by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
During the first holiday season after my son’s estrangement, my self-worth crumbled. While the Earth outside stilled into winter’s quiet, I rushed about, determined to keep my family’s spirits bright. I cleaned, cooked, and shopped. I wrapped and prepared. I raced around, creating a Christmas to remember— and perhaps to forget. My heart wasn’t fully in it.
Looking back, I can see there was an anxious pitch to my behavior, as if making everything picture perfect for the holiday would make me picture perfect. And prove to myself and others that I really was a good mom.
In the silence of night after Christmas was done, I wasn’t satisfied or content. Did I do enough? I imagined myself alone and old. Is that how I’ll end up?
My eyes opened to the darkness. No matter how silly and self-indulgent, the thought rang true. I had told myself my holiday frenzy was normal, but fear was at the root. Fear had me working my fingers to the bone to make the best holiday ever, to hang onto my remaining family.
Tears welled, and I felt powerless. My estranged adult son had made choices. No matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t change that. That night in the darkness, I realized that all the presents and favorite foods in the world wouldn’t hold the rest of my family together. If my four remaining adult children chose to leave, this perfect holiday wouldn’t stop them.
After estrangement from adult children: Uncertainty reigns
I know the fear that plagues parents after estrangement from adult children. If something so precious and basic can fall apart, then what is safe? What can you count on? Who can you trust?
The whole world looks different and bleak.
Fear can be paralyzing, so don’t let that feeling become your new normal. Shape your new normal into a good and happy life.
In my book , the word “fear,” or an iteration of it, is mentioned more than 60 times. There are examples and tools to help. That’s because fear is so common to parents of estranged adults.
Estranged from adult children? Get clear on fear
Don’t let fear take over your good judgment. Don’t compound your problems and over-drink, overeat, or indulge some other unhealthy behavior to numb the feeling. Instead, get clear on your fear. Identifying your specific fears can help you get a handle on them.
Do you fear your other children will also leave? Maybe you worry your estranged daughter won’t be safe—and you can’t get in touch to make sure. Do you imagine the future, and worry your estranged son will have regrets? Are you afraid of being judged? Fearful you did do something to cause the break? Afraid you’re losing your mind?
Does the fear that you’ll never see your son or daughter again steal your peace? Or maybe you’re afraid that if your child does return, you’ll never be able to trust. Some fear that their grandchildren they were once so close to will believe vicious lies. Others worry their raw emotions will burden other people they love and drive them away.
Among the thousands of parents who have reached out to me, those are a few of the most common fears expressed.
Fear: Like a riptide
It’s easy to get caught up in our fears. If we don’t identify and confront fears, they can carry us along and take control without us even realizing. That’s what happened to me during that first frantic holiday season after my estranged son walked away. Like me, you might find yourself catering to others to the point of exhaustion. Or maybe you attempt to protect yourself by isolating, and shutting out the possibility of pain. If you do that, you can end up like Lila, watching the world pass her by, whom I wrote about in Emotional scars after an adult child’s estrangement. Fear is a powerful emotion. If we let it, fear can hinder our recovery from the trauma of an adult child’s rejection, and keep us from moving forward in our lives.
Among the thousands of parents I’ve heard from, many concur that that after estrangement from adult children, it helps to honestly examine fears, and identify they’re effects.
Fear: It’s all in your head
By pinpointing your specific fears, and taking stock of how they affect you, you can then begin to take control. The truth is that fears are all in your head. After estrangement from adult children, many of the fears we worry over can’t be controlled. If you fret for fear your adult child isn’t safe but you have no contact, there’s not much you can do to put your worry to rest. You may worry you’ll never see your child again, but if your adult child won’t connect, it’s beyond your control.
For some, it might help to recognize why you have the fears you do. For instance, if you fear everyone will leave, maybe fear of abandonment derives from the past. Somebody else important left you, or you always feared they would. It’s okay to have the feeling. It might even be normal for you. But it’s not okay to let it rule your life to your own detriment.
If you fear for your child’s safety or health, your fear may come from some concrete reason, such as knowing your son or daughter uses drugs. Your fear may be rational, but your fear can’t control your child’s choices, or the outcome.
Worrying about the possibility your adult child will have regrets might come from your own experience with regrets. Or from natural parental love that wants to protect. But our sons and daughters are adults. Decisions have consequences. We don’t live in bubbles, and neither do they.
After estrangement from adult children, take action where you can
By identifying fears and their effects, you can recognize them when they creep up. No more surprise ambush in the darkness on a holiday night. You can observe fears as they occur, and loosen their control over you.
You can recognize fears for what they are. Don’t cling to imaginings that lead you down paths of despair. Appreciate fears for what they are, appreciate any rational reasoning behind them, and then you can purposely dismiss them.
Try a positive spin about a negative feeling: I don’t like not knowing, but since it’s out of my hands, I can accept it for now. Or: This isn’t ideal, but I’m strong. I can tolerate it.
Don’t let worrisome imaginings carry you helplessly away. Instead, Train your thoughts on what’s constructive and empowers you.
The Landscape of loss is fertile ground for growth
Every one of us has had struggles. We have all had situations and circumstances we’ve had to rise above. For many of us, losing a child by estrangement is our most significant obstacle to date, but recalling how we’ve handled past difficulties can help. By taking stock of fears, and supporting ourselves with understanding and acceptance, we can get through this too. We can let go of outcomes we can’t control, dismiss fears that don’t help us, and take action for our own happy lives.