For nearly two years, my lovely, intelligent teenage daughters refused to talk to me. At all.

They wouldn’t come to my house. They wouldn’t take a phone call from me or reply to a text. No holidays, birthdays, or extended family gatherings. They spent Mother’s Day splashing shiny pictures across social media, embracing their new “mom.”

Here’s where you recoil and wonder: What horrible things did this parent do to make her own daughters reject her?

It’s okay – most people have that initial response. I don’t take it personally anymore.

Before my divorce, I had a great relationship with both of my daughters. We had solid communication, frequent hugs, and plenty of laughter. I chaperoned school field trips, drove in the carpool, and packed lunches with cheerful notes in them. [1]

I was (and still am) a normal, loving parent, so how could I possibly be cut out of two years of my girls’ lives?

The sad reality is that alienation – when children reject a functional, non-abusive parent – is more common than you might think, and it can happen to wonderful mothers and fathers. In fact, CBS 48 Hours aired an episode “Karrie’s Choice” over the weekend about an parental alienation situation that tragically culminated in murder.

While homicide is rare, the agony of an alienated parent cannot be overstated. The pain and damage invades all facets of life — mental and physical health, other relationships, financial stability, and sometimes housing and employment. Yet, alienation causes the deepest loss for the child. When a parent is erased from a child’s life, the trauma can cause lifelong psychological trauma and attachment issues.[2]

Parental alienation is an uncomfortable and complex topic. Few understand it. No one likes to talk about it, nor do bystanders want to “take sides.” These well-meaning attempts at neutrality actually normalize the rejection of the shunned parent.

Alienated parents are understandably bewildered and panicked by their children slowly slipping away as schedules and agreements are eroded. Alienation involves misinformation and manipulation, so logical requests and rational measures are ineffective. Nothing seems to help; everything seems to make it worse.

The rejected parent’s growing agitation and anxiety make people take a step back in suspicious discomfort and gravitate towards the upbeat, charismatic parent whom the child clearly favors. Again, the rejection is reinforced.

Adding to the challenge, parental alienation is still a debated subject after over 30 years in both the mental health industry and the family law court system. While there is some agreement regarding how the phenomenon happens, there is discord over what to call it, whether existing mental health definitions adequately define it or a new diagnosis is required, if it qualifies as child abuse, and how it can best be resolved. [3]

The lack of clinical clarity and consistency leads many professionals – from teachers and coaches to counselors and lawyers – to defer to the child’s preference of one parent. It seems like a simple solution, albeit an uninformed, short-sighted one. The alienated parent has dwindling recourse and is pushed even further away. The child misses out on an essential, formative relationship.

We are failing these kids.

Parental alienation – or whatever they eventually decide to call it – urgently needs to be defined clearly by the mental health industry. There needs to be an accepted standard for identifying and assessing the situation, as well as an effective course of treatment and resolution.

Industry research needs to include adults who experienced parental alienation as children, because there is evidence that it has lasting effects and can occur in a repeating generational pattern. My own father was alienated from my half-sisters for fifteen years. He is one of the few people in my life who truly understands the pain and helplessness that I experienced.

Accepted industry standards then need be shared with and adhered to by the family court system. Symptoms and recommended interventions also need to be widely understood by professionals who work with children. Well-meaning outsiders tend to unwittingly support the favored parent while validating the erasure of the alienated parent.

We need to recognize that children do not naturally reject a parent, even an inadequate one. They do not naturally vocalize that one parent as all good and the other as all bad. They want their parents to attend school events and be present in their lives.[4]

So, how did I reconnect with my daughters?

Patience, persistence, and resilience until a moment of realization occurred for one of my daughters.

My contact options had been reduced to attending public events that I could identify from school websites and sending texts that I could only hope that they were receiving. My texts were admittedly pathetic by this time, because I had almost no knowledge of what was happening in my girls’ lives. I commented about the weather a lot.

One random afternoon, my older daughter happened to reply to one of my texts. I nearly fell out of my chair at work! Gradually, this tiny interaction — which will always be of the most amazing moments of my life — led to building a new relationship with both of my daughters that I treasure each and every day.

[1] (pre-divorce lunch blog under my married name Tiffany Tan)

[2] (Dr. Amy Baker is a nationally recognized expert in parent child relationships, especially children of divorce, parental alienation syndrome, and emotional abuse of children.)

[3] (While Dr. Baker’s work is largely based on the findings of Dr. Richard Gardner in 1985, Dr. Craig Childress takes the stance that existing attachment-based diagnoses define alienation pathology as abuse.)

[4] Based on assertions by Dr. Baker, Dr. Childress, and other child development professionals.