Waiting for a Child’s Return: False Hope or Realistic Possibility?

A comment to one of my Facebook posts expressed pessimism regarding reconciliation with estranged children: “How to deal with it? Say goodbye and move on with your life! You will never get your children back…They are gone both physically and mentally!” Another person replied to the comment, “Totally agree, a waste of time and resources!”

These comments may seem harsh—they do to me—but undoubtedly they were born out of disappointment, heartache, and perhaps courage to face a harsh reality.

Readers of my books know that I believe that alienating processes, if handled poorly, can lead to permanent ruptures of parent-child relationships. I hear too many stories of mental health and legal professionals who mistakenly advised rejected parents to wait patiently for their children to reach out, expecting that the children’s negative behavior would be a short-lived reaction to the stress of divorce rather than a long-standing, ever-deepening chasm between child and parent.

As I described in Divorce Poison, “Children’s love can evaporate so rapidly while a parent sits by helplessly, often encouraged by well-meaning therapists who advise rejected parents to wait it out. Too many parents have learned that time does not heal all wounds, especially when a vulnerable child feels compelled to disown a parent.”

Nevertheless, while not wanting to raise false hopes I do want alienated parents to know that I hear often from parents whose formerly alienated children unexpectedly reconnected after years of rejection. Reuniting with estranged children can occur even when it seemed that the relationship was completely and forever severed.

The difficult emotional task for rejected parents is to find ways to live a meaningful life without the children, while knowing that, as long as the children are alive, there is always a possibility of reconciliation. Even the most stubborn child, convinced that she wants no relationship with a parent, can change. New relationships, new insights into an alienating parent’s character and behavior, crises, unexpected challenges, becoming a parent herself—all can stir an estranged child into wanting to reconnect with a parent who has been vilified. It is important not to make the hope of reconciliation the centerpiece of one’s life, and not to allow the alienation to dominate one’s life. But this does not mean giving up every ounce of hope, a choice that most parents find unthinkable.

One of the additions I made to the second edition of Divorce Poison (the one published in 2010) was a discussion of ambiguous loss, “a grief that defies closure.” I wrote, “Parents in this situation must learn to live with the loss even as they hold on to hope. They must hover between unrealistic hope and despairing hopelessness.” The book goes on to describe strategies to channel grief and bitterness into productive outlets. I have seen some situations where the chance of reconciliation is so slim that it would be cruel to encourage a parent to cling to hope. Accepting such a harsh reality may help rejected parents face their ordeal with strength.

The “Coping with Loss” section of Divorce Poison offers this counsel, “Do not let the trauma of your loss keep you from achieving gratification in other areas of life. Do not let your awareness of the fragility of relationships create barriers to close emotional investment in others. If you have a spouse, other children, or stepchildren, bask in their love as you allow them to reap the benefits of yours.”

#parentalalienation #divorcepoison

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