I am honored to be here today and to be asked to speak to you. Today I ask you to listen to me more as a fellow human being than a psychologist. It is true that there is not much separation between the two at this stage in my life, but today I speak as someone who still optimistically believes in the importance of supporting connections and relationships within families.
I am not alone in saying that a crucial factor in the mental health of our children is a supportive family structure. This structure does not always look like the families of days gone by. All types of homes harbor families, but nothing replaces the ties of early attachment figures. So simply, the family members however defined, who have been important influences in our children’s lives have an important role in the ongoing development of the children. Grandparents hold the history of the past and a vision of the future.
Children who are raised to dismiss one side of their familial legacy, whether due to alienation, familial abduction or parental conflict learn to see the world in clear lines of black ad white? People who look at life as all good or all bad tend to have a restricted view of the world. Being in a family system teaches how to accept different viewpoints and to hopefully embrace the differences that make up each of us. We must teach our children to agree to disagree. Today's political climate is sure not helping teach the lesson of acceptance. How do we teach conflict resolution to children of divorced families? Please don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-divorce, but trusting some of our social issues in the hands of the wrong person or people can be very dangerous if not lethal for the children.
I have seen first hand the destruction from pure alienation and the conflicts that surround it. I have heard children behind the closed door admit to the dilemma of feeling they have to choose between parents and that this choice could destroy one parent. I have watched what occurs when a family member abducts a child because they think they know what is best alone for the child. I have seen the systems that support the dynamics around parental alienation and have even more tragically heard the children admit to saying things they did not mean or that had never happened.
I have also seen the grandparent of the abducted or alienated child accept the returning children with no questions asked. Those are the moments I embrace the moments of unconditional acceptance. Society has a responsibility to support and honor the role of grandparents in their grandchildren’s lives. This is not to say Grandparents have the right to dictate their children’s parenting styles. If this is you, you know who you are...
To dictate to your children how to raise their kids opens the door to full rejection. No one wants to be told that someone else’s way is the only way.
Grandparents come in all shapes and sizes. In my life one grandparent, an ex governor of Massachusetts, symbolized to me stability, courage and patience in his struggle with Parkinson’s. His wife, my mother’s mother, was all that Boston Brahmins are thought to be, tough, judgmental, convicted and strong. My grandmother on my father’s side was patience and tranquility, my cookie person. The person I turned to for love and support. When I turned 11 she was an oasis from my parents' conflicted divorce and their demand I choose one or the other. . It was my relationship with all of them that taught me much about my parent’s life as children. To this day I see each of them in myself... (Not saying which parts...)
I say this to the Grandparents that are cut off from your grandchildren: "stay strong". You do count. Look for ways to be present in whatever way you can. I have seen unconscionable obstacles placed in the way of your important relationship. I know in many cases there appears to be no recourse. But even in the most extreme situations there is a way. Keep a diary, a videotape to pass on in the hopes that someday you will have the capacity to connect if not leave the diary tape etc. with someone to pass on when the child is much older. Perhaps this organization could find a way to archive messages, videos etc. to be shared when and if a seemingly lost grandchild is ready. You can be and are an important person in these children’s lives just like your ancestors maybe be to you.
But if you do have the opportunity to be in your grandchildren’s lives be the oasis, the sanctuary, and the conflict free zone. The place where they do not have to choose between parents. Be the voice of patience, calmness and unconditional support.
Now today is about the grandparents who have been pushed aside and the importance of acknowledging the social impact of allowing one parent to systematically cut out a grandparent from a child’s life. I have also seen the impact of a grandparent on contributing to alienation. It is often difficult for a grandparent who has been alienated from their grandchild to hold their objectivity when communicating with other family members and community members about what led to the child’s disconnection. This is where I implore you to be aware of your piece when, and if, or until you reconnect with that child. Hold the space of protection. Demand from others the same. Your grandchildren do not wish to be exposed to family conflict, stress, and constant discord. At the reunification program my team and I built in California we focus on the needs for a protected space for children and families experiencing all types of conflict.
The best gift we can give our children is a place out of the conflict. Help your children parent their own children by encouraging forgiveness, understanding and acceptance. Many of the parents who alienate their children struggle with their own issues of attachment and intimacy. Often these issues have always been there. To be surprised is just a waste of energy.
Children who are alienated need a way out of the corner that exists as a result of their loyalty bind. They need us to show them a path to loving both sides of their family. Now don’t confuse what I am saying with an acceptance for rejection. I, of all people, believe we need to support, encourage and demand that children don’t get placed in a position to hate or reject either side of their family. We need to support and demand that grandparents and grandchildren’s relationships do not get entangled in the web of parental conflict.