Parent Alienation Is An Unresolved Loss

Manage High Conflict Parenting Situations
Manage High Conflict Parenting Situations
February 20, 2016
Dad and Daughter
Emerge From Parent Alienation Syndrome
April 1, 2016

What Is An Unresolved Loss?

Targeted parents  who are  harshly cut out of their children’s lives are experiencing a painful unresolved loss. This type of loss is often described as an “ambiguous loss,” which is used to describe the nature of trauma, grief or mourning people endure when they have experienced a loss that is open-ended (Boss, 1990).

Parents encountering alienation from their children are experiencing an open-ended loss.  This type of loss is more difficult than morning a death.  When someone we love passes, the absence of the person is final and the mourner recognizes this finality.

When a family breaks up through divorce or parental alienation, it is very difficult for any parent to believe in the permanence of the situation. Targeted parents know that their children are physically alive and although they cannot get near them, their children remain psychologically/emotionally alive in their minds.

The overwhelming panic and emotional pain that the targeted parent feels is thus real and hope is kept alive by knowing that one day things may change.  The targeted parents grieving never stops unless they are reunited with their children.  Yet, fantasies of reunion persists and the targeted parent feels that by saying I love you and I miss you, their child will return.  This rarely works. In turn,  the targeted parent becomes more and more frustrated as their wishes are not answered.  Suddenly they find themselves in a depression because they become drained from their failed reunification efforts.

Losses that remain vague and uncertain create a sense of waiting and wondering which is extremely stressful for people.  Of all the losses experienced in personal relationships, ambiguous loss is the most devastating because it remains unclear, undetermined and immobilizes you.  Parents cannot begin to grieve this type of loss because the situation is undetermined.  Targeted parents  plummet from hope to hopelessness and back again.

Without knowing for sure that you can reconnect with your child, the absent child stays emotionally present. As the targeted parent, you may feel that you are caught in limbo not knowing if the separation is permanent or temporary. This feeling of limbo therefore disallows the targeted parent from reaching total acceptance of the loss and moving on with his or her life.


5 Ways To Cope With Unresolved Loss

  • Understand That Your Children’s Words May Not Be Their Own
     This sounds obvious, but it is really tough when someone you love says horrible untrue statements to you.  Remember that many of the words they are using are probably the messages they are receiving from the alienating parent. Your children become their puppets.
  • Remember That The Present Doesn’t Override The Past
    Even if your children’s  behaviors are now difficult or hurtful this doesn’t change the person they were and the relationship you had.  Your positive memories are yours forever and no one can take that from you.
  • Acknowledge Your Grief
    Acknowledge and express your loss rather than ignoring the pain. Targeted parents are experiencing an unresolved loss and it needs to be mourned.  Cry if you have to.  It is a great way to release pent-up feelings.
  • Be Open To A New Type of Relationship
    When the child that you love has changed, the relationship you have with them moving forward will be different.  This can feel horrible, but there is the opportunity for a new type of relationship.  If you open yourself up to this new relationship you might be pleasantly surprised.
  • Letting Go of Control
    Understand that you cannot control the outcome of an unresolved loss. It can feel debilitating but remember, sometimes the less you control, the more you gain.

Dr. Sue Cornbluth is a nationally recognized parenting expert in high conflict parenting situations. She is a regular mental health contributor for an array of networks and television shows such as NBC, FOX and CBS. Dr. Sue has also contributed to several national publications. Her new best-selling book,Building Self Esteem in Children and Teens Who Are Adopted or Fostered is available now. To find out more about her work, please visit Dr. Sue’s website.


  1. Renee M. Willkomm says:

    Dear Dr. Cornbluth, A little over 4 years ago, my ex-husband and I separated during the beginning of our son’s freshman year in college. The divorce was long and drawn out and finalized just this past April. Without going into detail (not sure if details are necessary at this moment), I was wondering if you are able to help parents who go through parent alienation with young adult children. When I read the postings I relate so much to what is being said as if I have a five year old instead of a 23 year old, but at the same time feel like it would be so different dealing with a young adult, my son, who in extremely influenced and controlled by his father. Approaches would appear to me as being different.

    Can you direct me to where I can find information specifically with dealing with parent alienation with young adult children?

    Thank you in advance for your time.

    Kind regards,
    Renee M. Willkomm

    • George says:

      Hi Renee and Dr. Sue:

      I’m also curious about this. Being alienated from my oldest daughter – early 20s – was a surprise, and I know I’m not handling it well.


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