Estranged from adult children:
Deciphering the path forward
by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
Beyond the thick, dark curtain lies a blur. I blink, orienting to flecks of dancing light in the dimly lit room. On the walls and floor, spatters of neon pink and green spark to life beneath ultraviolet blacklights. I pause, relieved to see an older gentleman in street clothes wearing a benign smile. He waves me forward, and on I go.
The rubberized floor surprises me, and in the mix of light and color, I waver and consider turning back. But just ahead, another smiling face appears. A man in a silly zip-up jumpsuit printed with glow-in-the-dark skeleton bones urges me toward another dark curtain. Breathing more easily again, I smile back, secure that this haunted house is will be more funny than scary.
Beyond the second curtain, impenetrable darkness envelopes me. My feet are rooted. A zing of fear straightens my spine. Then a scene lights up ahead. Dancing skeletons—more zip-up costumes—and I laugh as the silly bone troupe steps aside, encouraging me to pass. Glowing arrows on the floor direct me forward, and I step toward the light.
Another curtain, a longer period of darkness, and this time only glowing arrows appear. My heart races and my mouth goes dry. In my logical mind, I realize this is all man made. A silly series of dark rooms, corridors, and scenes, timed to titillating perfection.
As I approach the next curtain, a figure leaps from within the wall. I startle, then see that he folds himself flat again, into the depths of the fabric-covered wall. My skin tingles, and I clutch my cross-body bag, hugging myself against a mix of rising fear and the logical awareness that this is just a Halloween performance. But stepping forward, my gaze darts to every corner and crevice, ready for the next surprise.
And so it goes, escalating fear until, at the haunting’s end, I’m sweaty and scared, running through a maze of hanging body parts, to the heightening buzz of a chainsaw. The curtains part. The cold air hits my face. And around me is light, people pointing, laughing. I slow to a standstill and look back at the exit, my palm pressed to my heart as another victim rushes into the cool night air. Silly me.
How silly is this?
Haunted house creators know exactly what they’re doing. They count on our human alert system, which remembers one danger and gets prepared for the next. That way, with each new spooky skeleton, sinister clown, or increasingly intense scene, the fright factor builds—until as I did, you’re running for the final exit.
You’ve probably heard about this phenomenon before. Cave (wo)men learned that, if a wild beast prowled a certain part of the jungle, they’d better avoid that area, be ready to fight, or run. It’s that same fight or flight system at work, even in a Halloween haunted house. We know going in that nothing is real. No actual monsters lurk. The sign out front said none of the actors would even touch us. We’re scared anyway and may even return year to year for the fright. Knowing it’s not real, that it will end soon, that we’ll return to normalcy, keeps it safe.
When it comes to estrangement from adult children, I’ve seen these concepts work in a couple of ways. I’ll share them briefly here. Maybe you can relate.
First, we’re used to forgiving our children’s mistakes. Kids do dumb stuff and, as they grow, we forgive them, teach them, and then move on, expecting the best. And when it comes to parenting and estrangement from adult children, maybe a similar expectation rattles our chains but keeps us coming back.
Frequently, once parents whose adult children cut them off are beyond the confusing passageways and out into post-estrangement light, they look back and see the warnings of trouble ahead. But they never saw estrangement coming. Conditioned to forgive, forget, and move on toward loving adult-to-adult relationships in a forever family, they didn’t take note of or fully understand the signals that, in hindsight, they can clearly see. They thought the dark landscape of troubled times would end. That their child would mature or have a child of their own and experience a shift in perspective. In some ways, I fall into this category. Years later, I realized there was a prior estrangement, though short-lived and not seen for what it was at the time. And emotional estrangement? Several stints of that, too. Yep.
Second, parents in on-again-off-again relationships with adult children who are abusive, manipulating, or controlling, may learn to blunt their responses. They walk on eggshells, and tiptoe down dark relational alleyways with every nerve attuned to possible twists, turns, or torture ahead. They’re always at the ready, prepared to clamp their mouths shut, agree, or apologize, even when compliance feels like a minefield and, they know from experience, a freshly laid trap can suddenly appear. It’s a regular house of horrors.
For some who have suffered past abuse or trauma, they may be so used to ignoring their body’s alarm signals that ignoring them becomes familiar, a sort of “comfort zone,” that keeps them stuck in bad situations. I hear frequently from parents who have begun to look back over their lives and can see where they have been caught in sticky webs that, with insight, come into view. Then comes the work of recognizing traps as they’re spun and giving themselves permission to take an alternate, willfully chosen path. Helping people recognize the blind spots and move beyond them is one area of my work as a life coach, and I am honored to partner with amazing, inspiring people who are shaping their lives toward deeper meaning, more self-worth (and earning power), and greater fulfillment for themselves and for others.
Haunted by the past?
Obviously, I’ve simplified these explanations of the human nervous system and its survival tactics to fit a Halloween theme, but you get the idea. Our well-being depends on our ability to decipher real threats from fake ones. However, even the faux fear fight or flight response to modern day stress can be monstrously harmful if we’re not coping mindfully as advocated for in my books.
Letting go of adult children can be a difficult prospect. Sometimes, the graveyard of what once was haunts our memories or beckons us toward paralyzing hope or pain. Don’t take on the tunnel vision of a cyclops. Put on a helpful costume as needed and continue working on your own well-being and strength. Then you’re more prepared to unearth old memories, savor the innocence and joy of a loved past life, and take charge of a new and cherished life now.