The impact of parental child abduction on left-behind family

On hearing the term 'child abduction' most people would assume that this relates to a child who has been taken by a stranger. It is hard to comprehend that a parent can abduct a child.

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The charity Reunite has this definition:

“Parental child abduction is where one parent (with or without the help of others) has taken a child to another country outside of their country of habitual residence, when the other parent did not agree that the child could travel overseas. It is a criminal offence to take a child out of the UK without the consent of everybody with parental responsibility, unless the court has given permission.” - Prev Guide E&W 2020v2 (reunite.org)

Many people would assume that a child is 'safe' if they are with their parent and, on occasions, this may be the case. However, parental child abduction can have long term negative impacts on both the abducted child and the left-behind parent and extended family. This article focuses on the experiences of the left-behind family members of children who have been internationally abducted. However, it may also be relevant to families who experience domestic child abduction.

On realising that the child has been abducted there is likely to be a sense of shock, disbelief, panic, fear, helplessness, or anger. Even if the abduction had been anticipated, the reality of the abduction will invoke many emotions.

Some people may feel frozen by the shock and unable to process what has happened. Others might find themselves desperately trying to find ways to resolve the situation. Often this can include calling the police to ask for help, specifically if there is a possibility that the child has not yet been removed from the country (maybe waiting to board a plane or ferry). This can be daunting, frustrating and lead to feelings of hopelessness, desperation, and anger if the call handler does not seem to grasp the urgency of the situation and/or recognise it as an emergency. 

Once the abduction has been confirmed relatives might start to look at options for relocating the child and bringing them back to the UK. Families can find themselves dealing with official bodies such as the International Child Abduction Unit at the foreign office, solicitors, and agencies in the country where the child has been taken to. They may also be trying to familiarise themselves with international law around child abduction. 

If the left-behind parent is struggling to keep a clear head in the face of overwhelming emotions, extended family members might find themselves taking on a driving role and taking care of practicalities. They can feel as if they are functioning on autopilot, squashing down their own emotions and thoughts in order to provide practical and emotional support to the child’s parent.

Left-behind parents and family members are living a real-life nightmare and will experience a range of emotions and thoughts. It can be overwhelming to process their experience and find a way to try and resolve the situation. Amongst other emotions, the feelings they might experience include:

  • fear about the safety of the child
  • dread that they may never see the child again
  • worry that the child may believe they are not wanted, or not remember them
  • guilt that they should have been more alert or should have taken steps to prevent the abduction
  • regret for not having encouraged the abducting parent to remain
  • loss of the child
  • hopes for the future and the family unit
  • envy towards families who still have their children
  • shame that other people might be gossiping about the situation and making judgements
  • judged by the reactions and opinions of others
  • anger towards the abducting parent/official bodies/others

It is likely that other people will not understand the impact of a parental child abduction. They might view it as a family tiff that could be resolved or not see it as a problem because they believe the child is safe with the abducting parent. People who were considered as friends might avoid the left-behind family members because they don’t know how to react. This can lead to relatives of the child feeling unsupported, isolated, and unable to talk about their experiences. 

It can be helpful for left-behind family members to talk to a professional counsellor, so that they can process their thoughts and emotions about the abduction without being judged. This can help them to get things clearer in their mind and be able to find ways to move forward.

If you have experienced parental child abduction or are concerned that your child may be abducted you can find useful information and support at reunite.org.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Lathom, Skelmersdale, Lancashire, WN8
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Written by Sandra Killeen, Registered MBACP Accred
Lathom, Skelmersdale, Lancashire, WN8

I am an accredited counsellor who has been working with clients for over six years, both in private practice and for a counselling charity. I specialise in working with family members of abducted children, and people experiencing low self-esteem and anxiety. I help clients to work through their thoughts and feelings and find ways to move forward.

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