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Part V in a Series
What is a “Safe Person”?
A number of years ago, I discovered a great book called Safe People by the authors of the Boundaries series. I read it with the intent of improving my ability to discern whether people were safe or unsafe for me. Along the way, I started to think of a dear friend who was struggling in her relationship with her homeschooled daughter, an unhappy older teen who was angry about what she felt was a lack of education. Certain pages were burned into my mind, and I wept while I pleaded with my friend to consider that she needed to learn to be a safe person with her daughter. I read sections to her over the phone and wept, for I didn't want to see her make the mistakes that I believe that my own parents made with me. (Read more about Boundaries HERE.)
The authors define a safe person in a Christian context as what I tend to think of as expressions of unconditional love. The safe person
- draws us closer to God;
- draws us closer to others; and
- helps us become the real person that God created us to be.
Breaking this down further, the authors look to Jesus as the perfect example of the safe person. He dwells or abides with us, and He accepts as we are and meets us where we are. He offers us grace – unmerited favor that could never be earned, even if we tried. He is “on our side” and does not condemn us. He never shames us or pours out wrath on us in that context of the loving-kindness of grace. Jesus also exemplifies truth. In the context of a relationship, it means that people who walk in truth with us will be honest with us while encouraging us to grow in virtue. In a safe relationship, we can be truthful without fear of being condemned or rejected.
The book explores the ways that a person can identify safe people, but it also talks about how to become a safe person for others. It offers a treasure trove of ideas that will help mend broken relationships from many perspectives, but this jumped out at me from the section about deciding whether you want to repair or replace a relationship. Accepting reality, forgiving, grieving unmet expectations, openness to change, and patience were recommended. These echo the themes in the writings of the SGAs that I've read, and in the literature that talks about mending broken relationships.
For parents who are working through rough relationships with their children, particularly when they involve real or perceived trauma, the study of forgiveness and reconciliation can be helpful. I featured this topic as an ongoing theme on this blog a few years ago, drawing from the best authors on the subject that have been the most helpful for me. They may give the reader an idea of how to get started on the journey.
Understanding Adult Child-Parent Alienation
Having read a tremendous amount of material on this subject, I've found Amy Baker's work to be especially helpful when trying to understand the rift that develops between parent and child when an ideology is involved, particularly one that ends up becoming spiritually abusive. Formulaic approaches like high demand homeschooling foster intense perfectionism and concern about what others think and feel about the family. Both parent and child suffer from the odd focus on certain elements of living, and they end up serving the system. Though the context of Baker's book concerns the alienation of a parent, both parent and ideology can serve to alienate individuals within the family from one another. In service to the ideal of perfection, how can people truly be safe for one another?
Looking back at the qualities of a safe person, we find many potential pitfalls in high demand homeschooling. The system rejects us when we don't comply and does not “abide with us.” Perfectionism displaces grace. Truth must be sacrificed for what the the group demands and asserts as truth. Many who have left homeschooling talk about how they became paranoid and isolated, concerned about others seizing their authority or “contaminating” them with sin. And children are raised to fit a standard norm, not to grow and discover who it is that God created them to be.
Other resources include some lessons from the grieving parents who followed high demand religious homeschooling and left it. Some of these parents have begun to chronicle their progress out of the confines of these spiritually abusive groups, with notable transparency concerning what these systems have done to their children – and what they chose to do with their children themselves.
Cindy Foster explores the past and looks onward to a future of healing at her blog, Baptist Taliban and Beyond. And Julie Anne Smith also speaks so candidly about her relationship with her daughter and the toll that the process has taken on their whole family and their faith at Spiritual Sounding Board. She discusses her personal journey and that of her family. They are growing and searching for answers as they grow in faith in God, and in love and healing. Though that journey is difficult, there is a community of people with whom other parents in recovery can identify and can help to teach one another about how to be safe for their SGAs.
What The Parent Can Do
“What the Targeted Parents [of Alienation] did Right” found in one of her recently published books on healing from alienation (Location 2242 through 2325, Kindle edition). I've included and adapted some of them as they apply to the alienation that has emerged between what Heather Doney calls the “Old Guard” and their “homeschool apostates” in the hope that parents will consider them. In my own reading of things, I see them as just an expanded description of the elements of respect of the perspective of the adult child.
Surviving Parental Alienation: A Journey of Hope and Healing by Amy Baker (Location 2325 of 3044 77% [Formatting mine]):
While waiting for their alienated children to come back to them, targeted parents engaged in many productive behaviors including
Together, these actions and attitudes gave them hope, helped them set their sights on their long-term goal, and helped them maintain their love for their children, no matter what.
- Becoming informed and educated
- Never giving up on their children
- Viewing the alienation from their child's perspective
- Accepting that the pace of the reconciliation would be set by the child, and
- Not expecting an apology.
Become informed and educated. Parents who informed themselves about the process – the dynamic that had caused the alienation – found validation for themselves, strategies they could use in their own situations, and cause for hope of reconciliation, though this does not always happen. As applied to our discussion, parents must honestly inform themselves about the problems that have emerged from pockets within Christian Evangelical homeschooling circles specifically as well at the inherent pitfalls of homeschooling in general. They need to come to terms with the process of manipulation that accompanies the ideological totalism of some of these high demand homeschooling social communities. And many can stand to take a new look at the process of forgiveness and reconciliation to help to heal their alienation from this sector of homeschooling.
Understand that their adult children are victims, regardless of your intent or virtuous motives. The studies of parental alienation show that, despite the conflicts with the [adult] child, the children suffer as much or more than the parent does from the loss of their relationship and the drama that accompanies it. Currently, the Old Guard sees groups like HARO as perpetrators and not victims. Baker says empathy came when parents respected the child's perspective instead of only seeing the situation through only the parental “lens of their own pain and suffering.” This allowed parents to let go of their own pain and anger that they directed to towards their children. Obviously, part of empathy for the homeschooling parent involves resisting the urge to scapegoat them as the source of the problems.
Understand the limitations placed upon parenting by high demand homeschooling. Participation in the Quiverfull and Patriarchy Movements places tremendous social pressure on a parent in a way that is quite often spiritually abusive. Philip Zimbardo explains this well when he refers to such high pressured systems as “bad barrels” that contain good apples, but those bad barrels end up facilitating damage to those good apples. It isn't a matter of “one bad apple,” but of a flawed system that fosters spoilage. He also speaks of the systems that are in place which should keep spoilage in check by maintaining watch over the barrels.
Like it or not, spiritually abusive homeschooling turns parent and and child into apples at risk, the family who is forced to follow the formulaic, abusive system becomes the bad barrel, and their homeschooling community becomes the system that does a disservice to those barrels and the apples within them. The baggage associated with homeschooling that is carried by the child as well as the parent's own tendency to defend themselves – a skill they learned while in the spiritually abusive system – inhibits healing. I am of the opinion that we need a much better system for maintaining and helping families who homeschool. (Learn more about this dynamic HERE.)
Create a safe place wherein trust can grow. When parents with adult children in high demand groups call me for help, I explain to them that the most important thing that they must do is to figure out how they can created a safe place for their children to think for themselves without judgement or fear of reprisal. This is very difficult for a parent to do because the parroting of the false stereotypes that the high demand group gave them, but also because the remnants of any unfinished business between them and their child will surface. Often this involves standing in the background to offer silent support as an expression of love. Baker offers the ideas from another set of authors who offer this advice to help parents get through this stress.
From Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion by George Thompson and Jerry Jenkins:
If our opponent says something is black and we counter by insisting it is white, lines have been drawn for what will probably be an irresolvable conflict. If we instead move in the direction of our opponent by saying, “I can see why you would say that is black,” we are neutralizing the thrust of our opponent and conserving our own energy. Most important we are maintaining a state of open-mindedness (pg 23).
Only then can you help the person see the consequences of what he is doing or is about to do. Only then can you help him make enlightened decisions (pg 67).
Respect the “dance of rapproachement” (reconciliation). I often use the analogy of a wild animal with a thorn in their paw when explaining what is is like to approach a person that you have wounded or the person who believes that you have wounded them. They are terrified, they can't understand that you want to help them, and they feel threatened by your attempts to removed that thorn. You don't have the ability to calm them.
Under such circumstances, the wounded person must “control the pace” of the process. They have to feel comfortable and must learn how to manage their emotions as their trust develops. That process can be fostered by the parent as they show themselves to be a safe person – the way the parent earns the trust of the wounded adult child who feels betrayed by the relationship. The parent MUST put the needs of their children ahead of their own. Anything else shows disrespect, including forcing the timing or the healing. Everyone does this differently and at their own pace. Baker explains the process in this way (Location 2296):
Like caring for a delicate and fragile flower that needs tending to with just the right balance of the essential ingredients. The targeted parents approached their child as they would a frightened deer who could startle and skitter away at any moment. Slowly, ever slowly, the parents approached their alienated children, mindful of keeping their own expectations at bay, keeping their attention focused on the signals and signs from their children.
Don't expect an apology. The parent feels as though that because they intended to love and bless their children through homeschooling, and in light of all the work and sacrifice entailed for them, it feels reasonable to expect an apology from the child for the rift in the relationship and for their attention to their problems. But for every one negative thing that a person hears from someone, it takes five positive comments to take the sting out of the harm done by that single negative one. I believe that because of the nature and significance of the parent-child relationship that it likely takes far more than five to help engender a child's healing and trust.
When alienation results from negative statements and rejection on the part of the parent, it does terrible damage to the foundation of that child's trust. The parent must labor to rebuild it by fostering it again. A rejected or maligned adult child – be it rightfully or wrongfully in your estimation – is not in any frame of mine to consider your pain or your offense. Within the context of other relationships with adults, it would be appropriate to expect an apology from the other party, showing contrition for the pain or harm that they caused, even if they didn't intend harm. Baker states that, given the research, the nature of the relationship, conflict and rejection affects the child in such a way that their contrition is not attainable. (That can follow reconciliation, however.) They may feel strongly that an apology is not appropriate or necessary.
The last and final post in this series will consider
the message from SGAs that all parents need to hear.
For more information about the SGA and the bounded choice to which all people in a “totalist institution” suffer, read more about it in the series at Spiritual Sounding Board.
- Part II discusses bounded choice faced by all in a totalist group.
- Part III explores the additional constraints and limitations that the SGA faces when seeking to free themselves from both difficult situations and from a high demand group itself.
- When available, Part IV in the series will explore the specific constraints of SGAs within the Quiverfull/Patriarchy Movement.