Amy J.L. Baker Ph.D.

Caught Between Parents

Parental Alienation and the Power of Metaphors

Russian dolls and Chinese finger toys.

Posted Mar 17, 2017

A colleague of mind recently shared some interesting data about how useful analogies and metaphors are for scientists in their problem solving. Analogies and metaphors translate ideas from one domain to another and therefore can create a shared understanding between two people from different perspectives.

I have found a few metaphors particularly useful in my work with targeted parents. One tried and true metaphor is that Russian nesting doll. Also known as Matryoshka dolls, Russian nesting dolls are painted wooden figures that contain with them a smaller doll, and in that smaller doll is an even smaller doll, and so on until you find at the very center a tiny wooden chip, often no more than an inch in size. These dolls have a kind of magical quality as it is hard to imagine how anyone could paint the intricate patterned figures on the increasingly smaller dolls nested within the larger ones.

When I am speaking to targeted parents, one of my primary goals is to instill and nurture hope that their child still loves and needs them. It is that hope that can fuel the parent to persevere despite daunting obstacle in their alienation journey to recover their relationship with their beloved child. Some targeted parents become overwhelmed with the rejection and invalidation by their child, their ex, and even the mental health and legal professionals they are working with. They become blinded by their child’s outward manifestation of hostility and rejection and struggle to see that inside their child’s heart and mind is the little boy or girl who, of course, needs and loves their Mommy and Daddy.

The Matryoshka dolls then can be a useful visualization of the layers of their child, with the hard outer shell so brittle and cold being only the most overt expression of the child’s stated wishes and needs. I encourage targeted parents to imagine that nested inside their child beneath many layers of anger and hurt is their baby who loves and needs them. Yes that baby is buried inside a wooden exterior that appears impenetrable but they must cultivate their parental love and wisdom to see into their child’s inner heart. When they can do that, they will have the energy and fortitude to persevere.

Another analogy I rely on is the Chinese finger torture device. This tricky little toy is a paper tube about an inch in diameter designed for a person to push a finger an opening at either end. While it is easy to enter the tube, when a person tries to extract her fingers, she quickly finds that the device tightens and her fingers become trapped inside. It is maddening, but the more one struggles to extract one’s finger, the tighter the device it gets. The solution is counterintuitive in that the way to get your fingers out is to actually push them. The pushing releases the tube and the fingers then easily are removed.

This is a metaphor I rely on when working with targeted parents to develop counter intuitive strategies for responding to their child’s false accusations (you stole my college money, you are responsible for the marriage ending and the breaking up of the family, you never listen to me, we have never been close, and so on). False accusations can range from the banal (you don’t know how to boil water) to the extreme (you wanted to kill me when I was a baby). Many targeted parents believe that if they simply correct the misinformation (I did not steal your college funds!) that the child’s anger will dissipate. This works about as well as trying to pull your fingers out of the finger torture device. If only it were that simple!

The only thing that works, in my experience, is to avoid the mistake of debating the child and trying to correct the lie in a direct and forceful way. What looks like the obvious solution is actually the wrong thing to do. As with the toy, the only way out is in. The only way to correct the child’s false belief (you don’t love me) underlying the accusation (you stole my college money) is to address the underlying problem, that the child feels unloved. The only way to show your child that you love him or her is to be loving. Even when the accusation is false, what is required in this situation is – not to validate the falsehood – but not to fight against it either. The solution is to move towards the child’s pain by being interested in his thoughts and feelings – without trying to overtly change them (which will be experienced by the child as unloving). What I am suggesting requires some tact and some practice but works well once the principle is grasped. Visualizing the futility of pulling against the Chinese finger toy can help targeted parents see that sometimes the only way out is in.