Caught Between Parents

Supporting children through the challenges of divorce

Emotional Neglect: A Powerful Bond

Intermittently neglectful parents induce unrelenting desire in their children.

I am currently reading stories of emotional neglect for a new book about how children maintain relationships with abusive parents. These books are incredibly moving. The stories of emotional neglect are stories of love and loss. They are stories of attachment and separation. They are stories of unrequited love. They are stories of yearning against improbable odds for a parent to awaken from the slumber of self-absorption to once again look upon the child with love and affection. The stories are dreams of longing that never end, not even with attainment of adulthood nor the death of the parent. The yearning knows no bounds in time or space. A stunning visual depiction of this yearning is found in the movie Artificial Intelligence, in which a mechanical boy, David, becomes psychologically bonded to his human mother when she chooses to activate his emotional life. In response, he adores her unconditionally, wanting only to look in her eyes and see her love for him reflected back at him. Halfway through the movie she casts him out of her heart and her home; he no longer meets her needs. Desperate for her acceptance he cries, “If you let me, I will be so real for you.” But she will not let him. Her heart has closed. After a dark and dangerous journey David ends up in a space ship stranded at the bottom of the ocean, where he remains for 2,000 years, pining away for his mother’s love. It is that innocent and desperate longing that is captured so poignantly in memoirs of emotional neglect.

At the end of the movie Artificial Intelligence, David is allowed one perfect day which he constructs out of his wishes and desires. In that day he fulfills his dream of a perfect mother-child reunion. He spends the day alone with his mother doing everyday things such as waking up, eating breakfast, getting washed, and getting dressed. In each act mother is delighted by her child. This perfect day for David is every child’s perfect day, to be the light of the parent’s heart, to have that parent shine her love upon the child, for the child to please the parent, and to experience himself as pleasing to that parent, to have a day of precious moments, within each one a pure distillation of parental love and acceptance.

It is the child’s yearning for parental love, especially from a parent who is emotionally unavailable that in part creates the vulnerability that allows children to be torn apart by their parent’s conflict. Children sometimes choose or are forced to choose between their parents and in many cases they choose the parent who is intermittently unavailable not the parent who has consistently shown their love for the child. It is the fear of abandonment by the unavailable parent that often drives parental alienation. Understanding this paradox is at the root of developing prevention and interventions for children of divorce who are caught between their parents. 

Amy J.L. Baker, Ph.D., researches parental alienation and children of divorce.

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