Some time during my first semester in the men's dormitory at Cornell (in those days co-ed dorms were mere fantasies), the guys on the floor began talking about their parents. The more we talked, the more we came to value all that our parents had done for us. Mix this new awareness with some homesickness and the result often was a letter or call home. (We had no phones in our rooms and cell phones were science fiction; we stood in line to use the one public telephone in the hall. The wait was not too long because long-distance charges were steep back in the day of regulated telecommunications.) In my case it was a letter. My parents saved the letter I wrote, re-reading it at times when my appreciation was not so evident.
Going off to college clearly stirred renewed affection and appreciation for parents. I have never seen or heard this phenomenon discussed in print or at professional conferences. But it was very real to those of us in Founders Hall, Ithaca, back in 1966.
I was reminded of this by a father who told me recently that his estranged son initiated more contact with him in the first two weeks of college than he had in the prior two years. The boy clearly seeks to reclaim his identity as a child with two parents.
Parents with estranged relationships with their children should take heart in this phenomenon. If your children attends college away from home, this may give you an opportunity to renew ties with them. The renewed perspective on life that comes from living with a group of people from different backgrounds is one factor that promotes healing.
If the other parent has influenced your child's attitudes about you, a second healing factor is that your child is now outside the daily orbit of this parent. Living apart from parents introduces a renewed sense of freedom to know, think, and express one's true thoughts, and to recognize one's genuine feelings. A child who has felt the need to demonstrate loyalty by joining in bad-mouthing now has a chance to relate to you outside the shadow of the other parent's judgment. Removed from the fear of disapproval, your child may feel free to meet with you, even to initiate contact.
Simply being in a totally new environment is the third healing factor. It helps to liberate us from old patterns of thought and behavior. It is why workshops seeking to trigger creativity and innovation take place at retreats. New surroundings promote new perspectives.
How can alienated parents capitalize on their child's college experience? First, you must overcome any sense of hopelessness about reconciliation. After years of rejection, many parents give up attempts to reach out to their children. Repeated failure induces a sense of passivity. Recognize, though, that living away from home opens new doors.
Make it a priority to visit on campus (when your ex is not around). Ask to see your child's dorm room and meet the roommates. If your child resists, and you are providing any financial support, explain that it is a parent's responsibility to ensure that his or her child has everything needed for a safe and successful Freshman year, and that you need to verify this with your own eyes. Also, if you are providing financial support, deliver the money in person, if feasible, rather than simply transferring the funds into your child's bank account. This drives home the reality of your contributions and brings the help you provide into clearer focus.
When you do see your child, steer clear of discussions about the past, about the other parent, and about your child's prior rejection of you. Convey the sense of a new beginning to your relationship, one free to grow based on current interactions untainted by past problems and loyalty agendas. If things are awkward between the two of you, invite a roommate to join you for dinner. Take them to a restaurant several cuts above the usual college cafeteria fare. The presence of the roommate helps dilute the intensity of the interaction. The hope is that the roommate will encourage a new perspective on you with a comment such as, "I don't know why you don't like your Mom. She seems real nice to me." My book on parental alienation, Divorce Poison, provides additional tips on reconnecting with adult children. Give it your best effort and please share your experiences in the comments below.
Dr. Richard Warshak is the author of Divorce Poison: How To Protect Your Family From Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing (HarperCollins), the classic and best-selling parental alienation resource in the world, and co-author of Welcome Back, Pluto: Understanding, Preventing, and Overcoming Parental Alienation , the leading resource for families whose children struggle to stay out of the middle of parental conflicts. You may find him at www.warshak.com and his blog, Plutoverse.
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