Does my estranged adult child have mental illness?
Q: “Dear Sheri McGregor,
First, thank you for all the work you do. After my son became estranged, your book, Done With The Crying, traveled in my suitcase, my purse, and my car. For several years, I was never without it and learned to live well without my son! About a year ago, I gave my copy to a neighbor who needed it, and she carries it everywhere with her now. You have helped more parents than you could ever know. Lately though, I found out that my cousin’s daughter has bipolar disorder and something else I can’t remember right now, and I am feeling upset all over again. I have gone over and over the past and am worried. Does my estranged adult child have mental illness? Maybe he was scared or confused and became estranged rather than talk to me. If I had known, maybe I would have been able to help. What do I do with these horrible thoughts that I have failed him?
A: Dear Michelle,
Thank you for your kind words about my work and thank you for writing. Your question is a familiar one. Parents will often worry they have missed something or wonder if there’s some reason for the estrangement that they didn’t know about … and then feel guilty or distressed. Like you, Michelle, many parents wonder: Does my estranged adult child have mental illness? And then they self-blame because they believe they could have avoided the estrangement or helped Or, even that they might be able to help now.
Let me offer a few more thoughts.
Between the lines of your question, I am reading two underlying beliefs. They are that if your child had confided his distress:
- Things would be different, estrangement would not have occurred
- You could have helped.
While one or both may be true, it’s possible that neither is.
You’re not alone in this thinking. However, parents’ belief they could have changed the outcome may be a form of “illusory control.” Or, as it’s often referred to in popular media, an “illusion of control.”
Basically, this psychological term refers to a tendency to overestimate our ability to control outcomes. While parents may not consciously have the thought, they believe that if their child would have confided what was going on, they could have stepped in, facilitated support or treatment, and it all would have led to a happy ending,
The strong motives of love, care, wanting to be a good parent, and the desire for our children to have successful, happy lives, likely influence this illusory sense of control. Despite estrangement, we want the best for our kids. The illusion may also be influenced by our pop-psychology solution society, TV ads that make medications seem like miracle drugs, or the stigma, stress, and embarrassment that keep the very complex and tough mental illness-related dramas behind closed doors. Don’t get me wrong. Situations can improve and those who have familial support often do better than those who don’t. Seemingly miraculous recoveries and the restoration of relationships do sometimes occur.
However, those close to someone who falls within the broad category of “mentally ill” know that solutions are not usually simple or quick. Individuals may be resistant to treatment and have fears about medications causing undesirable side effects. Or, they’re embarrassed, don’t recognize their own mental illness (anosognosia), or their years of disordered thinking has led to changes in the brain that further muddy the issues or how to solve them. Sometimes, mental illness causes risk-taking and reckless choices that end up subjecting the sufferers to victimization, which further complicates diagnosis and treatment.
If you do not yet have my most recent book, Beyond Done , I hope you will get it. Specific sections embedded within the bigger topics of reconciliation, managing emotions, and parental regrets address mental illness. I believe you will find the information enlightening and helpful. Admitting that situations are often complex and stressful, sometimes, happy, or at least happy-esh, endings can occur. Other times, outcomes don’t change and cause further stress for the families involved.
Estranged adult children offer more insight
While I don’t hear from “friendly” estranged adult children all that often, I occasionally receive such communications. Sometimes, they tell me their estrangement had little or nothing to do with their parents. They were frightened, wanted to explore pursuits they believed would hurt their parents, or were troubled in ways they don’t necessarily want to share. Some want to reconcile and begin working toward that end. Others believe the pain of revisiting the hurt they caused would be too great—for them and for their parents and others. Regardless, very often, there is an explanation for estrangement that is not what they originally said, or what the parents were forced to try and guess. Estranged adult children were running from issues or needs or influences or … that, at the time, they didn’t fully understand.
What’s the answer?
If you have been reading my work for a while, you may have seen this final section coming. That’s because it’s a repeat of what I’ve frequently said:
Reach out if it helps you feel better. Let your estranged adult child know you’d be willing to reconcile if that’s what is best for you. Or, if reaching out doesn’t feel right, results in abuse, or for some other reason isn’t the right thing for you, don’t. Regardless, work on yourself. Get strong, find joy, learn to laugh again, and pursue your own life. In the long run, if at some point you reconcile, you’ll be better equipped to handle possible consequences or complexities. There is no downside.
Meanwhile, for Michelle and any parent suffering a reboot of the circling what-ifs, whys, and worries, consider this: Sometimes, what looks like a new question or dimension to your estrangement story, upon closer inspection, is the age old question, Why?, in disguise. Often, it’s a way to stay on the merry-go-round or leads back to blaming yourself. Go back to the fundamentals of healing in Done With The Crying for a tune-up as needed. Then arm yourself with more knowledge and a no-sugarcoat dose of reality with my more recent book. Beyond Done draws on years of interacting with hurting families, my own experience, hundreds of direct interviews, as well as more than 50,000 responses to my survey. Increased awareness works like sunlight, scouring away the same-old-same-old of unhelpful coping and lighting a path for a better future.