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Parent-Child Estrangement Is Sometimes (But Not Always) About Abuse

Girl, upset, with mother in backgroundI received the following feedback last week about an excerpt from my Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children, and I wanted to respond.

Unfortunately, the feedback was anonymous.

Surely this person is not alone. So I thought I’d respond with a blog post…

S/he wrote:

I read through your entire page on Estrangement and I’ve got to say that it all felt a bit like you’re condoning the behaviour of abusive parents; telling them they need not feel any remorse for the suffering they’ve caused and they need to practice more self-compassion.

Parents who abused their children are typically in denial about the destruction they’ve caused and they are looking for any excuse to place blame for the estrangement and any upsetting emotions they may be dealing with on their adult children… Your website gives them plenty of fodder for sidestepping responsibility for their behaviour.

As a victim of childhood abuse and an adult child who bravely initiated estrangement, I found your “wisdom” offensive and horrifying.

Offended and horrified is the last response I ever want to evoke, both as a person and especially as a therapist.

I am sincerely and terribly sorry to hear that you were abused by your parents.

You were deprived of the basic right to be protected from harm and cherished by the adults closest to you. There are no words to express how wrong that was, and how much it shouldn’t have happened.

Your suggestion that I condone child abuse is as mistaken as it is understandable for someone in your shoes.

I support your right to detach yourself from anyone who abuses you.

I also grieve for you, that you didn’t get to experience parents who knew how to nurture and support you, and that you don’t have parents you can now enjoy as an adult.

Child abuse robs a person of so much good in life.

There’s a reason I didn’t call it “a guide for parents who abused their children.” The Guide doesn’t assume abuse on the parent’s part.

Of course, child abuse does happen and yes, it’s one of the reasons adult children decide to end their relationships with parents.

It’s not the only reason, though.

There are many ways in which kids can feel let down by their parents. Abuse is simply the most extreme.

What I hear from many of my estranged adult-child therapy clients is that there was no outright abuse.

I’m not saying this to deny that child abuse happens, or to defend abusive parents.

I just want you to know that there are other reasons for estrangement, and these can be harder to quantify.

Many estranged parents are genuinely confused when their kids stop talking to them. They think, “I was good to my kids. Where is this coming from?”

It was in an effort to clarify some of these more mysterious reasons for estrangement that I wrote the Guide.

But let’s say that an outright abusive parent did look for guidance on how to repair that relationship all these years later…

How might they respond to a guide that verbally brow-beat them for what they did?

How long would they keep reading?

Lastly, what kind of “guide” tells you what you did wrong, instead of what to do now?

Telling someone they’re horrible is not an effective way to make them behave better.

People learn compassion and empathy by receiving these from someone else. Only then do they have something to work with. They can pay it forward.

My Guide is an attempt to fill the “emotional buckets” of parents so that they themselves can both heal, and become vehicles of compassion and understanding to pass along to their adult children … who can then fill the buckets of their own children, and so on.

As long as it’s “us against them,” there can be no healing from this devastating problem.

Self-compassion is where it all starts. We’re ALL adult children of human parents.

Anonymous, there’s no requirement that you forgive your parents’ abuse of you. That may be a tall order, especially without a heartfelt apology.

I hope you’ve learned, somehow, somewhere, to have compassion for the child you once were, who is still healing from what happened. S/he needs you.

I wish you every good thing under the sun.

Parents, check out the Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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0 Responses to "Parent-Child Estrangement Is Sometimes (But Not Always) About Abuse"

  • Eve
    March 26, 2015 - 7:21 pm Reply

    Ah, Geeze….if there is anything in the therapy world that I can relate to, it’s this. That is because I was insanely abused by my mother…I just watched “Mommie Dearest” for the first time (I am almost 54) until then I cringed painfully when I had the opportunity. My mother fit the character of the mother to a “T”. She would actually get way, way over-the-top angry and so irrational it was scary. Often over things I didn’t even do. At least, not like I was being accused of. Unfortunately, as many people do, I told myself that when I had children, they were going to be treated like a mother should treat them and things would be happy and normal…I was not going to raise my children like my mother did. (I think that statement can be a form of denial that those issues are not going to be an ongoing problem)

    So, that brings me to Tina’s statement about not needing to be feeling any remorse. Finally, one day in therapy I started to realize and accept the fact that although I raised my four children a lot more sanely than my mother did, I still was unintentionally abusive because of the deep, deep seated issues I still had, a lot of which I didn’t even know were abusive and/or unacceptable until after several years of therapy. It’s one thing to realize and acknowledge to one’s-self that some, or a lot of, the way we were treated as children really was damaging and may have caused such injury it didn’t “heal with time”. However, realizing that you’ve perpetrated some of those same things onto your own children is where there is no need for remorse. (which I constantly dwell in) I believe Tina is trying to encourage those parents who are at that stage of becoming aware of the harm that has been done, don’t need to feel like it is all their fault and they are to blame and deserve to feel ashamed forever or at all.

    That is because the extremely painful experience of becoming fully aware in itself is a terrific accomplishment in the job of healing and recovery. I think that when that awareness starts to happen, it is a pivotal moment of the actual turning away from destruction and moving forward towards healing and becoming who we are meant to be. And in my experience, that moment is mind-bending. At that point, and all along our journey, actually, it is most and more important to be supported and encouraged than to face even more shame, blame, and guilt. When someone starts to become aware, it is because they are starting to break free from the bondages that abuse and mistreatment has caused and to stop the spreading of it. I think it is not wrong to feel remorse, and I do feel that it is likely to happen, and those feelings need to be felt and dealt with. I think what Tina is saying, is that remorse isn’t meant to be held over someone’s head the rest of their life; not even if it is one’s self who is doing it.

  • Eve
    March 26, 2015 - 7:44 pm Reply

    About forgiveness…what it is, and what it is not; I first got this idea from something Oprah said on one of her shows, that forgiveness is not pretending something never happened, and everything is OK again. (the common dysfunctional meaning) But what it is, is letting go of the desire to get even. (Or an apology. Or justice.)…the reason being because any or all of those things may or may not happen. Of course, those would be very freeing and healing and enable you to be able to move on. However, it is not within our own power or control or responsibility to make that happen. And if we wait until and unless it does, then we remain stuck there in the bondage of whatever it is that happened. The acknowledgement of that to our own selves makes us become aware that whatever happened was something that changed us in a negative way. And that change may affect us for the rest of our lives. And most importantly, we had no control over it.

    I think that primarily, that is what unforgiveness is. I think unforgiveness is in a way, an attempt to change what happened into something that didn’t happen. If you still try to make sense out of it by trying to reverse it with an expected apology, justice, or getting even, which you also don’t have control over, then you remain emotionally stuck there. You are essentially still giving the perpetrator power over you. Forgiveness is not a matter of allowing someone to get off Scott free from whatever they did, but it is just the opposite; it is a matter of acknowledging within yourself that what happened, happened, and nothing can change that. Even an apology, justice, or getting even.

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