Impacts of an emotional cutoff on children

Effects observed in adults who were cut off from a parent as a child

In her book Adult children of Parental Alienation Syndrome, Breaking the Ties that Bind Dr Amy Baker studied the outcomes for 40 adults in the US who identified they had been manipulated to reject one of their parents in childhood. She found that they experienced:

  • Low self-esteem. Stemming from the denigration of the targeted parent. When a parent bad mouths someone who is half of the child’s identity the child internalises this as criticism against them (65%).
  • Guilt. For having betrayed the targeted parent (% not documented).
  • Depression. For the time they lost with the targeted parent, extended family members and friends (28%).
  • Lack of trust. In themselves and others. When they realise that what they believed about the alienating parent was actually not the case. Therefore, they do not trust themselves to be good judges or other’s motives and character (40%).
  • Drug and alcohol problems. Adult children were drawn to substance abuse to escape from pain and loss (35%).
  • Alienation from their own children. They subconsciously chose partners who were like their mothers and so brought about alienation in their own children (50%).
  • Divorce. Many said their marriages failed because of their lack of trust in their partner, their inability to be intimate and problems with depression and substance abuse (57.5%).

Effects on younger children

Young children who are being manipulated to cut off all ties with a parent may experience:

  • Feelings of extreme pressure to reject a parent and extended family members that they love.
  • Anxiety
  • Strong anger for the once much loved parent. When this is allowed to develop it can spill over to other authority figures such as teachers or the police, leading to exclusion from school or a criminal record
  • Guilt for rejecting their parent and treating them with hostility
  • Psychological harm. Those severely affected may adopt “splitting”. One parent is seen as all good, the other all bad. They are unable to manage the reality that there is good and bad in both. This has implications for all future relationships
  • Sadness because deep down they do want a relationship with their parent
  • Supressed and repressed memories of time spent with the rejected parent
  • Suicidal ideation sometimes stating they will kill/harm themselves if they have to spend time with a parent
  • Sleeplessness
  • Agitation
  • Inability to think critically
  • Lack of focus
  • Loss of ability to play and learn
  • Inability to describe their emotions
  • A restriction on personal relationships with family and friends. They may be cut off from half of their family, identity and cultural background. Some withdraw socially

Links with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has studied the impact of traumatic childhood experiences on a child’s mental health and future prospects. The more dysfunctional the child’s household environment is, the greater the number of ACEs and the poorer their prospects are.

Children who are manipulated to emotionally cutoff from a normal range parent may experience at least 3 ACEs:

  • A biological parent was lost to them through divorce or separation.
  • They may live with someone who is depressed, mentally ill, or suicidal and
  • Emotional abuse.

These children will experience the loss of the parent they reject. The parent manipulating the child to emotionally cutoff may have a mental disorder and may employ many of the emotionally abusive alienating behaviours/strategies outlined by Dr Amy Baker. The child may be sworn at, insulted, put down or humiliated for wanting a relationship with their parent. They may be made to feel they will be physically hurt or abandoned by the alienating parent or the alienating parent may wrongly make them feel that the other parent will harm them. The parent being targeted for rejection may become depressed or suicidal as they struggle with the emotional abuse by their ex, the hostility of their children and the ineffectiveness of a Family Court system that does not protect their children or them from this form of emotional abuse.

The more ACEs experienced as a child, the increased likelihood of developing damaging behaviours in adulthood such as drug addiction, teen pregnancy, contracting a sexually transmitted disease, being obese, alcohol dependency, smoking and perpetrating violent behaviour.

Our brain registers traumatic experiences and wants us to resolve the trauma somehow. As adults we may find that we subconsciously put ourselves into situations where we get to re-live the trauma in some way e.g. picking a partner that reminds you of an abusive parent. This pattern may repeat over and over until we learn the required lesson, if we ever do. Therefore, I suspect that those who experienced a number of ACEs as children are more likely to enter into abusive relationships.

The loss of a parent through family separation or death is the second highest ACE in many countires.

It must be noted that spanking for disciplinary purposes is not considered an ACE. This is because it is currently generally considered to be a normal range disciplinary practice in many countries.

Below are links to the ACEs quiz and further information on impacts.

How adult children realise they were manipulated to reject a parent

From her study, Baker identified that there were 11 Catalysts that lead to adults realising they had been manipulated to reject a parent as a child. First they experienced a reunion with their own authentic self which was then followed in most cases by reunion with the rejected parent. The first 5 catalysts in the list below relate to “reunion with the self” where they realised they were the child victim of “Parental Alienation”.

  1. Maturation – it is part of normal development to question the values and beliefs of one’s family of origin, and questioning the statements made about the targeted parent (20%)
  2. The alienating parent turns on child, becoming hostile or intensely controlling with them (17.5%)
  3. Experiencing “Parental Alienation” as a parent themselves (10%)
  4. The targeted parent returned (12.5%)
  5. Attaining a milestone e.g. birth of their own child or getting married (12.5%)
  6. They enter into therapy (12.5%)
  7. Intervention of extended family (10%)
  8. Intervention of a significant other who may point out an alienating parent’s controlling ways or help them to see an alternative view (12.5%)
  9. Seeing the alienating parent mistreat others (2.5%)
  10. Discovering that the alienating parent was dishonest (5%)
  11. Becoming a parent themselves (2.5%)

It should be noted here that Linda Gottlieb maintains it is extremely rare for a child that has had an emotional cutoff (severely alienated) to spontaneously reunify with a parent, it requires intervention. Courts should not shy away from doing this because it is a child protection issue.

What did adult children suggest a rejected parent could have done

The following are suggestions made by the interviewees on what parents could have done to help them as children to not reject them.Do more, especially in terms of explaining their side so that the child would have a more balanced understanding of the situation.Live in the same area as the child, getting a job and pursuing interests in the same area so they can maintain frequent visitation with the child.Be around more to get to know the child.Be involved in the child’s life. Spend more time with the child and be less passive/detached.Fight for custody in the courts, never give up on the relationship.Stand up for the child when you believe they are being abused whether that be emotional, violent or sexual abuseTry to contact the child.

However, regardless a number of interviewees acknowledged they didn’t think there was anything the parent could have done. The other parent would have taken every action to ensure the other parent had no contact.

“No matter how adamant they had been that they wanted nothing to do with the targeted parent, they were still shocked when the parent respected that choice and walked away… the adult children did not feel that the targeted parent should have believed or responded to the child’s rejection… the targeted parent should have seen that the children were puppets, merely mouthing the words and performing the behaviors that they had learned in order to maintain the relationship with the alienating parent.” Amy Baker

From experience, even if parents do follow all those suggestions there is no guarantee their children will not reject them, the coercive and controlling behaviours of their other parent are too strong. My personal thoughts are that in the absence of opposition, people will listen to the only person that speaks. The Courts and assessors take a dim view on sharing information with children. So if you are the parent that in the main has been trying to keep your mouth shut for the sake of the child, it’s likely the child will only listen to the coercive and controlling parents view. If you try to tell the children what is going on from your perspective the Courts and assessors will tell you that you are fuelling high conflict. In addition, because the children have already had the coercive and controlling parent’s views drummed into them, it’s unlikely the child will believe what you say. Whatever the parent being rejected does they will be wrong. This fuels their frustration and anger which in turn leads to outburst that children, Courts and their assessors will hear. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that Courts and assessors focus on the reactions of the parent being erased from their child’s life more than they focus on the behaviours of the coercive and controlling parent driving the erasure.

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