When estranged adult children call: Your feelings
by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
When estranged adult children call after a long period of no contact, parents often find themselves plagued with mixed emotions. They may feel guarded yet hopeful. They may consider the years that have passed in silence, the times they’ve reached out and been ignored, or remember past hurt the child inflicted. Depending on circumstances, parents may have worked hard to move forward for themselves, progressed diligently in their own growth and well-being, and not quite trust the child’s sudden outreach. Parents may look back on how many times they have been sucked into believing the best, only to have the rug pulled out from beneath them, and feel like fools. They worry they’ll be hurt all over again when they’ve worked so hard to shake the pain. When estranged adult children call, parents may even find themselves wishing they’d have stayed away. Then they feel guilty for it.
I’ve written extensively about managing these scenarios in Beyond Done With The Crying, and I hope you’ll get that book to help you navigate the sticky emotions, extended family situations, and more complex circumstances that go with estrangement. Here, I’ve shared a recent email exchange that exemplifies the feelings many parents have when estranged adult children call.
Question from Maya: Dear Sheri, Sorry for writing like this. Until yesterday, the last thing my son ever said to me was, “I don’t want to know when you die.” That was three years ago. Then last evening, on my birthday, my son called. In a chipper voice, he just wished me a happy birthday and told me about how happy he is with a new relationship and his business. Of course, I was surprised and pleased to hear from him! But now, I am left with this really uncomfortable feeling. As if I am all opened up and vulnerable…I don’t know how I should feel. It has been three years of anguish, and now, I feel disconnected. During the call, it was like we used to talk many years ago, but now I’m confused and fearful. Do other people feel like this? I don’t like this feeling of being….in shock?….is everything supposed to be okay now? I never expected to feel this way, like I’ve been punched in the gut, only that’s not even it, really, I don’t know how to describe it. I am not in control of my feelings now.
Thank you for all you do and for reading this.
Answer from Sheri McGregor: Oh, Maya, I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. But gosh, no. You are not unusual at all in this. When estranged adult children call suddenly, parents can be confused and torn.
To repeat what you said, your son hasn’t spoken to you in three years. The last thing he said to you was that he didn’t want to know when you died. My guess is that this last thing he said was not the only mean thing he ever said to you. My sense is there were many other mean instances. Maybe there were even mean acts. I don’t know your entire story, but if you reflect upon this, I believe you will see that your reaction and feelings are completely rational. Yes, you have accepted the call with gladness, and you talked with him like everything was normal. Except, you know it’s not. And you don’t trust him.
Very often, I hear from parents who ignore this feeling of being vulnerable, of wondering if they’ve opened themselves up for more hurt. Many quash that little voice that provides them caution. They instead jump on and ride a big wave of joy and celebration: He’s returned! He loves me! Things are back to normal! And … some do make it. They must.
I don’t often hear from those ones though. I hear the other story instead. That it all goes to hell in a hand basket when the previously estranged adult children call a few days later with a request (money, a place to stay, some other type of help). And then the parent thinks, great, I was just being used. Sometimes, the parent still ignores that voice, and goes along to get along because this is … their child. He or she needs help, and a “good” parent (they tell themselves) does help.
I also hear from ones who open their hearts and homes and then are hurt in worse ways. I won’t go down the rabbit holes of those situations here, because problems like theft, fraudulent use of credit cards or identity, financial extortion and ruin, and physical abuse. may not be relevant to your situation at all. And if they are, you probably recognize your inner wisdom, likely based on history, warning you.
I completely understand what this is like, and the hope of it. You have loved your son. Because you are a kind parent, you are willing to forgive and maybe even forget. You always thought you would be close to your kid and have a loving, friendly relationship. Sometimes parents must try because they feel they can’t live with themselves if they close the door. And these are all typical responses, even though a son’s words that he doesn’t want to know when his parent dies is not normal (or nice) at all.
It would not be right for me to tell you what to do, or predict that it will all go bad or all go good. My suggestion is to tread lightly, and consider the facts. He called as if nothing happened, as if he never hurt you, as if you just talked yesterday. Would you ever do that to someone you love? To your parent? I sincerely hope that he has changed. I also hope that you will be extra sensitive to your own needs. You count, too, and no doubt, the three years have been pure hell for you. (Maybe even years prior to the estrangement also were.)
HUGS to you, Sheri McGregor
Maya followed up with this email:
Thank you, Sheri. This is a tremendous help to me. This is a rational approach that I don’t seem to get to on my own with my fluctuating emotions. I shall reread this many times to ground myself in reason. The service you offer parents like me is a Godsend. Thank you again.
To which I replied:
You’re welcome, Maya.
It’s possible your son wants a genuine connection and doesn’t quite know how. If you do stay “grounded in reason,” then you can be a quiet strength that may help him to get to that place. If his intentions were/are something else, then you will not have lost yourself so deeply into the emotional mire.
In time, the situation is likely to better reveal itself. Meanwhile, go on and enjoy your life as best you can.
HUGS to you!
When estranged adult children call: More thoughts
For the record, I am not against parents being parents when estranged adult children call. Those feelings of wanting the connection and love are understood. I hope for Maya’s sake that her son is sincere and that he will nurture a healthy relationship with her. In time, maybe they can get to a comfortable point, whether that becomes a polite, cordial relationship or one that’s much more connected. But, it is always wise to listen to your inner voice.
When estranged adult children call, if you become troubled and worried, examine your response. Write down your reservations and doubts. If you’re instantly elated, consider that feeling as well. Are their “should” type thoughts that come up? Do you have feelings or thoughts that you judge yourself negatively about (as in “This isn’t how a parent “should” feel.)? Take the time and energy to fully understand how you respond to the outreach.
To consider whether feelings are grounded in sound reasoning, as Maya so aptly said, allows parents to be strong for their own well-being (and not just, or even mostly, for their adult child’s).
Hugs to all the parents traveling this unexpected journey.