As holidays, birthdays and other family-oriented times of year approach, it’s a time of heartache for parents whose adult children have cut them off — and the growing phenomenon is much more common than our idealized notions about family would have us believe.
Elizabeth Vagnoni runs an on-line forum where parents can talk to others about something they may feel too ashamed to tell anyone about — that their children are no longer speaking to them. An ongoing survey on her website reveals that nearly one in three parents estranged from their children has contemplated suicide. The way Vagnoni puts it, “There’s a primal bond between a parent and a child. When that’s broken, parents feel as if they’ve failed as human beings.”
Estrangement from an Adult Child Presents Special Challenges For Parents
The need isn’t for parenting advice — it’s for support and guidance for parents rejected by their children.
What should I say to my friends or co-workers when they ask about my children or grandchildren?”
How do I deal with memories of the past when we were still close?”
How do I forgive myself for whatever ways I blame myself, rightly or wrongly, for the estrangement?”
How do I cope with my feelings of guilt and remorse, shame, anger, and grief?”
When San Francisco psychologist Joshua Coleman, PhD, received numerous requests for help from estranged parents, he offered a six-session internet seminar. He expected about 50 parents to sign up. Instead, he got 400.
Things Have Changed — Big Time
As our culture has shifted from parent-centered to child-centered families, our society is experiencing some unintended consequences:
Many parents now feel almost totally responsible for how their children’s lives turn out.
Some children now feel entitled to blame their parents entirely.
I’m not kidding.
Twenty-seven-year-old Raphael Samuel of Mumbai, India says he plans to take legal action against his parents, because they brought him into the world without his consent. Mr. Samuel believes he should be paid to live because it was not his choice to be born.
Although his case is not expected to get much traction in the Indian court system, you probably have heard childless members of society remark (or perhaps recall yourself saying), “I don’t know if I want to bring a child into the kind of world in which we live…”
Here’s an example that’s even closer to home: I find myself listening to a mother’s befuddlement and distress when her college-aged son begins to severely criticize her for being “too good a mother.” Her always “being there” for him, he now realized, had actually made life in the real world more difficult for him. Why, he argued, had she not better prepared him for how hard life and work and relationships were going to be?
So there you have it: Life is hard and we want our kids to be happy.
We just didn’t expect them to define a happy life as one that didn’t include us in it.
So how do we get to this strange, surreal, and totally unanticipated place with our kids? Coleman has some answers:
The Five Most Common Reasons for Parent-Child Estrangement
“Divorce often creates loyalty conflicts. Ex-spouses and stepfamily may contribute to the alienation of divorced parents from their children, so that children blame or refuse contact with one of the parents.”
Addiction or Mental Illness
: “You can do everything right and your child may still end up with a drug problem that costs you thousands of dollars and endless heartache or a mental illness that means he or she will never launch into a successful adulthood.”
Estrangement Due to a Son-In-Law or Daughter-In-Law
: “Many estrangements stem from a son- or daughter-in-law who is either controlling, troubled, or simply more powerful and manipulative than the adult child. In those scenarios the adult child may feel forced to choose between his/her spouse and his/her parent. On the other hand, sometimes well-meaning parents are critical of their son-in-law or daughter-in-law. This can either create a difficult dynamic for the adult child or provide ammunition to the son-in-law or daughter-in-law to fuel the estrangement.”
: “Parents can be mismatched in some important way with their child that creates long-term conflict.”
Need for Autonomy:
“For some adult children, the only way they know how to become independent or set boundaries with an overly involved or dependent parent is to totally separate from him or her.”
Why Do Parents Sometimes Resist Getting the Professional Help They Need?
These are difficult, serious life situations that have no easy answers, no quick-fix solutions, and long-term consequences. Yet some parents resist getting help. Why?
Besides feeling deeply ashamed of their situation, many parents are convinced they should somehow be able to figure this out and take care of it themselves. After all, they know their own kid better than anyone, right?
Maybe that’s the problem — being too close to the situation to have the perspective needed for the best chance of relationship repair.
How Parents Get Tripped Up or Seriously Stuck
It’s easy for parents to get tripped up or stuck as they try to navigate the minefield of mending a relationship with their adult child. Here’s why:
“Estrangement from your adult child involves dealing with feelings of profound vulnerability.”— Jan Anderson
1. It’s Confusing.
• A mindset shift is required to adapt to the way the expectations of parent-adult child relationships have changed. Wrestling with this reality can feel uncertain, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable.
2. It’s Painful.
It’s challenging to manage the range and intensity of the emotions that can get triggered when an adult child rejects you: guilt and remorse, regret, shame, anger, confusion, fear, and grief.
3. It’s Counterintuitive.
Be prepared that many of the “best practices” for relationship repair with your adult child may feel counterintuitive. Meanwhile, approaches and strategies that worked in the past, such as using guilt trips, making demands, or fighting fire with fire may not work now, or may even backfire and make things worse.
4. It’s Confounding.
The dilemmas facing parents estranged from their adult children are profoundly challenging — and the stakes are high:
How do you differentiate between a) disagreement, b) disrespect, and c) abuse? That can be hard to do when you’ve been triggered.
How do you balance the ability to make amends without beating yourself up?
When should you reach out, and when should you hold back?
How can you possibly have a happy life without your child in it?
5. It’s Unpredictable.
You have no guarantees.
You are not in control.
You really don’t know how this will turn out.
When we undertake parenthood, on some level we know we will face many uncertain and challenging situations, but being cut off by our adult child is probably the last thing we would ever expect would happen.
Taking care of our own emotional health as we try to repair one of life’s most meaningful and cherished relationships. If that’s not a personal growth challenge, I don’t know what is.
Estrangement from your adult child 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, I encourage you to seek professional help. Life’s too short to suffer in silence.