by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
March was once considered the first month of the year. January and February weren’t even named in ancient times because they were considered a winter period of dormancy and doldrums. Everything got going again in March.
That’s when warriors returned to the battlefields. March is named for the Roman god of war, Mars. This isn’t an article about March or any ancient gods or war, but it works as a segue into what I do want to talk about: Parents cut off by adult children resuming the battle—for themselves.
After the year-long “winter” of lock-downs and letdowns and all things Covid-19, spring is literally and figuratively on the horizon. For parents cut off by adult children, resuming the battle will mean something personal to each. Despite how some people stereotype any rejected parent as narcissistic, abusive, or as having about as much self-awareness as a fence post, we are all unique. Even so, right now, I’m hearing similar struggles from parents cut off by adult children. Here, we’ll conquer a couple of those with tips to prepare and wage war for your own well-being.
The pandemic caused many parents to face an uncomfortable truth: Their children don’t care whether they live or die. Seeing those words written out is harsh, but reality sometimes is. I know, I have faced it. There’s an upside though: When you know facts, you can deal with facts.
Some parents cut off by adult children have previously come to this conclusion. For others, the pandemic brought it to the fore. One father, Terry, put it like this: “If a son won’t check on his dad during a pandemic, then he’s not a son.”
Terry and his ex-wife co-parented with their son’s best interests in mind. When Leo turned 13, he balked at his mother’s rules and was angry she remarried. He moved in with his dad, who also had a few rules. Terry corrected Leo when he was dismissive of his mom. Terry says, “I figured he was just a mixed-up teen, but how he treated her was the writing on the wall.”
With Terry’s encouragement, his brought his grades up, did well in high school sports, and worked in his father’s restaurant. Terry taught Leo everything he knew about running a business, and then watched with pride as his son started his own successful endeavor. When Leo married, the calls home stopped. Terry’s calls were met with “too-busy” responses that soon grew stronger. Leo would answer his phone, tell his dad he was busy, and say, “I’ll call you sometime.” Eventually, he ignored all calls, texts, and voicemails. Silence stretched out between them.
Two years passed. Terry saw a therapist who persuaded him to write an apologetic letter. Father and son reconnected for a while, but in retrospect, Terry wishes he hadn’t sent the note. Nothing really changed, and they were soon back to the same old silence—only now Terry was embarrassed. He hadn’t owed his son an apology. “The letter made me sound weak or begging,” says Terry, who had put himself on the line. Leo didn’t have any real complaints about his dad. Terry realized the hard truth that his son just didn’t care.
Fed up and with no other choice, Terry handled the cutoff the way he’d always handled setbacks. He got on with his life. He even remarried and was so involved in living that he didn’t think much about the past, or Leo. “I was happy,” he says.
Then the pandemic hit.
Concerned about Leo and his daughter-in-law, as well as their baby—the grandson Terry’s ex-wife had seen on social media, pirated a photo of, and shared—Terry reached out. His son ignored the voice message, the email Terry sent a month later, and two texts sent a few months after that.
Terry felt isolated and sad. The lock-downs had drastically reduced his restaurant customer base. Unable to turn a profit and trying to comply with the frequently changing pandemic red tape that added stress without an upside in sight, he closed his business doors for good. With less exposure to the public, he did feel safer, but at home alone while his wife worked in a career deemed essential, he had too much idle time on his hands.
What’s a person to do?
As the vaccines began to roll out and hints of spring arrived in early fruit tree blooms, Terry realized that the events of the past year had put him in a funk. The TV had blared bad news, he had lost the business that had become so much a part of his identity, and he saw his son’s lack of communication in a new, stark way.
Maybe you can relate. I’m hearing from a lot of people who are exhausted from the uncertainty of the past year and fearful of what may lie ahead. Some have lost all hope. If that’s you, consider whether you might be clinically depressed, and consider seeking help.
Even with therapeutic support, making lifestyle changes can make things brighter. As a Life Coach, I’ve assisted many clients, and have included Terry’s plans to prompt your own. Read the next few paragraphs with your own life—your history, your strengths, your circumstances—in mind.
Parents cut off by adult children: Fight for yourself
To move forward, Terry must remember his stronger, more capable self. Doing that puts him in touch with the reserves of strength he knows got buried beneath the gloomy news, all that had happened over the last year, and the hopeless uncertainty that has plagued him. Terry has gone through other tough times . . . and he has prevailed. He can remember what worked for him in the past, lean on those strengths, and prevail again.
Ask yourself what you have previously been through. How did you manage? What helped? What didn’t? Write it down. The more detailed you can get with this, the more you arm yourself to get on with living.
As an alternative or in addition to this self-mining, think about others who inspire you. Historical figures, a family member, or friend. We can borrow ideas from others’ resilience.
As is true for most people, good things often sprang from Terry’s past troubles. Keep in mind though, that in the midst of the battle, any good, any meaning from the experience, isn’t always evident. That may be true for you, and if so, turn any “why do bad things always happen to me” thinking around. Deploy yourself to fight against negative thoughts and win. Try considering your experiences with a sense of mystery or hope. Use words that uplift. Here are some examples:
- The good that will come from this is unknown to me right now.
- The meaning in all of this will reveal itself in time.
- The lesson in this struggle is a mystery right now.
- One day, I will look back on this loss and see the gift that was there all along.
- I don’t understand this right now, but God will reveal its purpose on His time.
- Something good will come from this.
For Terry, the most important positive things he found from past struggles involve his inner being: His strong sense of right and wrong, his faith in a higher power, and his determination to do well for his family. Those truths can provide strength now.
What good things derive from your past struggles? Use the estrangement if you can, but don’t limit yourself. Think in terms of your identity. Every person can think of at least one thing, and usually more. Did you learn that you were stronger than you thought? More creative? Maybe you learned that even when you feel powerless and confused, you can do something in the moment that helps. My grandfather used to say: Sometimes, you just have to put your head down and work.
Reflect on any good that came out of past trauma. Write these down. Remember your strengths.
Terry also recognizes that he must take better care of himself. The side effects are only positive. Better health, better mood, and more.
Read on, consider how this helps Terry, and then come up with your own ideas. Or use the paragraphs below as templates and fill in your unique circumstances, experiences, and truths. You can tape a sheet to the refrigerator as an affirmation or use note cards you can easily pull out for motivation. Written ideas remind you to persevere and progress.
About taking better care of himself, Terry realized:
First, he would feel better about himself. Seeing in the mirror an unshaven man who hadn’t brushed his teeth by dinner didn’t encourage him to do much. If he felt better about himself, he was more likely to get outside for a walk or interact—even at a social distance. By getting up and dressed, he would prepare himself, as Terry said, “For a life.”
Second, he could make other people feel better about themselves. This might seem counterintuitive when you’re thinking of yourself as a project, but Terry knows better. In mentoring employees, he explained how their demeanor influenced customers. When customers feel important, they more highly view the person in front of them (and the overall business).
Third, it all connects. If Terry takes better care of himself, he feels better and is more likely to interact. His simple smile or friendly greeting makes other people feel better, and they respond in kind. Their response, then, makes him feel good too. It’s a positive feedback loop that’s easy to begin and maintain.
Whose line is this anyway?
One final thought: Consider what you’re telling yourself. If you’re allowing an inner refrain of uncertainty and pain, do some inner housekeeping. Be mindful. When your thoughts dip into unhelpful territory, tell yourself to stop, and then change up. I like to use the phrase: Catch and rephrase. You catch the negative thinking, and then you rephrase it.
What negative thoughts come up for you? This can be due to the pandemic and related distress, or, for parents cut off by adult children, to the disconnection, dismay, and even disgust. It’s normal to feel those things but not helpful to dwell. Terry has learned to limit exposure to news or social media. Otherwise, his thoughts wander, and his self-talk grows dark.
If you’re filling up on news that highlights the bad stuff to keep people tuned in, you might find your own thoughts replaced by media headlines. When you catch yourself thinking negatively, ask: Whose line is this anyway? Then come up with a few of your own lines, and make them positive.
Terry says, “Winter is ending. There are vaccines out now. Spring and Easter are on the way. I can’t change my son, but I can change me.” He memorized these sentences and uses them together or on their own whenever he feels the need to lift his spirits or shift his focus. It has become a sort of battle cry.
With all these ideas, Terry is following in the footsteps of ancient Roman soldiers, returning to battle—for himself.
How are you going to battle for yourself? I hope you’ll leave a comment here for other parents cut off by adult children. We can help each other as we help ourselves.
For more strategies to help parents of estranged adults, consider getting the book, Done With The Crying. You can also sign up for the monthly newsletter by filling in your information below.
Five ways to move on after an adult child’s rejection