Thank you to Donald Stott for his work for parents of estranged adult children. He was a gracious host when I recently joined him on his show. You can watch on YouTube or listen to the audio PODCAST
Ask Sheri McGregor
Q: Our adult child doesn’t want anything to do with us, his parents. He is in his 50s, and we have not tried to contact him. Recently, though, we learned that he is very sick. He has stage 4 cancer and is struggling physically, emotionally, and financially. Should we try to reach out to him?
A: The details in the email above have been edited slightly to make them more general in nature (to preserve privacy). Otherwise, it’s as received a few days ago. And it’s like many questions from parents who have been estranged from a son or daughter, often for many years, and then hear of an illness or other tragedy and wonder: Should we reach out?
When it comes to estrangement between parents and adult children, even the strongest inclinations of what is or feels right can involve complexities that make answers tough. That’s why it’s wise to reflect. Let’s explore this together.
Tragic news when an adult child doesn’t want anything to do with us: The “right” thing to do
For some, immediately making contact to convey how much they still care is the go-to option. However, every situation is unique. Ultimately, only you can know what is “right” for you—and even if you’d have immediately made contact in the past, over time, your feelings can change .
If you’re strongly inclined to reach out, do think about your adult child’s perspective. In Done With The Crying, I discuss how sending gifts might cause a son or daughter extra (and irritating) effort. For example, if they’re not typically home days, then sending something that requires signature isn’t thoughtful. Similarly, if a son or daughter is unwell or otherwise troubled or under stress, consider the effects of your contact.
I’m not suggesting that you can read minds but consider what comes up when you read the questions I’ve listed below. You may want to capture your thoughts by writing them out, so get pen and paper but don’t forget about your “gut.” Our bodies are innately intelligent yet many of us have spent much of our lives tuning out our own insightful physical sensations. So, before reading on, take a few breaths slowly in through the nose and let them out your mouth. Then close your eyes and imagine a channel of soft, radiant energy running up the center of your body that connects your belly, your heart, and your mind. There in your center, you feel every ripple of awareness, inside and out.
Here are the questions.
- How will hearing from me affect my estranged adult child’s mood?
- How will they immediately react?
- Will my reaching out be an added stress?
- Or will my continued love be comforting?
You may already have enough information now to decide what’s “right” for you? And yes, I’m putting the word, “right,” in quotes. That’s because for some, thoughts of reaching out at a time of tragedy derive from beliefs about unconditional love and the ideal that a parent is “always there” for a child. You may want to reflect on that idea, and determine what’s motivating you.
Reaching out: What doors are you possibly opening?
One father, Alfonso, has been estranged from his daughter for 12 years. When he found out she had hit rock bottom and was couch surfing after her divorce, he decided to get in touch. “It was a chance to mend fences,” he explains.
The night before he planned to drive 65 miles to the town where he knew she was staying with a cousin, he dragged out a box of old photographs that her mother (now deceased) had tucked away. As he looked through the images, forgotten memories leapt from the crevices of his mind. Horrible snippets of his daughter’s meanness, the heartaches and trouble she’d caused, and the way she’d ceaselessly taunted and belittled her mother. Their daughter’s marriage may have dropped the final curtain on their relationship, but the drama had been going on for years. She had put them through hell—and Alfonso had no evidence that she’d “grown out of” her old ways (which is what he and wife had told themselves would happen all through her tumultuous teens, twenties, and early thirties).
Alfonso was certain that his daughter’s past substance abuse, erratic behavior, and argumentative nature had caused her mother’s failing health. Later, he’d seen his wife through years of distress as she’d continued to try to mend the relationship and was rebuffed or ignored every time. His late wife had suffered several major illnesses. His daughter knew about these hospitalizations and surgeries yet had reached out only once—to accuse her mother of faking illness to get attention. Alfonso grieved his wife’s eventual death without his daughter’s presence or support. Until he looked through the old photos, he’d forgotten that at the funeral, he had watched the door, both hoping for and dreading her potential appearance. She hadn’t shown up.
Now nearing age 70, Alfonso knew he and his wife had done their best. He had he had only recently gained a semblance of peace. In the last year, he’d made a few friends and had rekindled his love of tinkering and had begun selling the antique lamps he repurposed into planters and bird feeders. During the busy season, he also still worked part time from the company he had retired from. Alfonso was somewhat contented, had things to look forward to, and enjoyed his life. When he reflected upon the turmoil, both before and after the estrangement, his chest tightened, and his stomach balled into a knot.
“I forgive my daughter,” he says. “But I’m just not willing to sacrifice myself for her anymore.” Alfonso once believed, “I’d never turn away one of my own.” Now, he knows he might have to.
For aging parents of adult children who are mentally ill or otherwise troubled, the price of contact may be more than they’re prepared to or even able to pay. Consider a few more questions.
By reaching out to an ailing or troubled estranged adult child:
- What message would you be sending?
- Does making contact imply to your son or daughter that you’re ready, willing, and able to help?
- What “doors” would you be opening?
- Energetically, emotionally, and financially, do you have the resources to spare?
What’s right for you?
The edited email was from parents who said their “adult child doesn’t want anything to do with us.” Yet, his illness makes them wonder if now’s the time to reach out. As stated, it’s a question that I frequently hear. Ultimately, the answer is not cut and dried and is not mine to make, but hopefully, I’ve provided some food for thought to assist.
If you’re reading and have some experience to share, consider whether your thoughts may help another parent grappling with this sort of decision. You can leave your comment to the article.
Parents: Are you angry at adult children?
by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
Anger can be a powerful motivator, so knee-jerk responses to suppress it don’t always make sense. I understand the reason behind this rush to negatively judge the emotion or get it under control. Explosive, aggressive expressions of anger can damage relationships. A quick temper can cloud judgment, too, so impulsive behavior or rash decision-making can follow.
But not everyone who is angry about their adult child’s cruelty or abandonment is in danger of erupting like a volcano. Frequently, anger is an activating emotion that moves these parents from paralyzing sadness and shock toward self-preservation. When relationships with neglectful or bullying adult children have become one-sided, manipulative, or abusive, shifting to focus on one’s own well-being is often the only sensible choice.
In my life coaching work, parents sometimes come to me because they’re angry. They may be feeling uncomfortable about their emotions and stuck in anger—and it’s hurting them. Frequently, there are longer roots or associations that complicate their feelings. Their anger may be scary, but it may also be justified and even “normal” given the circumstances.
Anger: A useful emotion
Despite the discomfort of feeling angry at adult children, the fear we might have toward our anger, and a history of being told to tamp it down, anger is an important emotion. Feeling anger helps us to recognize danger, spot injustice, and work toward solutions. Some of the biggest advances in history may have started with anger.
However, I usually encounter anger when it has become a problem. My clients aren’t typically lashing out in fits of rage or acts of violence, but they may yell and curse in the shower, then feel shaky or guilty later. Maybe they kicked the chair and suffered the consequences of a painful bruise. Or, they snapped at their loyal dog … and then felt horrible seeing those gentle, sad eyes in response.
Sometimes, feeling angry at adult children makes parents uncomfortable in their own skin. The anger some parents feel seems incongruent with who they profess to be—a therapist, a dentist, a clergy member—so they start to feel like a fake, a hypocrite, an imposter. Those feelings then bring all sorts of negative self-judgments and insecurities. Their inner voice begins to hound them:
- How can I lead others spiritually when I’m so angry?
- What if I’m distracted when I’m with my patients? They deserve my full presence.
- How can I help my clients when I can’t seem to help myself?
- How can I smile and give good customer service when I’m pissed off?
Parents struggling with anger may find themselves triggered in social situations. Lunch with a friend who mentions grandchildren results in simmering rage. How can she be so insensitive?
One mother of two estranged adult children who is no longer allowed to enjoy her grandchildren says feeling sad was easier. “I could get a Kleenex and say my allergies were acting up,” she says. “What can I do with my anger? I can’t yell at my friend. It’s harder to hide when I’m mad.”
The rational side of this mom recognizes that her friend is just living her life. She’s not thinking about this mom’s pain and frustration. Feeling angry then is a secondary shock, and she judges herself for it. The truth is, after a lifetime of being told to control her temper and be nice, this mother’s anger is scary to her. But just as outward displays of aggression can wreak havoc on relationships, repressing it and judging ourselves harshly for it can make us physically sick.
The research (many, many studies) is clear that habitual anger—expressed aggressively or suppressed—has dangerous health consequences including.1
- Diminished immune function
- Increased stomach acid
- Blood sugar imbalances
- Suppressed thyroid function
- Decreased bone density
- Increased blood clotting
These physical changes can push chronically angry persons toward a variety of health risks, including more susceptibility to viruses, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcers, stroke, and so on. I’ve barely scratched the surface here, but any Internet search will find connections between habitual anger that’s suppressed or allowed to explode and increased risk of ill health, as well as thoroughly explain the cascading effects.
Obviously, our thoughts about our anger and the desire to keep it in check make this emotion complicated. Losing control, dismissing, or repressing it isn’t beneficial. By asking questions, we can uncover any roots beyond just feeling angry at adult children, better understand discomfort with the feeling itself, recognize how anger may have been useful previously, and activate the reasoning brain to work with it.
Should parents get mad?
As our children were growing up, we did well to keep their developmental ages in mind. Getting mad didn’t make sense with an immature toddler throwing a tantrum. We might have taken a time-out of our own, sucked in some calming breaths, and then addressed whatever problem may have arisen. We learned to push our anger aside, moderate our responses, remain kind, and work toward solutions. Parents of difficult, abusive, or estranged adult children usually follow this habit. But there comes a time when maintaining these parental behaviors no longer makes sense.
Parents of unkind, neglectful, or abusive adult children have the right to feel angry. Yes, read that again: You have the right to feel angry. These are adults … and they have treated you badly. That doesn’t mean you’ll mirror their rants or abuse. That wouldn’t be wise or helpful. But your anger is telling you something:
- You’re being wronged.
- You’re receiving undeserved disrespect.
- You’re (possibly) in danger.
Anger is a useful cue.
Just because we gave birth to or raised these now fully grown adults doesn’t mean they get the privilege of hurting us. I’ve talked repeatedly about how most of us try to build better relationships and continue to reach out to them when that’s healthy. But there comes a point when anger shifts our perspective—and the anger is justified. As long as we’re not getting lost in that emotion and indulging in hurtful or irresponsible behavior, we don’t have to see ourselves as bad or wrong for feeling it.
If anyone else treated us so badly, we wouldn’t be expected to negatively judge our responses, swallow our anger, and repeatedly put ourselves in the line of fire. Our anger might be called “righteous indignation.” The wrongs would be recognized for what they are, and we’d be applauded for voicing injustice, and walking away with some self-respect.
If you want to read more about what some believe motivates society and authority figures (so called “experts”) who tell parents to do this, get my book, Beyond Done With The Crying. Here, we’ll shift and widen to the concept of “weaponized civility.” It’s the idea that shame is heaped upon marginalized populations for the justified anger they feel. Usually, the term is used in connection with attitudes toward people of color and, occasionally, women. But it can apply to groups of any sort who have been oppressed or wronged.
I recently heard a podcast in which a researcher gave the people of Flint, Michigan as an example. They were angered over lead in the drinking water which, according to many reports, was covered up by the government and allowed to continue hurting area children. When those people protested, officials lectured them about civil discourse. I understand the fear of officials hoping to avoid violence. Civil discourse is needed. At the same time, I empathize with the citizens. Their anger is justified.
As mentioned in Beyond Done With The Crying, parents of estranged adults children can be considered a marginalized population. Many of us are careful who we tell about our situation. We fear the negative judgment that we’re the reason for the rift. And we are judged. Despite the fact that estrangement is much more exposed these days, there is often an underlying belief that adult children don’t reject good parents. That belief hurts. So, it’s easy to hide the facts and become isolated. And then if we’re angry, we’re judged again.
Angry at adult children: Is your anger hurting you?
Has your anger gotten out of control? Do you have rageful periods where you break things? Rant and rave? Do you feel a simmering resentment that you keep in check much of the time but disturbs your sleep or affects your digestive system? Do you find that you’re often angry when driving? Do you ruminate over angry behavior and wish you’d have kept quiet or walked away? Has your angry behavior ever got you into trouble with the law? When was the last time you punched the wall? Hit someone? Yelled? Do you feel guilty for your anger, even though you don’t express it?
Consider whether your feelings of anger are helpful to you, a motivating level up from the paralysis of sadness, say. Or whether your anger is getting the better of you somehow. Earlier, I mentioned someone kicking the chair and suffering the physical consequences. Most of us have experienced an angry moment where we did something useless like this. Or perhaps we slammed down our telephone—and then were thankful the screen didn’t break. For most people, these sorts of outbursts are a rarity. We learn from them and don’t indulge again. We find creative outlets to release our anger through physical activity like gardening, building, or exercise. Others may see they have a bigger problem and would be wise to seek help.
In Beyond Done With The Crying, a few parents shared their experiences with anger and the roots that complicated their feelings and responses. These people successfully changed their relationship with anger. You can too.
Do you feel angry at your adult children? I’m not inviting you to rant and rave here, but perhaps you have something helpful to share with another parent. Here’s your chance to leave a comment. Do consider your words and write responsibly.
Father’s Day 2023 and estrangement
by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
That thought came to mind this morning. After all, I hadn’t written a 2023 Father’s Day article for dads whose adult children are estranged. Then I remembered an email I received from a kind father of estranged adult children. He wrote:
“Dear Sheri —- I got the best advice from you. That was ” THINK OF ALL THE GOOD THINGS YOU DID “— If anything maybe I did too much. But when I start to become sad, I think of your advice. For me at least that phrase helps. Thank you —– Hugs back at you. ——- Ken.”
Dear Ken, thank you for this reminder. GREAT BIG HUGS to you!
Past work for dads whose adult children are estranged
Over the course of the ten years since I began this website, I have written for dads whose adult children are estranged. Therefore, I can be compassionate to myself this year, this Father’s Day—and pull something together at the last minute too!
So, for Ken and all the other fathers, if you haven’t read my books on estrangement, Done With the Crying, or my newer title, BEYOND Done With the Crying, I hope you will. Perhaps as Ken did you will find some nuggets of wisdom within their pages. Meanwhile, here are a few links to past articles for dads whose adult children are estranged (on Father’s Day or any day, and of interest to mothers of estranged adult children as well). When you click through to read these articles, take a look at the related reading posts linked at the end of each one.
A gift for estranged fathers
As the airwaves are flowing with Father’s Day messaging; ads for “manly” stuff. My guess is that most dads would rather have the gift of time. Well, maybe a few words about how much a child has appreciated all they’ve done. For estranged fathers whose children have cut them off (also for rejected mothers), there is often a pervasive feeling: Time is running out.
Fathers on an adult child’s “cutting off”
This week, as the 3rd Sunday in June neared, you probably faced awkward comments. A co-worker’’s, “Have a great Father’s Day!” may have made you want to crawl away and hide. Or, you were asked about your plans and wished your phone would ring so you could be saved by the bell. You were probably already thinking about the day …
Estrangement by adult children: Weathering the storm
“Hollowed out.” That’s how one father of estranged adult children recently described how he feels. “Weak.”
I understand this. It’s how a lot of parents feel when they have given their all for a child, even to their own detriment, yet come up empty.
Let me tell you about some heroes
In the United States, we celebrate Memorial Day (in May) to honor those who sacrificed their lives in past wars to preserve our treasured freedoms. Since people all over the world read my books and visit this site, you may not be familiar with Memorial Day but this article relates to peace of mind and emotional freedom—sought by parents whose adult children disown them.
Hugs to everyone,
Adult children who hate parents: The ties that bind
by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
Thirty years ago, my mother’s sudden death left my father in a state of flux. When he moved to a smaller apartment, he asked what furniture we kids might want. Without thinking, I said, “Mom’s China cabinet.” I didn’t really have space for the walnut cabinet with its leaded-glass doors, yet something compelled me. We’d find a spot.
On the day we set it up, I remember feeling sick—and years later, I wished I’d never taken it. The China cabinet had become a dumping ground. The drawers were packed with odds and ends. The shelves behind the ornate glass doors were cluttered with seldom-used dishes. And the lower storage areas behind carved doors with decorative brass pulls bowed with items that had seen their day: A tough-to-clean waffle iron like the one my mother had cherished, a countertop quesadilla maker, and beautiful casserole dishes with insulated carry bags ready for potluck parties that, after my mother died, had dwindled to rare events.
I didn’t need or want the cabinet that neither fit my taste nor décor. Yet, the thought of selling or giving it away made my gut tighten and my chest constrict. I shifted it to another wall—where it sat for another five or six years.
At one point, I sat down to explore my compulsion and remembered my mother’s brown eyes softening with joy as she chose that cabinet from a furniture maker’s catalog. I was five or six at the time, and in those days, fine furnishings were still crafted to order in the United States. My mother had pointed to the picture with dreamy excitement. The stately cupboard would stand in the dining room of her first owned home—a roomy four-bedroom bought while still under construction. My father had done well for himself. With the high school diploma he had recently earned in night classes, a strategic mind, and a hefty dose of Southern-boy charm propped up by ambition, he had risen from maintenance man to executive and was appointed President of a large company. My parents’ dreams were coming true.
Home, family, security
That year, as the home we frequently drove by grew from bare studs to suburbs glory, my mom talked about having dinner ready when my dad would arrive, like clockwork, each night. In the picture she painted, we all sat down to eat the meals she’d lovingly prepared in her kitchen with its new, efficient appliances. Afterward, she’d do dishes while gazing through the over-sink window at her planned rose garden.
My mom kept the glossy furniture catalog open to that China cupboard. She would dream out loud of the dishes she’d trade for Blue Chip stamps to fill it. That China cupboard was just a piece of furniture, but it embodied a bigger ideal. Mom envisioned a home and security for us children that sharply contrasted with the rare bits she shared about her own fragmented childhood.
We were happy at first. We took family vacations to Yellowstone National Park and owned a boat one summer. But my dad’s success brought new demands and attitudes. He became involved with people and activities that drew him away. He was frequently out of town, and my mom cried a lot.
Even the neighborhood wasn’t all they’d expected. There were troubles there. Strange neighbors and happenings.
One night when my dad was away, my mother received a threatening phone call, and the wire to our lamp post at the corner of our lawn was dug up and cut. We kids were awakened to an atmosphere of fear and swept off to a hotel room. The next day, we boarded an airplane to another city to spend the summer with relatives. My family never returned to the dream home my parents then sold. We returned to renting, and we frequently moved. My dad’s career took a dive and my mom worked nights to make ends meet.
Reflecting on my mother’s shattered dreams and early death shined a light on my compulsion. Holding onto her China cabinet was a way to honor her dreams. A demonstration of loyalty to the mother I had so loved.
This realization came as a surprise. After her death, I had done a lot of work around wellness and following my own dreams. I talk a bit about that in my book, Done With The Crying (2016). The truth is many of us carry unconscious loyalty to people we have loved. Sometimes an object such as my mother’s China cabinet embodies their ideals or dreams. I was able to keep that China cabinet all those years, in my own “dream home” where I lived for more than three decades and raised my kids. Despite times of hardship, I fulfilled my mother’s dream—even while pursuing some of my own.
Loyalties? Or binding chains?
In my work with life coaching clients, we sometimes uncover unconscious loyalties that limit choices and hold people back. What shows up as an impulse buy of heavy, ceramic-clad kitchen pots in the brand your mom always loved may be tied to beliefs about a mother’s role, unconditional love, or the threat to one’s identity triggered by an abusive, rejecting adult child. Often, the body provides a clue. A gut feeling, nausea or tightness. A lump in the throat, a headache, or a constricted chest.
How do you feel about your teapot collection that started with the one your mom gave you when you got married? Maybe your now-estranged adult child added pots to the collection over the years. So, donating the pretty pieces you no longer have room for feels like dishonoring your mom—and giving up hope about your relationship with your child.
Sometimes, people unwittingly live out loyalty that limits their ability to earn—or keep—money. Gaining income triggers negative but unconscious beliefs about “rich” people, or goes against a family’s beliefs about who they are in the world. Ideals about being givers (not greedy), that “Murphy’s Law” (the idea that if something bad can happen it will), or that money is the root of evil (which is not what the Bible actually says) can wreak havoc, like an unseen and unconscious wrecking ball.
One of my clients, Suzanne, stored her immigrant parents’ bedroom furniture for decades, to the tune of thousands of dollars spent, because dumping the furniture felt like dumping them. They worked multiple service jobs and bought the bed set after becoming proud U.S. citizens and buying a modest home. Her parents worked their entire lives to give her a better life. They sold the home to keep her in graduate school, and they both died soon after her graduation.
Despite her advanced degrees, Suzanne worked at low-paying jobs and lived in rented rooms for most of her life. At age 59, she identified her inherited pattern of always striving. Keeping her parents’ bed set long after their deaths represented a form of loyalty that matched their devotion to her. Holding onto the furniture cost her money, freedom, and time. When she finally donated everything, turned in the storage unit keys, and said good-bye to the monthly bill, she secured a well-paying job, and eventually retired with a small nest egg in a home of her own.
Conditioning around money and success are frequently tied to inherited and limiting beliefs, or even to fears around who you might become. One father who, as a teenager, tagged along with elders of the Mormon Church to collect the tithing from struggling families, developed negative feelings about power related to money. He recalls people in poor circumstances jiggling coins from jars to give—and he vowed never to be like those elders. This father has given far more than his due to people he encountered his entire life—including adult children.
Wounds or excuses?
Today, I often see the concepts of limiting beliefs or unconscious loyalty being tied to labels such as the “mother wound.” The idea is that, as an adult, you’re carrying unconscious wounds from a mother who withheld approval or love. That wound, the theory reports, keeps you bound to old ideas of service and striving for mother’s love that can hold you back today. I don’t intend to minimize the pain of anyone for whom that’s true. However, in a society that enables victimhood and is all too ready to blame parents or even an entire generation for just about any weakness, failure, or unhappiness, labels such as “mother wound” demand caution and analysis.
In the past, children were taught the Biblical commandment to honor their parents. Even without the religious tie-in, a great many adult children still follow this ideal. However, the opposite exists.
Adult children who hate their parents: Do you owe them?
When I was a kid, preparing for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day was a big deal in school. Teachers valued the idea of honoring parents. As children shaped crepe paper rose bouquets or made plaster of Paris paperweights, we were reminded that our parents gave us life. For this fact alone, we were taught to be grateful. Life was precious, and we were to work hard, be kind, and do good things with the life we were gifted with. Contrast that idea with emails I frequently receive from adult children who hate their parents. Some rant about parents who owe them. “They chose to give birth,” is the argument I hear. “They owe me everything. Forever.”
“I didn’t ask to be born,” is the reasoning used to validate the hate spewed toward parents minimized to the labels of “egg-” or “sperm-donor.” These adult children who hate parents are not grateful for life. The belief is that they are owed for their parents’ choice. If their parents weren’t ready to sacrifice everything for the child, even into middle age or beyond, they should have chosen to abort. In other words, they’d rather not exist than exist without parents who can afford to serve them, agree with their opinions, and do what they’re told.
I know this is difficult for some to read. It’s difficult for me to fathom, too. But reality has a way of waking people up. Not “woke” as our culture currently packages trendy ideas to make them sound good, but awake, as in aware of reality. Not all adult children who reject parents or go no-contact are this extreme. Yours may not be so callous. It’s also possible you’re not facing the truth. You decide.
Regardless, we can still “love” adult children who reject us. They are, at least in part, a product of modern culture with its me-first and victim mentalities. But we don’t have to buy into their blame, entitlement, or abuse. We can reflect upon and recognize where our own limitations, perhaps in the form of unconscious beliefs about unconditional love or family devotion, or fears about being alone, set us up for more hurt. We don’t have to accept the ideas of a society that excuses bad behavior. We can open our eyes and see clearly. We can “love” our adult children from a distance, hope and pray for change that will benefit them (even when we no longer want to reconcile), but disavow what isn’t ours to take on as blame or that hurts us.
We can recognize our loyalty to a mother whose broken dreams are embodied in a piece of furniture we don’t need or want. We can realize that an impulse to buy heavy pots in a brand our mother admired is triggered by a threat to our identity caused by an abusive adult child. Or even that we’ve given far more than our due because of old vows equating positions of power to taking money from the poor (and giving to others, including entitled adult children).
What loyalty are you holding?
I think my mother would have been glad that, despite one son’s rejection, estrangement, and other hardships over the years (we all have rough times), I’ve managed to find joy and live a mostly fulfilling life that honored her values. She wouldn’t have wanted me to hang onto her China cupboard in an act of misplaced loyalty that reminded me of her heartache. When a younger relative expressed an interest, I happily (finally!) passed the cupboard along where it was wanted. This much younger relative doesn’t have the history of my mother’s broken dreams—and she’s making the China cupboard part of her own loving family, security, and home. My mom would have liked that, too.
The science of genetics is growing ever brighter, tying one’s emotions to those of ancestors, and connecting the turning off or on of one’s genes to ideals and activities a person is exposed to. I talk about this some in my 2022 book, Beyond Done With The Crying. You can read in the book about the possibility of unconscious pursuits rejecting adult children may be playing out.
These ideas about genetics segue into unconscious patterns of behavior like the “always striving” and “giver” mentalities of the parents mentioned earlier. And even my “home, family, and security” conditioning, which, although a worthy pursuit, can have a shadowy side. In my case, my compulsion around the China cabinet was strengthened by negative history including my mother’s sudden death and my memories of her joy, dashed in the neighborhood where her dreams were shattered.
Who or what are you loyal to?
Adult children who hate parents leave human wreckage in their wake. Traumatic experiences that can influence parents who may cling to values that, although decent, loving, and right, end up hurting them and holding them back. Unfortunately, there are many voices out there that keep parents stuck, always striving to prove themselves as good parents (as discussed in my April 17, 2023 YouTube video here).
Have you been rejected? Perhaps you’ve been dehumanized by terms such as “egg-” or “sperm-donor.” Or, you’ve been assigned labels such as “toxic” and “narcissist,” which are often the projections of adult children who hate parents—and perhaps also those of irresponsible therapists who encourage them to blame the parents who gave them life (as was discussed in this article). Is it time to awaken to reality?
This article intends to prompt you to look at your own patterns, limitations, or loyalty expressed in unconscious ways. Are you holding onto things, beliefs, or pursuits that no longer serve you? Even the noblest of values can have a downside when taken to extremes or affixed to compulsions or fears that make no sense without reflection and insight. Are you caught in an unhealthy pattern of giving, clinging, or self-sabotage? Consider life coaching with me to identify where to break free, And, to help other parents, share your thoughts by leaving a comment here.
Rejected parents of adult children: Lean into your power (like a bear!)
by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
When the massive 2021 fires devastated the forests to the east of us, bears moved into my lazy, semi-rural neighborhood. I was both terrified and tempted by the idea of seeing one up close. You can read about how that prospect led me to think about what we rejected parents of adult children can learn from bears in this previous article. The bears eventually left our neighborhood, but I’ve been hearing that they may be back again. That’s because, as springtime finally arrives, much more slowly than is typical for this area, the bears are confused.
Rejected parents of adult children: an icy landscape
The big beasts are emerging from their hibernation dens to find the ground blanketed in snow rather than the fresh spring grass they’re accustomed to chomping down. It’s predicted that the bears are likely to roam around, looking for grass in areas they wouldn’t typically forage. So, humans should be on alert.
Reports say the newly awakened bears have at first seemed a little dazed and confused. That’s a lot like many rejected parents of adult children, who woke up one day to find the landscape of their entire lives changed. It’s like we went to bed one night and woke up the next morning in a strange, cold land where values have changed, and we no longer recognize the family (or, these days, maybe even the entire culture) we have always held so dear.
Again, we can learn from the mighty bear. Instead of cowering in fear at the unexpectedly icy greeting, the bears shake off their confusion. Then they lean into their power and head on out to find what they need.
Rejected parents of adult children: Time to wake up
Especially today, when adult children cutting off parents has become so common, there’s no need to cower in shame or fear. Whether you have heard about it or not, it’s almost certain there is someone in your social sphere who is a rejected parent. Adult children may dismiss us with icy silence, but parents whose adult children have no time or affection for them can mourn the loss, get needed support, and move toward their future. You can always cherish the memories of your once cozy den, and taking charge of your own life doesn’t mean you have to close the door to the idea of reconciling. But I hope you will open your heart and mind to the possibility of greener pastures ahead … for you.
I hear daily from parents who thank me for my books, my newsletter, and this site. They tell me they are finally awaking to the reality of lost time. They’re tired of chasing, pining, and hoping for estranged adult children to bring the sunshine into their lives. These parents have learned the hard way that, while they hid away in a frozen life, time ticked on by—and now there’s not a moment to waste.
The “silver tsunami” of senior citizens is here. Time for the most active among us to wake the world up to us and our wisdom rather than bend, bow, and hide away in shame. If you’re still worried about germs or can’t get out due to physical issues, find ways to get involved and socialize from a distance. You’ll feel better when not so focused on your loss. Even via Internet or over the telephone, you can make a big difference, and have fun.
For example, one mother, in her 80s who can no longer drive participates in Zoom meetings to raise money for a political cause that she holds dear. Another makes artsy quilts that, when sold, provide much needed funds to a battered women’s shelter. A 76-year-old rejected mother and grandmother volunteers with her local Rotary club, helping to effect positive change. A father in his early 80s organized a pickle ball league for active seniors. (I hear from one mom who plays that, during the first hour of pickle ball, they get sweaty and, during the second, they laugh—both excellent forms of exercise!) Another rejected father rescues injured or needy fawns each season and has become known as the “fawn guy.” Last year, when red fox squirrels fell from their nest and their mother never returned, we called the “squirrel lady,” who is retired and says she works more hours each spring than she previously did all year—and she loves saving those furry little lives. These people have found meaning, which (as I talked about in Beyond Done) infuses everything with more energy.
In my county, there’s a telephone calling service that offers senior citizen peer support by way of trained volunteers. They’re always advertising for retirees and others who want to help. Gardening centers and clubs offer in-person and online meetings, classes, and discussion forums. There are dance clubs, Zumba hours, meditation gatherings, and tai chi. What service might need your help or support? What interests do you hold that may have online or in-person classes or groups?
Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Ten Amazing organizations that need your help
- Inspiration – Eight companies started by people over age 50
- 10 People who had great success after age 60
And here are some ideas for virtual fun that might get you thinking. One mom volunteered on her city’s playbill board. And near where I live, a native plant demonstration garden depends on their volunteer docents and support staff:
Make the most of every opportunity to connect with kindness and make a friend—even if it’s just a few mutually pleasant moments shared on a grocer aisle. Shop when the stores aren’t busy. Stop to help someone shorter than you are to get a jar off the top shelf, ask a fellow customer if they know where some item you need is shelved (because people feel good when they can help), and use any time stuck in a long line to chat and laugh. I recently found myself in a growing line of grocery shoppers as we were moved from one broken register to the next. The cashier looked distraught. Thankfully, none of us shoppers griped. We all just laughed and enjoyed the shuffle. One man even joked that, at this rate, we’d all soon be exchanging holiday cards. These seemingly small connections make a real difference in how happy people feel. They give us something to think about, savor, talk or laugh about later.
This spring, even if you have found yourself in the icy landscape of estrangement from adult children, take your prominent place as a neighbor, a friend, an elder, or a warm and fuzzy bear.
How are you making the most of your daily life? You can make this a meaningful moment by leaving a comment. Your words will inspire other rejected parents of adult children. We’re all in this thing called life together.
Ask Sheri McGregor: What about giving my new address?
Answer from Sheri McGregor:
A couple of questions for you:
1) Is it necessary to let her know right now? I ask because a move is stressful and reaching out right now could add more. Consider whether it might be better (for you) to do one thing at a time. You have already decided to move. Everything is in place. Your energetic stores might best be managed focusing on the move. You can always contact her later once you’re settled (because no matter how she responds, you’re moving anyway, right?).
2) When you do contact her, consider your true purpose. You said you wanted her to have your new address . . . so keep that as the purpose and be sure you’re letting go of other possible wishes. Some parents have confided that they figured their move, their remarriage, their illness … whatever … would spur the child to come to their senses and want a closer relationship. Be sure that you are honest with yourself. If those other motives exist, then you can weigh contacting her with your new address in a way that allows you to better prepare.
In Beyond Done With The Crying More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children, there is information about taking care of your emotions around contact with estranged adult children as well as other relatives. You may want to lean on those before and after any such contact. (My books are available in paperback, as e-books, and in audio formats).
Hope this is helpful to you. Congratulations on your new marriage and your move. It all sounds like an exciting new era for you!
Angie B.’s reply:
When adult children ignore you:
Recognizing changes in yourself
By Sheri McGregor, M.A.
I frequently hear from parents who have spent years of trying, wishing, hoping, and experiencing the same old rejection, abuse, manipulation, disregard, neglect, or … fill in the blanks. So, when they receive some invitation, gift, text, or other overture, they are surprised by their feelings.
Even after adult children ignore you for years, the old hopes might spring to mind. The lure of seeing grandchildren who were ripped away in the early years and are now teens is powerful with curiosity and the old gnawing of what it once meant to be a family.
Has the son or daughter come to their senses? Do they want to make things right? Often, the intention is uncertain and unclear. What seems like an opportunity might arrive in an email where the parent is copied in with other relatives about a visit through town. Perhaps a gift arrives, after years of silence, that contains a printed card and a phone number. Or a graduation announcement arrives in the post, and includes generic instructions on how to attend.
The parent may feel a mix of emotions: longing, fear, resentment, hope, trepidation, or perhaps resolve. Frequently, when they sit with their feelings and weigh history with their past efforts, they conclude that the possibility of a meaningful connection is slim. If the son or daughter wanted to reconcile, the intention would be spelled out and clear.
Deep in their core, many of these parents know their energy stores have grown thin. They just aren’t up for more dashed hopes, abuse, or indifference. They have no will to bow to the pressure of others. Yet, they still may struggle. This is for those parents.
When adult children ignore you: Your “sweet tooth” can change
You once had a sweet tooth. Gosh, you loved those sweets. Then one day, those goodies changed. You bit into chocolate and hit a nut that was hard as a stone. The next time, you found a doughy, undone, sticky part that turned your stomach. Another day, there were worms in the candy box.
You realized someone was sabotaging this thing you loved. Or your standards had changed. The sweets just weren’t the same.
You fasted off sweets for a bit, but then the longing took hold. You imagined the sweetness and satisfaction. You couldn’t resist.
But when you ventured a taste, you broke a tooth. Again, you resisted and craved and fasted. Other people said to go ahead, give in, and that things might have changed.
You hoped and longed. You sought out the sweets, but this time, the doughy middle turned your own vulnerable center inside out.
Even so, you eventually took another taste. You were cautious and aware. You prepared for and identified the worms. You worked to clear them, and you thought that you did … but the sweets just weren’t the same. You were always double checking: Is that another worm?
The pattern continued. You fasted. You craved. You went to great lengths to find the old sweets you loved. Nothing was as good as you remembered. And it was just as well. The sweets had grown sparse, unavailable, and pricey.
Finally, you recognized that life without the sweets was pretty good. You missed them now and again but even when you knew where to find them, you realized you couldn’t afford to break another tooth or expose yourself to possibly getting sick. You couldn’t chance worms.
Life went on. You grew a little leaner and stronger. You developed a taste for what is better for you. Peas and carrots … or peace & [self]care ruts! You took kind care of yourself.
You also learned about life, people, families, society, the soul/spirituality/God. You listened to your inner voice. You found meaning and joy. The sweets no longer had a hold on you.
Then one day, an invitation arrived. You closed your eyes and imagined the taste, the texture, the decadent satisfaction you used to feel at indulging in the confectionery buffet of sweets. Funny, your mouth didn’t water.
You opened your eyes and realized the old cravings had diminished. The thought, “empty calories,” came to mind. Even if the sweets had changed and were good again, you couldn’t enjoy them. They’d forever been spoiled for you by the years of hard parts, the sticky doughy bits, and the worms.
Your tastes had changed. You now craved peace & care ruts.
When adult children ignore you over time: Your turn
Can you relate? When you’re ignored by adult children (or abused, accused, and rejected), you may come to a point where your patience wanes and you see them differently. I hope you will share your thoughts. What did you crave in the early daze of estrangement? How did your feelings change over time, and why? Feel free to leave a comment and talk with other parents.
Parents of estranged adult children: Is it Groundhog Day?
by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
In the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a self-centered weatherman assigned to the yearly event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He’s in for a surprise when the same day keeps repeating itself. That sort of rut is what this article is about.
In the throes of estrangement pain, we can become stuck, going through the same old motions, and hoping things will change. Even our thoughts may run on repeat, replaying traumatic memories like movie scenes, and bringing us to the same old looping refrain.
- How can I make him change?
- If only I had . . . . or hadn’t , , , X, Y, or Z (fill in the blank).
Unfortunately, as our thoughts cycle on repeat (without the rinse!), our behavior often follows, and we sink into a rut. At some point, we need to wake up and realize we have a life to live regardless of our adult children’s decisions to live without us. That doesn’t mean you must give up hope … but it does require a shift in attitude toward a better perspective.
Adult children’s decisions: A new day
As the tradition goes, the groundhog emerges from its hole and, depending on if it sees its shadow, winter continues or ends. The roots of the holiday can be traced to a variety of lore, as well as to different hibernators who emerge on this day that’s halfway between the winter solstice and spring. If the sun’s out, as the legend goes, the groundhog is scared by its shadow, prompting a retreat to darkness and heralding another six weeks of winter.
Can you relate? Many of us have spent numerous months or even years in a “winter” existence, hiding from the reality of our lives. We may have dreamed up fantasies that our estranged adult children will come around, that they will love us again, and that we’ll pick up where we left off. We may have believed others who told us this was just a phase and that our kids will wake up when they have their own children. We may have even told ourselves we can’t be happy until the relationships resume, that a good parent would never stop trying, or some other lore that keeps us stuck.
Time grows short, and most rejected parents do eventually realize they must take charge of their own happiness. As several books and song titles tell us, it’s an inside job. Yet, when they emerge after a long “winter” of distress, they can be as wary as a groundhog startled by its own shadow. Learning to live well again requires adjustment, which also takes time. My question: Why wait? Embrace your life now. What have you got to lose?
Adult children’s decisions: Face facts
I’m disheartened by some of the suggestions I’ve seen out there that keep parents of estranged adult children stuck. Even when parents are advised to reduce or entirely halt their efforts to reach out, it’s frequently intended as a tactic to prompt change in the estranged adult children—as in maybe they’ll miss you and come running. While that’s certainly a possibility, the idea keeps parents attached to an illusion of control.
The parents who read my blogposts and books are at varying stages of estrangement and its effects. Some are brand new to the disconnect. Others are years, and even decades, along. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all advice, but no matter where you fall on the estrangement continuum, the reality is that the only one you can control is yourself.
For parents who are in the early daze of estrangement, that lifesaving fact might be clouded by the belief that you must have done something wrong. Why else would your own child disown you? <—-you may think. There are plenty who jump on the “blame the parent” bandwagon, but that doesn’t mean they’re right. While none of us were perfect parents, most of us did our best. In both of my books, I help parents manage their shock over adult children’s decisions, see their emotions in a new light, and look at themselves with clear eyes unfettered by a loved one’s revisionist history or downright abuse (link to article).
As one parent recently said, “Your books are like programs, with specific steps and support that helped me move ahead at my own pace. Finally, I’m feeling free to live my life, and now, I’m looking forward to each new day.”
Other parents who have made the decision to face facts and move forward for their own well-being have shared with me in recent emails:
- “In your two books on estrangement, you spoke to me in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I totally related to you and your approach, and it felt like a cool glass of water on a very hot day. Thank you so much for that.” Elle, a psychologist, and an estranged mother
- “You and your books have helped me so much. I have trained my mind not to reflect on the negativity.” Korrie, mother of two estranged adult sons
- “Thank you for the article referencing stalking estranged adult child. I found comfort in this topic because I decided to stop following my daughter 6 months ago. It was too painful to see my grandchildren. Also, your books are very insightful. I am keeping hope but facing the reality of what happened. Moving forward to recover from loss is my personal journey.” Diane, mother of an estranged child and grandchildren
- “After your books and writing things out, I am so super excited for the future! I will always miss my girls…but I can’t go back. I tried my best and they were always my first and foremost. Now it’s time to go forward for me!” Suzanna, mother of two estranged adults
Just as Murray in Groundhog Day made a shift in himself, parents can take hold of what’s within their power to change: themselves. That means first recognizing the need for change, and then digging out of old habits that keep you burrowed in distress. That’s true whether in your thinking or in what you do.
In Murray’s case, the shift included being more thoughtful of other people. Most of the parents reading this will need to be kinder to themselves. Some will also recognize that their sadness and preoccupation with the estranged one(s) requires the need to better appreciate the loyal ones in their lives.
Self-examination and commitment to positive change puts you on the pathway to self-care and fosters individual growth for your own well-being regardless of another adult’s choices. Whether there are clouds or sunshine, won’t you join the thousands of parents who have made the decision to nurture themselves and grow into a new way of life?
Take courage, face your shadow, and step toward a new season of your life. You can embrace your own brand of resilience and take charge of your well-being and your life. Your adult children’s decisions may have put you on this lonely road, but you can choose your route now. Make this your halfway point, the juncture where you make a turn, steer away from wintry sticking points of estrangement pain, and move toward spring.
Are you “stalking” an estranged adult child?
By Sheri McGregor, M.A.
The last time divorced mother, Vanessa, reached out, her daughter, Lynn, replied with a string of cruel texts laced with profanity that sickened Vanessa. Lynn then blocked her. Three weeks passed before Vanessa could go half an hour without tearful rumination and worry. Something must be dreadfully wrong. Vanessa would want to help, yet Lynn had pushed her away—again.
Other than a few blips of hopeful contact that never failed to disintegrate, they’d been estranged for more than five years. Mentally and physically exhausted, Vanessa knew it was time to go with the flow. She began working in earnest to develop a satisfying new normal, and to regain her sense of humor, confidence, and joy. A year later, she was doing well. She had a new job she enjoyed, a couple of trusted friends, and had even begun to consider dating. Life looked good. Then a relative said he’d seen her daughter emerging from a church’s evangelizing van—and the cycle of longing, compulsion, and emotional distress began again.
Vanessa researched the church online and discovered they broadcast livestreams of every meeting. After seeing Lynn, dressed in a long skirt and high-neck sweater like the church sisters she hugged and sang hymns with, Vanessa hunched over the computer screen every Sunday, hoping to catch another glimpse. She’d found a window into her daughter’s life.
In hand with her daughter’s erratic pattern of high enthusiasm followed by waning interest or even sudden disdain, Vanessa wasn’t surprised when her daughter stopped showing up on screen. She must have quit attending. Still, for several weeks, Vanessa watched each meeting in full, and then stayed tuned for the laying on of hands afterward. No Lynn. On Wednesday and Friday nights, she watched the prayer meetings online, but still didn’t see her daughter.
Consumed with worry, Vanessa felt compelled to reach out. When she did, she was still blocked. The cycle of emotional distress gripped her again.
Monitoring your adult children: What’s your purpose?
Observing our children is nothing new. Most of us had regular prenatal checkups including ultrasound imagery to monitor our child’s development in utero. Later, we installed baby monitors, watched over our children on the playground, and oversaw school progress with report cards and teacher meetings. Those old parenting habits are difficult to shake … but when it comes to adult children who want little or nothing to do with us, do we have the right? Or does it boil down to parents “stalking “an estranged adult child? Maybe that depends on who you ask. But is monitoring them good for us? Or for them?
Many parents tell me they keep track of their adult children over social media, via an employer’s website, or in some other way. If you monitor your estranged adult child’s life from afar, consider this: The definition of “monitor” includes a purpose. A proctor for test takers, a security guard’s camera views to watch over a site, or a lifeguard’s function all include that element. Supervising children is a necessary part of parenting. But if your contact with an adult child is unwanted or non-existent, what’s your purpose? Maybe you feel justified or that it’s necessary to monitor them. This isn’t meant as negative judgment, just a self-check as to whether it’s good for you.
Parents following an estranged adult child online:
Could there be surprise effects?
In science, there’s a concept called “the observer effect.” Quantum physics explains this at the subatomic level, where the movement of tiny particles is altered when observed. In psychology, this effect refers to people’s behavior changing when they are observed. Researchers seek to minimize the effect by using unobtrusive methods. What’s this have to do with monitoring your estranged adult children? In today’s world of internet cookies and algorithms, your observations may not be unobtrusive. Your estranged adult child’s online experience may be affected by yours.
Have you ever done a search for some product or need—and discovered that an advertisement shows up for that very thing the next few times you browse, even on unrelated websites? It can feel like you’re being stalked. Have you ever signed onto a social media platform and seen a friend recommendation for someone you don’t know? Chances are they’re connected to you in some way. Maybe a friend of a friend clicked on your picture when you liked a post. Or an inadvertent “like” of a shared meme shaped an algorithm and put you in a mutual categorical slot. Is it possible that our monitoring of an adult child’s social media puts us on their radar? Are we suggested as a “friend”? Do our internet pathways link us in ways that affect the ads they see, or who might be suggested to them? And if so, do they think of us in negative ways? (Mom must be stalking me again.)
I’ve seen threads on estranged adult children’s forums that talk about how they feel when parents “bother” them or they’re watched. Some ask for advice and get lots of me-too replies about parents they consider stalkers. They’re angry and view their parents as pitiful and weak. Some of the posters suggest changed behavior in response to being watched—the observer effect.
Recently, a ten-year-old told me his classroom job as “test monitor” meant making sure everyone had a packet on test days—and he felt stressed. He always tried to hurry because the tests were limited on time. To beat the clock, students sometimes snatched a packet right out of his hand and immediately got started. Meanwhile, he couldn’t begin until he finished his job. Also, he confided, invariably, someone discovered a page missing, and it was on him to stop his own test taking, get that person another packet, and make things right.
The poor kid. He felt powerless. I suggested he talk to the teacher about his feelings, and he later told me he had. She apologized and changed the format so that everyone had a packet and checked for all pages before anyone started the test.
In this case, speaking up helped, but in monitoring … ahem … stalking an estranged adult children’s life from afar, identifying problems won’t come with that option.
Vanessa worried about her daughter’s mental health, but there was nothing she could do about it. Other parents see some changed behavior and guess about the cause. They become stressed but are powerless.
Instead of “stalking” an estranged adult child (which is the word they often use to describe your behavior), monitor yourself
Vanessa had worked hard to escape the tug of heartstrings toward a daughter who engaged abusively or not at all. Then her relative offered a tidbit of information, propelling her back into a cycle of hurt. Even the most well-meaning relatives sometimes can trigger emotional longing or worries that tug our heartstrings and halt our progress.
This and other family tug-o-wars are covered more in depth in Beyond Done, and I hope you’ll read that book. For now, if you’re triggered somehow or feel compelled to monitor your adult child, the first step for self-care is recognition. Be aware of your feelings and make sound decisions rather than act on impulse or emotion. We hear a lot about boundaries, mostly as they relate to other people. But boundaries are good to impose upon ourselves as well. Vanessa could have recognized her compulsion when she sat down to look up the church. She could have drawn a line in the sand toward her own behavior. She could have shut her laptop and walked away.
The simple act of observing yourself—your thinking, your actions, your feelings—can affect your life. Make the observer effect work for you.
“Stalking” an estranged adult child: Are you hurting yourself?
Are you monitoring your estranged adult child? Reflect. Does the behavior help or hurt you? Rather than putting front and center something (or someone) that makes you feel powerless and reminds you of hurt, focus on your own life and where you can make positive change for your own contentment. I hope you’ll share your thoughts by leaving a comment on this article. Interacting with other parents of estranged adult children provides insight and support as you monitor your responses to estrangement, become more aware, and grow.