation where your child is devastated by the unhealthy decision of a parent, it would be extremely helpful to get that child in therapy to externalize those feelings and to teach that child how to assert his or herself with the parent that the child is excluding. When this hard work occurs the parent and the child can work on rebuilding a relationship. It can be a real opportunity for the child to learn relationship skills that the likely need to use in the future. And it is always healthy to find ways to vent anger and to give it a voice in a situation where a child feels abandoned.
If you have a family member who has written off another person, it might be helpful for you to encourage them to work with a professional to see if there is an alternative to an already very dysfunctional situation. Being the other parent means that you have the power to encourage your child to work things out and you have the opportunity to practice healthy role modeling. Your message as a parent, is to encourage kids to know that there are usually ways to improve a relationship or to improve one’s coping in a tough situation.