Monthly Archives: November 2021

Sending a card

sending cards estranged adult child

In parent and adult child estrangement situations, we deliberate over sending cards. Moms and dads stand in the card aisle reading verse after verse, wondering how it will be received. Will my estranged adult child read an unintended message between the lines?

Parents click through electronic greetings for just the right words, images, and animation. Is it too jolly, too mushy, or does it overstate the current relationship?

Even when parents find what they consider an appropriate card, they wonder if the effort might be rewarded or only bring them more grief.

  • Will she misinterpret the message?
  • Do I dare hope for a rekindled relationship?
  • He might be mad that I didn’t enclose a gift card or cash.

It’s so sad that, in parent and adult child estrangement situations, contemplating something as simple and lovely as sending a greeting card can trigger such grief.

Consider reaching out a gift

Argentinian poet Antonio Porchia had it right:

“I know what I have given you, I do not know what you have received.”

In the end, the card’s design, colors, pictures, or message, no matter how carefully selected, will be interpreted by the receiver in a way that they choose.

The answer? Give freely.

My intention here is not to tell those parents in estrangement situations that they should or should not send a card. Each situation is unique. Those sorts of decisions are not mine to make or judge you for. But at this time of year in particular, I hear from a lot of parents who are deliberating.

My suggestion: If you do decide to send a card, do so freely—as you have so many kindnesses toward your child from as long ago as forever. And then let the outcome go.

Always remember:

parent and adult child estrangement situationsHugs from,
Sheri McGregor

Related reading

Parent and adult child estrangement situations: What about hope?

Thanksgiving for estrangement situations.

Thanksgiving for hurting parents of estranged adult children

Adult children with mental illness: Guess who’s coming to dinner

adult children with mental illnessGuess who’s coming to holiday dinner: Adult children with mental illness (known or suspected)

By Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Whether your semi- or previously estranged adult child has been officially diagnosed with a mental disorder or you’re just speculating, if you’ll be saying to relatives this holiday season, “Guess who’s coming to dinner,” this article is for you. While you can’t control everything, you don’t have to feel helpless. Here, I’ll help you devise strategies to manage interaction at holiday events in your unique circumstances.

Adult children with mental illness: One family’s story

Beverly and Thomas are apprehensive about the holidays. This year, their previously estranged daughter will be present. “And that can mean drama,” says Beverly.

From her early twenties, their daughter, Trish, was unstable in her jobs and relationships. Periods of full estrangement alternated with times when she was irritable or distant. Beverly and Thomas suspected mental illness, but their daughter vehemently opposed any evaluation that might lead to help. She eventually cut them off completely, and for three years, they had zero contact. Their daughter also refused contact with her siblings.

Beverly and Thomas were devastated but they got on with their lives. Then, they received a telephone call from an in-patient behavioral health care facility. “The social worker told us Trish needed a place to go upon her discharge. She’d given the social worker our number.”

Beverly choked up as she talked about hearing her daughter’s voice over the telephone line a day later. “Trish was tearful and apologetic, and she sounded so childlike and needy. She’d been preliminarily diagnosed with bipolar, borderline personality disorder, and anxiety, and she’d been evicted from her apartment. She was scared and conciliatory … and she needed her mom and dad.”

Beverly and Thomas could finally confirm their suspicions: Mental illness caused Trish’s instability and the years of discord and disconnect. They forgave Trish for her past cruelty to them and asked Trish’s sisters to do the same. They thought that now, their daughter would get well, and the family would heal.

Trish was discharged a week later and lived with them for more than a year. The parents were patient, kind, and trying to help. However, they describe her time with them as nothing short of volatile. Trish was hospitalized twice for psychotic episodes that included suicide threats. She also drifted in and out of several outpatient treatment programs.

“It was a tough time,” says Beverly. With a sad laugh, she adds, “Anyone who knows anything about mental illness knows that statement is loaded.” She describes her daughter’s constant mood swings and the ceaseless tension that filled their home as almost unbearable at times. “Drama unfolded minute by minute with her, and then there was the roller coaster of treatment. Hope arrived with each new program or medication, and then disappointment each time she refused to continue with the help she always said didn’t work for her.”

Thomas says, “And the failure was always someone else’s fault.”

Eventually, the couple’s daughter was stable enough to crave her independence. She found an entry-level position with a marketing company where her degree was useful and moved out. Beverly and Thomas were concerned about her living on her own, but they also admit to feeling relief. Since then, their daughter’s contact has been sporadic at best—sometimes peaceful and sometimes not. “We’ve tried to be welcoming,” says Beverly. “But we’re never sure how a visit will go.”

Thomas explains, “There’s no predicting what triggers her verbal abuse, which is mostly directed at Beverly. The last time she was here, I had to tell her to leave. Then the next day she sent flowers with an apology.”

“It’s the mental illness talking,” says Beverly. “But that doesn’t change how much damage she can do.”

Adult children with mental illness: Mitigating the damage

In my latest book, Beyond Done With The Crying: More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children you’ll find sections devoted to managing situations involving adult children with mental illness. Parents who’ve made the choice to stay in touch do so with purpose that accomplishes goals and limits their exposure thus their hurt. Examples of reconciling with adult children with mental illness (or undiagnosed instability) are included.

Identify your concerns for holiday interaction

For Beverly and Thomas, the main concern was the possibility of their daughter’s verbal abuse. An outburst would be confusing for their grandchildren. “Our other daughters have five children between them, aged six to twelve,” says Beverly. “If Trish suddenly explodes, she’s likely to call me names like ‘evil’ and ‘psycho.’ She might accuse me of abuse and say I’ve always hated her. It would be upsetting for the kids to hear their grandma treated like that.”

Beverly is still learning to navigate the murky channels between her daughter’s abuse and her own patience. She and the family are weighing what they have learned about mental illness in general, and Trish’s disorders specifically, with their desire to help and the need to stay safe themselves.

Some mentally ill individuals aren’t aware of their own disorders. The lack of insight, called “anosognosia,” makes convincing them to seek or continue treatment a rocky road. Agreeing with lies or allowing abuse is not wise or advised, but Beverly and Thomas don’t feel ready yet to completely lose touch. They speak for many parents of adult children with mental illness.

No one wants the children exposed to Trish’s venom toward Beverly, yet they can’t predict her behavior with certainty. Therefore, they’re hoping for the best. She will be welcomed for the holidays … with a plan in place.

Adult children with mental illness: Gathering your team

When a family member is mentally ill, expert consensus recommends those close to them form a team of support—for the affected individual and for each other. “That’s not easy to do when you’re accused of trying to turn the family against them,” says Beverly, whose daughter has accused her of this. “But how could we have a holiday dinner with her present and not all of us talk about it first?”

Beverly, Thomas, their other daughters, and their sons-in-law have decided on some basic rules:

  • They will be aware of Trisha’s whereabouts at all times.
  • The children will never be left on their own during the party.
  • The adults will work in pairs to supervise the children.
  • At the sign of any outburst, the children will be ushered into a separate room or outdoors, with planned, neutral language (Let’s go out here and see this . . . .).
  • Family members have decided upon a hand signal, a phrase from a movie that won’t fit normal conversation, or a clap (depending on the situation) to alert the others to possible conflict.
  • If necessary, Thomas and their oldest daughter’s husband will escort Trish to her car, attempt to calm her, or see that she leaves.

Your circumstances: Your unique plan

If you’re expecting difficult personalities at the holiday celebration, first identify your concerns. Perhaps, like Beverly and Thomas, you’re worried about verbal abuse that can confuse children or other relatives who may not be fully aware of the circumstances. Unfounded blame or accusations can stir a domino effect, causing questions or damaging gossip among relatives. Or your concern may be the individual’s penchant for a particular topic, drinking too much, or as one parent voiced, “Bringing cannabis-laced food.”

Once you know the concern(s), devise plans that are doable and as non-intrusive as is sensible for the circumstances. For some, that might mean avoiding hot button topics or eating out. For others, a more elaborate plan may be needed, such as the one arranged by Beverly and Thomas.

Here are a few more ideas:

  • Assign a “safe” person to the affected one. (Sometimes, one family member is most trusted, brings out the best in the individual, or is well-equipped to defuse and deescalate conflict.)
  • Celebrate in a restaurant or other public space, which may be more neutral (helping to avoid emotional triggers).
  • Don’t serve alcohol.
  • If one person is the “target” of the difficult personality, minimize contact by strategic seating arrangements, and make sure that person is never left alone.

“No” is an option

Some families in these volatile semi- or previously estranged situations decide to forego the holiday gatherings entirely. Alternative pursuits such as travel are always an option. If you need to beg off this year, don’t go on a guilt trip. Instead, pat yourself on the back for the part you played in all the beautiful celebrations and good times past. The holidays appear every year. If you can’t celebrate as usual this year, all is not lost. Also, recognize that taking kind care of yourself, even during the holidays, is a vital step toward your own healing.

Your turn

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for planning holidays when adult children have mental illness. Ditto for gatherings where difficult personalities will be present, or when navigating prickly semi- or previously estranged relationships. Some of you may be attending events at others’ homes, where your estranged adult child will be present. Beyond Done With The Crying: More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children offers specific advice for tense events of all sorts.

Do you have a worrisome event ahead? I hope you will share your thoughts to help other parents who may be managing these sorts of issues this holiday season.

Related Reading

Why do adult children estrange? Let’s look at nature or nurture

Emotional triggers

Does healing from estrangement mean you’re “cold-hearted”?

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

parents healing from estrangementJaylene, a widow whose only daughter is estranged, said she recently looked in the mirror and—in her words—saw a cold-hearted mother staring back.  “I decided not to give my estranged daughter holiday gifts this year,” she said. “I’ve become indifferent. I guess I’ve healed so well that I no longer care.”

But she did care. She cared so much about being a good parent and a forgiving person that she harshly judged herself for the various actions she’d taken over the last ten months to save herself. Suddenly, she was in turmoil.

 Healing from estrangement: Your feelings

Over the years, I’ve heard similar accounts from other parents as they work at healing from estrangement. Kind, loving mothers and fathers who had come to realize that letting go was the only sensible choice. Leaving their happiness in their adult child’s hands wasn’t an option. They’d been down that sad road of wishing, hoping, trying, and being rebuffed. No matter how apologetic or accommodating they were, their adult children spewed hate, assigned blame, made fun of them, or refused to talk at all.

In our discussion, Jaylene said she and her daughter used to have fun together. Then, when her daughter reached her late 20s, she changed. Suddenly Jaylene was the enemy. In shock and worried, Jaylene had eggshell walked for years. Things would go smoothly for a little while, but Jaylene was always on edge. She was careful to keep her opinions to herself around her daughter, whose eyes might suddenly narrow as she centered on a misplaced word or unintended slight.  Jaylene was forgiving, helpful, and accommodated her daughter’s lifestyle, schedule, and opinions without complaint. In short, she loved her daughter, and hoped that one day, she might be kind and caring again.

Each time her daughter cut her off, Jaylene was the one to smooth things over. When her daughter finally reconnected (after weeks or months), Jaylene tried to keep the peace. She prayed for patience, ignored her daughter’s snipes, and even made excuses for her behavior. She remained devoted and friendly. Yet, without fail, her daughter eventually hooked some imagined offense to her revised version of their history and left her mother in a lurch again.

 A turning point

Ten months ago, as the New Year approached, Jaylene stared down her upcoming 60th birthday and decided she’d had enough. Her daughter was 33. Much too old to act like a petulant child. Jaylene saw a new decade ahead and began to wonder how many years she had left. Did she want to spend the rest of her life drowning in her daughter’s disrespect? No.

When Jaylene first contacted me, the stress of an angry daughter she was forever trying to please was harming her health. Jaylene was exhausted, frustrated, and hurt. When she looked at her life going forward, she knew things had to change. Rather than continuing to placate a daughter who clearly did not like her, it was time to go with the flow instead of fighting the inevitable.

Healing from estrangement: What’s in your control?

Take a hard look at what you can and can’t do. Evaluate the dynamics of the relationship. What were your own responses, reactions, and coping tactics? Were they effective? Were they hurtful? Did you maintain your own integrity? Did you lose yourself?

Deciding to change

To move in a new direction, Jaylene first had to let go of the idea that she could make her daughter happy, and then shift gears to please herself. As is true for many parents, this required dropping the lens of negativity about herself that she’d accepted from her daughter, looking back at their time together with clear eyes instead, and seeing all the good she’d done as a mother. She also had to drop the rose-colored glasses of hopeful wishes and see the current situation as it was.

Jaylene used the exercises in Done With The Crying to reclaim her identify as the loving, supportive mother she’d always been. Then, she could affirm her decision to free herself of meanness and disrespect she didn’t deserve, and work at moving forward for herself and her own happiness.

At first, letting go was difficult. The chasm between them grew. Jaylene saw more clearly that, for several years, their “relationship” had been one-sided.

Jaylene set her sights on a new way of life. She focused on whatever brought her happiness and was consciously grateful for any good in her life. She took up new hobbies, made more friends, and after nine years of widowhood, considered what it might be like to find a romantic companion. Most of the time, Jaylene was happy. She didn’t know how many years she had left, but she did know she’d make the most of them.

In the last 10 months, Jaylene had progressed considerably. She no longer felt the need to try and make her daughter love her. And she’d accepted that whatever it was that had caused her daughter’s change, whether that was mental illness, substance abuse, societal influences, or something else. She couldn’t fix those. Jaylene had taken charge of what she could—in her own life—and she was happy.

Then, as the trees began to turn color, the pumpkins and costumes appeared in the stores, and the holidays loomed, her outlook dimmed. That’s when she looked in the mirror and had a tough time seeing herself as anything but a terrible mom. Instead of focusing on her own life, she took on the familiar “mother guilt” that had once made her responsible for her daughter’s happiness. Jaylene wrung her hands, fought indigestion and overeating, and repeatedly asked:

  • What will my daughter do for the holidays if I don’t invite her?
  • Will she be all alone?
  • How will my daughter feel if her own mother doesn’t send a card or gift?

Monster in the mirror? Santa Claus? Or just a tired parent?

The more Jaylene focused on her daughter’s possible pain—and took responsibility for it—the more she harshly judged herself. In talking it through, Jaylene began to realize that the holidays with their family focus had triggered her thoughts and feelings. Yet, she also realized she had come too far to let the joy-joy, family-family atmosphere derail her progress.

I hear the same reactions from parents when a birthday or some other special day rolls around. Your trigger might be a certain time of year or hearing about how close and loving a friend’s adult children are. Even a well-meaning individual who loves you but who doesn’t understand might say something intended as helpful that pushes you back.

The truth is a lot of people don’t have a clue about the complexities that sometimes accompany estrangement. Idealistic notions about parenthood and unconditional love may be beautiful, but they become unrealistic and hurtful given the circumstances. The verbal abuse and mind games that may have gone on for years can become a shadow that can entangle parents into thinking badly of themselves or believing that it’s too late to change.

Don’t let your thoughts enslave you

“I don’t like him anymore,” one mother said of her abusive grown son. “But that’s not how a mother should feel.”

“He’s mentally ill,” one father said of the manipulative adult son who had talked him out of money once again. “But if someone’s father won’t stay loyal, who will?”

Like Jaylene, these parents were caught by a wave of emotion stirred up by the holidays, triggered by a special day, or fueled by the latest chaos. Instead of looking outward to the adult children who treat them badly and seeing their own desire to retreat as normal and even healthy, they see a monster in the mirror.

Believing that the children we have loved so much might love us back when they become adults is natural and normal. When they don’t, and we grow weary of trying to maintain or nurture a relationship to no avail, we can still face the mirror. We don’t have to reconcile their uncaring, unkind, or dismissive behavior with our own growth and self-discovery, and judge ourselves harshly for working to heal.

Don’t berate yourself. When adult children so hurt you and desecrate the relationship, your feelings of strong dislike or indifference are normal. You might even wish you’d never had children, but your entire history as a parent or as a human being must not be defined by the thought. These feelings are usually fleeting, the result of frustration, anger, or desperation. You can acknowledge your losses, accept your feelings for what they are, and adjust your outlook. By recognizing and accepting your feelings, you validate yourself and your experiences. It’s okay to make your healing from estrangement about you and your growth.

 Healing from estrangement: An honest look

After reading an advance copy of my latest book, Beyond Done With The Crying: More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children, Mara Briere of Grow a Strong Family sent me an email in which she called the book, “REAL. Honest. Helpful.” She added, “It is an important, must-read for anyone impacted by estrangement, and especially the well-meaning and misguided professionals who think they can help families traumatized by this phenomenon.”

This new book provides a raw look at parent-and-adult-child estrangement. It’s a follow-up to my first book for parents of estranged adult children, Done With The Crying, and I encourage you to read that one and work through its exercises first. Done With The Crying shares my story and takes a gentler approach in helping parents face reality and venture forward for their own well-being.

In Beyond Done, the gritty experience of estrangement with its frequent chaos and complexities is cracked open and laid bare. Mental health issues are included. Even parents who have made mistakes they consider huge, and not the typical ones that all parents may inadvertently make, will find themselves represented—and more importantly—supported in moving beyond their guilt and pain.

With new information and innovative exercises that build resilience and growth, parents can face themselves square in the mirror no matter their thoughts, acknowledge their responses as normal given the circumstances, forgive themselves as needed, and move toward a happier, freer future.

 Ongoing healing from estrangement

With support, Jaylene made decisions about the holidays that sustained her self-growth and forward focus. She would send an e-card because it didn’t feel “right” not to acknowledge the holidays—and admitting her hope was honest. She would not send a gift or otherwise reach out though because that would feel like stepping backward into pleasing-her-daughter mode. She could live with this decision. It didn’t mean she was a bad person, cold-hearted, or even indifferent.

No matter what you’ve decided for yourself or your relationship with your estranged adult child(ren), get ready for the holiday season early so you’ll be prepared. Would a charity appreciate your help (whether monetary or hands-on)? Can you do something different this year and make a new tradition?

I know how resourceful those who read this blog are! I hope you will leave comments to this article here, where you can learn from and help other parents who are healing from estrangement. What do you think: Does your healing make you cold-hearted? Is it okay to be indifferent to someone who doesn’t treat you well? What will you do to make the holiday season bright?

Write your thoughts in a comment so we can learn from each other.