How Do We Reach Alienated Adult Children?

Reader’s Question

My husband’s first wife of 23 years abused him verbally, emotionally and sexually (through long periods of refusal). They had three token children, though, now ages 28, 26, and 18. The pecking order in the family was the mom as boss; then the most-favored golden-boy son, 28; then the preferred youngest daughter, 18; then the rejected daughter, 26; the three dogs; and then my husband. The 26-year-old has escaped her mother’s control, manipulation, and abuse (verbal, emotional, and on occasion physical) by completely cutting off all contact with her. She now has a wonderful husband and three beautiful children, and is doing great. On the other hand, the 28-year-old has had little to do with his dad, and raves about how wonderful and self-sacrificing his mom is (which is quite the opposite story from everyone who has dealt with her personally, or professionally). The 18-year-old lives with her mom 1,500 miles away from her dad, and was used as a weapon during their divorce, and thereafter. Both estranged children were told I was the reason for the demise of their parent’s relationship (far from true!), so they have nothing to do with me (which is understandable).

In my husband’s second conversation with the 18-year-old last year (he’s only had two), she accused him of “always saying bad things about mom” (not true), and that she didn’t want to talk to him “until he learned how to act like a father” (followed by a hang-up). When my husband was married to his ex, he was not only her personal money tree, but the children’s slave. (I will spare you the details.) Obviously, #1 and #3 children have suffered parental alienation from their dad, but it’s been six years, and they still won’t return calls or open up in any way to him if he does make contact.

I believe there is more than parental alienation going on here. I believe they are suffering from The Stockholm Syndrome. My question is: How does my husband reach out to these two, but maintain boundaries so as not to be abused or manipulated by them? They have never expressed specifically what they want him to do, but it’s apparent they have unfulfilled expectations. For example, when the divorce was ensuing, the son, then 22, said “You need to repent, and move back home.” When my husband said, “Okay, let’s say I do. Would I be the boss?” The son quickly replied, “Oh no! Not until you straighten out.” (Amazing these kids know how he’s supposed to act, but they’re clueless about themselves!)

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Is there anything we can do to reach them?

Psychologist’s Reply

When confronted with a threatening, abusive, and intimidating environment, people develop a strategy to survive. Some make an exit plan and leave, as the 26-year-old daughter and your husband have done. Others develop a type of Stockholm Syndrome (also known as Identification with the Aggressor in psychology) and survive by supporting the feelings, behaviors, and manipulations of the abusive individual or environment. The oldest and youngest have taken that survival strategy.

When we remember that most abusive individuals have a “personality disorder” (see my introduction to personality disorders on this website), it is unsurprising that the behavior and personality of the ex did not suddenly disappear following the divorce. This is her permanent personality, and she will continue to intimidate and manipulate the two disruptive young adults as long as they remain in range. For this reason, almost any contact with the two disruptive children will be on their agenda and their mom’s agenda as well. They are unlikely to contact your husband for the good of the family or to see how their father is doing.

What do we do as concerned and healthy adults in this situation?

  • Read my article on Love and Stockholm Syndrome. I’ve outlined a strategy I call “Hold on Loosely” that describes how to remain in healthy contact with individuals who are controlled or intimidated by an abusive situation.
  • Remain socially and emotionally neutral. Don’t engage in fights or manipulations. A major issue with personality disorders is they can’t stop being controlling and nasty. If you and your husband remain at a safe emotional/social distance yet continue polite contacts, the same abusiveness your husband experienced will be directed at the two disruptive children. As they mature and gain some emotional distance from their mother, they too will eventually develop an exit plan. At that time they will reconsider their relationship with you and your husband.
  • In all contacts and experiences, work as a team. Personality-disorder ex’s and disruptive children always use a divide-and-conquer strategy, trying to talk only to your husband, trying to separate the two of you, or trying to split your attitudes/opinions. If they send an email to your husband for example, reply with a team response as “We read the email and both of us want to wish you the best of luck in your new job (college, etc.).” Let them know that you and your husband are a team in everything.
  • Be supportive but maintain boundaries. Remember that these two disruptive young adults are being trained by a professional manipulator. They may actually be making contact with your family at the ex’s request. Stay alert and don’t agree to anything that exceeds your agreed-upon boundaries.
  • Remember that personality disorders are aggressive but not emotionally supportive. As the two grow and mature, like the middle daughter who now has her own family, they will also find themselves in situations that may need some emotional support (marriage, childbirth, children, etc.). Their mother won’t be able to provide that type of help and they may turn to you. Dealing with these common life events often rearranges the relationships in families.

Your husband (and you as well) can reach out to these disruptive children by being accessible and available. When you make a move toward them, they will see that as an opportunity for some negative agenda. On the other hand, if you maintain a safe distance, keep channels of communication open, and don’t become involved with manipulations, the children can redevelop their relationship with you and your husband as they mature.

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