On Father’s Day, Remember the Alienated Father

The forced estrangement of children is a form of collective abuse.

Posted Jun 15, 2018

The forced estrangement of children from their mothers at U.S. Border Patrol stations goes well beyond being merely a transgression of children’s fundamental right to the care and protection of a parent; it is a form of cruelty and abuse that violates a core need, essential to safety and well-being, of both children and parents. These actions have rightly been met by a widespread public outrage and a recognition that something sacred to human well-being has been violated; in essence, we are witnessing a form of violence with profound short- and long-term consequences to children, families, and society at large.

Overlooked in denouncements of this particular form of parent-child alienation, however, are a number of important issues. First, this specific forced separation of young children from their parents is a form of collective child and parent abuse for which we all bear responsibility, as it results from current laws and government policies. It behooves us all to speak out and take action.

Second, this is not the only instance of forced parent-child estrangement at the hands of government agents; for example, far more children and parents are forcefully separated, often permanently, by current child custody laws that remove a loving parent from the life of a child subsequent to parental separation and divorce.

And third, children also have fathers, and the effects of father-child estrangement and alienation, more common than mother-child alienation, are every bit as damaging to both parents and children. According to the US census, over 23 percent of children grow up in father-absent homes—not including the “overlooked fatherless,” such as those who are donor-conceived.

Over six years have passed since the publication of my first Psychology Today posting on fatherlessness, “Father Absence, Father Deficit, Father Hunger” (May 23, 2012). In that article, I wrote about the vital importance of paternal presence in children’s lives, and the causal effects of father absence on children’s compromised physical, social, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

Since that time, the research evidence linking children’s well-being to paternal presence, and the devastating effects of father-child estrangement on children, has become more robust in documenting and recognizing the unique and irreplaceable role that fathers play in their children's lives. When all other variants of race, socio-economic status, health, and other metrics are factored in, fatherlessness is the single biggest predictor for multiple negative outcomes among children.

And yet the social problem of fathers being involuntarily removed from their children’s lives as daily caregivers by misguided family court judgments continues unabated. Separated and divorced fathers in particular are often devalued, disparaged, and forcefully removed from their children’s lives. This is as damaging a form of parental alienation as any other.

The profoundly negative impact of this phenomenon on children’s well-being is now well-known, but the disastrous effects of paternal alienation on fathers themselves is less studied. The studies that have been completed clearly identify paternal alienation as a form of domestic abuse, yet lawmakers and policymakers turn a blind eye to this neglected form of family violence.

Father’s Day provides an opportunity to commemorate these fathers, and to recognize that we have a collective responsibility to acknowledge the reality of paternal estrangement and alienation on fathers and their children and take action to restore divorced fathers' rightful place in the lives of their children.

Too often, we brush away fathers’ loss of their children because it makes us feel uncomfortable or guilty, or maybe because we feel powerless to do anything about it. We have a hard time believing that some mothers are capable of this form of abuse. We minimize the extent and far-reaching consequences of the problem.

What steps can we begin to take as we ponder this particular, overlooked form of parental estrangement from children’s lives?

  1. First, it is important to acknowledge the significance of father loss to children and the loss of children to fathers.
  2. Second, never badmouth an absent father, no matter what he has done, or what we have been told he has done. This only causes more pain and suffering to children and to fathers themselves.
  3. Third, provide children with every opportunity and possibility to celebrate their fathers, in their roles as protectors, providers, and parents. 
  4. Fourth, if the father is not a danger to the child, do your best to find creative ways to facilitate contact between alienated fathers and their children—or at the very least, encourage restoration of the relationship.
  5. And finally, if there is a child in your life whose father is absent, or a father whose child is absent, reach out to them on Father’s Day. Acknowledge their essential value as protectors, providers and parents of their children, and let them know you are there for them if they need to talk.

Let us use this year’s Father’s Day to better understand and address the vital needs of the millions of children and fathers who are estranged and alienated from each other. Let us harness our indignation over the harm and injustice of certain types of parent-child estrangement to all forms of parent-child alienation.

References

ElHage, A. (2018). “On Father’s Day, remember the fatherless.” Institute of Family Studies Blog, June.

McLanahan, S., Tach, L., and Schneider, D. (2013).  “The causal effects of father absence.” Annual Review of Sociology, 39, 399-427.

Poustie, C., Matthewson, M., & Balmer, S. (2018). “The forgotten parent: The targeted parent perspective of parental alienation.” Journal of Family Issues, 0192513X18777867.