Monthly Archives: January 2014

Emotional well-being series: Be kind to yourself

self-compassion be kind to yourself emotional well being estranged from adult childrenBe kind to yourself: Self-compassion

Purposely tending to our emotional health can make our lives happier and healthier. Parents who are estranged from adult children can nonetheless bolster their emotional health and increase feelings of well-being, with positive effects.

Looking optimistically forward may be difficult in the face of a situation that remains unpleasant and unchanged. So, parents who are estranged from adult children may hold a less than positive outlook. But even when you can’t change a negative circumstance that is beyond your control, taking charge of your emotional well-being can help. This is one in a series of short articles on ways to bolster emotional health and increase feelings of well-being.

People who suffer rejection in a relationship may replay interactions and try to figure out what they did wrong. Parents whose adult children are estranged often react similarly. We may reflect upon every detail of how we raised our child in an attempt to explain the estrangement. In so doing, we may identify mistakes. Even well-intentioned parents don’t do everything perfect all of the time. In a state of worry, shock, and distress, parents whose adult children are estranged may be too self-critical, which can injure emotional well-being and prolong our sadness. Here’s one way to work at combating an overly critical self-examination, and feel better:

Parents of adult children who are estranged: Practice self-compassion.

In his research, Wake Forest University psychologist Mark Leary found that the ability to treat oneself kindly helps people cope in the face of negative events. Do you forgive your own imperfections and treat yourself well despite failure, defeat or rejection? Or do you berate and belittle yourself? In Leary’s studies, participants with the most forgiving attitudes toward themselves were less bothered when they imagined distressing events.

Most of us find it easy to let another human being off the hook. We might be quick to say something like, “Don’t feel bad. Everybody makes mistakes sometimes. You’re only human.”

If a friend confides a failure, we might offer support by reminding our friend of their success in other areas. Providing ourselves with the same type of supportive self-talk can be healing.

In one of his studies, Leary had participants write themselves a letter, as if they were sending it to a friend. If you have a tendency to blame yourself, you might do well to pen yourself a note of support then read and re-read it whenever needed.

An exercise to practice self-compassion

In my work as a life coach, I have directed clients to ask a trusted friend to sit down and write them an email or note that describes them when they’re at their best. My clients enjoyed receiving the positive depiction, and were often surprised by the depth of a friend’s caring. The note became a tool they could pull out whenever they were feeling low. Trading notes might be even better.

A few years ago, I participated in this exercise myself by trading descriptions with a friend. Her letter describing me at my best was helpful in that it demonstrated she understood some of my most core values. And at a time when my focus was a bit fuzzy, her description reminded me of what is most important to me. Providing a description of my friend at her best was also helpful. It feels good to provide positive support to an individual you care about, and writing the description did just that.

To foster a spirit of self-compassion, consider writing out a description of yourself when you’re at your best. In the wake of an adult child’s rejection, parents whose adult children are estranged can feel powerless. In preparing for the exercise, reflecting on your life, how you’ve successfully dealt with problems in the past, and reliving satisfying moments can perhaps break a habit of self-blame, and trigger better feelings. Describing yourself at your best in writing may help reconnect you with your strengths, accomplishments, and value – – and perhaps spur you back into things you enjoy and do well.

Self-compassion, according to Leary’s studies, might also have another benefit for parents whose adult children are estranged and who look forward to the hope of reconciling. When we are self-compassionate, we are better able to admit our mistakes. Because healing family rifts may require honest, open discussion, a willingness to admit our failings as perceived by our adult children can help foster the necessary atmosphere of humility and understanding.

Even if you don’t follow through and write a letter to yourself, take a few moments to consider yourself with compassion. After all, you are your oldest friend.

Parents whose adult children are estranged: How you will be self-compassionate and treat yourself well?

In what ways will you be more self-compassionate? I’d love to hear how you’re treating yourself well. Shared kindness creates a more compassionate world.

Related articles:

Looking forward

Self-Compassion and Reactions to Self-Relevant Events: The Implications of Treating Oneself Kindly

Psychologist finds self-compassion helps people cope with failure

Looking forward

estranged adult sonOn New Year’s Eve, near a roaring campfire in the desert, I leaned back in my anti-gravity chair and looked up at the night sky. As cold winter air settled into the valley, the hoots and hollers of partiers at scattered campsites faded, and then stopped.

My husband and I pulled our caps down against the cold, and sat back to enjoy the thick silence that now filled the open space. Above me, the night sky spread, a starry blanket, and sudden tears rolled into my ears. The calendar page may be turning, but when it came to my estranged adult son, the New Year with all its blank-slate opportunity, wouldn’t change things.

Feeling insignificant beneath the vast canopy of stars, I imagined the possibility that loved ones lost in death looked down from above. At least with them I can remember good times and speak openly about missing them. No one would accuse me of causing their passing. With my estranged adult son, the situation holds a similar grief, yet I’m often stuck in a pit of silence.

Understanding parents of estranged adult children

My closest friends are sympathetic. They know I am a good mom, but they can’t relate (and I wouldn’t wish this on them). Others judge – – a response I understand. After our son split off from the family, I remembered a few stories people had told me over the years – – about disappointing relationships with their adult children.

One father had related that he never hears from his adult son unless he needs money. A mother confided that on the rare occasions she has seen her estranged adult son during the last 20-odd years, he picked fights and denigrated her beliefs. The meetings with her son, who is now into his forties, always end on a sour note – – and then another long period of silence and unreturned phone calls ensues. And another man confided that he doesn’t even know the whereabouts of his adult son. They haven’t spoken in over a decade.

These parents’ pain was deep, but at the time they shared their hurt, I couldn’t relate. Back then, my family was intact. I had no inkling that one of my five grown children would choose estrangement. I wasn’t insensitive to those parents’ feelings, but will admit to a sliver of accusation in my thoughts. Like most people, at that time I believed good parents just didn’t have grown children who are estranged.

Family rifts and a hopeful future

Despite the hope of a brand new year, many rejected parents have no chance to mend a rift. Some of us have tried, but have been repeatedly hurt. Some parents hear a litany of complaints that make no sense. Others of us can’t figure out what caused the indifference from our adult children. Even so, we may blame ourselves. Some rejected parents have identified and admitted potential mistakes, and then tried to fix things, but their efforts have been met with silence or anger. Some parents have occasional, distant contact with grown children who are estranged (an occasional text, say), but it’s not a real or satisfying relationship. Yet our grown children who are estranged don’t want more.

Accepting an adult child’s estrangement

For me, as I reclined beneath the stars, I decided not to set any record-setting New Year’s resolutions with regard to my adult son who is estranged. For now, my resolutions revolve more around no longer allowing the situation he has chosen to define me, or to sour my day-to-day life. Regardless of his choices (which are beyond my control anyway), I remain a good mother who is fortunate to enjoy close relationships with my other grown children and my grandchildren. Does that mean I’m giving up? No. My decision is more giving in than giving up. Giving in to what is. Giving in, and accepting the reality of the estrangement, at least for now. Acceptance brings some peace.

I start 2014 with renewed energy toward regaining more of the happy me who enjoyed life prior to the estrangement.  There will likely be bad days. Just as I cried beneath the desert sky on New Year’s Eve, I will allow myself to pause and reexamine things when the dark feelings hit. But I resolve not to wallow for long. Despite my grief that matches many, many other parents whose grown children are estranged, there is a good and rewarding life to live.

Supporting parents of estranged adult children

Increasingly, I realize that part of my life must continue to include calling attention to the isolation felt by many good parents whose grown children are estranged. According to some experts, parents of estranged adult children are an increasing number. We need and deserve support rather than the automatic judgment we often receive – – and which isolates us.

On New Year’s Eve, as the clock struck midnight, the haunting yips and yowls of coyotes echoed across the desert night.  As their calls faded, I enjoyed the moment, fully present, and looking forward to 2014.