Monthly Archives: July 2024

Healing from adult children’s rejection: Persevere beyond “backdraft” to freedom

Healing from adult children’s rejection:
Persevere beyond “backdraft” to freedom

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Among the parents who’ve joined my online community, or worked with me individually, or shared email or phone conversations, some hail from difficult families. They may have been raised with guilt as a motivator, been “parentified,” or served in a scapegoat role. These parents willfully rose above their circumstances and parented their own children with a determination to treat them right. Regardless, one or more children grew up to desert or otherwise abuse them, and these parents find themselves puzzling over what went wrong. Like most parents, they go to their own actions first. Where did I go wrong? What can I do now? They may also think, I’ll do anything to fix this. 

When nothing works or their continued efforts are met with increasingly stiffer demands, they long for peace. Stepping away from their children and the drama feels like taking their lives back. Frequently, once away from the chaos, they begin to feel free to make the most of their own lives. They begin in earnest to work at healing, not only from their adult children’s abuse, but from the suffering inflicted within their family of origin.

Delia was one such parent. Her son and daughter, both from an early and short-lived marriage, had nothing but ill will toward her. They were similar in personality to her mother, an icy woman, whom Delia was, nevertheless, loyal to. Delia had raised her children with affection, always praising their success, supporting their endeavors, and making sure they had good dental care, including braces, as well as stylish haircuts and clothing. This was nothing like her hand-me-down history, mouthful of crooked teeth, and her mother’s “about time” attitude at any of Delia’s accomplishments.

Delia’s kids both graduated high school early and attended college Delia and their stepfather paid for. She was proud of them and, in their successes, found some self-worth. But it came with a price. “Since the teen years, our relationships were prickly,” says Delia. “As they finished college, married, and started their families, they got closer to my mother and my siblings. I became the odd one out.” She chuckles. “I’m used to that.”

While Delia is occasionally allowed to take her grandchildren, now boys of 8 and 10, she no longer seeks meaningful relationships with her son and daughter. “I’m no longer willing to accept abuse,” says Delia, who wasn’t always this self-compassionate or assured. At one point, as she processed her emotions and identified her history as the family scapegoat, the pain of moving forward was almost worse than agreeing she was the problem. “It was crazy,” she says. “Intellectually, I knew I was deserving but I couldn’t be good to myself. I looked at my children’s rejection and the way they aligned with my mother as proof that I was no good.”

For six months, Delia turned to alcohol to quell her anger, sadness, and negative thinking around what a loser she was and how no one would ever truly love her because she wasn’t worthy of love. “Not falling down drunk,” she explains. “Having a civilized glass … or three … of good red wine with dinner.”

When Delia realized she was using alcohol to escape the pain, as her father had done, she quit drinking. “I didn’t want to die young like he did,” she says. “But I also needed to learn how to live.”

Delia’s downward emotional spiral after beginning to offer herself the love, caring and nurturing she’d been craving her whole life and had always given to others, is an example of what self-compassion proponents and researchers call “backdraft.”1,2,3,4,5 The term comes from firefighting where “backdraft” occurs when a door or window is opened and fresh oxygen rushes in, causing the fire to flare into the space. Similarly, a new practice of self-compassion opens the door to old memories and negativity, fueling painful old behaviors and aggression, negative beliefs, and feelings of shame and guilt.6

Affording oneself kindness, empathy, and understanding as you would another has been shown to increase psychological well-being, decrease anxiety and depression, enhance interpersonal connection and motivation for self-improvement, and increase overall life satisfaction.7,8,9,10,11,12,13 Awareness of the possibility of backdraft, though, is important. Thankfully, mental health clinicians and researchers are taking an increased interest in this phenomenon, which doesn’t always occur.

Once Delia became aware of what was happening, she could be mindful of when and how the old thinking reared its head, explore its birthplace in her childhood as well as where and with whom she’d re-assumed the familiar caretaking, cheerleading, and selflessness. Delia had assumed those old roles that had once kept her safe and helped her to belong. With self-compassion for the little girl who had been so smart in doing what she had to do to survive, Delia could acknowledge the old trauma and hurt inflicted upon her. This allowed her to take steps toward an identity and future she herself chose, in a new way of life and for her survival now.

Perhaps you have also noticed old memories and hurts getting stirred up when you’ve begun to move forward in self-compassion and deliberative work toward your own healing. Frequently, there are many layers to healing. We revisit old wounds, clear away the emotional debris as we can, and then move on. We also return to old hurts, with or without the “help” of adult children who return to trigger the pain. In my award-winning 2021 book, Beyond Done, which was written as a follow-up to the consistently popular Done With The Crying, I discuss how these reminders, when viewed with discernment and self-compassion, can benefit our forward momentum. As you work at your own freedom in healing, it’s wise to prepare for potential setbacks and triggers, which can be a part of your progress.

Related Reading

Freedom for a new era (parents rejected by adult children)

Estrangement: Are you a firework, or still standing?

References:

  1. Germer, C. K. (2009). The mindful path to self-compassion. The Guilford Press.
  2. Germer, C. (2023). Self-compassion in psychotherapy: Clinical integration, evidence base, and mechanisms of change. In A. Finlay-Jones, K. Bluth, & K. Neff (Eds.), Handbook of self-compassion (pp. 379–415). Springer Nature. https:// doi. org/ 10. 1007/ 978-3-031- 22348-8_ 22
  3. Germer, C. K., & Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-compassion in clinical practice. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(8), 856–867. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp. 22021
  4. Germer, C. K., & Neff, K. D. (2015). Cultivating self-compassion in trauma survivors. In V. M. Follette, J. Briere, D. Rozelle, J. W. Hopper, & D. I. Rome (Eds.), Mindfulness-oriented interventions for trauma: Integrating contemplative practices (pp. 43–58). The Guilford Press.
  5. Germer, C. K., & Neff, K. D. (2019). Teaching the mindful self-compassion program: A guide for professionals. The Guilford Press
  6. Neff, N., & Germer, C. (2022). The role of self-compassion in psychotherapy. World Psychiatry, 21(1), 58–59.

7 . Brown, L., Houston, E. E., Amonoo, H. L., & Bryant, C. (2021). Is self-compassion associated with sleep quality? A meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 12(5), 1–10. https:// doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01498-0

  1. Cleare, S., Gumley, A., & O’Connor, R. C. (2019). Self-compassion,self-forgiveness, suicidal ideation, and self-harm: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 26(5), 511–530. https:// doi.org/10.1002/cpp.2372
  2. Ferrari, M., Hunt, C., Harrysunker, A., Abbott, M. J., Beath, A. P., & Einstein, D. A. (2019). Self-compassion interventions and psychosocial outcomes: A meta-analysis of RCTs. Mindfulness, 10(8), 1455–1473. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-019-01134-6
  3. MacBeth, A., & Gumley, A. (2012). Exploring compassion: A meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 32(6), 545–552. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr 2012.06.003
  4. McArthur, M., Mansfield, C., Matthew, S., Zaki, S., Brand, C., Andrews, J., & Hazel, S. (2017). Resilience in veterinary students and the predictive role of mindfulness and self-compassion. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, 44(1), 106–115. https://doi.org/10.3138/jvme.0116-027R1
  5. Shattell, M., & Johnson, A. (2018). Mindful self-compassion: How it can enhance resilience. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 56(1), 15–17. https://doi. org/10.928/02793695-20171219-01
  6. Zessin, U., Dickhäuser, O., & Garbade, S. (2015). The relationship between self-compassion and well-being: A meta-analysis. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 7(3), 340–364. https://doi. org/10.1111/aphw.12051