Estrangement is a widespread and stigmatized condition when an individual cuts ties with one or more family members. Over one-quarter of the population deals with either an adult child or another family member’s decision to disconnect. Cut-off family members and parents experience grief marking the loss of the relationship status.
Sadly, anxiety concerning whether an adult child will resume communication can linger. Through uncertainty and discomfort parents search for how to cope with the onslaught of thoughts and the loss of their adult child. Estranged parents feel bewildered and wonder what to do.
Recently, awareness has increased with stories of celebrity estrangements. People are more familiar with adult children cutting ties with their parents. But with all the uncertainty surrounding the condition, what should parents do?
Each story is unique, but parents typically respond with many uncomfortable emotions. Losing the relationship status with an adult child can illicit anger, guilt, denial, bargaining, and shock.
Estrangement’s complex shape differs from the loss caused by death. There are no ceremonies with supportive family and friends. The shame often binds parents to secrecy. Well-meaning friends usually don’t know what to say, or they suggest unhelpful advice. The sad fact that an adult child has decided to intentionally separate is heartbreaking.
No parent is prepared for their kid to walk away from them. Usually, the unwanted break-off leaves parents in a heap of reactions that potentially harm their prospects of resolving the problem. Other family members take sides, and the estrangement with your adult child can evolve into a crisis of epic proportions. In addition, parents can be angry and react harshly by expunging their children in retaliation.
The more I speak with parents in my practice, the wider the divide appears. As we age, we recognize the temporary nature of our lives. Our time resources are diminishing. We are keenly aware of our priorities. If we have families, we likely want to strengthen our relationships.
We want to spend holidays and perhaps vacations together. We like being included in family functions. Exceptions to desiring more time were when the family was entrenched in dysfunction, toxicity, or abuse.
Generally, parents want closer ties than their kids. In their developmental life stage, adult children consider their careers, friendships, interests, and family units. They are less likely to prioritize communication with their parents since their priorities are elsewhere. Indeed, there are exceptions. However, studies of individuals over their lifespan defer to perceptions supporting polarized priorities.
Parental expectations of wanting closer family ties and the gap with what adult children desire is just one facet of estrangement. Studies implicate personality, environment, parental attachment, intergenerational stressors, divorce, parental alienation, poverty, mental illness, and addictions in the likelihood of family estrangement.
Adult children can couple with a toxic partner or are unhinged over inheritance matters. Families can be brutal when there are different lifestyles and values. Parent-child relationships that are overly close-enmeshed and over-dependent can backfire into a cut-off. When it strikes, all parties are impacted.
Studies indicate that adult children experience grief but claim they do it to save themselves. Something went on that was too much for them to bear, so they needed space. Parents are shocked, angry, guilty, ashamed, bewildered, anxious, and afraid. The anxiety over resolving and understanding what on earth happened can be devastating.
Parents grieve and process to find their way through. The stories they tell are filled with confusion and sometimes regret. What happened? Where did I go wrong? What is wrong with me? What happened to my child?
Parents process their feelings by moving towards them courageously. They talk to a safe person, resume activities they enjoy, and spend time with those that love and value them. They focus on caring for themselves and learning communication skills.
Joshua Coleman, psychologist and author of Rules of Estrangement, shares the estrangement with his daughter and clinical expertise. His experience working with parents of estranged adult children and research includes the “five mistakes” parents make.
Interestingly, the five mistakes are also common among non-estranged parents. Brave parents admit they are angry, upset, and hurt about the unfairness of the estrangement condition. Anxiety over resolving the cut-off can lead to thinking reconciliation will happen quickly.
This false expectation can lead to frustration and disappointment. I hear from parents overwhelmed by guilt and regret that they resorted to exploding on their adult child. Many also assume that their kid’s cut-off is all about them.
Joshua Colemans Five Mistakes Parents Make
Guilt is a self-accusation over something you feel you did wrong. If you are hypercritical and ruminating on your mistakes, ask yourself if beating yourself up has worked for you.
All parents make mistakes; we posture our amended thinking by reminding ourselves we did the best we could at the time. Most parents have regrets, but we can’t allow them to control us. If we find ourselves stuck in guilt and regret, we should get support to work it through. In essence, we need to forgive ourselves for being imperfect and move forward.
The positive side of recognizing our mistakes is committing to future improvements. Regarding our adult kids, there are wiser ways to deal with them than we are inclined to, especially when we are grieving. Joshua Coleman suggests parents identify what they did, take responsibility, and consider making amends.
Estrangement is extraordinarily stressful and heartbreaking. The cut-off harms all parties, but parents find themselves ill-prepared and grasping for solutions and answers. When we are estranged, being informed, engaging in self-care, and understanding adult children and the contributors to the cut-off prepare us for the possible length of our estrangement.
Being self-compassionate and processing your grief over the loss of the relationship status will strengthen you and help you to move forward. Your life will be different; however, you can find joy again if you choose.
Are you committed to a self-care routine that manages stress and its effects on your body and psychological state? What books have been most helpful to you?
It’s been 15 years of estrangement from my 35 year old daughter after I divorced her stepfather. Like other parents in similar situations I’ve struggled to understand why. Since my daughter has never spoken to me or replied to my 3 attempts to contact her, I don’t know. I have not stalked her and at this point in time, neither of us has contact information for the other, so reconciliation is highly unlikely.
I have come to accept this situation, and having grieved a lot, it’s not an everyday pain or triggering on holidays anymore. I do have times where I feel sad and the shame is endemic due to social stigma, but I cope as best I can by practising self compassion.
What I would love to see written about by any of the experts is the perspective of parents who choose to let go, who don’t apologize for unknown crimes to their children.
I am not against apologizing – I just think it’s promoted in a moralistic, black and white way as the only positive response a parent can take. Either apologize and perhaps by reconcile with your child as a result, or be consigned to a miserable future. I think therapists, who are supposed to be non-judgmental, need to offer alternatives.
I am a parent of 71 years old and was permanently cut off by my only offspring in 2010. He told me to my face that I no longer had a son and walked away for good.
For many years I told people I didn’t know why, but I lied. I knew, because for all his life he would throw it in my face, how he was being molested by my husband and how I wouldn’t do anything to help him. He told me the first day it ever started, when he was 8 years old.
He never stopped telling and begging for help. I just didn’t care to help him and I must admit I did get off on the power and control of it all. The power, knowing I could do something to stop it. I even got a rise from instigating the beatings that went along with it.
I felt powerful in telling him that he caused this to happen and that he provoked it. For many years I was able to successfully hide this penchant for pain, other people’s pain, but my son ripped that mask off so brutally when he became a fully grown adult that I wanted to kill him for it.
All my life I work so hard to hide this from the world. People see me as gentle, kind and very generous. When my son tells people what he went through, some people have a hard time believing that in contrast with what I’ve chosen to show the world.
If people really knew the truth, they would hate me and spit in my face. I’d be behind bars for sure and even then in the prison, I’d be a target for the worst kind of abuse. And I would deserve it. But I cannot let this be known, the rage in me wants him dead.
I had a whole plan set up and I was going to get my husband to shoot him, based on the stand your ground/Castle Doctrine law. We planned to go to probate and say that my son was a danger to us and that he is crazy. He was transgender and it was easy in the south to paint him as a crazy and dangerous person.
He embarrassed us when he decided to transition. People all over town talked about us like a dog, saying we failed as parents. Some even said that the molestation caused him to be transgender in our church. We were marked and our church members would keep us at arm’s distance.
This is another reason I hated him and wanted him gone. I had taken out a life insurance on him and decided on a plan. He would be worth more to me dead than alive, plus I’d finally get peace and not have to worry about future consequences of going to prison for what my husband and I did to him. I know it isn’t fair, but that is how it is.
We had his friend in on it and were trying to get him to come back to our home, so I could get my husband to shoot him and we would say it was self defense.
But he must have known somehow, because he never came back and left the state entirely.
That was 13 years ago, and now that my husband has died, I’m all alone. I don’t have any friends, my only friend I had just died of cancer and she was about 8 years younger than I am. So I do feel uncertain about my future.
Who will take care of me? There is no one to check up on me and I feel afraid an old lady all alone in this house every night. All I have is my little dog.
A whole global pandemic of COVID came and went and my son did not once bother to contact me. It’s as if he doesn’t care what happens to me and couldn’t care less if I’m alive or dead.
I watched my peers draw close to their sons and daughers and grandchildren during the pandemic and holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, everyone had their family but me. Some of them invited me to be with their family and told me “you are our family now” , but it’s just not the same thing.
I’m always an outsider trying to be part of a family that I’m not. I have no one else and I drove away the only child I ever had. He is living his life in LA with his own family and has completely moved on. I sense nothing but pure indifference from him, even though he has cut me off for over a decade now.
I just cannot escape the harsh reality that I have been cut off for good by my only offspring. I came into this world not wanted, having been adopted at 6 years old. I have gone through abuse as a child with adoptive parents and ghosted both of them many years ago.
Did not attend my mother’s funeral, nor my father’s funeral. And the cycle continues. I have not done better, and have actually done worse than my parents.
My own parents didnt want me and my own son didn’t want me. This is the legacy I am taking to my grave.
Despite that, I still try to hoover and troll my son until my dying day, because I just cannot accept the harsh reality. I’m so sad and filled with regret and paranoia, because in the state that I live, there is no statute of limitations and despite my husband being dead, I could still be held accountable for things…for crimes of child abuse.
I’m so old and sickly now and he just needs to forgive and forget and help me. I called him last year to try to get him back in his good graces, but he paid me nothing but dust. Can’t he just get over it? I swear if I get one more chance, I’ll finish what I started and finish him off for good.
Last conversation: daughter shouting at me: “I DON’T ANY OF YOUR F’ING AA!”
Every contact is an opportunity for her cruelty. I have worked thru the stages of grief, avoided the ‘Five Mistakes Parents Make, actively continue in Adult Children of Alcoholics and AA and I am nearing 20 years of continuous sobriety. I have not recruited any family members, I have not secretly contacted her children. I have not stalked or engaged in any reprehensible behaviors whatsoever – yet the estrangement continues…I am at a loss and do not know what to do. Any helpful suggestions would be appreciated.
Thank you for being a part of the conversation about your experience of having an estranged adult child. From clinical experience and research, you are part of many parents who have tried to cope with their condition. It sounds like you have done what you can, yet your daughter continues to be cruel. Since you have done what you can, perhaps enacting clear boundaries with her is necessary. Whatever you may have done that she perceives as damaging or harmful, you do not deserve to be repeatedly harmed by her behaviors. I am curious if you have stated clear boundaries with your daughter.