Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"Robbed of Your Child's Childhood"

A recent article in the New York Times ( commented on the difficulties of locating children who had been abducted by one of their parents. Noting that abducting parents may later claim tax exemptions for children, but that the IRS does not provide information on the whereabouts of the missing children, the Times article estimated that there are about 200,000 such abductions in the United States each year. (Obviously, not all of them are permanent or even long-term.) The reporter, David Kocieniewski, wrote sympathetically of the anguish of the bereft parents, and quoted one as saying, “… when you’re the parent who is left behind, it is devastating… you’re being robbed of your son’s or daughter’s childhood.”

Astonishingly and discouragingly, however, the article failed completely to mention the impact of their experience on the abducted children. Their abrupt separation from a familiar caregiver may in many cases be as traumatic as the death of a parent or as kidnapping by a stranger, however good the intentions of the abducting parent may be. As seems to have been the situation for so many recent reports of disrupted adoptions, though, discussion of parental abductions has often focused on the needs and rights of the adults. "Robbery" of the children seems to be of little interest.

I have to wonder whether the media’s failure to consider the effects of these experiences on the abducted children has any influence on the abductors themselves. Without public statements deploring the impact of parental abduction, do the abductors feel free to imagine that they are doing something acceptable-- even that their action is “in the best interests of the child”?

It is difficult to imagine any scenario in which abduction by a parent would be without negative effect on a child. In the case of older children who are capable of asking questions, the abducting parent has few choices except to offer distressing explanations. Refusing to answer questions at all establishes an atmosphere of implied threat and fear. Promising future contact with the other parent-- but not following through--- adds mistrust to fearfulness. Lying about the situation can be devastating. “Your mother is dead” or “Dad told me he doesn’t want you any more”-- how can the abducting parent offer the comfort that is needed for children who have received this kind of “news”? And speaking the truth (“Your father wants you back, but I’m not going to let him find out where you are”) creates concerns about the bereft parent, as well as destroying the cherished fantasy of children of divorce, that the parents will be together or at least cooperate in some way.

For children too young to ask questions or understand answers, abduction and abrupt loss of contact with a familiar parent will be equivalent in impact to the sudden death of that parent. In the best case, the abducting parent will have been in close contact with the child and will be familiar with the child’s routine as well as with ways to offer comfort. But even in that case, the sudden absence of a familiar home and caregiver will result in the child’s grieving over the loss. A young child’s grief for loss of a familiar person includes disturbances of sleep and eating, social withdrawal, reluctance to play, and sadness and irritability, and these may be very challenging for an abductor, even one who knows the child well. By the way, far from being “too young to know what’s happening”, older infants and toddlers will be most intensely affected of all by an experience like abduction.

An unfamiliar parent abductor of a young child will find himself or herself in an even more difficult position than one who knows the child better. Imagine, for example, a parent who has never actually lived with the child, but who for his or her own reasons (perhaps to punish the other parent) has decided to abduct. The young child placed in these circumstances has all the problems of grief mentioned earlier, as well as fear of an abductor who although genetically related is in practical terms a complete stranger. In addition, the child is in the hands of a person who may have little skill or knowledge about child-rearing, and who in anxiety or stress may respond with punishment to the child’s grief.

I don’t know whether parent abductors usually give much thought to the outcome of their taking the child. In one case described in the Times article, the abductor had obviously planned the abduction carefully over months, but whether he had considered the child’s reaction is not known. If anyone is making such a plan, I would beg him or her to think over carefully what the experience of abduction will mean to the child, and to consider how appropriate goals might be met by acting within the law. I do recognize that there are circumstances in which fear for a child’s safety, and the apparent failure of courts to consider existing threats, may motivate a parent to take a child and run. All I am suggesting is serious consideration of the outcome of abduction.

In a less obvious way, the same kind of consideration might be advised for parents who are seeking custody of children who have for whatever reason not been available to them for some time. I talked a while ago with a father whose former wife had taken their children to a distant state, re-married, and brought what were apparently baseless accusations of sexual molestation against her former husband. His contact with the children had been very limited for some years, but an investigation had shown no evidence of wrong-doing on his part, and he was now asking for full custody of the children, who were approaching their teens. This father planned that as soon as he had custody he would immediately take all the children a couple of thousand miles away (although they said they wanted to stay at their old schools) and set up a new home where their mother could not easily influence them. While adults will sympathize with a person who may have suffered a good deal under serious accusations, and who may have had good reason to despise the influence of his former wife, we can easily predict the anguish of the children being forced to give up their familiar lives, schools, and friends at the behest of a father whom they barely knew. If he had received custody, the father would have had the right to do this, but I would argue strongly that he would have been in the wrong if he had followed the plans he had made. As a matter of fact, custody remained with the mother, and in spite of her apparently problematic behavior, I believe that this was probably the right decision.


  1. There is in fact a great deal of research indicating the harm inflicted on children as the result of parental kidnapping, and there are several stories from abducted children online. Abductors usually do rationalize what they do as not harmful to the child. (There are a few abductors who left the country with their child and now try to argue that it's not in the child's best interested to be listed as abducted. In fact, I'd be surprised if one of them didn't show up here and try to do just that.)

  2. It's amazing how readily human beings convince themselves that something they want is actually good for others--- along the lines of saying the fox likes to be chased by the hounds, I suppose. But I do think that in the case of abduction, the problem is often compounded by simple lack of knowledge about what children think and feel.

  3. i am going through this right now and , and the story confirms my fears, to what my daughter must be going through,

  4. So sorry to hear about this, Bruce. thanks for your comment.