Amy J.L. Baker Ph.D.

Caught Between Parents

Five Things to Never Say to an Alienated Child

Targeted parents can help or hurt their cause.

Posted Feb 29, 2016

As an expert witness I often am privy to conversations that targeted parents have had with their alienated children via e-mails, text messages, and sometimes even audio recordings. I am often saddened to find that targeted parents make common mistakes that – don’t cause the alienation – but can exacerbate it. Below I list five things that targeted parents should never say to their currently alienated children.

Don’t Say This # 1: That’s Not True

When a parent says this to a child in response to statements such as “You don’t love us” or “You don’t care about us” or any other equally insulting and frustrating comment, the parent is missing an opportunity to connect with the child around the child’s pain and hurt. I am not suggesting that the parent say “You are right, I never loved you” but there is a world of options between agreeing with a false statement and arguing with the child. The “That’s not true” response creates an argument with the child rather than creating a space for the parent and child to share a moment. Suggested responses include, “I am so sorry to hear you say that. That must hurt to feel that I don’t love you. You are such a lovable child and you deserve to be loved and I love you so much.”

Don’t Say This # 2: That’s a Lie

This is worse than # 1 in that the parent who says this is actually insulting the child in addition to denying the child’s reality. No one wants to be told that they are a liar and doing so can cause the child to be even more hurt and angry than before. This does not mean that it makes sense to say, “You are right... I did...” (insert untrue thing the child is accusing the parent of). I never suggest that a parent should admit to doing something s/he did not do. However, there are many options between calling the child a liar and conceding to an untrue allegation. It would be far more effective to say, “Thank you so much for telling me that you think I [insert bad thing]. That must really hurt to think I did [insert bad thing.] I didn’t do that but I understand you think I did.”

Don’t Say This # 3: Who Told You That?

When a parent says this to a child, the implication is that the other parent is feeding the child lies and the child is foolish enough to believe them. This is insulting to the child and the other parent and often causes the child to defend the other parent, hence entrenching the alienation. It’s much better to thank the child for sharing his/her thoughts and feelings and proceed from there. If the focus is on why the child believes the thing then the parent is showing the child that the parent cares more about trying to prove the other parent is bad than about the child’s feelings.

Don’t say This # 4: How Dare You Speak to Me That Way!

If a parent says this to a child it prevents the child and parent from discussing the issue that is bothering the child. This statement shuts down communication and lets the child know that the parent will not tolerate dissent. While no one wants to be talked to in a disrespectful tone, focusing on the tone is not productive when there are larger issues such as the fact that the child feels hurt and angry. The more important issue is to address the underlying problem. However, it is always okay to say to a child, “I am so glad that you are sharing your thoughts and feelings with me and I want to understand why you are so upset but can you please speak in a calmer (slower, quieter, etc.) manner with me. It’s hard for me to process what you are saying when you are screaming (cursing, etc).

Don’t Say This # 5: You Know That’s Not True

It is insulting to the other person’s integrity to tell him/her what s/he knows/thinks/feels and to say this to a child implies that the child is lying, which is also insulting. A more respectful response to a statement that the child makes which the parent believes is inconsistent with the child’s experiences and prior statements is something like, “I am so surprised to hear you say that. Thank you so much for telling me that this is how you feel now. I guess this is something we need to work on. How do you think we can do that?”

The bottom line is that targeted parents can respond to their child’s false accusations in ways that either help or hurt repair the wound between them. As a targeted parent you have more power than you think you have.