Parents of Estranged Adults:
Are you tyrannized by the painful emotions?
by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
Another year has rolled around to Independence Day. America gained its independence 241 years ago. But do you feel free now? Or are you tyrannized by painful emotions caused by an estranged son or daughter?
For some parents of estranged adult children, the shock is so new that disbelief sets in. You can’t imagine the cutting-off could possibly continue. Yet you worry how long it will, and how much time is passing. Emotionally raw, your mind plays and replays vile words or a torturous final scene. Troubling dreams wake you in the night—if you sleep at all.
I know the agony of feeling powerless over a situation. I’ve suffered the tears, anger, and bitterness that result when an adult child walks away.
But I also know those feelings can change. With a conscious decision and proactive steps to support yourself, parents of estranged adults don’t have to remain in pain.
I can honestly tell you that my heart no longer aches for my estranged adult son. If I sat and dwelled on the experience, then I could conjure up and recall the pain. But doing so would be a choice. Although it feels odd, maybe even harsh to say, the truth is, I don’t think of him all that often anymore. My life has moved forward. I have stepped into new places and situations. There is good in my life—and there are also more pressing hurts.
My estranged son lives his life, and I live mine. On the occasions he comes to mind, I wish him well. There’s no more imagining the what-ifs. No more putting myself through the torture of wondering whether he’ll come back. I don’t contemplate whether he’s okay, if I’ll ever meet his children, see him again, or even hear his voice.
I made a decision not to ask the questions that lead to endless loops:
- Why did this happen?
- What happens if he comes back?
- Where did I go wrong?
Instead of wondering why he made his choices, I think: Why go there?
Even for parents of estranged adults: Peace in the present
It helps to have processed the hurt, examined where the
experience has changed me and my other relationships, hopes, and dreams. Taking steps to make changes where they help, and make important decisions for the future can set the mind at ease. In my book, you’ll find ways to explore the future and make those sorts of decisions. How far will you go to reconcile, and what does that word mean? How does your estranged adult child fit into the end of your life—and how will your decision affect the others who are important to you? Realistically contemplating these and other situations, making decisions, and taking practical steps toward them paves the way for peace in the present.
Many parents write to me about unconditional love. The word “unconditional” implies that love is not withdrawn for any reason. Does that mean we’re required to put ourselves in danger to fulfill this sort of love? Does loving another human being, an adult child, mean that we allow them to hurt us forever?
I love my son. But it’s love that’s sort of frozen in time. I remember the cuteness of him, the curves of his young face taken over by angles as he matured, the way his eyes lit, the strength of him not to flinch when his brow was stitched as a young boy. I remember my pride when a teacher complimented him. Or, as he grew into a strong young man, the way he calculated the space between things—demonstrated by a ball tossed to the basket or in eyeballing a length of string that he cut to perfectly fit. I remember the amazing things, and feel glad to have been a part of them.
If I really wanted to, I could think of him now in a similar way. I could imagine him as a husband who loves his wife and as a son-in-law who honors her parents. As a man, he must go about his days being courteous to others he meets along the way. And I can stop there. I don’t have to examine and re-examine the things he doesn’t do. The years we spent together were a season, a time. Now I’m in a new time. To be fair, so is he.
Where are you?
We can get stuck in the disappointment. We can put ourselves back in the hurt. Or we can move on.
Some parents of estranged adult children continue to reach out and try. There’s nothing wrong with that. If you choose to do so, it’s wise to honor yourself in the process. Set some goals that support your well-being. Contemplate practical issues such as how often you’ll reach out, how you’ll handle the possible disappointment of being rejected yet again, and how you feel about the choices you make—there’s help in my book for those things.
Among the thousands of parents in sustained estrangements who have shared their thoughts with me, the ones who have reclaimed happiness also stop putting themselves in the way of continued hurt. It’s a choice we make whether to give an estranged adult child the opportunity to continue to inflict pain. We can let the person know we’re willing, if at some point, they change their mind. We can set boundaries. We can decide what we would need from any future relationship. We can even change our mind at any time. And we can go on with our lives before it’s too late.
We can heal. The research, examples, question sets, and exercises in my book are designed to help you move forward one step at a time. Parents of estranged adults can support themselves with self-compassion, our own wisdom, and the help of others who have walked a similar path. As thousands of parents will tell you, the path ahead gets brighter.