by Sheri McGregor
When an adult child abandons parents, or in some cases the entire family, the what-ifs and how-coulds can limit recovery. What if my child returns to reconcile? How can I move on now yet still hold onto hope?
After an adult child’s rejection, the idea of moving on can feel like giving up, so trying to move forward brings guilt. You might question your character. What kind of a parent just gets on with life as if nothing has happened? Few parents move on with such abandon. Most, on some level, hold out hope for reconciliation. But staring at the silent telephone, desperately waiting for the uncertain return of your adult child can lead to despair. Getting on with life despite what’s happened connects you to other people and activities, helps fill the void of loss, and can help you to heal. In my book, Done With The Crying, tools, the latest research, and insight from more than 9,000 parents of estranged adults can help you move forward and heal.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. When you are betrayed by someone you love, perhaps particularly an estranged adult child who you nurtured and helped to shape, it’s as if the bottom falls out. You may question everything you thought about your child, your relationship, and how your life will continue in relation to your son or daughter, and perhaps in relation to your prior expectations. Getting to a point where you feel you’ve moved on may take time, so be kind to yourself. Expecting that you can go to sleep one night determined to leave the pain of an adult child’s rejection behind, and wake up over it, isn’t realistic. Recovering from deep emotional wounds takes time. I’ve gleaned a few tips from my own experience with my estranged adult child as well as from studies, books, and articles that can help.
An adult child’s rejection hurts.
One: Don’t pretend you’re not hurting.
Fearing judgment, you may be embarrassed to share your painful truth. And you may be right to hold back with people at work, or certain friends you feel won’t understand or will judge you. It’s helpful to reach out to a trusted, empathetic friend or two, but whether you can or can’t confide in others, don’t deny your feelings exist. Accept your emotions as normal in the situation.
Some common feelings of rejected parents include:
*Guilt: I must not have raised my child right. An adult child’s rejection may cause parents to look back critically at their parenting skills, even magnifying some incidents or interactions during the child’s growing up years as proof they did a poor job.
*Anger: I raised my child better than this. What happened to honoring one’s parents?
*Helplessness: How can he/she refuse to take my call? Parents realize they have no control over their adult child’s actions.
*Fear: What if my other adult children leave me too?
*Denial: This can’t be happening. Surely it won’t last.
*Uncertainty: Am I crazy? Is this all my fault? Am I that insufferable? Will this ever end?
*Failure: I feel powerless. Parents may have a sense of failure at having tried everything, but nothing has worked to restore the relationship.
These are just a few of the feelings you may encounter in response to an adult child’s rejection, betrayal or neglect. Keeping a journal or simply free-writing about your feelings may provide a safe way to offload them. Some find an online group designed as support for parents of estranged adult children useful. We host an online group to help. Acknowledging your feelings, whether in a journal or by sharing with others you trust can be healthy, but not to excess or in a negative way.
Two: Don’t Ruminate
Listen to your thoughts. Do you catch yourself saying aloud or thinking, “I’ll never get over this..” Are you continually asking questions, such as, “Why do these sorts of things always happen to me?” Called “ruminating,” this sort of negative thinking spurs more negative thought, perhaps even calling to mind the other things that “always happen.” Clinical studies have linked ruminating to high blood pressure and to unhealthy behaviors such as binge drinking and overeating, so steer clear.
How do you avoid ruminating? Turn your statements and questions around with positive thoughts. I am moving past this. Good things happen in my life. This suggestion may sound trite, but if negative thoughts can produce more negative thoughts, positive thoughts can be as fruitful.
When you catch yourself thinking negatively about your adult child or the situation, notice your physical body as well. Are you holding your breath? Clenching your jaw? Tightening your fists? You may be experiencing a stress response that isn’t good for you.
As reported in the Harvard Health Newsletter, researchers at Hope College in Michigan found that changing one’s thoughts about a stressful situation, perhaps by considering the parts you handled well or imagining offering forgiveness, changes the body’s responses. In short, the way we think about things can reduce our physical stress response
Take a few deep breaths, loosen up or even get up and move around. Drink a glass of water. Do something to aid your physical body and health as well as positively altering your thoughts.
Three: Focus on the Good
Take time out each day to consider the positive situations and good people in your life. A journal of good thoughts written down at the end of each day is a healthy habit, and a formal record is fun to re-read later. However, a more casual approach can be effective.
Keeping a positive focus after an adult child’s rejection.
Here are a few suggestions:
Instead of joining everyone in the lunch break room each day, take a short stroll outdoors instead, or perhaps before you join the others. The benefits of nature to the psyche are well-documented. Be sure to experience your surroundings to the fullest, by taking notice. The dappled sunlight beneath this tree is pretty. The breeze feels good as it goes through my hair.
If getting outdoors isn’t an option, you can still focus your thoughts in a positive direction. Perhaps recall moments from your morning that went well. I’m glad I was able to make that telephone connection and cross the task off my list. I arrived at the office earlier than my boss this morning. I’m lucky my co-workers are helpful.
Looking to the future with a positive focus promotes the well-known attitude of gratitude that’s so helpful. My dog will be waiting for me with a wagging tail. I look forward to my favorite television show tonight. I’m so thankful my aging mother is well.
Parents have known and loved their children for so long that forgiveness may be second nature – – or not. Perhaps you blame other people who are involved with your adult children. Or maybe you blame yourself. We all make mistakes, so work to forgive. Because of the personal benefits, forgiveness is a gift you can give yourself. Forgive for the sake of your own happiness.
In a study published by National Institute of Health in 2011, researchers found that older adults (median age 66) who forgive others report higher levels of life satisfaction. Forgiving freely, without requiring an act of contrition, (such as an apology or admission), was particularly beneficial. Holding one’s forgiveness hostage to some act or condition was associated with psychological distress and symptoms of depression.
Accepting the reality of an adult child’s abandonment, and your helplessness to change it, may feel like letting go of hope. Reconciliation may eventually take place, but in the present, accepting what’s happened allows you to make the most of your life now.
Most of us have had to accept other disappointing realities during our lives: a loved one’s death, the inability to finish college due to other responsibilities, or an unrealized professional goal. We all have disappointments, but the vast majority of us accept reality and move forward, perhaps in more fulfilling directions. Even after an adult child’s rejection, you have the right to enjoy your life. Dwelling on the past or struggling with pursuits that, at least for the moment, are futile, rob you of precious time.
Acceptance may take determination, but is worth the effort. Acceptance has allowed me the freedom to be who I truly am: A strong woman blessed with many people, including four other adult children, to love and share my life with. By accepting the sad reality of one adult child’s rejection, I can better spend my time and energy on people that want my company, on interests that are meaningful and fulfilling to me, and where I can make a difference.
Recently, a parent told me she had reconciled with an estranged adult child after nearly two decades of estrangement. Her story illustrates the fulfillment of hope. Like she did, you can live your life now—-in a way that’s meaningful, fulfilling, and happy—-and still hold out hope for a future reconciliation.
Done With The Crying is available through popular booksellers. Ask your local bookstore to order this book for parents of estranged adult children for you. Or order online. And fathers–this book can help you, too.
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Five Reasons to Forgive