A parent responds to “Unwanted Contact Is Not Stalking”

On Mother’s Day 2016, a person who signed themselves “A Hurting Parent” emailed me about my article titled “Unwanted Contact Is Not Stalking“:

I just read your article on “Estranged Parent Forums” and I cannot believe a human being with any sense of connection to humanity would write something like that. Let me start out by asking you this, in your article you refer to every attempt at communication, or an attempt to tell your child that you love them as a being “terrorized”, would you be as supportive of that estranged child if they said, “every time I receive a message, I believe aliens from Alpha Centauri are helping my parents communicate with me”? Somehow I doubt you would be as supportive. What if someone says, “when I walk down the street I feel threatened by black people”? Would you blame the black person for for this person’s irrational fear? I doubt that too, so why would you refer, and support a parent expressing love your their child as “terrorizing”? My wife, and I are over two years into our estrangement from our son, and I, and anyone in our family will tell you that we did absolutely nothing to deserve this. I don’t know if you have ever mourned the death of a loved one, especially your own child, but I can tell you mourning the loss of a living child is even worse, and you should be ashamed of yourself for promoting, and giving support to these actions.

This is something I’ve encountered again and again since this site went live: No matter how succinct the explanation, how detailed the description, how clear the chain of logic, estranged parents don’t absorb anything that’s counter to their beliefs.

I’m not going to analyze the entire letter because when I tried, it ended up being a string of quotes from the article. “A Hurting Parent” does exactly as described: They frame their own actions as loving, deny the validity of the child’s reactions, and reject any grounds the child has for objecting to contact.

They add a twist, which I do want to analyze:

would you be as supportive of that estranged child if they said, “every time I receive a message, I believe aliens from Alpha Centauri are helping my parents communicate with me”? Somehow I doubt you would be as supportive. What if someone says, “when I walk down the street I feel threatened by black people”? Would you blame the black person for for this person’s irrational fear?

“A Hurting Parent” compares an adult child’s fear of his own parents, the ultimate known quantity, to a fear of all black people. It’s an elaboration upon the idea that there’s an epidemic of adult children estranging from their parents for no good reason. Why do they do it? In this version, adult children have been convinced that all parents are the enemy. Their fear of parents is fear of an entire class of people, no more founded than a fear of black people.

“A Hurting Parent” also likens an adult child’s complaints to the complaints of someone who thinks their parents are in collusion with aliens. That is, an adult child who feels terrorized by his parents’ unwanted attempts at contact is talking crazy, and deserves as much heed as if he was raving about aliens. After all, the parent knows they’re good and loving and did nothing wrong, so anyone who thinks otherwise is clearly mad.

As failures of empathy go, it’s spectacular.

On the primacy of pain

The end of the letter is the estranged parent’s traditional coup de grace: They’re in pain, and you should be ashamed. Pain is a holy state that washes all one’s sins away and allows the sufferer to decide how their actions affect others. Shame is the natural state of those who defy the holy sufferer.

Or, to put it less snarkily: When someone is in pain, the first order of business should be to relieve their suffering. It’s cruel to suggest they’re the cause of their own suffering, or to add to their suffering by interpreting their actions differently than they intended, or to insist that they take responsibility for actions they’re not ready to deal with. Telling them that their suffering is their own business isn’t an option. Nor is one allowed to tell them that although you’re sorry that they’re in pain, that doesn’t make the other party wrong.

This approach to suffering rests on several unspoken premises:

  • Only wrongdoing causes pain.
  • Pain is proof of wrongdoing.
  • Only one side of an argument at a time can be wrong.
  • Being in pain excuses behavior that would in other circumstances be considered wrong.
    • Corollary: One cannot be hurt by the actions of a person in pain because their actions aren’t wrong, and only wrongdoing causes pain.
  • Suffering outranks all other considerations.

This belief system isn’t unique to estranged parents. It’s our primal state, fully formed long before we first whacked someone in the head with our fire truck because they stole the plastic dinosaur we were playing with. We spend our childhood developing enough higher brain functions to understand that it’s wrong, and the whole of our adult lives trying not to slide back into it. Depression is like a greased chute. So is severe stress. Anything that triggers our psychological defenses can land us right back in the sandbox, psychologically speaking. Certain things can make people more prone to primitive thinking, particularly Cluster B personality disorders, but we all go there from time to time.

But that doesn’t make it right. Or healthy. Just common.


Update

My reply to A Hurting Parent:

From what I understand, you believe that I shouldn’t say that estranged
adult children experience unwanted contact as terrorizing, because you
feel that the adult children have no legitimate cause for fear.

I… I don’t have a response for that. There are so many gulfs of
misunderstanding we’d have to cross, starting with “Continuing to demand
contact when someone has told you to leave them alone is a danger sign”
and “It’s natural for people to be fearful of people who insist upon
forcing themselves into their lives,” moving on through “You do not get
to vote on how other people feel” and “Whether you like it or not,
estranged adult children feel terrorized by unwanted contact,” and
passing into “Estranged adult children have real reasons for not wanting
contact; you don’t get a say in those, either.” There’s a lot more past
that, but that’s where we’d get bogged down.

So you’re welcome to join the conversation here
(http://issendai.com/wp/estrangement/a-parent-responds-to-unwanted-contact-is-not-stalking/),
but further debate between us is unlikely to be fruitful.

A Hurting Parent’s response:

Well, I think the problem is that you really don’t get it, so I’ll try it another way.

If I was getting on an airplane and saw a Muslim person getting on then asked the flight attendant to remove them from my presence because I felt terrorized, am I being racist, with irrational fear, or should the airline remove to person to validate my irrational fear?

On a personal note your entire explanation of going “no contact” for no reason from people that have loved, and cared for you from before you were even born can only be written by someone devoid of empathy for the people you are hurting, and a complete lack of the ability to love another human being.

And, I’ll give you another scenario. Your child, YOURS (though I’m afraid the answer might be disturbing) tells you, mom & dad I’m moving out of the house, and moving in with this guy I met on the Internet. His name is Jim Jones, and I don’t want you contacting me after I leave. Do you let him go, or do you do everything you can to get your child home, because let’s face it we all thought we had all the answers at 18?

This email showcases an expectation that A Hurting Parent had from the start, and is going to repeat in each subsequent email. He expects that he can insult me, and I’ll still listen to him. I’m feeding his belief by ignoring the insults and continuing the conversation, it’s true; but tellingly, even after several rounds in which I don’t respond in kind, he continues to insult me.

My response:

Well gee, considering that Jim Jones the cult leader has been dead for decades and there are 28,080 people in the U.S. alone who are named James or Jim Jones, I’d be mighty silly to assume my kid was leaving for an appointment with a vat of Kool-Aid. I’d certainly try to get in touch with him. But “do everything I can”? No. First, the best way to cement someone’s resolve to stay in a bad situation is to turn it into a power struggle where leaving means the other person loses. And second, people have the right to decide where they go, what they do, and who they see–even cocky 18-year-olds.

I understand what you mean: It’s as irrational to fear your parents as it is to fear all Muslims. But that itself is a wonderment of irrationality. It’s irrational to fear everyone in a huge group of people, 99.98% of whom you don’t know; it’s perfectly rational to fear the guy across the hallway who punches holes in the walls when he’s drunk.

Of course, if you ask the guy across the hallway whether it’s rational to fear him, he’s not going to agree. He’s a great guy! He brings beer to all the neighborhood barbecues. Sure, he drinks, but only a little on Saturday nights. Those holes in the wall were an accident, and besides, why does anyone else care what he does in his own apartment? Are they afraid he’s going to come and punch holes in their walls? No? Then what are they afraid of?

When you talk with the other tenants who have been around for his drunk escapades, they’re going to roll their eyes at his excuses. (Except for his drinking buddy, who doesn’t see what the big deal is.) If you don’t want him to come to your barbecue, well, it may not be the choice your neighbors would make, but they’ll understand. And if he tries to push his way in anyway, to prove to you that he’s not a drunk and that you’re wrong not to want him around, your neighbors are going to understand what a huge and waving red flag that is.

Once he’s evicted from your barbecue, he’s not going to have a Moment of Realization, throw his half-finished beer away, and resolve to stop drinking. He’s going to stumble around complaining that you’re a jerk who’s jealous of his good looks and his new Maserati, that he invited you to HIS barbeque, that you’re a coward who can’t face him and that your barbeque is stupid anyway. When he sobers up, he may decide that you hate him because he’s Muslim. He may even pen letters to the editor describing the rabid anti-Muslim sentiment in your neighborhood, claiming that you’ve been stirring up the neighbors against him with stories of violent behavior (because everyone knows Muslims are violent, amirite?), and demanding that you go to mediation with him. For healing. Because it’s right.

When a local news team drops by the building with cameras, they come away with hours of footage of you and your neighbors saying, “We don’t care that he’s Muslim. If anything, we’d like it if he was more devout, because then he’d STOP DRINKING.” And one clip of his drinking buddy talking about what a great guy he is and how everyone else is a hater. The clip isn’t as helpful to his cause as it might have been because the drinking buddy is visibly soused.

When the news article comes out, he goes to all his work buddies and tells them what a hatchet job it is. He’s never been drunk at work; everyone agrees that the article is inexplicable and it’s frightening how deep anti-Muslim prejudice goes, even among journalists.

Eventually he moves to another building. But he still makes a point of trying to get into your barbeques. Because he wants to prove to you that you’ve got nothing to fear from Muslims.

His reply:

Whoa Buddy!!!!

First as to the Jim Jones analogy all you know is your child met a charismatic person on the Internet, knowing nothing else about them besides the person on the screen, then runs off to live with that person, without warning, and you would just let them go? And as you said, cocky 18 year olds bear no responsibility for the damage they do to a family when the do this? Human beings are social creatures, they build bonds with other human beings, and when they love one from before they were born, the chemical activity in the brain that is love doesn’t turn off. I seriously hope you do not have children.

As for the second part, if that is your story my heart truly does hurt for you, but you cannot apply that situation if it yours to all estranged children, or their parents. I see what you did there mixing in an individual’s personal, subjective experience, with an “all of them” story, and that’s just not fair, because an irrational fear is an irrational fear whether it’s focused on an individual or a group. I, and our family can assure you that our son experienced none of that. And the same goes for many other parents in the groups you targeted in that drivel you posted. What he did do was meet that charismatic person on the Internet, and taught him something his mother and I never taught him to do…..HATE.

My reply:

> Whoa Buddy!!!!
>
> First as to the Jim Jones analogy all you know is your child met a
> charismatic person on the Internet, knowing nothing else about them
> besides the person on the screen, then runs off to live with that
> person, without warning, and you would just let them go?

I answered that part. There are responses in between “just let them go” and “hound them until they return.”

> And as you
> said, cocky 18 year olds bear no responsibility for the damage they do
> to a family when the do this?

18-year-olds move out. Parents want them to stay longer and are sad when they go. That’s the way it goes. If the family is damaged when a young adult moves out, that’s on the parents, not the child–it’s not a child’s job to put off their own development until their parents are ready.

> Human beings are social creatures, they
> build bonds with other human beings, and when they love one from
> before they were born, the chemical activity in the brain that is love
> doesn’t turn off. I seriously hope you do not have children.

Nobody’s telling you not to love your son. We’re just telling you not to stalk him.

Can you love your son without trying over and over to contact him when he’s told you not to?

> As for the second part, if that is your story my heart truly does hurt
> for you,

No, it’s a device called an “analogy.”

> but you cannot apply that situation if it yours to all
> estranged children, or their parents. I see what you did there mixing
> in an individual’s personal, subjective experience, with an “all of
> them” story, and that’s just not fair, because an irrational fear is
> an irrational fear whether it’s focused on an individual or a group.

Let’s try this:

If Person X is afraid of Person Y, is Person X going to consider their own fear rational, or irrational?

If Person Y thinks Person X’s fear is irrational, does that change Person X’s experience of their own fear?

Is Person X going to be receptive to arguments from Person Y, the person they fear, that Person X’s fears are irrational?

If Person Y ignores Person X’s fears, is Person X going to be less fearful, or more fearful?

> I, and our family can assure you that our son experienced none of
> that. And the same goes for many other parents in the groups you
> targeted in that drivel you posted. What he did do was meet that
> charismatic person on the Internet, and taught him something his
> mother and I never taught him to do…..HATE.

If you’re trying to get your son away from a charismatic person, then you’re going about it in all the wrong ways. Hounding doesn’t work! It pushes the victim farther into the arms of the abuser.

If you sincerely want to help your son, you’re going to have to do some things that feel counterintuitive. You’ll need to navigate according to his perception of the world, not your perception. You’ll need to focus on what he needs and wants from the world, not on your own needs for contact. Getting people away from people who are bad for them isn’t easy, and it can’t be done with the set of actions people usually take in these circumstances. If it were that simple, it wouldn’t be a social issue.

But if you want to try something that works, take a look at how to handle cult members. Not the old methods of kidnapping and rebrainwashing, but learning how to use their natural inclination toward freedom to encourage them to take baby steps away. It takes patience, lots of patience, because you want them to come to conclusions on their own, and that can mean going back to the cult for a little while to remember how bad things are. You’re not convincing them so much as steering them into position to convince themselves. It takes a steady, light hand. But it works.

He replies:

OK, well here we go.

18-year-olds move out. Parents want them to stay longer and are sad when
they go. That’s the way it goes. If the family is damaged when a young
adult moves out, that’s on the parents, not the child–it’s not a
child’s job to put off their own development until their parents are
ready.

Once again you are deflecting the responsibility away from the person that caused the situation in the first place. We looked forward to the day when our son would start his college career, then his own life outside of our home. Every parent wants to be there standing on the branch when their child takes off and flies off on their own, and we wanted to see him soar. What we didn’t expect was to have our throats slashed, and the branch we were standing on to be pulled out from under us when he launched. You must have an incredible hard time supporting the actions of every hate group on the planet, because in all of your writing, one message is perfectly clear, if you are over 18 you are free to do what ever you want, as long as it makes you happy no matter who it hurts. Pure selfishness.

As for your analogy, you wouldn’t be the first person the slide your own personal story and pain into an analogy.

And finally, an irrational fear, is an irrational fear no matter the amount of mental gymnastics you do to validate it. Or, the person is just lying and there is no fear, it’s just a made up story for someone needs to play the victim in order to justify their very wrong actions to either themselves, or the people they are trying to convince that their story is true.

Note the black-and-white thinking: I support one group he considers hateful, therefore I support every hate group on the planet. I believe a grown child isn’t obliged to put off leaving home until their parents are ready, therefore I believe anyone over 18 can do anything they want without regard for others.

My reply:

Does your son think his fear is rational, or irrational?

His reply:

If he believed he was a velociraptor, or the New World Order was reading his thoughts should that be validated too? Sorry, this is the problem with this millennial generation, no matter how ridiculous their position is it must be validated, and if you question it their egos can’t take it.
And the answer is, I haven’t any idea because we as a family know there is no reason for it, so we don’t know if it’s just a story he is telling to strangers, or if he actually believes it.
The funny thing is, the more our conversation carries on, and the mental gymnastics continue, I actually am beginning to think I am talking to my son.

My reply:

What I’m getting at is: Your son believes his fears are rational. Approaching him as though his fears are irrational and therefore can be disregarded is a guaranteed losing strategy.

As for why I validate the fears of estranged adult children, they don’t say aliens are influencing their parents, or they hate their parents because they didn’t get a pony when they were 9. They say their parents abused them. In detail. They give clear, rational reasons for wanting to get away from their parents. Why wouldn’t I validate them?

Now you’re going to say, “But my son has no such reasons, so it doesn’t apply in his case.”

And I’m going to say, “99% of all estranged parents say the exact same thing. Then, if you read long enough, they either tell stories like this (http://www.issendai.com/psychology/estrangement/stories-from-estranged-parents.html) about themselves, or someone else tells a story like that and they applaud. After a few years of reading situations like that over and over again, I write a page that lays out how they can do things like that and still claim not to know why they’re estranged (http://www.issendai.com/psychology/estrangement/missing-missing-reasons.html). And yet, every estranged parent who has responded to my page claims to be the exception. Including people I’ve used as examples of clear-cut abuse.”

If you are indeed the exception, then, well… why did your son tell you he was leaving so abruptly, at such a young age? Perhaps his explanations contain a clue that I can interpret for you.

His reply:

So your automatic assumption is that the child is telling the truth, and the parents are lying, thus perpetuating the cycle I just mentioned that everything for this generation has to be validated, and you cannot question their actions. Got it, congratulations, you are part of the problem.

What’s bewildering is that parent after parent reads my site, absorbs nothing but “Issendai thinks estranged parents are poopyheads,” and emails me to say, “You’re wrong, and the proof is that my child left for no reason and I’m in pain,” while acting exactly like all the poopyhead estranged parents on the site they’re protesting.

My reply:

Well, I kinda have, y’know, AN ENTIRE SITE detailing how the parents leak dysfunction even when they completely control what others see and hear.

You do realize I’m old enough to be the parent of a millennial, yes? I’m Gen X, like you probably are, and like the younger members of estranged parents’ forums are. In fact, the oldest members of abuse survivors’ forums are old enough to be the parents of the younger members of estranged parents’ forums. On at least one abuse survivors’ forum, the average age is in the 40’s, and there’s another forum where about half the membership is over 50.

Whining about kids these days doesn’t hold much water when some of the “kids” are a decade older than you.

His reply:

“Old enough to be the parent of a millennial”, but don’t have any children then? If that’s the case then you really should not even be in this topic of conversation because A) you have NO idea what it means to love someone more than you can EVER love yourself, B) you have NO idea what it means to watch that child grow from an infant to an adult, and put that child BEFORE every thought you have about yourself, to be responsible for another human life, and C) you will have NO idea the personal devastation it causes when that very child you loved more than you can ever love anything, without warning, or reason runs off to live with people they met on the internet. Like I said in my first statement, and it sounds like I was right, you don’t have the capacity to empathize with the parents struggle we as parents go through, not mourning the dead, but mourning the loss of the living, and not knowing why. It also explains why you can nonchalantly say “They’re 18, they can do whatever they want”, you don’t even know what the parent/child connection feels like.

Avoiding not one, but two topics where he was proved wrong; ad hominem attack; insults as persuasion; and a return to the primacy of pain. Plus a huge whack from the “emotional boundaries” section of Dysfunctional Beliefs, particularly:

  • If I’m attached to you, then you’re attached to me. You can’t consider yourself detached from me until I’ve detached from you.
  • You’re still responsible for my emotions after you end the relationship. You’re abusive when you refuse to care for my emotional wounds.
  • If I have an emotional reaction to something someone does, the other person is responsible for my emotions.
  • If I have an emotional reaction to something, then that something is my business. This is true even if it concerns another person’s private life.
  • Emotions cause actions. When I feel something, I can’t not act on it. (Or, at least, it’s wrong not to act on it.)
  • My pain is the complete justification for why someone should resume a relationship with me.
  • Refusing to have a relationship with me is abusive.

My reply:

There are two concepts here:

1. Estranged parents hurt terribly.

2. Estranged parents do things that hurt their children terribly.

These concepts aren’t opposites. A person can do things that drive other people away, and then be terribly hurt that other people are driven away.

You seem to think that if I felt estranged parents’ pain, I’d stop thinking they did something to drive their children away. But that wouldn’t change the reality of how estranged parents act; it wouldn’t make the stories on my site untrue. It might make me blind to how serious the stories are, but that wouldn’t make the stories untrue, either. Estranged parents might feel better because I stopped pointing out their bad behavior, but that wouldn’t do a thing to reconcile them with their children, because their bad behavior wouldn’t have changed.

By the way, you haven’t commented on any of the stories on the site. There are rather a lot of people out there doing rather a lot of horrible things to their children, and because they set the tone for estranged parents’ forums, the estranged parents who didn’t abuse their children are tarred with the same brush. Do you have any thoughts on that? Any idea how to resolve the problem so innocent parents can get a fair hearing?

His reply (Friday, 5:13 p.m.):

No, I think, well a couple of things.

1) You are an estranged child, you automatically believe the child’s story, while automatically convicting the parents because of what happened to you.

2)  Your page specifically targets members of estranged children forums, and convicted all of us, while having no clue what it means to raise a child, to spend the sleepless nights when they get sick, the begging to switch places with them when they are sick, you have zero idea about what it means to be a parent, and then you are going to dismiss parents outright, and condemn them for their pain. What you are doing is equal to me writing a book about women, what it’s like to be a woman, get pregnant, and give birth while not having a clue as to what it feels like then telling them to get over it.

3) What’s this “tarred with the same brush nonsense? Does that mean because one black person commits a crime all black people are criminals? I’m sorry “tarred with the same brush”. The answer is of course not. You don’t condemn all parents, because of the actual bad ones, that makes you no better than your average racist.

His second reply (Saturday, 7:25 p.m.):

What happened? Did I strike a nerve, and hit a little too close to home?

Analysis

This is going to be partial and fragmented for a while as I collect my thoughts.

The point of this analysis isn’t to convince A Hurting Parent (or any other estranged parent) that I’m right. It ain’t gonna happen. The purpose is to dissect the attitudes and cognitive distortions that act as red flags for abuse.

Insults

  • Insults routinely, right from the start; doesn’t mirror the other person’s approach, even after several rounds of polite replies. Dials back the insults briefly only when he becomes aware that his comments are being made public.
  • Indulges in insults with no apparent awareness of their effect on others’ opinion of him, even in the middle of a discussion where others’ opinion of him is the lynchpin of the argument.
  • For the first week or so, favored insults aren’t standard estranged parent insults (ungrateful brat) or culture-standard insults (asshole, bitch). They’re highly individual, with a focus on undermining the opponent’s claim to humanity:
    • “I cannot believe a human being with any sense of connection to humanity would write something like that”
    • “your entire explanation […] can only be written by someone devoid of empathy for the people you are hurting, and a complete lack of the ability to love another human being”
    • “If you can’t figure that out, or the answer escapes you I’m not even sure you can call yourself a human being.”

    Later he adds nonspecific sexual insults in between continued attacks on his opponents’ humanity and fitness to be parents.

  • Gives the impression of using insults like shocks from a cattle prod: If you go in the direction he wants you to go, the insults will stop.
  • Asserts that he doesn’t normally insult people, and that the current situation is different because of the level of provocation.

His lack of insight suggests that this pattern isn’t deliberate. This is how he is.

He displays the typical dysfunctional tendency to split off his unacceptable behavior. There’s the real him, which is empathetic, caring, intelligent, and polite, and there’s not-him, which is insulting and foulmouthed, and which is a completely understandable reaction to exceptional provocation. We all do me/not-me splitting, but normal people split under unusual circumstances and reconsider their self-evaluations when the frequency of a not-me behavior rises too high. Dysfunctional people split in ordinary circumstances (like reading a stranger’s web page) and resist self-evaluation, even–especially!–when the not-me behavior takes up a good proportion of their time.

Cognitive Distortions

  • Black-and-white thinking
    • Notable examples: Doubting of his version of events = “you are lying”; asking for details about what his son said to his wife in the fateful phone call = “demanding to know what was said verbatim”
  • Profound failures of reading comprehension
  • Highly selective reading
  • Analysis by keyword – If a word or phrase in the opponent’s comment is the same as a word or phrase in Hurting’s mind, then the two instances mean the same thing. Joanna Ashmun called this “analysis by eggbeater.”
  • Self-contradiction
  • Inability to construct sound analogies in a way that implies that he has trouble determining which details are relevant.
  • Inability to follow a chain of logic for more than one exchange. In Hurting’s case, he seems unable to focus on any argument other than the one foremost in his mind.
  • Returns repeatedly to arguments that his opponents have rejected.
  • Lapses of theory of mind
    • Unable to understand that his son has a different point of view, and that he must take that PoV into account in dealing with his son. He seems to believe that there’s an objectively correct PoV, and all actions should proceed from it.
    • Unable to judge which details his audience needs to understand him, even when given feedback.

Rigidity of Thought

  • Verbal formulas: “taught him something his mother and I never taught him to do…..HATE.” “taught our son something we never did…hate.”
  • Intrusion of irrelevant details and tangents into line of thought, indicating that sections of the story have welded into inseparable “chunks”

Both of these traits suggest that the story has lost its fluidity in his mind, hardening into a series of well-rehearsed formulas. It’s an indication that he’s no longer bringing fresh thinking to the problem, and may be unable to break up the “chunks” and think differently.

Rhetorical Devices

  • Poisoning the well (thank you, Laura)
  • Selective responding
  • Strawmanning
  • Appeals to emotion
  • Goal-shifting
  • Shifting the frame of argument from the personal to the general as it benefits him, without regard for the context of his opponents’ comments
  • Evasive maneuvers to avoid acknowledging when the other side has made a point
  • Appeal to authority, specifically his own
  • Ad hominem attacks
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