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Coping with Estranged Adult Children

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Mia was always my favorite. Oh, I know parents aren’t supposed to have favorites, but here’s a flash — they do. They can’t help it. I love her brother and sister more than my own life, but I always loved her just a smidgen more. Cut her a bit more slack. And in return, she was the model child. Where her brother and sister were often spirited and rebellious — demanding so much of my time, patience, and energy — Mia never seemed to give me any trouble.

She was a happy kid who did well in school and had lots of friends. When I would arrive home after work each evening, she would be the first one to run and greet me, just bubbling over with stories about her day.

But in Mia’s late teens, she started to pull away. She’d argue with me about doing her chores, she became sullen, and she even ditched a couple days of school in her senior year — all things that were completely out of character for her. And the day after she graduated at 18, she moved out of our house. She had taken her savings and rented a small apartment without even telling me. A couple years after that, she moved out of state.

Our relationship continued to deteriorate. It didn’t happen all at once. It was a process almost too slow to monitor until it hit me one day that she was now not only geographically but emotionally distant. It’s not just that she didn’t regularly contact me; she didn’t contact me at all. If I hadn’t reached out, I wonder if we ever would have communicated. And when we did, she was always remote, monosyllabic, closed.

I travel to visit her at least once a year. I go to her; she never comes to me. She doesn’t exactly make me feel unwelcome, but there’s a palpable awkwardness between us when we are together that I just don’t understand. I want to hug her, hold her, feel the presence of that sweet little girl I once knew. She’s my child, my baby. Why is this happening? Just because she’s a 40-something adult shouldn’t change this bond.

I have asked her dozens of times why our relationship is so strained. She has no answer. If only she would tell me, I could explain or ask forgiveness. Was it the fact that I maintained a career during the years she was growing up? She always said that she wished I was the kind of mom who was home more, waiting for her after school with hot chocolate and homemade cookies. It was a running joke between us. But now I wonder if it really was a joke. Was it because I divorced her father? I’ve tortured myself about these big things and even a multitude of minor incidents that took place during her childhood. Did I handle them correctly? Was I too tough? Too lax?

It hit me one day that she was now not only geographically but emotionally distant.

Mia’s semi-estrangement is something I don’t readily discuss. When acquaintances ask me how she is, I always tell them she’s doing great. I hide our situation as I would an ugly sore beneath a Band-Aid. I try to ignore it, not think about it too much, but it continues to hurt. Sometimes in the wee hours of the morning when sleep eludes me and my worries attack me, there it is. It makes me so sad.

The only consolation, if you can call it that, is that I’m not alone. On a whim one sleepless night, I Googled “adult children estranged from their parents.” Thousands of hits came up, including a multitude of blogs, self-help websites, and the titles of dozens of books and other publications exploring every facet of this subject. “It’s a silent epidemic,” writes psychologist Joshua Coleman in his book When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along. “It’s sadly very common.” Other experts on the subject agree.

Just within the circle of my own friends there are many stories. Mary and I have been best friends for almost 40 years. She and her daughter had always had a loving albeit prickly relationship. After her daughter graduated from college, married, and moved out of the country — “as far away from me as she could,” bemoans Mary — their bond continued to deteriorate, especially after her daughter had a baby.

Stan, who is married to my friend Ellen, has been estranged from his son since shortly after he and his first wife divorced more than 40 years ago. “I tried to visit him early on,” he says, “but it was just too hard. My ex-wife just wanted to get on with her life and she didn’t want me involved in any aspect of it. Neither did my son.”

Coleman writes that divorce is often the cause of parent-child estrangement. I sometimes think that my own divorce from Mia’s dad might be at the root of my Mia problem. She was only 15 when my husband and I went through an especially difficult breakup. There were several separations followed by reconciliations that didn’t last. The emotional yo-yoing went on for a couple of years, and it took a terrible toll on our whole family. During a visit to see Mia on her 40th birthday, I asked her about it. She told me, yes, the divorce was especially hard on her. Not so much because her dad moved out but more because I was, as she put it, “just so out of it.” I told her how sorry I was and tried to explain that the breakup of my 25-year marriage was the most devastating event of my life. I figured, now that she was a married adult herself, she would understand. But if the truth be told, having that discussion didn’t seem to melt the ice between us.

Divorce, however, isn’t the only common denominator for these familial rifts. My neighbor Judy’s son cut off contact with her just when she was most vulnerable, after the death of her husband of 45 years. It left Judy bewildered and even more broken because she had no idea her son had been hiding these feelings for so long. “He told me I never treated his father with the respect he deserved,” Judy says. “I still don’t understand.”

In an appropriately titled book, Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents, author Jane Isay writes that one of the reasons for this plague of estrangements is that adult children become progressively more focused on their own lives as they get older, a natural development that some mothers and fathers have a hard time accepting. “Parents can adapt themselves to no longer being the center of their children’s lives,” she explains. For most parents that’s easier said than done. It certainly was for me since almost from the moment my children were conceived, my life was centered around their well-being. Then, all of a sudden, they were grown, on their own, and I was expected to just step off to the side.

About six months ago, I sent Mia a chatty email that included a question about some remodel work I was having done on my house. Her husband used to own a construction company. She took an especially long time to respond. After I conveyed my impatience to her, she let me know quite bluntly that she was very busy with her job and life and friends and I shouldn’t expect her to drop everything to immediately respond unless it was an emergency. I felt dismissed, disrespected, and angry.

That was when I finally decided that if I wasn’t able to change her attitude toward me, I was going to have to change my attitude toward her. It was a liberating moment, one that Sheri McGregor talks about in her book, Done with the Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children. I read about the emotional suffering she went through because of her estranged son. Like me, she spent years feeling guilty and trying to figure out why it had happened. Eventually she came to the realization that, after all her failed efforts to change the situation, it was time for her to get on with her life and let her son get on with his. That’s exactly what I had to do.

In an email (I didn’t trust myself to verbally relay this message), I let Mia know for the first time how her behavior had affected me all these years, how unfair I felt it was for her to be so aloof and uncommunicative. I told her that I loved her but that I was done feeling guilty and tiptoeing around her feelings. I explained that when and if she wanted to have a relationship, I would be here. If she didn’t, I would accept her decision.

Almost immediately I felt like a weight had been lifted from my heart. Mia now knew exactly how I felt. This baring of my soul was hard, and it involved a lot of soul-searching. I came to the realization that perhaps I was the problem all along because I expected Mia to continue acting like the adoring little girl she used to be, something she wasn’t able to do. If that were the case, we both now would be free of the emotional ties that had caused us so much angst.

It’s been several months since I sent that email. Since then I’ve only heard from Mia once — on my birthday. It was a short and cordial phone conversation. And, surprising to me, I was just fine with that. My life is, well, less clouded by my trouble with Mia. I still worry about her, but every time I do I remind myself that she is a very capable adult who has a right to decide how she wants to relate to me and the rest of her family. Then I go about my own business.

Karen Westerberg Reyes’ last article for the Post was “Don’t Patronize Me!” in the November/December 2016 issue.

This article is featured in the September/October 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

 

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  • bettymae

    No divorce here either, still happily married and there was no fight, no angry words, just one day our daughter cut us off and no explanation. Her brother keeps in contact but he doesn’t understand why she has cut us off either, even when she has tried to give excuses.
    It’s been five years and at first I thought I would die from the grief. We did not plead or try to contact because we thought in time she would share and we could go to counseling or address her concerns but she never did. Even after battling breast cancer there was no compassion or empathy or a kind word which shocked us all. It is hard to accept that one of my children is such a cold kind of person (and we are not the only one’s she cuts off at the drop of a hat). I still struggle now and again but for the most part I have learned to get on with my life and live with a broken heart.

  • Pursuit

    The comments by Carolyn Peters, above, are probably the most clear and helpful ones I’ve found in searching for an explanation for why I figure so little in the lives of my children (both a son and a daughter). Neither the best nor the worst mother out there, my kids will send a short text with a smiley face and a heart on my birthday or a picture of some dish they prepared for dinner now and again. My son and I do have nice telephone chats if I call him but with my daughter I have to walk on eggshells and rarely meet her approval. It’s heartbreaking to listen to my friends chat about visits back and forth and the support they give and get from their families.

    Technology definitely plays a part – a post on Facebook replaces a phone call, a thumbs up emoji is good enough. It’s taken fifteen years for me to realize, albeit sadly, I must actively choose to care less if I want to have a happy life.

    Hard to imagine a time when I lived and breathed those beautiful little babies. Watching the parents of a couple of cranky little kids at the supermarket the other day, I felt so bad, “You’re trying your best and are probably thinking, ‘Someday it will all have been worth it.’ I hope so.”

    If my kids were here to respond it would be with a mixture of comments about whatever I do that’s annoying mixed with surprise that I feel our relationship isn’t just fine the way it is. Guess I should celebrate their independence…

    Anyway, glad I found this site and my encouragement to anyone reading this that you will get past your grief eventually although it may take a thousand small cuts before you heal. You just have to accept reality and build yourself a new life. As the old song says, “If you can’t be with the ones you love, Honey, love the ones you’re with.” Find a family who would welcome you: a single mom, your other kids, a dog, volunteer work with a focus on providing a social safety net, something to soak up all that love you have to give!

  • Rosie

    Geez I sure wish I’d known about these on-line support groups about 6 years ago when this same nightmare started for me. My daughter and only child was 16-1/2 years old when I filed for divorce from my husband of 32 years, and through circumstances beyond my control she was taken from me and forced to live with her father. She never liked her father much, but because he had me to use as his primary “emotional punching bag”, it spared her the brunt of the majority of his abusive and nasty ways. When he did try becoming abusive with her, I immediately jumped in to defend and protect her from it. But I knew that once she went to live with him, she would no longer have me to buffer and protect her from his abusive ways and that she would now, unfortunately, start to replace me as his primary “emotional punching bag”.

    By the time she turned 18, she moved out and no longer tried to hide her distain for him. Unfortunately for me, sometimes that distain would spill over onto me as well. The whole thing took such a HUGE toll on me, and had me feeling like life just wasn’t worth living any longer.

    Then, about 3 years ago I had a stroke that put me into the hospital for a week, and suddenly she became the loving and attentive daughter I’d been hoping for. I guess she “came to her senses” when she saw first hand, that I would not only be around indefinitely, but that I could die, like everyone else, at any given moment. But gradually with time, she once again started to pull away. I keep trying to understand what is causing this, and have tried talking to her about it, but have never gotten any real solid answers. So here are some things I have figured out so far, and may be of help to others who are in my shoes.

    First of all she is now 24 years old, and I keep reminding myself that young people’s brains don’t finish developing until the age of 25. So I have told myself that I am not going to jump to any long term conclusions until she has finished her 25th year and is finally 26 years old.

    Secondly, I think that we parents spend a lot of time, consciously or unconsciously, mourning what were our sweet little kids. But just like when our infants become toddlers, the infants cease to exist. But this is made bearable by the fact that we have these “new” little kids, a/k/a toddlers, to replace them.

    Then when these toddlers grow old enough to start attending school and become older and a little more independent, we lose the sweet little babies they once were, but gain a new little person with a different personality, likes and dislikes. But once again, we gain a new little person in the form of tween, and so on and so on.

    The problem is that when our kids become young adults, we no longer have the older person to help buffer the loss of our teens.
    Ideally, we will then have the new life of a child-free adult who can now pursue interests and relationships that we have put on hold for such a very long time. But if we don’t have clear cut ideas of what we want for ourselves, aside from grown children and grandkids, we become extremely vulnerable.

    I used to often wonder, would my daughter want a closer relationship with me if I had lots more money to lavish on her, or a career that was something she really admired or aspired to? Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I probably will never have the answer to those kinds of questions, because I am now retired and on a fixed income.

    In the mean time, the few times I see and/or talk to my daughter, I treat her with the kindness, respect and an upbeat attitude, that I give my best friends, and ask her for nothing in return. I still offer help to her when I see she could use it, but 99% of the time, she rejects it. Even that used to hurt me a lot but I have finally reconditioned myself to shrug it off and THINK to myself, “Oh well, it’s your loss kid-o.” and just move on.

    When I was her age, I would have given my right arm to have a parent like me. But I think she thinks, maybe subconsciously, that all moms are like me, and therefore, “nothing special”. Hopefully life, and that fully developed 25 year old brain of hers, will bring her to a sobering reality, how lucky she was to have me, before I am dead and gone. If not, she’ll have a lifetime of regret awaiting her.

    I also force myself to remember all her good points, of which there are MANY, and stop dwelling on the ONE thing about her that drives me nuts!!!

    I hope this helps some of you to begin to heal your broken hearts, as these hard won lessons have done for me.

  • Sue Rohn

    We have a daughter that has totally rejected us this past year. Her 40th birthday is in 3 days. We have had a very turbulent relationship for the past 7 years. Telling us we never loved her since the day she was born, has yelled & screamed at us unjustifiably. My husband and I, (with 46 yrs. of marriage) & four of her siblings want nothing to do with her because of her outrageous attitude amongst us all. She checked into in-patient rehab for drugs & alcohol for 6 weeks. Her counselor told her to apologize to all that she hurt, to free herself of her shame, but it never happened. Sad, so sad. All we really wanted was to have a big happy family. I have been ordered by my family doctor to seek counseling, which intend to do to seek comfort and let go of the pain this once loving child has put us through. I turn 65 next month & not a day goes by that I do think about her. She lives 25 minutes away, yet never see her son or daughter, our grandchildren! We can only hope and pray. Heartbroken beyond belief.

  • Colette Sasina

    I found, in researching the Hawaiian ancient art of problem solving, Ho’oponopono, a valuable tool, especially for understanding the complexity of heartbreak. Just plug ho’ into Google; the rest of the word will come up below.; click! Let our healing begin.❤

  • Colette Sasina

    I found in researching the Hawaiian ancient art of problem solving, Ho’oponopono, a valuable tool, especially for understanding the complexity of heartbreak. Just plug ho’ into Google, the rest of the word will come up below.; click! Let our begin.❤

  • I share the same empty feeling as those I’ve read about. My youngest son told me to get out of his life. Another son will call maybe once a year….too busy. :(

  • Cbs

    I live this heartache everyday for four years now. I miss my daughter with all my heart. No word and no idea where she is. She became involved with drugs and and a man who her friends tell me was emotionally and physically abusing her. One friend even told us that our daughter was in severe depression and was afraid for her. She hid her troubles from us very well. I knew there were personality changes and talking to her she explained it was school stress. We thought we could just support her and believe her but we were mistaken. After her friends came to us, it was too late. We tried an intervention and went to authorities for a wellness check as she stopped answering our phone calls but she and the boyfriend became furious and we haven’t heard from her since. The only communication we had was awful abusive messages and emails from her boyfriend. I try every day to let go because I have no choice but I’m still heartbroken.

  • Carolyn Peters

    When I had my first child I asked my mother how she knew what to do as a new parent. She said that she parented me the way her mother parented her. I soon realized that the world and social norms had drastically changed between the 1940’s and the 70’s. In the 40’s there were no televisions or computers that removed child & adults from family life; there were no ‘Old Folks Home’ where the children could abandon their aging parent. Grandparents naturally cared for the young as there was no day care where parents could abandon their children. One of the biggest contributors to the “me generation” has been been the Women’s Movement. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for new technologies, TV, computers and I was part of the Women’s Movement. We taught our girls that they could “be what they wanted to be”, and “to follow their dreams”…….We wanted them to be more and to have more than we had. Unfortunately, we neglected, or failed, to teach them the importance of being part of a family and part of the larger community.

    I’m in my 70’s. My daughter & I were very close until she remarried 10 years ago. It’s now been 8 years since I’ve seen or talked to her or my grandson, who was 11 years old at the time. Not a day, of those 8 years, has gone by without my being filled with sadness and tears. The people I loved the most were cruelly taken away from me. I ask myself “Why”?

    The answer is not so simple, but goes something like this…..we raised our children to be individuals, and now we are paying the price! Our children have created the individualistic society in which we live today. It’s the return to the insular, nuclear family: no extended family, no community involvement. We created “the monster” and now we and our grandchildren are paying a heavy price for it.

    BTW My grandson turned 19 this year and has left home. His reason for leaving…..he said he was emotionally abused by “being left out”, “abandoned”, “isolated”. My mother used to say, “What goes round, comes round.” My daughter now feels the same grief, I felt, as all mothers feel, when being abandoned by the child they loved more than life itself.

  • mimi

    heartbreaking and sooooo relatable! Seems like it has become epidemic with our kids these past few decades?. divorce certainly played a big role( aVERY resentful father who badmouthed me from the time the kids were 3,4 and 6) which is so tragic and sad. I was always the koolaide house where all their friends hung out, spent weekends, summers et al. We were sOOO very close until their 30s..like your, mine never pick up the phone,text, anything and it breaks my heart. I pray the tides change and family once again becomes a priority,like it was in the 50,60,70s! Sending love and compassion to all the mom’s with broken hearts! :( <3

  • Lisa Clark

    I have a similar story. No divorce was involved, I am still married to my daughters father. She is 34 married with 3 children. My husband and I were cut off 1 1/2 years ago. We haven’t seen the baby that was born in july 2016. Our relationship went from babysitting every week, every Friday night my oldest grandson spent the night, family trips. To silence!
    She won’t talk to us….It is like she died and I live 5 minutes from her. The husband cut his family off too. It is so painful and difficult to go on with your life but we have to, to be able to survive the pain. Thank you for sharing this article.

    Lisa

  • Karin

    It’s like we had the same life! I’ve often wondered the percentage of divorced families with this issue. It sure seems to happen a lot more these days. You really nailed it tho, the feelings, frustrations, confusion, hope. Certainly a strange new epedemic!!!!!

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