How to Heal the Pain of Estrangement

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LOUISVILLE Nothing can create more feelings of shame than to be rejected by your own children. One parent described it this way, “It’s like she died, only worse — my adult child lives here in town, but she won’t have anything to do with me — and places all the blame for the estrangement on me.”

Even “nice kids” estrange themselves from their parents. Even “good parents” that have invested time, love, and money in attempting to help their children succeed and be happy may find that instead of the closeness they expected to enjoy with their adult children, they are excluded from their children’s lives.

If you have patients whose adult children have cut them off, know that it can evoke powerful feelings of guilt, regret, confusion, anxiety, helplessness, and rage. But more than anything, the shame associated with being rejected by an adult child causes many parents to suffer in silence and isolation, believing that, “I must be a terrible person if my own child would reject me.”

Estranged parents struggling at the sight of other people enjoying a good relationship with their adult children and worrying about, “What do I say when others ask me about my children or grandchildren?” may withdraw socially and come to dread holidays and birthdays. Because our identities are closely tied to our perceptions of ourselves as parents, a high percentage of estranged parents become depressed, some even suicidal, as a result of being cut off by their adult children. But they may be too ashamed to tell you what’s behind the physical or emotional symptoms you observe in the examination room.

Joshua Coleman, psychologist and author of When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along says, “We have also socialized [our children] to believe that they should prioritize their well-being, be assertive, and not let anything or anyone interfere with their happiness. Sadly, we didn’t realize that we would one day be one of the items on the menu that interferes with their happiness.”

Although divorce and the negative influence of an ex-spouse is one of the most common reasons children estrange themselves from a parent, a difficult spouse that remains in the marriage can also alienate an adult child from the other parent. Other common contributors to estrangement are temperamental mismatches between a parent and child, a difficult son-in-law or daughter-in-law, and the child’s need for autonomy. Even some therapists contribute to an estrangement.

Just as the causes of estrangement are complex, how to respond to this profoundly painful dilemma is not simple. Your patients may be struggling with questions such as: “Should I defend myself, explain myself, or just listen? Should I apologize for past mistakes? What’s the best way to make amends? How do I respond to my estranged child’s hostility and contempt? Requests for money?”

As Coleman points out, “You can’t be a parent and not make mistakes. This does not mean that your mistakes are the reason for your estrangement or that you deserve it. But I have never seen a reconciliation happen without the parent at least being willing to look at their own part in why the adult child has created such a powerful form of distance between themselves and the parent.”

If you have patients that are estranged from their adult children or if you are experiencing estrangement yourself, begin the healing process with three simple steps:

Seek support. Healing from the psychological challenge of estrangement involves dealing with feelings of profound vulnerability. Shore up your psychological strength by seeking the support of those that understand estrangement and can help. If close friends and relatives don’t have the skills to help you or simply aren’t able to provide the degree of emotional support you need, seek professional help or join an online support group such as www.dailystrength.org/groups.

Seek connection. Invest in people and activities that can help you restore a sense of your identity as a person and meaning in your life.

Seek forgiveness. Your child may not forgive you, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t deserving of forgiveness for your mistakes as a parent. Put the focus on learning to forgive yourself as you make amends for your mistakes.

Dr. Jan Anderson is a licensed professional clinical counselor with a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her private practice includes over 15 years of experience counseling individuals, couples, and families.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Jan Anderson presented Mindfulness: How to Focus Your Attention, Reduce Emotional Reactivity and Connect to an Inner Wisdom at the Kentucky Mental Health Counselors Association Annual Conference on November 6, 2014 at the Crowne Plaza in Louisville.