Emotional scars after an adult child’s estrangement

tree rootsby Sheri McGregor

Having experienced the cutting pain of an adult child’s estrangement, I’ve done my share of crying. I’m like many moms who have expressed sorrow so profound it can feel bottomless. On some level, maybe it will always be there – – like a scar that’s left by a physical wound. And that’s okay.

To better understand healthy emotional healing, let’s look at physical healing and see how it relates to our emotional hurts.

Scars result from a series of healing responses that have a purpose: to clear out damaged cells and other undesirable elements such as germs, and then rebuild the area. But some scars are overly aggressive, and go beyond the original injury. These “keloid” and “contracture” type scars can extend so far past the original wound that they hamper movement, affect nerve sensitivity, and create new problems.

Emotional scars after an adult child’s rejection

Just as keloid and contracture scarring can hinder us, so can emotional reactions that become too aggressive. Here’s an example: When trust is broken in one relationship, and we then extend a lack of trust to all relationships. Caught up in fear, we attempt to protect ourselves by shutting out the possibility of pain. But we also cut ourselves off, and hinder forward momentum.

Often, I hear from parents who, after their adult child’s estrangement, say they can no longer trust anyone. I understand the feeling. If such a close bond can be broken, is any relationship safe?

That’s how Lila, a 68-year-old mother of two estranged adult sons felt. When first her oldest son rejected her, followed by her younger son’s estrangement six months later, she was devastated. She quit her walks to the park, did her shopping online, dropped her hobby memberships, and stopped seeing friends and family.

Some of you will recognize how Lila felt. When she tried to talk about her sons’ estrangement, people asked what she did or said. They couldn’t comprehend how her own sons could shut her out. Already hurting, she felt betrayed all over again.

For two years, Lila isolated herself. She would sit and look out her windows while the seasons changed. The old tree by the sidewalk would lose its leaves, its bony silhouette against the gray sky a haunting reminder of her loneliness and pain. In spring rains, the tree grew buds and flowers. Lila watched as the days warmed and the tree grew leafy. People ventured out in shorts and tees. Couples held hands. Joggers dripped in sweat. People walked their dogs. Life went on, but Lila didn’t participate.

Watching as parents pushed strollers by, she would cluck bitterly to herself. They had bought into the promise of family. The cruel joke of God or the universe she now saw through. The ideal of family happiness lured so many, but it just wasn’t true. She knew that. And those young parents didn’t have a clue.

But two years was too long. Restless from sitting alone inside while the beautiful weather outdoors called, she decided to pull out her old photo albums. Maybe she’d remind herself what a pitifully naïve woman she had once been.

The photos of her and her sons illustrated truth she couldn’t ignore. There were huge gaps of time during which her sons didn’t appear at all. And when they did, it was at Lila’s beckoning – – or perhaps spurred by their guilt. They showed up for Christmas or her birthday, but the photos looked staged, their pasted-on smiles captured but fleeting. They had glanced up to pose, torn from their smartphones still in hand.

But rather than focus on those pictures and the bitter truth she saw in them, Lila looked instead at all the other memories.

trust after an adult child's estrangementIn between those few sparse photos, Lila saw herself grinning with friends. Posed in front of a huge Christmas tree at the Senior Center, she stood with several women, their red sweaters cheery and bright. Like the others, Lila stood with one arm extended toward the tree’s branches, smiling with pride as they hooked on their angel ornaments crafted from wire and beads. There were pictures of Lila on a trip to New York City with her quilting club. More from her church and museum docent groups. And in several, she grinned from beneath a wide-brimmed hat alongside hiking group members. The shimmering blue of the nearby lake stretched out behind them.

Three of those old friends were gone, she realized, tears beginning to well. In the years she’d sat letting life pass by, they had lost health battles or succumbed to the inevitable march of time.

Her vision blurring, she swiped at her eyes and closed the albums. It was too late to see those friends. Remembering how puzzled one of them had been, how she’d wondered aloud what Lila might have done to cause the rift, Lila wished she could try again to explain the inexplicable. It was difficult to understand something you’ve never been through. But Lila had been so hurt. She had locked her door on everyone. She’d protected herself, but her life was passing her by.

The following day, Lila started to reconnect. The hiking club had disbanded, but the Senior Center was still going strong. She ventured out, reveling in the whispery warmth of the breeze against her cheeks. Old friends, she hoped, would welcome her. And there would be new people. She didn’t want to miss out any longer.

What will you do?

When we don’t risk trusting others, we protect ourselves but also cut ourselves off from the joy another person might bring. A response that reaches beyond an adult child’s estrangement to all our relationships hampers us. It keeps us locked away, focused on pain from the past and unable to enjoy the future.

You have a choice.

Yes, there’s risk involved, but which is the better choice? Toughening up your emotional “skin” enough that you’ll risk a little pain for the possibility of joy? Or forming a protective shell that keeps you trapped?

Physical scars fade, but often remain – – a visible reminder of the body’s resilience. Emotional scars can also be gentle reminders that we are emotionally robust. That we can get through tough times to claim the good.

Sure, the potential for pain exists, but so do the deep joy and fun of friendship. Lila’s advice? Grab hold of life. Take a chance. Enjoy people while you can.

book for parents of estranged adults

Book to help

Holidays are a time to celebrate life and giving to others. The New Year brings a natural opportunity to embrace new beginnings. During holidays or any time, just as Lila did, we can all start fresh. What are you waiting for?

You can be done with the crying.

Related articles:

Five ways to move on after an adult child’s rejection

Take care of yourself

Holidays: How to manage them

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17 thoughts on “Emotional scars after an adult child’s estrangement

  1. E

    I cried throughout reading this article. I have been paralyzed for the past 7 years by the grief I live in due to missing my estranged beautiful daughter. She got married and it was a beautiful wedding. However, her possessive husband convinced her that having a family relationship with her parents and two younger siblings was a form of idolatry and she was sinning against God. She talks down to us and has ghosted her little sister and little brother. She has separated herself from us. She is a pastor’s wife and now has two beautiful children. We’re a Christian family and this has been so devastating and heart wrenching for all of us. Just paralyzing for me as a mom and Grandma, I cry buckets of tears. I am amazed I am not alone. This is such a disenfranchised grief, that isn’t really shareable. I tried to get grief counseling once to try to heal and the counselor tried to call this “empty nest syndrome…” So, unless you have experienced this gut wrenching sadness, it is not explainable!

  2. Virginia

    I’m lost for words right now one of daughter’s has cut all ties with and will longer let me see my granddaughter who is my world because I told her I was getting back together with my Ex who is not there Dad.( Dad died 6 yrs ago) and she does not like for reasons I caused. We are in counseling and are fixing our relationship but she does not want to hear it. So, she said she can’t with me and told me I was dead to her just like her dad and now she would be alone. I love her so much and have tried to fix my and relationship but she won’t hear me. And tells me I have made to many excuses. Her and I where best friends till we weren’t. How do I fix my relationship with my daughter and keep my relationship with my spouse. I don’t know what to I’m at the end of my rope.

  3. Tiffany

    Both of my children have cut me off. My daughter recently went to Facebook on my birthday to wish that I would die. We were so close and so much together. She would tell her friends to come to me for advice. But they both connected with people who hate me and now there’s an entire group of people wishing me death for not being a good mother. My son’s father promised him a relationship once he got away from me. Now he’s cut me off and still no relationship but it’s my fault. I am reading the comments and stories and I’m understanding to cut them off from my emotions. I love them and miss them with every inch of my existence. But I love me as well and I deserve some grace and mercy.

  4. Mavel

    I’m desperate, I don’t know if this is right or not but I have to allow this pain to be free and see if it will go…
    my youngest son, now 20, left home three months ago without an argument, without a fight, without a problem that we know of. I have done everything humanly possible, until finding out he moved away to another state with some people he met online who almost triple his age. he even asked for a restraining order against us, his family, alleging disturbing stories and tales existing only in his mind. we went to look for him where he is at and he rejected us, this is the worse time in my life, I cannot hold it anymore, now today I found out he maybe transferring to a college where he is living now, more than 1000 miles away from home. It is devastating, we don’t know why he left, we cannot talk to him and we don’t know when if so, he will come back. So many things in between that it will be too long to write..

  5. Cheryl

    It hurts me not to see my granddaughters, but my daughters goal is to destroy me and she’s doing alittle everyday. I try to stay strong but it’s super hard.

    1. rparents Post author

      Dear Cheryl,

      Give yourself breaks! It helps to be able to talk about it, write in a journal, think some, pray…but then it’s helpful to say “no more today,” and focus on something else and light.

      It is hard though. I understand and empathize.

      Hugs to you,
      Sheri McGregor

    2. Rhonda M.

      Cheryl I too have a daughter that removed herself and my two granddaughters from my life when they were 2 and 5 so I know your pain. They are now 4 and 7 and I miss them terribly. Thank goodness for Sheri’s book and the advice I find here that keeps me striving forward. What a horrible shitty thing to do not only to her mother but her own daughters. But I try not to dwell there much now. Someone said something here that resonated with me…. my heart might be broken but life is not broken. No one can destroy your life Cheryl, no one has that right or power, only if you let them. You will find that strength and you will not only survive this, you will thrive. Take one day at a time, one breath at a time if that’s all you can manage and hang in there…you are so worth it ❤️

    3. Kimberly

      Hi Cheryl my 3 adult children just walked out of my life. Literally about a week officially. I have 5 grandchildren and I can’t see them . I’m crying I’m in pain . I am lost. There is also no contact between my siblings and I because of childhood trauma. So I am completely alone including no friends. I do not know what to do

  6. Lynn

    My daughter who I adopted rejected me almost a year ago over her job (we worked together). She quit and although no one had problem with that, it was the way in which she did it. Since I didn’t “support” her at that time even though I was the Manager she severed contact. I visited her house at Christmas and she wouldn’t even open the front door. I texted and sent cards for the holidays and no response. What hurt the most was my mother passed away and I sent her a text and she didn’t respond and a week later my grandson sent me a text saying he never wants to see or hear from me again because of what I did to his mother. My mother-in-law passed away 2 weeks ago and I didn’t even bother. I’ve decided it’s almost a year and it’s time to move on. I miss her terribly and I hope at some time we can reconcile but I’m not going to wait any longer.

  7. Pam

    It’s the hardest thing to go through. Today, I decided to clean out my “Little’s” room. This was a place for them to come stay and play at Nona’s.
    I’m turning it into a reflection room for my therapy. Having their items in there that they will haven’t used and looking like will never use….stops me in my tracks and fills me with so much sadness. I’ve donated all of the items to a family in need. I know the items will be used instead of just sitting in a room collecting dust in hopes to see my grandkids someday. I’m letting go and releasing….forgiveness is not a word I can do at this time. I will never know the why…it is what it is….my daughter’s and Little’s lives are better without me in it. She’s decided to estrange herself but the love I have for her and my grandchildren can’t be taken away from me Never!! It will be hard to see all the items get loaded up and taken away….my heart will be broken…one foot in front of the other…I keep telling myself to just breathe….it’s just stuff…let go….release….
    Good luck to all parents who are struggling from being estranged by their adult child….hang in there. May we all find some peace.

    1. Jen

      I’m so sorry for your pain. I am encouraged by your strength. I’m trying to have the same strength and be hopeful yet it may be a waste of hope – ha!

  8. MaryRose

    Sometimes I wish my daughter would fully reject me. She only calls or wants to see me when it benefits her. I have learned never to ask her for anything. She rejects any possibility of spending time with me. I have not totally walked away because I am still allowed to see my grand daughter.

  9. Carol T.

    I really thought we were the only ones that were rejected by our three children I felt so alone . I didn’t want to go on.

    1. Valerie C.

      First timed have heard an other women say rejected by 3 ne too.it brings such shame because I can not make sense of it …in fact their where times they did care but once I moved to another country the door started to close and any communication resulted in me being abused……

    2. Janette K.

      I felt the same way, I really wanted to know the WHY, but I am learning I can’t change how she is and it really hurts to not see me grandchildren because I love them so much.


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