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How to Deal with Having an Estranged Adult Child

By Christine Field October 08, 2022 Family

Mothering is filled with both blessings and pain. Not too long ago, one of my children was estranged from me. It was not how I envisioned a relationship with an adult child. At the time, I wasn’t completely sure where she was living and had no reliable way to contact her.

Even the word “estranged” was foreign to me. I had invested my life into mothering. And this child turned away from me. It was not easy to admit. I’m the one who has written books about parenting. In the depth of this situation, those books mocked me. I was humbled and laid low in the dust.

Some things have healed. The lost sheep has returned home, and even more issues have surfaced. Most days, I am again both saddened and gladdened. As I am now in the process of writing a book about my experience, I am learning that there are many of us wounded mamas. Our numbers are legion. You are not alone!

You Did Not Cause Your Adult Child to Turn Away

One parenting expert, Debbie Pincus, offers these soothing words: “Cutting off is a way people manage anxiety when they don’t know a better way. The love and caring is there; the ability to solve differences is not. You did not cause your child to turn away. That was her decision.”

Yet we admit we all made so many mistakes, took so many missteps. She has come home and gone again more times than I can count. Will we be estranged again in the future? The horror and the certainty of it hang over my heart. In her mind, the distance lessened the conflict. She didn’t have to deal with me or the rest of the family. In reality, it has caused far more damage for everyone.

The best thing I can do as a parent is to own what I own – recognize the mistakes I have made – and try to seek my own healing from the wound. I remind myself – it was her choice to leave.

When a Relationship Becomes Unmanageable

I tried to move on with my life. I moved with a limp that constantly reminded me of how much I missed her and what a hole she left. There are many more of us mamas who live with this pain. You may not know them because they are silent. The shame and embarrassment of the situation are too much to bear.

It would be one thing if you had abused your child. Then the adult disengagement would be a healthy move. But with no such backdrop, I don’t think fleeing adult children understand or appreciate the heartbreak caused by their actions. Or if they do understand, there is a lack of feeling or empathy for the other.

Through thick and thin in life, your mother is your mother. You can merely tolerate her, or you can treasure her. The worst thing you can do is discard her.

When Dealing with Estranged Adult Children

If you are one of us hurting mamas, the wisest thing you can do comes from author Sheri McGregor. She says to tend to your heartache, noting that “In acknowledging and tending to our hurt, we honor ourselves. That might then free us up to enjoy the way our loved ones want to honor us. Or to simply enjoy the day.”

Put another way, don’t let one empty chair make you neglect your full table. It’s okay to switch up your Mother’s Day traditions. Spend the time you need to work with your emotions, but then get on with the day.

McGregor says we have to do what’s right for us. “If that means you didn’t celebrate Mother’s Day this year, that’s okay. Recognize what you need and honor yourself in that way.”

Then treat yourself to a manicure, haircut, massage, or new outfit. Soon the day will be over, and you can go another year before having to see those upsetting greeting card commercials on television.

Start with the Things You Can Do

At some point, it’s time to start putting the pieces of your life back together. Even if you’re not feeling it, there are some things to remember to help you to get life going again.

You Aren’t Alone

Everyone goes through challenging times – they just don’t tend to advertise it. If you are a member of the Parents of Estranged Adult Children Facebook group, you may be surprised at our numbers. We are a fellowship of pain. There are people on the same journey who understand and can sympathize. You can connect and feel less alone.

Cut Yourself Some Slack

There’s no doubt that you will need time to experience all the feelings that come about with a major life change like estrangement.

Give yourself a break from all the unimportant or non-urgent things that tend to fill up life. Just take it easy and heal your heart. Can you get away for a time to rest and reflect?

Recognize What No Longer Serves You

Usually, when there is something like this in our lives, we know deep down we must accept it. But we often don’t want to face it. It’s a great time to go inward and see what we can release.

Acknowledge the Sadness

It’s difficult to cut loose things that we once treasured or felt identified us, such as the dream of a lifetime of family closeness. Allow yourself to feel the sadness of letting them go.

It’s okay to feel sad. In fact, it’s very normal and appropriate. Experiencing all your feelings about the thing is a way to ensure that you can fully release it.

Do all the crying you need to do, but then get up and do something new.

Let Them Go

Our children will always live and love in our hearts. But we must let go of our negative emotions and our expectations we may have had for them or our relationship with them.

Some parents find it helpful to have a ritual or ceremony where they release these thoughts and feelings into the universe. Maybe you can release some balloons – or burn your journal where you have written down all your pain.

You can do this for YOU – for your own healing. Give yourself permission to move beyond the pain.

You can also write them a letter (that you will never send) where you express all your sadness and grief and tell them that you are letting them go. You can then go ahead and burn this letter as you process your letting go.

Say No to Negativity

While you surely have friends and family who are loving and supportive, it’s also possible that there are a few negative people in your environment also.

Especially now, it’s a good idea to say no to their invitations to hang out or chat. When you feel stronger, you can decide if they are someone you want to continue to have a relationship with. But for now, just say no – as nicely as you can.

Remember that your focus now can no longer be on fixing your child, fixing the relationship or bailing your child out of some trouble. You have had enough of that. It is time to work on your own healing and moving on with your life. It’s not selfishness. It’s grabbing and savoring all that is still good in life. A wonderful, full life still awaits you.

We Need Boundaries with Other People

Dr. Henry Cloud and John Townsend are authors who have done a series of books on boundaries. In sum, a boundary helps me to define what is me, and what is not me. They say, “A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.”

A good boundary established in a relationship makes clear what I am responsible for, and what the other person is responsible for. Our children want to constantly push those boundaries.

When an adult child nags or guilts us into assuming responsibility for their problems or issues, then we may have a boundary issue.

In my efforts to “fix” my adult child, I was making myself sick. While I was doing what I thought “good moms” do, I was violating both my boundaries and my child’s boundaries. The result? We each got unhealthier.

Can Therapy Help Estranged Parents?

I truly believed I could handle my adult child’s estrangement on my own. After all, I had dealt with countless personal and family issues: my ex-spouse’s cancer, infertility, kids with learning issues, my own struggle with depression, and more. While I coped, these all took their toll.

Like many other stories, my child’s issues began to surface when she was in her late teens. Because she was my first child, I was ill-equipped to distinguish between normal teen behavior and something more serious. I also chalked things up to “adoption issues” and immaturity, while in truth, they should have raised red flags.

When life was spinning out of control with simultaneous family bombs exploding all around me, my depression and anxiety became too much to bear. I checked myself into a three-week program available in my area at Meier Clinics, a Christian counseling service.

I spent those three weeks learning concepts that were new to me.

Defining Ourselves

In addition to working on boundaries, that intensive therapy helped me to remember that I was not defined by the choices of my children or my (then) spouse. In fact, the more I sought to change, help or fix them, the more I lost of myself.

Many wonderful mothers may run into trouble when they have sought to be good moms and have defined themselves by being a mom.

The reality for each of us is that we are so much more than just a mom. We are unique women with our own interests, talents, desires, dreams, hopes and fears.

When we focus solely on our identity as a mom, and being a mom turns out to be challenging or we are outright rejected by our child, we are bereft because we have not developed all those wonderful aspects of ourselves and our lives.

Other Outcomes of Intensive Therapy

My three weeks of intensive therapy did me a lot of good, no doubt. But as the high-stress years of challenging parenting dragged on, I became really good at handling crises.

Unfortunately, I also developed some behaviors and symptoms that represented the pain I was carrying. When coping on my own and stuffing my feelings inside became less effective, I stopped being able to sleep.

Remember the infant years when you felt at loose ends because your baby kept you up all night? When your child is troubled or estranged, they can still keep you up at night! At the height of my struggle with insomnia, I was taking three sleeping meds every night and still only got a few hours of restless sleep.

Finding Solutions

At this point, I had learned about boundaries and understood more about my own depression. But the insomnia was rearing its head to tell me there was more to be dealt with. If we listen to our bodies and our minds, they will tell us when something is wrong.

If we get professional help to delve deeper into what our bodies and minds are telling us, and explore that territory freely and fearlessly, we will encounter deeper issues. Dealt with, the work can lead to deep healing and health.

When the Conventional Doesn’t Work

My psychiatrist’s solution to insomnia was to give me three sleeping meds. When I found myself living in a daze in my waking hours and still not sleeping, I realized the conventional method was no longer acceptable to me. So, I decided to try something different.

I chose hypnosis. Hypnosis has a proven record of helping people quit smoking, lose weight, become better speakers – and learn to sleep without medication.

I didn’t like it at first. It felt so foreign to my in-control coping mechanisms. But I made a decision to enter into the process wholeheartedly, and I found great healing therein.

I chose to consult with Ryan Elliott, MSW, a parent of an estranged child himself, who is also active in our Facebook group, Parents of Estranged Adult Children. Through my work with him, I have completely changed my life, and I am eternally grateful.

Take a Leap

If you are drowning in pain over your child’s estrangement, it is time to try something new. If you are led to therapy, find someone you connect with and enter fully into the process. Don’t hide, minimize, rationalize or deny.

This pain sucks. If you don’t take it out and look at it, it will destroy you.

I want to assure you – there is life beyond the pain. You will always love your child, but letting their estrangement ruin your life serves no one and does not solve the problem.

The solution for you might be found in therapy. It could be the most important step you take for yourself.

Online therapy has become quite common and may be a good resource for you if you don’t have easy access to qualified therapists in your area. Websites like Better Help match you with a therapist according to your needs. They offer phone, video, or chat options to communicate and sessions are scheduled according to your needs and budget.

One of our Sixty & Me readers commented that she is writing in a journal on a regular basis to her granddaughter that she doesn’t know because of her estranged daughter. She is writing about her everyday life in hopes that her granddaughter may read it when she is old enough. She mentioned that she has no intention of talking lowly of her daughter but instead writes fun stories and anecdotes of her from when she was growing up.

Another reader said that she began working helping people and that it made her feel better. Taking care of others made the thoughts of her estranged child more bearable and filled the missing gap. 

Look into volunteer work in your community. Food kitchens, animal shelters, and senior care homes are always welcoming volunteers to help out with daily activities. While helping others you will help yourself.

Read THE DETACHMENT WALL: HOW TO LET GO OF YOUR ADULT CHILDREN.

Also HOW TO PLAN YOUR ELDERLY CARE IF YOU DON’T HAVE CHILDREN OR A SPOUSE

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Are you a mother with an estranged adult child? What do you do to deal with anniversaries and days that highlight the loss? What have you found helps you move forward? Please join the conversation.

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Lucy

I am relatively new to being estranged from my son so I don’t have any positive strategies. I am flying across the country to see my son since he never actually told me he didn’t want to see me anymore. I’m very anxious about this trip but feel I need to take this step.

madeline

“…since he never actually told me he didn’t want to see me anymore.”

No, no. Silence means no. We learn that in sex ed. Disrespecting your son’s boundary like that is no different than raping. Stop putting your needs before his. It may take a while to understand this concept but that’s the first REAL step to take – accepting that you’d been abusive.

Krist

My mother estranged my whole family, it started 25 yrs ago. Living estranged for so long has only made every holiday, birthday, or special event my children grew up without extended family, or grandparents, only seeing me try giving them what my wonderful grandmothers gave to me, good memories. My mom is in the habit of reading too much into a conversation or a situation. It’s pretty bad when your grandma and your father tell you repeatedly she is crazy and ignore her mean comments, and just let it go. I have a problem with letting go of something that keeps happening every time I speak. Yes, everything I say is somehow an attack on her. I told her my aunts shouldn’t be bringing strange men around the farm, since she calls to tell me they have a sex offense or criminal conviction on their records. That gets turned into I hate her? I assuring her I love her and being estranged breaks my heart, and she says my problem is that I hate her? She also says I am the only one who still talks to her so I stopped trying to make sense out of it, but it is painful that my now adult children lost out on having a healthy grandparent, as the others have passed away including my father. I feel sad for her.

Lee

Im not going to walk on egg shells estrangement has hurt so much my advice keep being your authentic real self. Live in the hope they will wake up and see your worth. Until then love yourself live a happy authentic life. Stop shaming parents, enough!

Carol

Great article – and I like that it is longer and more comprehensive, than the usual, shorter articles of “Sixty and Me.” — My son has (inexplicably) not spoken to me in almost two years. For a while, I felt wounded by his actions – and though I know he must have his own reason for cutting me out of his life, his reasons don’t matter anymore at this point. I refuse to let his estrangement from me ruin my life. Yes, it has hurt me – but I am doing my best to not let it hurt me anymore than possible. He will have to figure out his own life – and I wish him well with that.

Lisaann

Thank you for covering this extremely difficult topic. The pain involved when your children just cut you off is like nothing else – cuts down to your very soul. The range of emotions is so wide and the depth of each of them is so deep – very grateful for the guidance and understanding expressed in your articles and video! God bless you all in this effort to help women heal!

Helen

My son is in Australia for 20 years has my two grandchildren and has on two occasions prevented me from visiting them. I am not wanted. He only allows us 10 mins once a week it is now gone to every three weeks to speak to our grandchildren. There is no contact now because we tried to arrange dates to visit.

Tish

So sorry to hear your story. Your son sounds very angry. My own daughter lives about 45 minutes from me but will not visit nor and I allowed to see her. She used to call every week but now calls every other week or three weeks for 10 minutes. This has been going on for two years. I have also had serious issues but her pattern has not changed. Maybe because of my health issues, i started praying more. Much more. While my daughter dismissiveness towards me has not changed, I have. I am at peace. I pray for her, our relationship but focus more on my personal relationship with God. I don’t know if sharing my story will help you but perhaps you can see something in it. At the very least, I want you to know that someone hears you.

The Author

Christine Field is an author, attorney, speaker, listener and life coach. She has four grown kids, mostly adopted, mostly homeschooled. She provides MomSolved© resources and reassurances to moms facing common and uncommon family life challenges. Christine helps moms rediscover their mojo for wholehearted living after parenting. Visit her website here http://www.realmomlife.com

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