Author Archives: rparents

About rparents

Sheri McGregor holds a Master's Degree in Human Behavior and is a life coach. She helps parents move beyond loss of estrangement through this website, and with her books, Done With The Crying and BEYOND Done With The Crying -- info: https://www.rejectedparents.net/sheri-mcgregors-book-for-parents-of-estranged-adult-children/ Find out more and contact Sheri about life coaching: https://www.balanceandjoy.com/home/success-stories/ Sheri has two public facebook pages. One that is narrowed to estrangement: https://www.facebook.com/SheriMcGregorRejectedParents And one that is her "author" page: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorSheriMcGregor/ Be sure to sign up for the newsletter--she has some projects in development you'll want to know about.

Dumped by adult kids? Get into the Zone

dumped by adult kids

Dumped by adult kids? Get into the Zone

By Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Yesterday, as I returned to my car, I noticed a woman emerging from one of the shops with a bouquet of heart-shaped balloons and remembered—Valentine’s Day! I had contemplated the holiday weeks ago while thinking of what to write about it for this site. But I had become so engrossed in what I found that I forgot the day altogether. Immersed in my research, I had entered a state of “flow.”

The wonderful experience of being so caught up in the moment that you’re oblivious to time or pain has been studied extensively. The benefits are clear for increased learning, enhanced creativity, and joy.

As a writer, I’m no stranger to the state of flow—and my guess is that many of you have experienced it too. In 1975, researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, first coined the term “flow,” which has since been studied extensively. The flow state is most often associated with meaningful work, predicts higher performance, productivity and, in business settings, financial gains. But being in the zone, which is another way to describe this state, is also achieved during hobbies and other pursuits. Finding activities that provide meaning—and getting engrossed in them—is one key to a purposeful life.

But . . .

Sometimes I hear parents lament their advancing age, health woes, and lack of connection, all made worse by estrangement. I can certainly empathize. It’s hard to accept and deal with life’s challenges. And some of us have more to deal with than others do. I also know that, no matter our circumstances, purposefully focusing our energy on meaningful pursuits can transport us toward peace.

Midge, a mother of estranged adult children who is in her mid-80s, has multiple auto-immune conditions that limit her life. When she found herself all alone and suffering, she did her share of crying. Then she took up an old hobby she loves: watercolor painting.

With simple brushstrokes and vibrant colors, Midge enhances cut and folded card stock she then inscribes with positive messages, some scriptural. Midge sends these in bulk to helping organizations where the cards raise the spirits of individuals they’re distributed to. “I can get lost in that work,” says Midge. “It has helped me escape the pain … both physical and emotional.”

Midge’s work is attached to homelessness, which is sometimes connected to addiction or domestic violence. All of these have touched Midge’s life, so her form of flow brings deep personal meaning that connects to a larger pursuit. But not every entry point to flow must join with a social cause.

One widow, Sally, has made it her mission to clear out her home. Sally’s husband began “collecting,” after their daughter left the family. Fourteen years post-estrangement, he died and left Sally with mountains to clear. “There are a few pearls among the trash heaps,” she says of the dusty, sometimes moldy collectibles that range from magazines, to record albums, to miniature statues, and art. Sally, who has arthritis and circulation problems, is taking it slow, organizing a clearing process that increases her own safety and ease of movement: The entry hall’s floor, then the table, and then on to the shelf. The path to the dining table, the chairs and tabletop, and beyond. . . .

“It’s a job,” says Sally, “but I can get lost in looking at each item, and releasing it to donate, offer to my son, trash, or sell.” Sally remembers the mess her father-in-law left behind when he died, and that memory motivates her progress. “I wouldn’t wish that job on anyone,” she says. Her son lives far away but he’d be the one tasked to clear the house if she doesn’t. Working on making her current living situation safer and more enjoyable, plus acting for her son’s future ease, brings motivating meaning that drives Sally’s daily forays into flow.

A father, Thomas, who was dumped by adult kids, still lives in the home where he raised them. He says he’s getting “lost in a good way” in fixing up his home. “I’ve got some life left in me,” he says. “So why live with leaky toilets, creaky cupboards, and the uneven back steps that have bugged me for so long?” He hires out some of the work but enjoys the planning too. “I can get lost in home design photographs, imagining what tile flooring will best transition from one room to the next.” Thomas has been an outdoorsman most of his life. “But I have to protect my skin now in the Florida sun.” Thomas has had several skin cancers removed. He added gazebos and other shade structures all around his front and back yards. “Even planning that stuff got me in the zone,” he says.

Is there a bigger sense of meaning to Thomas’s pursuits? “To live,” he says. “To arrange things for my own satisfaction. To make my home a place I really love to be.”

Sensible Thomas remembers what it was like when the kids were young, and his wife left them all. “I raised them alone and did a good job of it. Now they’re all in touch with her again but I refuse to let them steal my joy. This is my life.” With a chuckle, Thomas adds, “Maybe when my house is done, I’ll have a beautiful place for a beautiful second wife after all these years.”

My old friend

I’m an old friend to the flow state—and also know its downsides. When writing Done With The Crying, I was so in the zone that I’d forget all sense of time and space. At some point, after hours of work, I’d wake up from a sort of spell and realize I’d been fixed in the same position for hours. That inactivity took a toll on my body, but the work was so meaningful, and that meaning brought me joy (as did the state of flow itself). This downside experience is why I invested in a standing desk, which is where I write most of the site articles and create presentations and other work. I still get into the zone doing this work to help parents dumped by adult kids, which I still find meaningful, and consider my life’s work.

As time has marched forward, I’ve experienced limitations that have changed my ability to get into a variety of activities that take me to that state of flow. A few years ago, I realized that some elements of gardening hurt more than they used to. I’m not alone there—which is why there’s a hot market for ready-made raised beds, knee pads, padded shovel handles, and even gardening chairs.

Changes to our abilities don’t always require a total loss. We use reading glasses as our vision’s flexibility changes with age. A colorful folding cane can make stability a fashion statement. White hair can be dyed with streaks (a friend of mine has purple hair) or shaved entirely.

Like I have done with my standing desk, find ways to adapt your doorway to flow. Looking for solutions is a form of creativity. Thank goodness for ingenious, creative solutions that make life better.

Creativity, mood, and flow

The state of flow has been closely connected to creativity, and much of the research began on creative pursuits such as music and art. But work of almost any kind can envelope flow. Like my writing, or someone’s building or teaching or some other vocation.  Where a person has some sense of autonomy and control, creativity becomes part of the work, and dovetails with flow.

A 2011 study found that deep engagement, especially in work fueled by intrinsic motivation (rather than strictly extrinsic motivation, such as a paycheck), sparked creativity that lasted for many days. Both flow and creativity are also associated with more positive moods. So, finding and enjoying meaningful work can help us let go of suffering states, connect to deeper meaning, and experience the relaxed but attentive state of flow that’s beneficial to our well-being. (I’ll be sharing more about this in the future.)

My Valentine’s Day research

So, what was the research that began weeks before Valentine’s Day and aimed at what I might write for the site? It was flowers. My internet surf for related ideas brought up the secret language of flowers from times past when specific flowers said what could not be said aloud. That led to flower meanings, which led to which ones I might want to grow as beautiful messages of healing and productivity for myself.

I haven’t decided for certain yet which flowers I’ll add to my landscape, but imagining a bright thicket of Black-eyed Susan whispering “justice” on a summer’s breeze makes me smile. So does the thought of a colorful patch of Butterfly Weed reminding me to tell old rumination loops in my thinking to “let me go.” The concept brings a whole new and creative element to my annual late winter garden planning!

The challenge

When we’re dumped by adult kids, it’s up to us to take charge of our well-being and make something more of our precious time on the Earth. For your own good, to find meaning, spark creativity, and enhance your mood, I challenge you to consider your own past experiences with “flow.” Then, get creative with how you see your interests, your work, your hobbies, and your life. You can find flow in purging your kitchen cabinets of family-size bowls and bins you no longer need. Or dive into day-long cooking you can freeze in small portions for easy, healthy dinners that will nourish you all month. Re-do your home for your next life phase, connect a much-loved hobby to a bigger social pursuit, or find meaning in decluttering for your own ease and to someday help an heir.

No matter your life or circumstances, consider how your pursuits can enhance autonomy and connect to a bigger purpose for your life—right now or into the future. Time passes much too quickly. You might as well spend some of it the zone.

Related reading

Mindful photography: Find your “self” in photos

The history of flower meanings

Flower language in the Victorian era

 

 

Hurtful relationships with adult children: Have you lost yourself?

hurtful relationships with adult childrenHurtful relationships with adult children:
Have you lost yourself?

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

On my dad’s birthday when I was seven, he arrived from work holding a bakery box. His blue eyes alight, he set it on the table. “My friends at the office gave me this sponge cake.”

“A sponge cake?” I hung back, feeling strangely uneasy as he opened the lid.

“Well, come on,” he urged with a grin.

My siblings and I sidled up to the table to see a gorgeous rectangular cake with pillowy white icing. Other than a smeary spot at one end, perfectly piped yellow frosting framed the words “Happy Birthday” written in looping blue.

My mouth watered.  “You didn’t eat any yet?”

“Nope.” My dad winked at my siblings. “I saved it for you.”

Puzzled, I looked from him back to the tempting cake.

“Here,” he said. “I’ll let you cut it.” He motioned to my mom, who pulled a knife from the drawer. They exchanged a glance as she handed it to him. “Go ahead,” he said, pressing the heavy handle into my little hand.

Something wasn’t right. Still, I carefully pressed the blade into the cake and pushed. It didn’t budge. I pressed harder, and the knife started to slip.

Everyone laughed as my dad wrapped his hands around mine and took back the knife. He spread aside some icing to reveal a thick wedge of man-made foam rubber. “They thought it’d be funny,” he said of his office friends.

My mom explained that there really was a dessert called “sponge cake.” Then she brought a real birthday cake to the table. After the song and candles, we all ate the chocolatey confection with vanilla ice cream. My dad recalled aloud how his office mates had laughed when he’d tried to cut into the cake.

You and your gut

My dad’s long-ago birthday is my first conscious memory of knowing without knowing that something wasn’t right. That day, I had been persuaded to ignore my siblings’ nervous smiles, my parents’ odd decision to hand a 7-year-old the knife, and a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. My innate inner wisdom was overrun by the people I’d come to trust. And let’s not forget the tempting promise of delicious cake.

Obviously, nothing sinister happened that day. Fooling the youngest in the family had been in good fun. And at the office, my father had also been tricked. But as I look back now, trust and temptation achieved the desired result. I had ignored my gut.

My remembered incident is a benign example, but some future incidents weren’t so innocent and full of love—even if I thought so at the time and was duped. Maybe you remember times when you ignored your gut, whether in fun situations or ones that resulted in harm.

So badly wanting a bond, loving parents in hurtful relationships with adult children sometimes fall prey to similar scenarios. They listen to other people, overlook painful history, squelch their own wise inner voice, and ignore their gut. The temptation of sweet grandchildren they’d love to know, the memories of how things once were (so, how they might possibly be again), or the desire to go along to get along, or to make other family members happy can overrun better judgment.

The point of no return

Parents in hurtful relationships with adult children may be shaken awake with escalating psychological or physical abuse. Some parents invest their life savings in real property based on the promise of family togetherness in a joint living situation. They may even deed the real estate to their son or daughter, thinking this will simplify paperwork for their heirs upon their eventual death. Then, when it comes time to move in, the adult child suddenly makes blindingly clear the plan won’t be happening. Some parents endure a medical crisis and discover the one holding their health proxy isn’t reliable, or worthy of trust. Then, still healing, and grateful to be alive, they scramble to re-choose and redo their documents.

Sometimes, such a turning point leads to parents finding this website and my books. And then they may realize their grown child has been detaching for a lot longer than they were willing to see or admit. These parents had ignored their gut, their eyes, and even their ears for an elusive ideal they later realized with sudden clarity existed only in their hopes and dreams.

“I used to see my son’s name on the Caller ID,” says divorced mother Tammy, “and my stomach would drop.” Tammy’s gut instinct was not to answer but she felt she couldn’t say “no” to her son. She explains, “My endless giving was the relationship.”

Tammy knew from the past that if she didn’t give, her son would initiate the silent treatment, which would last for days, weeks, or even months. And during that time, she’d suffer physically with indigestion and a tight chest. Meanwhile, in her head she’d be playing familiar guilt tapes from other relationships. If she didn’t love them enough to help, then she wasn’t a good wife, sister, or mom. Even friendships had left Tammy with baggage. If she wouldn’t do “this one thing” then she was cold-hearted or wasn’t the person they’d always thought she was. If she didn’t give in to someone else’s will then she wouldn’t be loved. “I thought even God wouldn’t love me,” says Tammy.

Truth tracks?

On some level, we all carry what we unconsciously regard as truth tracks. Never mind that these reverberating words in our thinking are often far from the truth. They are manipulative talk or tactics from those who controlled us in the past. In our own voice, our inner critic will frequently use the language we’ve heard from authority figures, siblings, the pulpit, or society at large.

In Done With The Crying, I wrote that one of the first elements needed in my own escape from the quicksand of estrangement pain was becoming mindful of my thoughts. Once you’re aware of your thinking, the thoughts can be examined, questioned, and put where they belong—and sometimes that’s the trash heap.

In my second book (Beyond Done ), I discussed this thought analysis and the connected shifts in the sections on self-imposed boundaries, which I have also called internal or inward boundaries. As mentioned in Beyond Done , “Boundaries don’t always involve another person’s behavior. Sometimes, it’s your own behavior or thinking you must halt.”

Instead of taking on a mean or shaming voice, we can offer ourselves compassion and love. Instead of focusing on all that’s wrong—and getting caught up in an emotional pain loop—we can shift our focus to something in our physical world, bring our attention to the present moment, and take charge where we can. (Watch for more on this topic in the near future–join the newsletter so you don’t miss out.)

Well, hello there, Self. . . .

Whether you have been playfully tricked, or painfully duped or shamed into ignoring your gut, or you’re just out of practice at hearing your own voice and tuning into your body’s innate wisdom, you can change. Making a practice of getting more in touch with yourself can be very beneficial. The human brain and gut are directly connected via a network of neurons. It’s the gut that synthesizes much of and measures out neurotransmitters and neurohormones that affect moods and our bodily functions in response to our moods. When we get cues from the environment, our gut interprets them chemically. If we’re in touch with these subtle cues, we’re better prepared to interpret them in ways that allow us to utilize them in our decision making, relationships, and everyday lives. If, on the other hand, we’re used to tuning out those signals that, in the past, may have kept us safe or feeling loved, then like Tammy, we’ll probably ignore them and tune into old programming that’s become an inside job instead.

When we’re under stress, overwhelmed by hurtful, confusing relationships, or fighting to save them, we don’t have the space and calm to be truly mindful of what we feel or think. It’s vital for parents in hurtful relationships with adult children to gain enough distance to take a calming breather, look honestly at the situation, take note of how they feel, and hear themselves think. That’s why I tell parents that it’s okay to shelve it all, at least for a time, and get out and enjoy your life.

My newsletters, my articles here, the exercises in my books, and the meetings and discussion inside the membership community where parents like you are taking charge of themselves and their lives, are all designed to help. With gumption and support, you can be like so many who come to terms with estrangement and take back the power over their own precious lives.

Laura is a 77-year-old mother whose son, now in his 50s, walked completely out of her life two years ago. Laura was devastated but, during the silence, she read my first book and did the exercises. Then she started the second book, and things grew even clearer. “One never wants to believe that their own child doesn’t love them,” she says. “But I realize now that he began treating me badly way back when he was eighteen.”

In the stressful decades of frequent interaction, and under the spell of his warped reflection of her, Laura hadn’t connected her feelings of despair and bitterness to her unkind son. My books and their included exercises have helped her begin to, as she says, “see the light.” She adds, “It still hurts me, of course, but I suddenly realized I could change and do better. I feel lighter and much more positive.”

If Laura’s son wanted to reconcile, she knows she couldn’t go back to the way things were. He’d have huge changes to make because, in his absence, she has learned to take care of herself. She is like so many parents who emerge from hurtful relationships with adult children and begin to see themselves without the muddy, blame-the-parent veil. In short, Laura and many other parents step away from hurtful relationships with adult children and use the time to tune into their own needs and self-worth.

Related reading

Abusive adult children influence parents’ self-image

Call it what it is: Abuse by adult children

Just for fun:

Face cake prank

Birthday cake with a “pop!”

 

Parents of abusive or neglectful adult children: Purge toxic mindsets

neglectful adult children

Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay

Parents of abusive or neglectful adult children:
Purge toxic mindsets

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Ancient Romans saw February as a time of starting anew, even though the official year didn’t start until the warmer weather of March. They used the cold winter period to clear out and cleanse. Ancient “Februalia” was a festival time of purifying the physical body and environment as well as spiritually cleansing the figurative heart and soul.

In our modern society, we’re not far past our goal making of the New Year. Let’s use these wintry days to contemplate and then purge our unhelpful thinking. Here, I’ve included five toxic mindsets to release.

#1–Is self-care selfish?

In my coaching work, I can’t tell you how many times a parent will say, “Maybe it sounds selfish but. . . .” They usually go on to talk about a new level of abuse or neglect by adult children that has motivated their shift.  They want to create better boundaries and focus on their own lives instead of the old ruts of trying to fix what they didn’t break.

Self-care is not selfish. Many of us have spent a lifetime putting others’ needs first. Whether we formed that habit in our families of origin or later lost ourselves, a continually depleting cycle leaves us running on empty. It’s dangerous to act as the caboose to a runaway train. We aren’t selfish to detach and learn to care for ourselves. Whether we do or don’t someday successfully reconcile with estranged adult children, if we take care of ourselves now, we’ll be stronger then.

#2–Comparing yourself to “luckier” parents

I have written about this previously but truth bears repeating: Thinking someone has it better than you can hurt. Comparing your life to another’s fosters envy and hopelessness. Besides, what you’re perceiving often isn’t real. People show the world what they want to reveal. A friend’s “loyal” adult daughter you wish you had may not be as dependable and loving as you think.

Frequently, mental illness plays a role in estrangement. With genetics implicated in mental disorders, families with one affected member may have another. The mom or dad you consider “lucky” may suffer behind-closed-door chaos, marathons of patience, and enduring uncertainty or distrust. And let’s not forget the guilt. Even when “loyal” kids truly are great, parents must learn to manage their rejection fears and other anxieties that derive from the estrangement. Thinking another parent has it better only blocks your ability to empathize and further isolates you.

#3–I can’t be happy unless. . . .

For parents with neglectful adult children, the thinking usually goes something like this: “I can’t be happy unless my child is back in my life.” It’s an estrangement-specific version of the broader toxic mindset that starts with, “I’ll be happy when. . . .” The trouble is, when we connect our future to a goal that’s beyond our control to achieve, we may never reach it. Lose this toxic mindset and adopt a healthier one where you hold the power.

Try new hobbies or ones you’ve always loved. Focus on the things that bring you joy, no matter how small. Smile at people you meet. Stop to chat about someone’s pet or garden.

Get out of your head and into the present. There’s a whole wide world beyond the negatively skewed news playing on TV or in our minds. I recently heard some good advice via a mom of difficult and distant adult children. Her dad’s dying message was for her to “have fun.”

#4–Thinking you didn’t do enough

Hindsight isn’t always 20-20. That’s especially true when neglectful adult children spur parents’ analysis of everything they may have ever done wrong. In Done With The Crying, there’s an exercise to shift that mistake-magnifying mindset. Parents often feel responsible for things they had no control over.

The most frequent iteration I hear is about an adult child diagnosed with a disorder. Parents lament that if they’d only understood, they’d have gotten their child help. I believe them. But even when parents did express concerns, they were sometimes met with he’ll grow out of it or it’s just teenage angst assurances. Often, even when something was noticed, treated, and managed, the eventual outcome was the same. One mother of a son on the spectrum outlined all the care she sought for him over the years. Her son is now estranged.

#5–Judging your feelings negatively

“I shouldn’t feel this way,” is how some parents characterize their emotions. After years of unkind treatment by neglectful adult children, parents may contemplate a possible reconciliation without enthusiasm. Then they feel bad about themselves and wonder: Are my feelings normal?

If you’re feeling dread, distrust, or anger, don’t negatively judge and dismiss those feelings. Instead, consider what prompts them. A mother whose adult son or daughter is emotionally abusive may feel physically threatened. She has the right to honor her emotional barometer and protect herself. A father who feels resentful that he’s shelled out all the money for college, weddings, and still picks up the yearly birthday brunch tab (the only invite the adult child doesn’t miss) has a right to close his wallet. The societal tropes about unconditional love and always being there for our children don’t hold water when it comes to unsafe, toxic relationships. For more about emotions and how to handle them, read my books (link).

Not only when in Rome. . . .

No matter where you are in the world, take February and, at least in some ways, do as ancient Romans did. Heat up the Jacuzzi, throw in some purifying salt, and direct your mind to fresh new thoughts. Don’t get caught up in all the shoulds, wishes, and regrets, or hold yourself accountable for things you didn’t know or couldn’t solve.

Related reading

Be kind to yourself

Parents wonder: Does my adult child have mental illness?

Presentation with Sheri McGregor: Goals Pt. One

Looking for part two? Then join the membership community — the part two live event with members and discussion took place on February 1, 2024. The replay is hosted in the members area..

A presentation on goals with Sheri McGregor, M.A., Life coach and author of the Done With The Crying series of books for parents of estranged adult children and the founder of this site (Rejected Parents.NET).

Related media

Five Ways to Move On After an Adult Child’s Rejection

Beating the odds (YouTube video)

Eric Clapton, Train to Nowhere (YouTube video)

Perspective

by Sheri McGregor, MA

In the top drawer of my beautiful desk, a plastic wallet sleeve peeks from beneath sticky notes and stamps. When I pull it out, there stares a darling face. A boy I once knew. An innocent smile. Eyes so full of life.

There are two photos. At ages 6 and 7.

My throat tightens. My eyes tingle but don’t quite tear. So long ago. Another life. Still, a flood of memories rolls in. A boy who made cities of paper-covered boxes, rode bicycles over makeshift jumps, and whose jeans were always caked with grass stains or mud.

An old ache stirs. A longing. A wish. A realization of all that was . . . and no longer is.

I close the drawer and more recent pictures come to mind. Those sent from other parents. A father recently shared a photo collage of his daughter through the ages. The most recent were snagged off the internet: his daughter getting married, holding a newborn, and receiving a work award.

Another mom sent me a video link, saying she had read my books. “I believe you’re a lot like me,” she wrote. The pictures, a montage set to music she originally made for one of her son’s achievements, proved she was right: We were a lot alike. Moms of boys, moms of loving brothers who we figured would always be friends. Sweet little boys who were full of innocence and pranks, and who grew into handsome teenagers we imagined one day as admirable men. And then the change, the loss, the heartbreak.

Another mom sent me three photos she’d taken over time. She captioned them:

The boy who loved me.

The teen who wasn’t sure.

The man who doesn’t.

Clearing out

Since moving in 2020, I’ve been hating the desk I used to love. This gorgeous piece of furniture stands on carved legs, has bronzed-brass flower drawer pulls, and delicate, curving sides. But it’s too big for this new space. I’m determined to clear it out and find another that’s more suitable for my new office in my new life in my new locale. That’s why I opened the drawer and came across these unexpected photos. Bits of history that, for all their simplicity, embody so much more: My loss of innocence around my mothering, family, and kids. That’s not something I necessarily want to dwell on. And why I closed the drawer.

The truth is, since moving (a stress all its own), a lot has gone on. Family situations, illness, and let’s not forget the pandemic—which has left most of us craving more human connection, security, and a sense of literal and psychological freedom the pandemic and related lock downs took away.

There have been losses for all of us. Some in connection with associated deaths, long-term Covid effects, or relationships for which the pandemic and its dividing opinion tracks were the nail in the coffin. Others for economic security, dampened optimism, or a naivete over how much control we have over our lives. Tough stuff.

But … this post is less about what we miss or fear as what we can do to get ourselves back on track, or onto a new one.

Some of us have dealt with worry over health concerns by using more hand sanitizer, wearing masks, and beefing up our preventative activities to keep us leaner and stronger, thus less at risk.

Many of us have found new ways to connect—in online classes and video chats. Even with the good as ever old-fashioned telephone call (that starts with a computer we can hold in our hand!).

The coping includes remote work, limiting our screen time–filled with bad news–and focusing on things that bring us meaning and joy. We’re plodding along, moving forward despite the trauma. Making the best—or better—of our lives. What choice do we have.

Letting go

The swiftly passing month of January motivates me to accomplish my goal of eliminating this desk. So, I pull open another drawer. One I know contains file folders of basic records less laden with emotional traps.

As I sort through old papers, tossing some, shredding others, and thinning down to the most current and necessary ones, my mind wanders. I think of those photographs of my boy and remember the beauty and joy that came before the storms. The sweet smile, the apple cheeks, his bright eyes full of mischief and love.

With the file drawer sorted, I feel complete. One step at a time. I loved this desk. It fit so well in my old office and life.

I ponder the top drawer again and leave it closed. Not today. But soon. I stand back and look at the pretty desk that takes up too much space. Clearing out takes time.

Related reading

Adult children who hate parents: The ties that bind

Moving when you have estranged adult children

Letting go of estranged adult children

Navigating emotional drama

estrangement

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

by Sheri McGregor, MA

Decades ago, in the psychology of relationships, a model called the “drama triangle” was introduced by Stephen Karpman, M.D. Each point on the triangle identifies one of the shifting roles: the victim, the rescuer, and the persecutor.

Over time, this model, which is used in business, family, and other relationships, has been finessed, further developed, and altered by others. Relationships are complex. Here, I’ve tried to simplify with somewhat blatant examples.

Uh-oh, an emergency

Stan and Leslie’s adult daughter calls needing help. She is short of money, thought she could wait until payday to make her rent, but received a notice to pay up or vacate. She is the “victim.”

Stan tells her to talk to her landlord and explain. He’s angry. It’s about time she learned how to budget, and this is the real world. He’s given enough and she needs to learn responsibility. For purposes of the drama triangle, he is the “persecutor.”

Leslie secretly phones their daughter and says she’ll meet her at the ATM. She is the “rescuer.”

Not so simple

I could give all sorts of scenarios for the daughter’s emergency. Did she waste money on partying? Or did she have a vital medical need she paid out-of-pocket? Notice how your feelings shift with these scenarios. For now, let’s just say she has been irresponsible.

Here, Stan is in a “persecutor” role, but let’s look at his possible motivations. What if he has repeatedly seen their daughter pluck her mother’s heartstrings? This isn’t the first time she has called when she needs something. And then, after she receives Leslie’s help, she always goes silent. He can’t stand to watch Leslie suffer. Here, he sees himself less a persecutor than a loving, protective husband (the “rescuer”) for his wife (the “victim”).

Leslie, on the other hand, is distressed by her husband’s efforts to help their daughter learn life lessons and stand on her own two feet. Her mind fills with worries about their daughter’s safety and feelings. What if their daughter loses her apartment? and How must she feel that her father isn’t there for her? This mom could openly tell Stan that he’s being too hard on their daughter and, once she did, might shift into the role of Stan’s “persecutor.”

In this scenario Leslie secretly became her daughter’s “rescuer.” But Leslie’s worries are complex. If her daughter gets kicked out of her apartment, then what? The thought of their troubled daughter (and all the chaos and drama) moving back in with her and Stan is unbearable. So, she allows Stan to act as her own “rescuer” while secretly fulfilling that role for them both by keeping the daughter out of the house. In this way they are both victims and both rescuers. Stan also remains the persecutor in their daughter’s eyes.

The shifting, multiple roles may or may not be within the individual’s awareness. Here, Stan’s interactions with their daughter may trigger reactions in Leslie that date back into her own history.

It’s also true that Leslie could have been the one to say “no” to their daughter. A father can be in the rescuer role to an adult child just as much as a mother. I’m not attempting to stereotype anyone.

Stepping away from the triangle

Consider which of these roles you may have fallen into, not only with estrangement, but in other relationships as well. Also, don’t get hung up on the labels.

No one wants to be identified as a “persecutor,” but the example here makes clear that the “persecutor” role isn’t necessarily abusive or even harsh—although it may be felt (or portrayed to others) as such by the “victim.” The persecutor’s actions might even trigger some old compulsion or emotional wound in the “rescuer.”

In the scenario above, perhaps the father and mother could have paused and talked things through. Sometimes that’s the best tactic when we’re faced with an “emergency” that a) isn’t specifically ours ; or b) isn’t immediately life or death. Not jumping into a hasty decision or quick reply allows parents more time to form a united front. That’s what I advocate for. Of course, that would require talking about these sorts of things openly and ahead of such critical moments. That way, couples can find more agreeable plans, and avoid falling into old patterns where their roles are at odds.

These sorts of marital discussions aren’t easy. We run the risk of casting blame, causing resentment, or sowing further discord and disagreement about how to proceed. In Done With The Crying, I offer some marital scenarios that you may find helpful. And in the next book (Beyond Done) discussion examples are broadened to include others in the family. Communication is important but even long-term couples can sometimes hit snags. Without awareness and work, estrangement of adult children can destroy good marriages. Don’t be afraid to seek couples counseling, which can often help.

With the limited context of the presented scenario, it’s difficult to choose what might have been the best way forward. Perhaps the better answer might have been for the parents to agree together to help but then pay the money directly to the landlord. Perhaps a warning about future emergencies with decided upon specifics is needed and/or a way for the daughter to pay them back. That will be yours to decide, but the point I’m making is to be aware of our own tendencies to slip into these drama triangle roles (or other repeated actions).

Other common scenarios I hear about where these drama triangles may ensue include:

  • Aunts and uncles who step in as “rescuers” to adult children
  • In-law families with cult-like “rescuing” behavior who see the newcomer as a “victim” of a family they disapprove of in some way

These third-parties, whether relatives or in-law families, become “persecutors” of the parents who are being cut off by their adult child. The parents then become the “victims.”

These scenarios are just a sampling among many. They demonstrate the complexity that is often present around estrangement from adult children—and that people untouched by this sort of dysfunction would not imagine.

Eyes wide open

Reflect upon these roles and identify where you might find yourself fitting into one or more. Consider other situations where you might have had knee-jerk responses or ones that involve feelings of compulsion or resentment. A little self-examination can provide helpful insight.

Karpman’s drama triangle is useful in a variety of relational settings beyond the family. Do you end up rescuing co-workers? Are you or have you been the victim of a hard-nosed “persecutor” boss? Or are you the one who is rescued?

By looking at our present and past relational experiences, we may be able to identify not only our tendencies but perhaps their roots. That’s not to say I’m advocating for blaming your parents or anyone else, but our experiences and environments throughout life do affect our innate natures. By recognizing our own unconscious traps, and bringing them into our awareness, we can better understand and empathize with the emotional pitfalls of others and of ourselves.

Self-compassion for sad situations

Let’s add grandchildren to the semi-estranged or fully no-contact scenario. For purposes of illustration, let’s give the adult child a difficult or even diagnosed personality disorder. Rules are imposed that determine whether the grandparent is allowed to spend time with the grandchildren. The grandparent complies but the rules then shift … again … and again.

These loving, supportive grandparents are always uncertain and on edge, forever waiting for the next lecture about what they did “wrong” to justify the adult child withholding the grandchild yet again. If they defend themselves the punishment is longer and worse. Meanwhile, they worry the grandchild his being told lies about why they aren’t coming around. If the grandparents capitulate, they become the victim, with no rescuer in sight. Yet, by sliding into the powerless victim role, and complying, they can be in the grandchild’s life (at least for now)—thus rescuing the grandchild from the distress of believing they’re no longer loved.

While Karpman’s drama model doesn’t contain answers for every scenario, seeing ourselves in this context, however the roles fit (exactly or in shades), provides intellectual distance. This allows space for our logic to kick in and our critical thinking to outshine the emotionally compelled role-playing that can seem the right course or the only way.

The lesser evil?

Thinking about this final scenario, many grandparents spend years believing they cannot step away, yet eventually conclude that their continued involvement causes additional suffering. Ideal scenarios weren’t within their control. The circumstances of maintaining contact, with escalating rules and punishments, became a threat to their own and their grandchildren’s well-being. Stepping away from the drama [triangle] became the lesser of two evils.

By exiting the drama, they retain more energy for their own self-development, health, and resilience—things they have the right to and hope to preserve. Often, this is tied to the hope that their adult children will change or that their grandchildren will one day seek them out alone. Whether either of those things happen, I empathize with those who say “no more” to an adult child’s machinations. They do this not only as heroes (rescuers) but as reasoned, sensible, and loving grandparents.

Knowledge is [the first step to] power

I hope that considering this relational model and the roles you may at times fall into has been helpful. By examining our tendencies in how we interact and respond to others our awareness grows. And with awareness, we can become more self-possessed and -determinative no matter the relationship.

Related reading

Ask Sheri McGregor: Contacting estranged granddaughter

Grandparent alienation

There are no “right” words when. . . .

New Year: New “day”

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

It’s a brand new year, with a fresh new slate. You get to choose what’s ahead. I hope that you will courageously and boldly get on with living the life you choose. Will you make this year the best it can be?

In Done With The Crying, there’s an exercise about looking ahead. It’s one of many exercises to help parents like you, who don’t deserve the crud they’ve been dealt by adult children, to move forward for yourselves. You’ll want to get the book … and then the next one (Beyond Done) to fully benefit. But right now, I’d like to give you a choice.

Imagine standing at a fork in the road. One path loops back to more of the same (sadness, regret, rumination, unrequited love, despair). Imagine stepping onto that path, imagine the weight of it all slumping over your shoulders, dragging at your feet, and pulling you down.

The other path is uncertain, but you get to pave it however you want. That means steering the journey to almost anywhere you choose. (New adventures? Meaningful pursuits you now have time for? Fun?) Now, imagine stepping onto that road. Suddenly the air is charged with excitement. Possibility sparkles like sunlight on the horizon. A butterfly flutters by … and you have the urge to follow it to unknown flower fields and places of beauty that you’ve so been missing.

It’s decision time.  Which road do you choose? More of the same? Or a new frontier? (And that’s not a Star Trek reference! Although, some of us do have more space to explore now.)

Related reading

Happy New Year 2020

New Year: Blanket of Snow

Parents moving beyond estrangement: Gather energy for your shift

parents moving beyond estrangement from adult children

Image by wandaquinn from Pixabay

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

My last post was about making a defining moment of the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice . The longest period of annual darkness results in the shortest day, which brings our longest physical shadows. And coincidentally, this physical lengthening of shadows occurs at a time when estrangement’s metaphorical shadow looms bigger than almost any time of year: the holidays. This psychological “shadow” gets clearer at this festive time when family-centric reminders abound. Of course we think of our loved lost ones and feel longing, sadness, or despair.

The Winter Solstice has passed, which means the nights will now grow gradually shorter. By day, so will our shadows. In short, that’s because the Earth tilts incrementally in the opposite way.

My Challenge: For parents moving beyond estrangement from adult children

Now, as we enter the season of shortening darkness and lengthened light, I dare you to shift as well. Make plans for incremental, sustainable change that will accumulate exponentially into mountains of positive personal growth. Baby steps, small habit shifts, lead to bigger change. By summer, when our physical shadows are the shortest, you can look back on concentrated effort from a stronger, more realistic vantage point.

To do this effectively, you’ll need to identify your sticking points. Here are a few ways to get started on that.

Re-read my articles on:

Consider:

Make a list of these trouble spots and then brainstorm ways to counteract them. Get support too.

Moving beyond estrangement: Reflect, rediscover, rekindle

Once you’ve reflected upon areas that hold you back, drag you down, or further lengthen estrangement’s shadow, consider, places, people, and pursuits that will pull you up and forward, bring you fulfillment, purpose, and joy. If you’ve read Done With The Crying, pull out your completed “Take Stock” exercise and see where you might make further changes. Also turn to the later chapter on moving forward and review core elements of yourself that may have been waiting in the shadows for your rediscovery and rekindling. In moving beyond estrangement and all its related chaos, it’s wise to look at other areas too. Examine parts of you that may have been pushed aside because you were busy raising children, pursuing a career, or in some other way engaged.

Using nature’s cycles

As you work to drop the gloomy shadows of estrangement’s effects, imagine tapping into the energy behind Earth’s natural shifts. Contemplate the shortening of physical shadows, and all the other ways nature demonstrates shifts to a new season. Ancient peoples were more in tune with the natural cycles that affect the Earth and its inhabitants. They ate food in season, capitalized on their area’s resources, and prepared for the season ahead. Working with the natural cycles is a lot like going with the flow.

In my second estrangement book (Beyond Done With The Crying), I share examples of how the way we view life events such as estrangement make a difference in how we respond and fare. We can shape our experience by being conscious of what we think. How can you consider the seasons of nature as they relate to your “seasons” of estrangement? Notice the trees with their falling leaves that ready their limbs to withstand the burdens of snow.. Identify the birds that migrate to or from your area during winter months. Watch the summer-dry moss grow lush and green with winter rain.

We’re beyond the winter solstice. Take note of your physical shadow shortening each and every day. Join with the natural energy of the Earth and sun. Turn toward a new season, and purposefully work to also shorten estrangement’s shadow on you and your life.

Related reading

When your adult children don’t like you: Lean on the bear (and do some shadow work)

Winter Solstice and the roller coaster of estrangement from adult children

estrangement from adult children

Image by Mario from Pixabay

By Sheri McGregor, M.A.

On every roller coaster, there’s a peak moment when you reach the highest point. And for an instant, you linger, waiting for the drop. It’s the point of no return. Or, more cheerfully, the turning point. And that’s how I think of this time of year.

The Longest night

Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice falls on December 21 this year (2023). There is slight variation that shifts it a day or so annually, but this date marks the longest night, and represents the shift toward lengthening days. The Southern Hemisphere enjoys the opposite effect.

I won’t get into ancient celebrations or spiritual beliefs about this factual event named to describe the moment when the Earth tilts its farthest from the sun. But ancient peoples did have reasons to celebrate—and with the right mindset, so do we.

Unsteady footing

As I say in Done With The Crying, when our own child rejects us, it’s as if the bottom falls out and our whole world tilts (like the Earth upon the winter solstice).  Just as we don’t always notice the gradual, day-to-day changes in the Earth’s angle toward or away from the sun, we may not have noticed a shift in our kids. Or, if we did, we blamed it on teen angst, individuation, or some other explanation that sounds sensible enough for us to believe the weirdness would end. And, so, we wait, expecting them to shift. Here’s where things get tricky.

Getting back to that roller coaster where this article started, imagine choosing to sit in that ride car at the highest peak. Suspended. At a standstill. Stuck.

While you’re strapped in at the peak, the world moves on. But waiting and hoping? I hope you brought food and water, because as you sit there suspended on hold, life continues without you. Far below, people are having fun, buying popcorn and hot coffee at kiosks, seeing shows, and hopping onto other, more pleasant, rides.

Dark night of the soul

According to about a zillion online sources, the “dark night of the soul” originated from a poem that described joining as one with God. Modern use of the expression refers to a loss of faith, whether religious, in humanity, or in oneself. While all of these apply to at least some parents of estranged adult children, consider whichever one, or a combination or variation, best describes you.

With these thoughts in mind, as the winter solstice brings Northern Hemispherians (Is that even a word?!) the longest “dark night” of the year, consider this a pivotal moment. Instead of remaining paralyzed, strapped in without options and looking down as the tantalizing aroma of fresh popped corn fills the air, and waiting for your unkind adult child to change, lean forward. Shift momentum. Enter the downhill stretch, exit the powerless position of agreeing to remain on someone else’s ride.

As we move beyond the solstice and the days grow longer, use this enlightened time wisely for your own life. Get the support you need to escape the dark night of your soul. Join the happy crowds. Choose your own next ride.

Escape the dangerous waters of estrangement, learn to find peace in the moment, recognize that you’ve changed, or make sensible choices for and even protect yourself if you hear from your adult child. Find something to anticipate (as I wrote about in a winter solstice article in 2022).

Related reading

Abandoned parents: Let your light shine

Holidays, how to manage them

 

Amends letter to estranged adult children: Should parents write one?

amends letter to estranged adult children

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

By Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Parents of estranged adult children often ask me about an “amends letter.” That’s probably because they’ve heard an amends letter to estranged adult children touted as an effective way to reopen communication channels and regain a relationship with adult children who have gone “no contact.” It’s a popularized tool that I’m surprised hasn’t gone to the trash heap along with things like tobacco companies using doctors to promote their cigarette brand.

Does that sound harsh? The reality is that bad advice from seemingly reputable sources is nothing new. As I discuss in BEYOND DONE, experts used to recommend putting babies to sleep on their tummies, which has now been associated with sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). They also advised tired nursing mothers who were worried about inadequate milk supply to supplement with bottle feeding—even though less suckling decreases milk production. I’m sure there are many other examples of ill-advised recommendations in the annals of parenting advice history.

While an amends letter might be useful if you’ve done something that needs forgiveness and you’re dealing with reasonable individuals, making unwarranted apologies to the unreasonable only feeds the beast. As I say in BEYOND DONE, it’s my opinion all the subservience and babying trains adults with difficult personalities that they can get away with bad behavior—and even be rewarded for it—which is a disservice to the individuals and to all society.

Do amends letters to estranged adult children add to the problem?

Once upon a time, doctors didn’t realize smoking caused health problems, but a 1940s spike in lung cancer provided a clue. Even so, it took until 1964 for the U.S. Surgeon General to report that smoking caused lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, and chronic bronchitis. Even then, tobacco companies continued to raise a smokescreen of doubt around whether the evidence was conclusive.

Today, more estrangement in the news and increased traffic to websites such as mine make clear that adult children estranging from parents is on the rise. Internet searches reveal adult children (and even some therapists) who villainize parents, blame them, and approve of the rejection. Perhaps some of the so-called expert advice, including the amends letter, worsens the problem.

As I mention in my first book on this topic, Done With The Crying, parents of the 1980s were advised to build their children’s self-esteem , even apart from achievement. While I’m not against championing people for who they are, I also believe bad behavior deserves a reasoned and realistic response. Sharing an adult child’s delusional view of our parenting, or our character, and capitulating to irrational demands to preserve a “relationship” that no longer fits a healthy definition doesn’t make sense.

In BEYOND DONE, I offer examples for when apologizing may be appropriate. However, parents (just like anyone else) do well to recognize when they’re being raked over the coals for revisionist history that doesn’t add up. Sure, there could be a misunderstanding, and if that’s the case, reasonable adults who want to mend a rift will find a way to talk things out, continue to love one another, and move into the future with mutual respect. Sometimes, though, that’s not possible, and I would no more offer you a cigarette as recommend some other ill-conceived advice that hurts you or keeps you stuck.

Amends letter to estranged adult children … or to someone who really deserves it?

Kind, supportive parents, who nevertheless find themselves estranged from adult children, have frequently been the ones who have repeatedly swallowed their pride and reached out to an unkind adult child who should have been the one to say “sorry.” I hear from parents every day who know the pain of walking on eggshells to avoid conflict that always erupts from volatile offspring at some point anyway. It’s appalling to me how many adult children abuse parents’ loving kindness, and bank accounts, until the parent is physically ill or no longer has financial resources for them to exploit. And it’s reprehensible when adult children use their own kids as tools to gain authority, compliance, or control over grandparents who care so deeply and know they enrich those young ones’ lives.

By the time parents read my books and articles or join the membership support group for parents of estranged children here at this site, they have usually come to realize all the time they’ve spent, or wasted, working on trying to fix something they didn’t break. Something that makes no sense. They know they were good parents. Without the rose-colored glasses on, they have come to understand how much they have been neglecting themselves. They can see that they deserve their own kind care and a life of joy and peace.

Sometimes, though, in looking back at all the wasted energy, money, sadness, and time that stole happiness and connection from their other relationships and worthwhile pursuits, parents can start to beat themselves up. They might tell themselves they should have known better. They should have seen the truth. Or they ask themselves: How could I have been so dumb? Why didn’t I wake up sooner? The thoughts dishonor the beauty of who they are—loving parents who have, for a lifetime, given to their children.

In my Five Ways to Cope with the Holidays presentation, one of the ideas was to look toward the New Year—now. And that’s how an amends letter to yourself can help. Let’s close the door on all the ways we hurt ourselves to try and make things right.

You will have your own unique amends to make to yourself, to learn from, and to move past. And this doesn’t have to apply only to estranged adult children.  Sometimes, their disregard or abuse—and our compulsions toward them—can teach us more about ourselves, our other relationships, and life.

Get started writing an amends letter … to yourself

To help you get started on your own amends letter to yourself, first spend some time reflecting. Find a quiet, private space and, as you look through the following bullet points, write down what comes to mind. The more detailed you can get the better you will be prepared to let old habits go. Also, if any of this begins to feel too emotionally burdensome, give yourself a break. Get up and take a walk where you can enjoy nature. Even looking at the sky helps. Obtain support as needed. Here you go—

Consider times when you:

  • neglected your own needs in favor of another’s
  • dishonored or disregarded your values to avoid conflict or gain approval
  • gave when you knew you shouldn’t
  • said “yes” when your gut said “no”

When, or in what ways, have you ever:

  • felt compelled to comply or give in
  • ignored the voice of reason inside you (or that of a trusted companion)
  • done something you viewed as stupid but did it anyway (and later berated yourself for it)
  • took action you now understand was irrational or unwise
  • given money you couldn’t afford to give or knew you shouldn’t

 

Of course, we can all look back in hindsight and see more clearly. Don’t get hung up wishing you could change the past or engaging your inner critic. What you can you do is use the insight for your better, more self-compassionate and intentional future. We’ll talk more about that later.

Don’t limit yourself to the bullet points either. Whatever comes up as you reflect, use it for your own forward momentum, toward a freer future where you are kind to yourself. Once you feel your self-reflection is complete, write yourself a letter. Make amends with your past self. The one who did things because you felt compelled to keep the peace, obtain love, or gain approval. The one who put your needs behind those of someone who hasn’t appreciated such sacrifice.

You can format your letter however you want. Here’s one possible example:

————

Dear Me (insert your name, address your highest self, or your inner wisdom),

I apologize for all the times I said “yes” to someone else when it meant saying “no” to myself.

I’m sorry for pushing aside my own feelings because I worried what my daughter/son/others would think.

I forgive myself for not listening to XX, because s/he was right about XX. I should never have . . . .

————

Your letter can take a more traditional form with lots of detail. Or, you can stick to the basics as above. This is your healing journey. So do what’s best for you right now.

End your letter with a statement of forgiveness that pulls everything together and sets an intention for a new beginning. Here’s an example:

“I forgive myself for all the ways that I have hurt myself by—fill in the blank—and vow to take better care of myself from this moment forward. I will recognize, hear, and honor my inner voice. I will pay attention to that feeling in my gut (head, neck, chest … you define this and fill in the blank). I will honor me.”

Make a few more relevant statements of self-forgiveness as you see fit. End the amends letter to yourself with gratitude and love for all that you have learned. You can now use these insights to enrich the rest of your days and enjoy the ones who are around you and love you. Finally, keep your letter in a safe place. You can refer to it later and even make changes as you grow in knowledge and compassion about yourself and your life.

A turning point

Writing an amends letter to yourself helps you usher in a new beginning. Imagine this moment, month, or year, as a turning point or as the end of an era. Leave behind the baggage of fruitless efforts and self-neglect. Stepping into the future in a new, bold, and self-kind way can take some practice, but you’re worth your own best effort.

Recently, in a members-only live event in the community peer support group, parents of estranged adult children contemplated the nature of decisions and what it takes to carry out plans for their own wellness. I asked a question that also works well here: Are you “all in” for your own well-being and peace?

In a December 15 live event, parents used the ideas in this article, and their amends letter to themselves, to move solidly into the New Year, focused more intently on their own strength, well-being, and peace. If you’d like to join events such as this one, or watch replays on your own time, join the membership community.

Regardless, an amends letter you write to yourself will help you in letting go of estranged adult children and in releasing the pain. It’s time to be self-compassionate, focus forward, and be “all in,” for your future. (Hint: That “all in” thought was part of another recent members-only event.)

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Letters to estranged adult children

Call it what it is: Abuse

Ask Sheri McGregor: Contacting an estranged granddaughter