Protection From Unwanted Contact

Q: Dear Frank, Have you helped patients prevent calls or letters from abusive parents who don’t realize how upsetting these triggers can be? What can be done?

A: Dear reader, You would think that parents and step-parents who abused or neglected their children would know enough to stay away, once these children have grown to adulthood, moved to a different city, and made their wish to be left alone crystal clear. But several of my patients have been pursued and the call or the letter stirs up anger and fear. In one case, the step-father who had been violent when drunk, and the mother who had been mentally ill and irrational, sent blank postcards to my patient’s infant daughter. This might not have constituted stalking under existing statutes, but it had the same effect. It suggested that “We know where you are; we have nothing to say; we can hurt you if we choose to.” I took that veiled threat seriously and introduced my patient to a close friend who is an attorney, a former judge and a former prosecutor. They met in person and I was invited to attend a portion of their session by phone. We all agreed that I would craft a letter to the lawyer, and send it after my patient and the lawyer had a chance to review it and suggest improvements. It turned out that the first draft was good enough. Here, with names blocked out, is what I wrote:

(First I included a few lines about who I was, including relevant credentials. Then I went on—)

I am an expert in diagnosis and treatment of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Mrs. X suffers from this disorder, with flashbacks, anxiety and other symptoms dating from trauma that she reports she received in her family of origin. Recent encounters with her mother and step-father have exacerbated her condition. She is easily “triggered” (that means thrown back into a state of severe emotional distress) by unwanted contact from her mother and step-father.

I understand that you have been retained to help Mrs. X be secure from these unwanted contacts.

In my professional opinion, unwanted contacts with Mrs. X, her husband and daughter, from her mother and step-father in the form of mail, phone calls or attempted visits cause PTSD symptoms in my patient and undermine my treatment.

Thank you for your assistance in this regard.


Frank M Ochberg, MD

My friend, the lawyer, incorporated some of my language into a letter that he shared with my patient, and then sent that letter to her mother and step-father. This just happened. We do not know their response.

All of us (lawyer, patient, her husband and I) have considered various options. These include personal protection orders, civil restraining orders, law suits for intentional infliction of emotional distress ( ) and doing nothing. In this situation, the lawyer’s letter is fast, inexpensive, and relatively unlikely to provoke retaliation. The lawyer expects that he will receive a call from the step-father, asserting some form of grand-parental right. In this state, there is no right when the mother bars the door. The lawyer has handled bullies before. He isn’t overconfident, but he feels prepared to act in my patient’s interests.

I do not know what will happen once the letter is received. But I do know that Mrs. X feels good about the process – she liked the way the lawyer listened and responded. She liked the fact that we created a team and worked on a threat together. I’m grateful to my friend, the lawyer, for his experience, his demeanor and his attitude – he takes these issues seriously and he thinks them through carefully.

I’m not suggesting this particular approach if you, the reader, have a similar situation. And finding the right lawyer can be difficult. But if you do have a therapist who is willing to work with an attorney, the way I did with Mrs. X, you may want to introduce your therapist to the resources of the National Crime Victims Bar Association. Trauma therapists should know about trauma lawyers. Here’s an article I wrote about that, a few years ago:

Good luck, if you find yourself in a similar position to Mrs. X. These issues are real and they should be taken seriously. Fortunately, there are serious people who are willing and able to help.