Risk Factors for Estrangement
I’ve come to believe that although every family’s story is unique, there are essentially four major risk factors for estrangement, with three based on negative feelings:
- Family history
- Communication problems
- Unmet needs in the parent
- Differentiation as a phase of your child’s development
By definition, estrangement is a communication problem, so it’s almost certain that at least that factor is at play.
Your situation may involve just communication problems, two or three of the above, or all four. If all of the factors are influencing your estrangement from your child, things can be quite complicated. We’ll explore the first three factors in depth in Chapter 3. In the meantime we’ll look at the fourth one, differentiation.
Before we do that, think for a minute about the factors just mentioned. Which of these elements – family history, communication problems, unmet needs in the parent, a phase of development – seem like they might be playing a part in your estrangement from your child?
Your first instinct about what’s going on could prove to be accurate, so remember your answer.
Even if you can’t see a connection to the estrangement, each of these factors offers a line of inquiry with the potential for massive personal growth.
Dealing with Differentiation
We’ve assumed so far that your child has some compelling emotional reason to create distance, that it pains them to be in contact with you. I’m pleased to inform you that that’s not always the case. Sometimes adult children don’t even know why they want more distance.
Estrangement from parents is complicated; there can be more than one thing going on at the same time.
But let’s examine one factor, differentiation, independently from the others. This may turn out to be the only one you’ll need to consider.
Differentiation is the developmental task of becoming a person of one’s own, rather than “So-and-So’s child.”
All human beings differentiate, often unconsciously, from their families of origin as part of a broader process of individuation – becoming individuals distinct from everyone else, including family members. You and I, as adult children, share this task as well.
The process is marked by the gelling of one’s own thoughts, opinions, preferences, routines, tastes, etc., and the creation of spheres of influence outside the parents’ home. This kind of psychological autonomy is the hallmark of adulthood, and most healthy young people feel its pull.
Although just about everybody faces this task, not everyone completes it. In fact, it can be argued that most of us don’t ever fully differentiate from our parents.
The movie “Psycho” (Spoiler alert: I’m going to give away the secret) is a fictionalized account of an extreme failure of differentiation. Not only has Norman Bates failed to differentiate from his mother, he has become psychologically fused with her, to the extent that he believes he is her at times. Norman’s mother discouraged him from becoming his own person when she was alive, which didn’t help, but please don’t take this as a cautionary tale! Norman clearly had more going on under the hood than meets the eye, probably since birth. The reference is only meant to illustrate the concept of differentiation as a normal process that, if stunted, can cause (usually far less severe) problems.
Though this process is universal, it’s not well understood by children and their parents, who typically don’t see it coming and feel blind-sided by the change in their relationship. Anxiety can run high for both parents and children during this period.
Differentiation commonly begins in the teens or 20s, and lasts for the rest of one’s life. It’s important to note that differentiation is NOT the same as estrangement. Whereas estrangement usually means physical separation, with distance, time and negative feelings stretching out between parent and child, differentiation is purely a psychological separation, without malice or even conscious intent.
While physical distance is NOT theoretically required for differentiation, the vast majority of us do use it, consciously or not, to help us along with this phase of development. The traditions of young people going off to college or traveling the world provide socially acceptable space and time for exploration apart from parents.
Is it possible your estrangement from your child is just a manifestation of their developmental need to “find themselves” at this point in their lives? Is your child simply engaged in the normal, healthy task of differentiation? Is it purely Nature taking its course?
The answer is probably Yes if:
- The separation didn’t start with an argument, AND
- Your child hasn’t indicated s/he has a problem with you, AND either
- Your relationship with your child has always been close and loving, with no major problems of communication; OR
- The estrangement began when your child was under 30
If 3) and 4) are both true in addition to 1) and 2), you’re almost certainly looking at differentiation in action.
Total cutoff from parents is not necessarily normal, but some otherwise loving and happy children do need to temporarily create an unnaturally high level of physical and psychological distance in order to focus on forming their own identities.
If you were extremely close with your child in the past, even seeing them as your best friend, you may have unwittingly been like an archer pulling back the string of a bow, making the arrow fly farther when finally let go. A tight-knit or strongly opinionated family can do the same thing.
Don’t worry: This kind of developmentally motivated estrangement is likely to be temporary while the child finds his or her footing in the world. If you previously had a positive relationship, you have a basis for one in the future. But it will be forever changed. Just as you no longer belong exclusively to your parents, your child must now be shared with the world.
Are you thinking what this parent is thinking?
“This is all fine but how does one ensure they are safe even if they don’t want to talk to you???? From hurting mum 🙁 “
It’s such a difficult pill to swallow, not to be able to keep our loved ones safe! We’re all in the same boat on this one. The lack of control, the uncertainty, the terrible vulnerability of our flesh and blood… it’s one of the more painful aspects of being human.
If you think about it, it’s an illusion to think they were completely safe when you knew where they were. Things could have happened that were beyond your control back then, just as things can happen now. Your heart has been walking around outside your body since your child was born. Distance merely shatters the comforting illusion of safety.
However, if you have specific (rather than general) concerns about their physical safety, by all means enlist the help of people close to them to watch out for them. If your concerns are based on reliable information, others who care about your son or daughter will share those concerns. They may be able to influence your child more than you can right now.
You can facilitate the differentiation process by not insisting on frequent contact. Consciously allow them room and time to explore the world on their own.
You can remind them from time to time that you love them. If necessary, let them know that you’re okay. They may worry that you’re wasting away without them!
They’ll come back to you when they feel differentiated enough to have a more mature relationship. No matter how long you both live, though, you will always be Parent and Child.
Since none of us succeeds in differentiating completely (a lifetime is not enough time for most of us to achieve that), our parents have a unique ability to influence us throughout our lives. Have you ever visited your parents and felt younger than you were after a very short time? This is a common experience. It’s as though in some sense we never quite “graduate” from being our parents’ children.
Let that give you comfort now as you face being separated – temporarily, I hope! – from your own child.
Questions for Reflection
How did you separate psychologically from your childhood self? Did you go away to school? Get married? Leave the family business?
What did you need from your parents to help you become an adult?
In what ways are you and your parents similar as people? How are you different?
How did/do your parents relate to the ways in which you’re different from them?
In what ways is your child different from you? How do you relate to those differences?
If You and Your Child Were Best Friends
If, when they were younger, it was you and your child against the world, you will naturally experience the deep grief of losing your best friend and constant companion. Perhaps there was a time when your child was your only close friend. If so, this estrangement represents a tremendous loss for you.
In truth, friendship between parent and child is not what Nature intends for children. Friendship between a parent and an adult child is certainly possible once the child is established in adulthood. But such a friendship later in life is not normally at the center of the child’s social life.
Though it might not be recognized or discussed, when a close friendship exists between parent and child, the child experiences ongoing internal pressure to be there for the parent. S/he may try to suppress the needs that children normally have in order to be a better friend. This is true whether the parent wants that or not; usually the parent doesn’t even realize it’s happening.
The child’s desire to be a good friend can be so binding that when it’s time to grow up and away, only a wrenching, painful break or else great physical distance can shake loose the bond.
You might remember a PBS special, “My Life as a Turkey.” It’s a documentary about a man who raises a brood of turkeys from hatchlings to adults. They imprint on him the day they’re born, and they follow at his heels throughout their youth.
The man becomes emotionally attached to them, giving them names and learning to make sounds they recognize and respond to.
One day, when the turkeys are in their late adolescence, their human “mother” takes them out to the woods as usual. As the turkeys begin to stray, the man calls to them to come back. The turkeys, who have always responded before, ignore the man’s calls and spread out into the forest without him.
They never obey his calls again. They still know him, and occasionally visit with him, but always on their own terms.
The man was caught by surprise when the turkeys stopped responding to him as a parent. He felt injured by their abandonment. The loss of their constant companionship left a large hole in his life. But he understood.
Nature seems to have a specific plan for social development, and it calls for a separation from parents at the appropriate time.
The turkeys didn’t turn their backs on the man because they were ungrateful for all that he’d done for them. It wasn’t that he’d failed as a parent. The birds were simply doing what all young adults do in the natural course of things. They were taking their place in the world as independent adults.
It may be as natural for parents to grieve as it is for children to leave the nest.
Make sure you give yourself plenty of room to have your feelings about the loss of closeness with your child. Seek support from an understanding person who will listen and understand.
Others may respond by attempting to explain to you that kids need to leave home in order to thrive. Tell them you understand that, but you have your feelings about it all the same. You’re allowed.
If you feel as awful as if someone had died, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re grieving. It’s normal to experience a sense of bereavement when a child and friend starts to pull away.
When the relationship is one that you may have relied on in the past, that loss will be all the more sharply felt. Just feel it, and survive it. You will heal eventually.
Know that, if your child is busy differentiating right now, chances are you’ll have a relationship again on the other side of that process. It will necessarily be a different relationship from the one you had with them before, but perhaps on the other side of your own grief, you’ll be ready for that.
Differentiation and the Parent
The separation of a child can be a time of upheaval for families, and it can also be a catalyst for parents to make some positive changes themselves.
Letting go of the active role of “Mother” or “Father” can open up possibilities for self-expression that have been set aside when parenting was the focus.
There may be a need to take stock of where you are right now before you can find the energy and the will to explore your identity as a person with adult children rather than an active parent of young ones.
This is an excellent time to explore and address the multitude of emotions that may arise during this passage. You can do this on your own; with a spouse, partner, or friend; in a support group; or with a counselor or other mental health professional.
If you’re extremely lonely without your child, bring compassion and curiosity to the loneliness. Have you felt this way before? When?
If you become aware of feeling unlovable because your child isn’t visiting, have you felt unlovable before? How far back does that feeling go?
Are you jealous, as many parents find themselves to be, of your child’s freedom from family responsibilities? What was it like for you when you were that age? What obligations stood in the way of your own freedom as a young person?
Does your child seem ungrateful for all that you’ve done for him or her? Ask yourself what you need from your child. Is it gratitude? Or do you just need to know s/he still loves and needs you? Let yourself experience that need in yourself, if it’s there. You have a right to feel your feelings, whatever they are.
These are just a few examples of emotions that can arise when children estrange themselves from parents. It’s important to be aware of, and compassionate toward, all your feelings, even if you don’t expect your needs to be met.
Someone has to know and care how you feel. You deserve that compassionate attention and concern. It’s not appropriate to ask your child to meet that need right now, but that doesn’t mean someone else can’t be there for you.
At the very least, you need to be there for yourself. You can seek support from peers or even your own parents if you need it. You don’t have to go through this alone.
While the developmental task of differentiation affects all families and can contribute to a kind of temporary estrangement, a relationship hiatus that’s motivated solely by the maturation process is more about the child moving toward the wider world, rather than away from parents (although it may be experienced as punitive by parents who are unprepared for it).
When estrangement is clearly intentional and accompanied by complaints or animosity, there’s usually more going on than just a developmental step being taken.
The rest of this guide assumes that some of the seeds of estrangement have germinated over time, in fertile conditions. Although the necessary task of differentiation might be part of the picture, we’ll assume from here on out that there are other reasons behind it, and we’ll focus on those.
There’s nothing one can or should do to stop children from growing up, but the other three factors – family history, communication problems, and unmet needs in the parent – create unnecessary problems that can be addressed and overcome. It will take patience, persistence and courage.
When parents write to me about their estranged adult children, they often go into minute detail: A divorce that bred resentment; an ex who has turned the child against them; a new girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse who has encouraged the child to cut off his or her family.
Sometimes there’s been a diagnosis of a mental health disorder that a parent will quietly point out as if to say, “See? This is what I have to deal with.”
No matter what the story or who the players are, it tends to be full of details about phone calls and emails not returned, parental generosity met with stone-hearted unresponsiveness … it’s a play-by-play of cruel rejection and abandonment.
To me this suggests that it’s a great relief for the parent to be able to finally talk about their experience to someone who cares. There may not be many outlets for that in an estranged parent’s social circle. Their need to tell someone what’s going on, and be heard and understood, is palpable. So is the pain that underlies these messages. There’s a tremendous need for compassion.
That need for parents to be heard and understood is probably why it’s often so difficult for them to “get” what their child is angry about. It’s exceedingly hard to listen well when it feels like you’re under attack. The natural response is to close up, rather than remain open to what’s coming at you.
Here is a typical email from a parent who feels under attack:
“My daughter, age 45, has decided to be estranged…now into 18 months. She is divorced now and seems to be blaming me for that also. We were ever so close, and I don’t know why she is mad. She is perceiving everything in a total unrealistic state of mind. I have been ever so patient and feel at times I just cannot take another day of this. She verbally abuses me via email.”
The writer of the above account says outright, “I don’t know why she is mad,” although it seems there might be some clues in those verbally abusive emails she receives from her daughter. What does her daughter say in those messages? Whatever it is, her daughter’s words probably feel too much like an enemy onslaught to be of interest beyond what it takes to defend against them.
Here’s another typical story:
“My daughter screamed & yelled at me over the phone, just because I asked her a simple computer question. I told her I would not tolerate this disrespect any more, now she refuses to talk to me after I wrote her a letter saying I want us to get back to having a relationship. She didn’t answer or acknowledge it.”
One thing is fairly certain. Unless someone is severely mentally ill, they’re not likely to scream and yell just because someone asks a simple question. While this mom may genuinely not have a clue what caused the outburst, chances are there’s something her daughter has tried more than once to explain to her, without success.
It’s impossible to listen well when you’re feeling attacked.
It’s not surprising then that the theme I hear constantly in the therapy room with estranged children is “My Parent Doesn’t Listen to Me.”
Here are a few examples, to give you an idea:
- “I’ve told my mom over and over again that Darren and I are no longer together, and yet she still asks me about him every single time she calls!”
- “I’ve asked my parents to call before they come over but they continue to drop by unannounced.”
- “My mother seems shocked that we stopped letting her babysit, even though I warned her we’d do that if she didn’t start respecting our rules for the kids.”
No matter how sudden or abrupt it might seem, estrangement is a problem with a history. The longer you’ve been feeling under attack by your child, the longer your child has probably been frustrated by your “cluelessness” (a word I frequently hear from estranged children when talking about their parents). This dynamic keeps everything stuck in place.
The full story of how things came to be this way between you almost always begins years before it ends, even if its origins are not obvious. If you’re willing to dig for them, some of the roots of today’s troubles with your child are there to be found.
The challenge is that what you’re digging for doesn’t feel like treasure. It can feel more like something toxic that should stay buried. And just thinking about this can feel like you’re opening yourself up to another attack. But there’s no one here right now but you. No one can attack you if you allow yourself to relax and let down your defenses here, in private.
As you think about the root causes of your estrangement from your adult child, uncomfortable feelings will almost certainly arise.
There might be …
- And/or something else
You might even bounce around from one yucky emotion to another to another, all in the same minute. That’s okay, let those feelings come up. They can’t hurt you, they’re just feelings.
Especially don’t let self-criticism or scary feelings push you into passivity. Just notice that you’re condemning yourself (or your child), say hello to any shame or resentment or any other ugly feeling that pokes its head up, and let it move through you. Emotions only last a minute if you let them be.
How you feel is not the problem; the estrangement from your child is the problem.
By the way, the more you can understand and tolerate your own emotions, the better you’ll feel overall. Instead of acting out feelings (by saying or doing things you regret at one extreme, or isolating yourself at the other), you’ll be able to speak more calmly and honestly to yourself and others.
Once you realize the truth about emotions, you’ll have a new sense of freedom around them. The truth is this: your own feelings can’t hurt you any more than you’ve already been hurt.
For now, realize that parental “cluelessness” is a constant source of irritation that sends many an adult child heading for the hills when the phone rings.
If you feel clueless yourself, I hope that reading through this guide will provide you with some currency to use in your dealings with your child.