Why do I feel guilt?

rejected by an adult childEmotional well-being series.
Innocent Guilt: normal after conflict

by Sheri McGregor

One mother rejected by an adult child recently wrote that she felt “guilty.” She also said she had wondered what she did wrong but couldn’t identify much. So, was her “guilt” valid? Let’s take a look at guilt, a common feeling associated with the loss of an important relationship – – and when there’s conflict.

Guilt when rejected by an adult child: Should I have…?

Many of us are familiar with the guilt that can accompany the loss of someone we love in death. It’s common to wonder if we spent enough time, wish we’d have said how important they were to us, or even feel responsible in some way. When rejected by an adult child, we feel a similar loss, with many of the same questions.

Did I spend enough time with my son? Did I give my daughter too much freedom? Did I show him enough affection? Provide her enough structure? Cook the right foods? Tell him I loved him enough? For moms whose children have rejected them, the list of questions can go on and on.

Rejected by an adult child and left to puzzle

In interviewing mothers rejected by an adult child, it has become clear that very often there is no open conflict over a tangible act, omission or offense. Many mothers rejected by an adult child tell me they don’t get it. They did their best. They nurtured their child’s interests, cared for their physical needs, read the bedtime stories, sponsored the sports teams and memberships, helped them learn to drive, apply for a first job. . . .

These parents of estranged adults thought all was well. Everything seemed fine, and then one day, something changed. They received a note or phone call requesting no further contact, or were given a cursory explanation such as, “I need my space.” And then silence.

Some mothers say they first noticed a sort of cooling off. But busy caring for younger children and/or working full-time, they didn’t immediately react. After all, their adult children had lives of their own, and were often busy with their own work and even with their own growing families.

In some cases, the cutting off itself is what leads to conflict. When moms question what’s wrong, the adult child lashes out with accusations, or says things like, “You were never there for me!” When pressed for specifics, the adult child refuses to talk, strings together curse words, or simply walks away.

Situations are unique, but often parents are left to puzzle. Despite repeated attempts, there’s no explanation given. Without a chance to hash things out, there’s no chance to make amends if necessary, and move forward with a clear understanding what went wrong for a better future relationship.

In trying to no avail, parents get tired. We look back on our parenting, many times with other adult children who tell us we did fine, and conclude the problem doesn’t lie with us.

Why guilt?

Most parents rejected by an adult child initially react with a feeling of guilt because we’re so floored at our adult child’s cold behavior that we believe we must have done something wrong. Then, even when we critically self-examine and see that we did our best, other people accuse or dismiss us.

An uncle raises his brow. “What happened to make her so mad at you?” The questions carries judgment.

A co-worker avoids eye contact. “I can’t imagine that happening,” she says. The statement seems to carry accusatory conclusions.

A friend says, “It’s just a phase.” His words show that he lacks an understanding about the tenacity of the problem.

We can feel all alone. We may continue to question our parenting skills. And a vague sense of undefined guilt may edge our thoughts.

Unresolved conflict and guilt

Part of the problem may be the conflict we don’t understand. Left without solid answers, the conflict is unresolved.

A recent article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Philosophy examines the concept of “innocent guilt,” which occurs after conflicts. This guilt without cause is experienced by people who are not responsible for wrongdoing. The article explores philosophers’ writings that connect feelings of guilt to people who aren’t guilty. When they’re still suffering, victims of wrongdoing experience guilt as part of the aftermath of the conflict. Ethical persons suffer “innocent guilt.”

Parents of estranged adults know all too well the ongoing nature of their suffering. The grief, sadness, anger and other emotions common to the situation can persist. Part of what we experience as “guilt,” may be an ethical response, a completely natural emotional reaction to the conflict itself.

Our values and the outcome

Another reason why a sense of guilt may be common to parents rejected by an adult child is because, for many of us, a twinge of guilt serves as a reminder of our core values. Many say that twinge spurs them to do the right thing in any number of situations.

Loving parents, like the mom who said she felt “guilty,” have values that made them conscientious parents who did the right things. But if they did the right things, then what went wrong? It’s a paradox.

One mom spoke with a sense of pride when she recounted the way she raised her children (now estranged). The outcome dismays her. “You don’t expect to fail at motherhood.”

Relieving the suffering

The Journal of Applied Philosophy article highlights a need to work at relieving suffering that’s related to innocent guilt. For me, helping others via life coaching, creating this website, hearing other moms’ stories, and writing about the subject to help other parents rejected by an adult child has been a big part of my own healing process.

In a future article, we’ll explore more about feelings of guilt that aren’t justified, and ways to overcome those feelings. For now, know that by seeking information, you’ve taken a positive step. Youre moving toward recovery from loss, and moving past the pain of this isolating experience. You don’t have to endure this all by yourself. Leave a comment below – – I’d like to hear from you.Or reach out by taking the survey to help parents of estranged adults. You can also share your story, or join the community forum. Be sure to sign up for the email updates so you’ll never miss an article (scroll up to find the sign up form, at the top of the right-hand column).

An abstract of the article about innocent guilt can be found here.

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