The Epidemiology of Estrangement
Does it feel as though you’re all alone with this problem? You’re most certainly not.
Despite the lack of reliable statistics, estrangement between parents and their adult children is widespread and appears to be on the rise.
Because of the stigma and shame associated with family estrangement, many people are uncomfortable talking about it. However, that doesn’t stop people from needing to talk.
Both rejected/abandoned parents and their troubled adult children are turning to the Internet in droves, seeking solutions to their pain and an outlet for their thoughts.
Here are some actual search terms that brought people to my blog one day while I was writing this guide:
- “My son doesn’t communicate with me”
- “Should kids be in parents will when they don’t speak to parents”
- “My adult children have become selfish towards me”
- “Can my estranged father cut me out of his will without signing it”
- “Rejected by adult child”
- “Daughter in law won’t let us see grandkids”
- “Why do today’s adult children not say thank you to their parents”
- “How often should I let my mom see her grandson?”
Those are just from one day. Multiply this list by hundreds and you’ll start to appreciate the scope of this problem.
Thousands of such searches take place on the Internet each minute of every day. If you’ve sought help for estrangement on the Internet, you have plenty of company. You also have options, some of which we’ll explore together in this guide.
Estrangement Changes Everything
That question, “Do you have children?” was so easy at one time. “Yes, I have two,” or “Yes, a little girl” was your automatic answer.
But it’s not that simple anymore. Now you’ve got an adult child who’s not talking to you, and you’re not sure what to say when asked about your child or children. You may not even know where s/he lives, or you may have a grandchild you’ve never met.
How do you answer those painful questions, then? I’ll offer some ideas on that in Chapter 8. But what do you do with the emotions that are constantly triggered?
There may be grief and despair, yes, but there might also be resentment and anger. You gave so much of yourself — time, love, money, energy — to your child. How can they repay you by acting this way?
You’re reading this guide because you want your relationship with your child back, number one.
But you also want to emerge from this soul-draining situation without the shadow of all that pain. How will you heal the wounds that may have been caused by this rejection?
Those hurt feelings need to resolve, no matter what the outcome.
We’ll talk a good deal about dealing with feelings in this guide, but for much more on the topic, please see my book, Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them (Viva Editions, 2014).
I think you’re ready and willing to do some self-reflection for your own benefit, even in the unhappy event that your adult child never comes around. (I hope for both your sakes that’s not the case.)
Self-reflection is valuable for parents in your shoes, not to take blame for mistakes made in parenting, but rather to uncover and get to know your unique, lovable self.
Although you know you’re not perfect, you’re probably ready to let go of any unnecessary shame that’s been weighing you down… maybe even since before the estrangement began.
I’m assuming you want to enjoy a healthy level of self-esteem, and to maintain good communication with the important people in your life.
I also believe that you want to be a positive role model, if only for yourself, as well as a happy and fulfilled human being.
Change is possible, both within and without. The greatest hurdle for estranged parents is unnecessary shame.
My aim in writing this guide is not just to help you repair your relationship with your child, but to invite you to strengthen your relationship with yourself.
Healing from estrangement is an opportunity for intense personal growth, if you’re up for it. This is true whatever the outcome may be.
The comments quoted in this guide are from actual people. Some have been edited for spelling and/or brevity, but the content itself is untouched.
No One Wants This
Younger people are portrayed in the media as a generation of narcissists only too happy to kick their parents to the curb at the slightest provocation. Some who write about estrangement encourage you to view your child as heartless, selfish, materialistic and/or easily brainwashed.
But if that’s the case, how can there be any hope for reconciliation — and why would you even want to reunite with someone like that?
As a mental health counselor, I’ve sat with many people who are either struggling with the decision to cut ties with their parents, have already done so, or have recently reconciled with a formerly estranged parent.
These clients take parental estrangement very seriously. They feel weighed down by it. It hurts them deeply to lose connection with a parent, even by their own choice.
Here’s what one estranged child wrote in response to one of my posts:
“It is awful when you choose to end a relationship…especially when your parent doesn’t (maybe even can’t) understand what they did wrong. To turn away from them in order to move forward as a healthier person feels absolutely selfish and goes against my instincts to maintain that connection with my mother.”
I heard the same tones of dismay for years from my adult child clients who weren’t talking to their parents. Everyone wants to have parents they love, who love them back.
Most parents don’t get to see the vulnerability and unhappiness in their distancing child. Instead, they’re presented only with heated rejection or cold indifference. No wonder they’re ready to believe they created a monster.
We humans are at our meanest when we’re in pain.
You don’t have to imagine what it’s really like for your child, watching others gather with their families for birthdays and holidays. For every Thanksgiving dinner you endure without your estranged child, s/he also experiences the holiday without you.
You and your estranged child also share the task of explaining to friends why you won’t be getting together with the whole family for the holidays this year. It’s the same awkward conversation for them that it is for you, from what I’ve heard.
In my view, the vast majority of estrangers do not cut ties with their parents on a whim, for purely materialistic reasons, or just because someone else tells them to. So…
Please don’t let me lose you here…
Contact with Mom or Dad has to be pretty darn painful to be worse than no contact with Mom or Dad.
Stay with me; it’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds, and it’s most often fixable if you keep an open mind.
Let me share some encouraging words from a mom who’s now reconnected with her formerly estranged daughter:
“Your suggestions are right on and I want to thank you so much for sharing it online. Wisest words for a parent with a child who is estranged from them. A little hard to hear, but when I opened my mind and heart I accepted it and understand it… Again, your wise words really helped to heal the rift between myself and my daughter.”
My exposure to the hearts and minds of adults who reject their parents has given me a privileged view into possible solutions to the problem of estrangement. I want to share those secrets with you, so you have some new tools with which to approach your relationship.
Remember that you and your estranged child are both in uncharted waters; they may not have the words to tell you what went wrong, or what you’re supposed to do about it. That’s why I’m going to give you lots of ideas to find your way back to them, even if they don’t know what they need from you.
Keep an open mind and an open heart as we go forward; you’ll need these in order to mend the relationship.
Self-Compassion is Key
You are a loving, lovable, and still growing adult child yourself. You may be surprised by the idea that finding compassion in your heart, not for your child but for yourself, can help you overcome estrangement.
Instead of approaching the problem with a right-and-wrong mentality, which pits you and your child against each other, compassion says you’re in this together.
I see far too many comments from hurting parents that look like this:
“My daughter chose to cut me off after having helped her through life-long traumas with no appreciation or thankfulness on her part whatsoever. Estrangement between an adult child and a parent is usually the result of this generation’s ‘Give me, give me, give me’ attitude and nothing is ever good enough for these selfish, self-absorbed adult brats.”
The harsh tone and the name-calling are clear indications of the amount of pain this mom is in. Yet if reconciliation is the ultimate goal, this us-and-them mentality needs to shift.
The writer of the comment above appears to be hurting too much at the moment to see this as a “we’re in this together” kind of deal. She’s lost sight of her daughter as another unique, still-growing individual. In this comment she demonizes her daughter and that entire generation.
This is what happens when we feel powerless against those who hurt us. We become frozen in our own pain, and our hearts become hard.
This mother’s pain needs to be acknowledged so that she can begin to heal. Her daughter is not the right person for that job, given that the relationship is on thin ice right now.
But that doesn’t mean she’s out of luck. She can (and must, if she wants to heal) receive the compassion she deserves. If there’s someone in her life who’s understanding and completely on her side, she can cry on that person’s shoulder and begin the healing process.
She can talk to a friend, counselor or cleric who can stand as a compassionate witness to her emotional pain. Whatever the outcome of the estrangement, her own healing will facilitate forward movement.
This mom needs to be heard and cared about — especially by herself — in order for the storm to subside and the waves to calm. Once she addresses and responds with compassion to her own pain, she can better deal with that of her daughter… who is surely also in pain, if she’s willfully cutting ties to her one and only mother.
We’ll see that every generation needs and deserves compassion — parents, children, children who become parents, their children, and so on, and so on, and so on.
We’re all in this together.
If this doesn’t make sense to you now, it will by the time we’re through.
The Problem of Shame
While healing and the changes that come with it are certainly possible, shame, guilt and anger can make those hard to reach for.
Scratch the surface of just about any parent, estranged from their kids or not, and you’ll find some degree of unnecessary shame, regret or feelings of inadequacy.
Some parents hide it better than others, but if you’re in touch with reality, you know how easy it is to go wrong when raising another human being. It’s almost impossible not to feel inadequate to such a monumental challenge!
Nobody gets it 100% right, and shame is the unfortunate byproduct of caring how you’re doing.
Caring about what kind of parent you are is a sign that you’re a good person.
Only good people feel bad when they think they might have done something wrong. Bad people don’t care; that’s what makes them bad people.
Personally, I’ve never met a bad person. I’ve met hundreds of good people who have shame, whether they’re in conscious touch with it or not, about not being good enough as a parent.
When you don’t feel good enough, that feeling is all-consuming. You can’t afford to look at specific things you might do better, because admitting to even one mistake feels like admitting you’re utterly bad.
One estranged parent wrote this in response to one of my articles:
“[This helps] a little, but I still do not understand why I am so unlovable.”
Unlovable? Where did that come from? This comment broke my heart when I read it.
Estrangement by a child can tap into awful feelings of being unlovable that were most likely present long before the estrangement. That’s why it’s so hard to take a neutral, curious stance when adult children create distance. The rejection feels too raw, too personal, too overwhelming.
Parents may find it too painful to think very hard about any wrong turns they may have taken … until their child sends them a message of anger or silence that they can’t ignore.
But wait a minute! Your child’s silence may have nothing to do with mistakes you’ve made. Don’t assume you’ve done something wrong if your child hasn’t said so. We’ll talk about “normal,” no-fault estrangement as part of your child’s personal development in Chapter 2.
Whether there’s acrimony in the estrangement or not, many parents feel defensive and/or ashamed when their adult children don’t seem to want contact.
Shame and defensiveness are the enemies of awareness.
There can be no movement, no change, without awareness.
Shame says, “I don’t want to know if I did anything to deserve this; it’s too painful to feel that bad about myself.”
Awareness says, “I want to know if I did something wrong, even though it’s painful.”
In order to recover a relationship with your child, you must be able to put shame aside and invite compassion into the picture. You need to tolerate looking at whatever your child wants to show you (assuming they want to show you anything) if healing is to occur.
If there IS something to be learned about the way your child experienced (or continues to experience) you as a parent, you won’t be able to see it through a cloud of shame.
There’s no option for a considered response as long as unnecessary shame and defensiveness have you in their grip. Letting go of these can pave the way for a closer, more authentic relationship with your child.
This is from a reader:
“I had many years of a very painful relationship with my mother. When I was 35 there was a breakthrough….she admitted in a letter that she had loved me, but with “white knuckled love”. That moment transformed my life, as I was finally able to know that this deep truth I knew about her love, but could not admit, was true. I became much more able to feel sane!!”
Your will toward self-awareness can not only thaw your relationship with your estranged child, it can help them understand themselves better. Thus it can be a gift to both of you.
Who’s Got the Power?
Long ago, when you were a younger adult and your son or daughter was still a tot, they took their cues entirely from you. You alone, as the adult, set the emotional tone for that particular parent-child relationship. Having been born with no social skills (except smiling), they had to follow your lead.
As they grew up and ventured farther from home, there were other influences. They started taking cues from teachers, friends and eventually lovers, bosses, neighbors, coworkers, etc.
Gradually your child became his or her own person — an adult like you, with the power to contribute to the emotional tone of his or her relationships.
Your child is now an adult, responsible for his or her own behavior.
However, you are still-and-always The Parent in the relationship you two share; that will never change — which is to both your detriment and your advantage.
It’s to your detriment insofar as your child expects you to be The Selfless Parent, offering unconditional love and needing nothing from them in return. You may not want to be in that role anymore.
However, you also have an advantage as The Parent…
You’re more powerful than you realize when it comes to your adult child, even if that isn’t evident right now.
An analogy might help illustrate this point.
When I was studying to become a psychotherapist, I was taught that therapists are likely to be perceived by their clients as more powerful than they (i.e., the clients).
Even though I don’t feel at all as though I have more power in the therapeutic relationship than my clients, the facts are suggestive:
- Clients come to see me, rather than the other way around
- They pay me for my time, rather than the other way around
- They look to me for support and guidance, rather than the other way around.
For all these reasons, the relationship feels unequal to the client. They’re likely to perceive me as having more power than they do.
If I didn’t know this, if I were to go by my own feelings, I might not realize the impact of my words and actions when I sit with clients in therapy sessions.
I don’t experience myself as having any more power or influence with my clients than I have in my other relationships. It’s only through my training that I know my perception is mistaken.
So I weigh my words and actions carefully when dealing with clients in therapy.
As a parent, you have more power and influence over even fully grown children than you probably realize.
From what I’ve learned in talking with rejecting adult children, if your child is refusing to talk to you, no matter how they behave toward you, they don’t feel like they have more power in the relationship than you do. They don’t want to, either. Children feel safest when their parents are in charge.
This is another secret that estranged children won’t tell you. They still see you as The Parent, and they may just be ready to take their cues from you again.