Parental Kidnapping and alienation are, unfortunately, part of many long distance parenting stories. When one parent removes a child from the custody of another parent without permission, that’s Parental kidnapping or parental abduction. Parental Alienation occurs when one parent indoctrinates a child with negative information about another parent in ways that fracture the child’s relationship with the other parent.
Although I don’t often bring it up, as a child, I was kidnapped and alienated from my father. I don’t focus on it here, in large part, because my long distance parenting story is part of my story with my own son, rather than the story of me and my father.
However, my story with my father has helped make it clear to me what long distance parenting is and is not. It’s served as a example for me of what not to do. Throughout my son’s childhood, my own story of kidnapping and alienation made me very aware of preserving my son’s relationship with his father. It’s also served as a demonstration to me that kids will always find out the truth eventually, and that all is not lost after parental alienation.
My Story of Kidnapping and Alienation
When I was very young (5ish), my mother moved my sister and I, via bus, to her mom’s house in another state. We threw some things into a suitcase and left while dad was gone. Although after we left, my parents got a legal divorce, my sister and I didn’t see my father again. We moved to a third state to settle down and that’s where my father lost track of us.
After that, we moved almost once a year. Hiding was not the motivation for the moves. We mostly, if not always, moved because of financial reasons. However, although the purpose of the moves was not to hide, our lifestyle, after moving to the third state, was built around hiding from him. Both the frequent moves and the lifestyle of hiding prevented my father from finding us.
Trigger warning : The following paragraphs contain descriptions of emotionally and mentally abusive behaviors. If you’d like to skip that, click here.
How we were Hidden
When I say lifestyle of hiding, here’s what I mean. Our mother taught us how to keep our “situation” (hiding), address and phone number and location a secret from everyone. For example, we were not allowed to give our phone number out and it was always unlisted. If the phone rang, we were only to answer it if it had a special ‘code ring’ (Ring once, hang up and call back), which meant it was mom. There were a slew of rules like that. We were taught strategies for escape when he would undoubtedly one day find us and kidnap us. When I say ‘taught’, I mean very literally told, repeatedly and drilled on the information and actions.
All of this was reinforced through alienation. For example, we were taught that our father was a monster (literal word that was used often) who would hurt us if he ever found us. In turn, the fear generated by hiding helped to reinforce the alienation.
Making friends is tough, as a kid. Doubly so when you move once a year. But in addition to that, we were alienated from other people, including peers, other adults and even extended family. We were entirely estranged from my father’s family. It wouldn’t be until my 30s that I would reunify with them. My mother’s family lived far away for most of my childhood. They knew of our lives through what mom told them. They wholeheartedly believed her and supported our family as good family should. They had no reason to believe otherwise.
Because of the rules around telling people anything, no one outside our family and select friends of mom’s knew we were hiding from him. When someone was ‘read in’, mom spun the tale and they would, in turn, participate in our hiding.
Without a court order denying access or custody, and without a restraining order, schools to that point, willingly complied with my mother’s account. It made trouble for me later, when I lived with him and the new school got my records. They apparently contained some information to that effect. To my knowledge, no one questioned her sole physical custody or our hiding. If they did, nothing came of it.
It was the 80s, when we drank from water hoses, and rode in the back of trucks without seatbelts! Also, father’s rights weren’t even a blip on the screen of society, divorce was taboo and the term ‘deadbeat dad’ was applied liberally. Those all made it easier for my mother to do it, and easy for it to slip under the radar of everyone. Not the water hose part. That just made us 80s strong.
What Parental Alienation Looked Like
Without going to far into specifics, here’s what I mean by parental alienation in my case.
Any time our father came up in conversation, my mother would say negative things about him. These things ran the gamut from descriptions of his personality, characteristics or lifestyle to stories of things he did and said. They were in full color and descriptive, even to inappropriate (for children) lengths. The stories and “facts” were repeated so often and so vehemently that they became canon.
The alienation helped bolster the kidnapping in that as long as we believed he was a terrible person worthy of fear, we would willingly hide ourselves. As long as friends and family followed the canon, they would hide us too. In turn, hiding so fervently helped reinforce what a terrible person he must be.
My father found us when I was 12. I know now that he looked for us continuously during those years. I still remember the first time he called us. After all of that story telling, mom handed the phone to me simply saying “it’s your father”.
I didn’t feel fear of him. I was absolutely enthralled with having him in my world. Despite having heard all of these things, having a real life father was fantastic! I went to stay with him for 6 months shortly after he found us. And lo, despite all the stories, my mother allowed it. She mostly worried he would try to claim me on his taxes so I wasn’t allowed to stay a day over 6 months.
That six months was fantastic. I got to go hang out with friends and go to movies. I could tell people where I lived and give out my phone number! That sounds so basic now. But at the time, it was this new way of connecting with people. To be able to say “hey, I live just up the road from you!” was novel. The phone number from that house is the only one I remember from childhood.
After my visit, dad stayed in touch via phone calls and mail. At home with mom, although the hiding dropped off, the alienation continued. When I was 15, mom remarried and moved across the country. Our relationship was awful by then, to put it mildly. So, I opted to go live with my dad instead of moving with her.
It wasn’t roses and sunshine and happily ever after when I moved to live with him. My father was remarried and I had a stepfamily. We had a lot of pretty typical blended family struggles. I was also living on an erroneous narrative I’d been fed since I was a young child.
On top of that, by that time, I was pretty well grown up. Not to say a 15 year old is grown up but in my experience, as a parent, by that age, kids start to shrug off the efforts of their parents to guide them.
In addition to all of that, I have a hard time trying to imagine what it would be to learn to parent a child starting at age 15. By the time my son was 15, I had 15 years of experience with my son under my belt. I had time to adjust to parenting to each stage of his development. So here I was, 15, living with my father for the first time in 10ish years. He did his best but good lord, teens are hard – and with no runway, even harder.
So we did our best at awkwardly playing out father/daughter roles, and I grew up and moved out. I eventually moved across the country for unrelated reasons, so contact grew even more sparse. My father was still in my life. I’m just not sure, at that point, I knew quite where to place him.
My Ah hah Moments
As the years passed, I eventually figured out my own ‘actual story’ of my parents. Of course, every story has as many sides as it has observers, right? But ultimately, I found that the reality I thought I knew from my mother was not reality. Some realizations were through conversation with both parents and some came through research. Many realizations came just by observing my mother and father.
It’s worth saying that I was 20 something and still sorting out the stories I’d heard through age 15. For me, given how deeply I’d been indoctrinated by my mother, it wasn’t a quick, easy realization. Basically my entire reality that I’d grown up believing needed to be upended. It took a couple of years of living with him and away from my mother and a few years of adulthood for it to click for me.
I eventually realized that what I saw as just ‘normal’ as a kid, was parental kidnapping and parental alienation. It wouldn’t be until my 30s that I could comfortably say that out loud. And now, 10 years later, in my 40s, I’m re-writing this post to describe it more plainly than I’ve ever been able to before. Understanding and realizing is still an unfolding process.
Whew! So that’s a lot. How did this turn into a positive for me?
Kids will figure it out
The proof is in the puddin’. The truth will eventually come out. Kids grow up to be adults who can think for themselves and can see the truth for what it is. It doesn’t matter how convincing the other parent is, it doesn’t matter to what ends they go. Yes, conditioning makes it more difficult – but not insurmountable.
I’ve know the parent side of alienation too. As a non-custodial parent, my son’s stepmother tried to elbow me out of his life to be his ‘mommy’. I have a step daughter who’s father cut contact between she and I when we divorced. I’ve also had the opportunity to have teary eyed real talk with my dad about everything that happened and I know how painful it was for him. I know how much time my aunts and uncle and cousins lost. It’s not just the kids who suffer. It hurts everyone. Deeply.
My son is an adult now and is making his own decisions about his relationships with me, his father and his step mother. There is nothing I or his father or step mother could say that would hide the truths that he sees clearly, now that he’s old enough to have his own understanding. Just like there is nothing my mother could say now that would sway what I’ve seen with my own eyes about she and my father.
There is hope. Even when it seems like there isn’t. Sometimes there is nothing can immediately be done about a co-parent’s poor behavior. Continue to be honest, loving, caring, and supportive of your child’s mental and emotional health. Keep taking the high road. Eventually, the truth will be apparent to the one person who matters – your child.
Parental Relationships are Sacred
I don’t use the term sacred lightly. Childhood parental relationships shape a person for the entirety of their lives. In my own case, I was in my late 30s before I “fully” healed the traumas I experienced in childhood (many were outside of what I’ve described here). I put fully in quotes because I mark that as the time where I no longer acted out of a place of trauma. However, I expect I will probably run across remnants for the rest of my life. As I am wont to tell my students, childhood stuff is like layers of an onion. There is always another one, and peeling them back make you cry!
As long distance parents, it is critical that we continue to stay involved as supportive parents. Custodial parents with a long distance co-parent, your role is crucial in supporting your child’s ability to maintain that relationship.
Sometimes, we as parents let our own feelings get in the way. We get upset about something our co-parent did or we focus on the frustration of a given situation. We can forget that it’s the child’s relationship with both parents that is important. Whether we like them or not has no bearing on the child’s relationship with them.
If you’re a long distance parent feeling beat down and frustrated and like giving up, lift your chin up and keep going. Don’t let the physical distance become emotional distance. If you’re a custodial parent feeling irritated and frustrated, buck up and refocus on what your child needs.
Parental Kidnapping and Parental Alienation are not the end of the road
If you have been a victim of parental alienation or parental abduction, either as the child or the parent, my heart goes out to you. It’s a hard road to travel from either side. But! It doesn’t have to be the end of your parent/child relationship.
Although we have a long way to go, there is so much more awareness now of parental kidnapping and parental alienation. Although it can make jurisdiction in long distance parenting cases tricky, UCCJEA makes it more difficult for parental abduction to occur. Courts are more savvy to parental alienation, even if it’s still difficult to prove. Parental Reunification therapy is an option. In some cases, it can be made mandatory by court order.
Regardless of whether you go the reunification therapy route or not, the relationship doesn’t have to be over. It can be mended. Keep hope. Keep heart. Keep trying. Then repeat.