Category Archives: Answers to Common Questions

Some questions are common to parents of adult children who are estranged. This category names and answers some of the questions common to parents of estranged children.

My adult child is a narcissist: Is it my fault?

adult child is a narcissist

My adult child is a narcissist: Is it my fault?

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Parents sometimes tell me their adult child is a narcissist. They describe sons and daughters who feel superior, lack empathy, and have fragile egos that crumble behind a defensive wall of rage. Frequently, the parents go on to say that everything they read says it’s all their fault.

I’m quick to assure them that the causes for narcissism are not that simple, but years spent in an increasingly demeaning relationship with a narcissistic adult child can leave parents confused, isolated, and vulnerable to these seemingly definitive opinions. A parent’s view of themselves, as reflected through an abusive, narcissistic adult child’s mirror, may be warped. The related shame can be debilitating. If you’re one of these parents, take heart. There’s more breadth to narcissism’s etiology and development including how the behavior can be acquired.

Your adult child is a narcissist: Do the theories keep you stuck?

A zillion blogs assert that narcissists are created by either overindulgent or neglectful parents. That these are opposites has always made me suspect, but like so many loud opinions, they’re repeated so often they’re accepted as absolute. The reality is that these are theories. And why not? Framing parents is convenient and absolves adults of responsibility for their own actions. These days, some therapists even encourage adults to blame parents for all their problems—like this one’s billboard.

Simplistic reasoning that heaps guilt on the parents enables adult children who turn on the charm then drop emotional bombs whenever it suits. Parents can become trapped in hurtful, subservient relationships with self-indulgent, ego-inflated sons or daughters who are intermittently loving. It’s a cycle of hurt and hope. Outsiders might see a carefully constructed public façade, sing the child’s praises, and tell the parent they must be so very proud. This then triggers a mix of pride and confusion, which provokes the parent’s shame and silence—just how abusers like to keep their targets.

Frequently, parents who have hung on for years find themselves discarded for good, maybe because they’ve begun to stand up for themselves and are less easily manipulated. Perhaps the parent’s health is failing so they’re no longer a reliable emotional fuel source for the narcissistic adult child. Or the parent unwittingly magnifies a narcissistic “injury,” that triggers the adult child’s counterattack.(1)

It’s also possible that the son or daughter has settled into the role of what’s known as a flying monkey, which is someone who supports and defends the narcissist, often, but not always, by way of manipulation. A flying monkey may do the bidding for another narcissist in the family. Yes, a flying monkey can also be a narcissist, and chooses or goes along with the role because there’s something in it for them.

Is narcissism in the genes?

Often, when parents identify their son or daughter as a narcissist they’ll spot a few others in the family tree. Whether these people are diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), or simply show a lot of the traits, is up for debate but the harm is real and the family patterns sometimes uncanny.

In one example, a life coaching client who was the father of two sons said his younger brother, whom he’d never been close to and who stopped coming around entirely when their mother got sick, was a narcissist. He later realized the younger of his own two sons was like his brother. A narcissist who only cared about himself and disengaged from his family when they were on to him. Subservient roles can get old (and intolerable) when people recognize what’s going on and how much they’ve been hurt. And a narcissist will often discard someone who no longer serves them and is difficult to control.

One grandmother talked about her older sister, a narcissist, who bragged about cozying up with a sickly, well-to-do elderly man and inheriting the spoils. Of the grandmother’s daughters, the elder one was a lot like her scheming sister. She even took advantage of a sickly older man. In both cases, the younger sisters stopped associating with their narcissistic sibling … and were cautious of their other family members who continued to associate with the narcissistic one. The ongoing connection, they believed, put them at risk. Subjects of past narcissistic abuse feel safer making sure the narcissist has no way of finding out anything about their lives.

Some may say these scenarios point to the upbringing as the culprit, but twin studies show otherwise. Environment, meaning not only the parents but society at large, surely do play a role in all personality disorders, but research indicates that narcissism is heritable. Depending upon the individual study, and how the research is conducted, the degree of heritability runs from around 24 to nearly 80 percent.(2) It’s a wide swing but a genetic connection exists.

Genes and what else?

NPD frequently occurs with other brain and personality disorders.(1) So, whether your child is diagnosed or simply showing many narcissistic traits, comorbidity can create all sorts of relational and occupational dysfunctions. These problematic scenarios can cause a variety of related consequences. These then influence and shape the course of a person’s life in ways that may contribute to narcissistic behavior and NPD. To name every potential contributor is impossible. The prevalent, yet simplistic opinions, don’t begin to scratch the surface. What’s clear is that narcissism’s basis is more than a cut-and-dried scenario where parents are to blame.

It’s fair to say, though, that parents may contribute. A variety of circumstances influence parents’ lives. Also, individual children affect their parents’ behavior. If your child was sickly at a young age, you probably interacted differently with that child than you did with those of robust health. A sensitive, lonely child might prompt loving parents to work harder at building the kid’s self-esteem. If your child was emotionally volatile, you did your best to calm outbursts, teach them how to use their words, and to soothe themselves.

With any children, supportive parents do their best to show justice, kindness, and what it means to empathize and care for others. However, in the workaday chaos of a busy life, you may, at times, have fallen prey to a child’s insecurities and whims. Perhaps you were indulgent on a day when you needed a modicum of peace. Maybe you even assured them they were extra beautiful, uniquely talented, or even special when they felt insecure. That stuff happens in just about every family. Yet, with a burgeoning narcissist, the times of give-ins and ego boosts may have inadvertently contributed to an insidious and growing problem.

That’s not to blame you, of course. Since the early 1990s, experts have preached the importance of self-esteem. Parents followed suit. And most of us dealt with life in the best ways we could at the time. If your child already carried a propensity for narcissism, they probably learned how to play you, too.

Earlier, I mentioned the father of two sons who says the younger one is a narcissist, as is his own older brother (the boys’ uncle). Upon reflection, this father was distressed to realize that, to a degree, he treated the younger of his two sons differently than the first. He came to recognize that his narcissistic younger son’s behavior had triggered responses that derived from the father’s boyhood days. His interactions with his younger son were shaped by relational patterns developed in his family of origin as an older brother, interacting with a narcissistic younger one whom the rest of the family doted on.

Does this mean the father is to blame? If given the chance, his narcissistic adult son might claim so. The dad, though, now sees a younger son who was different from the start. “He was always more demanding,” he says. “As he got older, he could suck all the air from a room. It was always about him all the time.” The boy’s attention-seeking, the father says, changed the family dynamics from early on.

“I’m sharing my story because maybe I can make a difference for another father,” he says. “Maybe one who can identify how his kid’s behavior triggers his own people-pleasing and over-tolerance from the past, and then circumvent.”

Acquired narcissism

Society at large also plays a role in narcissism’s development. The onset of social media, which can be addicting, coincides with increasing narcissism.(3,4,5) This ties in with a 2019 letter “from the editor,” Henry Nasrallah, M.D., in the journal Current Psychiatry, wherein he brings up fame as a trigger for “acquired narissim.” (6)

Nasrallah speaks of superstar athletes and actors who “acquire” narcissism from their suddenly revered position, which is enhanced and magnified by thousands of adoring fans. Social media has enlarged their audiences, too. This “acquired situational narcissism” (ASN) is the old saw, “It went to his head,” in action.

I tend to think two things about ASN: 1) that it can happen to lesser stars, standouts in their career or social settings; and 2) that no matter the level of narcissistic traits, those who “acquire” narcissism probably already had tendencies (even if only somewhere in the genes).

Could medications factor in?

Lately, quite a few parents have told me about narcissistic adult children who are taking prescription medications. These parents speculate that the medications have caused the personality changes they see, with a lack of empathy chief among them. Could it be these prescribed drugs cause deleterious side effects that affect their ability to care about other people’s feelings and pain? Perhaps.

Even the widely used painkiller, acetaminophen, (the main ingredient in Tylenol), has been associated with a reduction in empathy.(7,8) The same goes for some antidepressants.(9) In fact, many medications can cause changes in mood, behavior, and thinking. That’s not to say that a prescribed medication is not beneficial or safe. Many medical treatments involve a risk vs. benefit measure to determine the best treatment.

Adderall (made of mixed amphetamine salts) is one medication that has come up repeatedly in discussions with parents who say their adult child is a narcissist. Considered effective for treating ADHD, one known side effect is feeling emotionally detached (10), yet some people so like the increased focus of this stimulant that they take it in higher than prescribed dosages. Misuse can lead to addiction with one side effect being a sense of grandiosity.(11) Add that to the side effect of emotional detachment, toss in the irritability and self-centeredness that’s typical of addicts, and a parent might very well say their adult child is a narcissist.

Other symptoms of addiction, whether to Adderall, marijuana, alcohol or some other substance, include issues with anger, manipulative behavior, mood swings, and a shift in what they care about (meaning they care less about people because they just want the drug). The sum of these can certainly make an addict look and sound like a narcissist whether they clinically fit the label or not.

One dad of a celebrity estranged adult child says, “If it walks like a duck, quack likes a duck, then it’s a duck.”

A longer story

There are other circumstances that may also contribute to a narcissistic way of being. For example, some medical conditions include emotional and personality changes that might fit some of the traits. Hopefully this article demonstrates that narcissism is more complex than some might have you believe.

It has long been my opinion that even people with narcissistic ways can alter their behavior to do good and be kind—if they want to. Plenty of parents who will say their adult child is a narcissist and acts horrendously with them … but gets along well where they must.

The truth is, we all need a useful dose of healthy narcissism if we’re to take pride in our accomplishments and maintain a healthy sense of self-worth. That’s different from someone who feels they’re superior and uses others to prop up their fragile ego or for selfish gain. Read more about NPD here.

Related reading

Parents of estranged adult children: Pack your emotional toolkit

Negatively stereotyping parents of estranged adults: It hurts

References

(1) American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed, (Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

(2) Reichborn-Kjennerud T. The genetic epidemiology of personality disorders. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2010;12(1):103-14. doi: 10.31887/DCNS.2010.12.1/trkjennerud. PMID: 20373672; PMCID: PMC3181941.

(3) Malik S, Khan M. Impact of facebook addiction on narcissistic behavior and self-esteem among students. J Pak Med Assoc. 2015 Mar;65(3):260-3. PMID: 25933557.

(4) Andreassen CS, Pallesen S, Griffiths MD. The relationship between addictive use of social media, narcissism, and self-esteem: Findings from a large national survey. Addict Behav. 2017 Jan;64:287-293. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2016.03.006. Epub 2016 Mar 19. PMID: 27072491.

(5) Daniel Halpern, Sebastián Valenzuela, James E. Katz. “Selfie-ists” or “Narci-selfiers”?: A cross-lagged panel analysis of selfie taking and narcissism. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 97, 2016, Pages 98-101

(6) Nasrallah, Henry A. “Beyond selfies: An epidemic of acquired narcissism.”  Current Psychiatry; 18(8).

(7) Mischkowski D, Crocker J, Way BM. From painkiller to empathy killer: acetaminophen (paracetamol) reduces empathy for pain. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 Sep;11(9):1345-53. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsw057. Epub 2016 May 5. PMID: 27217114; PMCID: PMC5015806.

(8) Mischkowski D, Crocker J, Way BM. A Social Analgesic? Acetaminophen (Paracetamol) Reduces Positive Empathy. Front Psychol. 2019 Mar 29;10:538. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00538. PMID: 31001155; PMCID: PMC6455058.

(9) Rütgen, M., Pletti, C., Tik, M. et al. Antidepressant treatment, not depression, leads to reductions in behavioral and neural responses to pain empathy. Transl Psychiatry 9, 164 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41398-019-0496-4

(10) Sheppard, S. (2023) Adderall and emotional detachment: Why it happens and how to cope. https://www.verywellmind.com/adderall-and-emotional-detachment-why-it-happens-and-how-to-cope-6831140

(11) Adderall addiction: Signs and symptoms of misuse. 2024. American Addiction Centers. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/adderall/symptoms-of-abuse

 

My adult kids don’t like me: Now what?

my adult kids don't like meMy adult kids don’t like me: Now what?

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Whether consciously thought of or not, most of you had a vision that held you together when you had a family. That vision of home, happiness, and love all around kept you going whenever times got tough. It’s what sustained your continued output of time, energy, and other resources even when your children misbehaved or struggled. You were heading somewhere. So, as if on a road trip to a beautiful destination, you changed your flat tire after hitting a pothole, washed your windshield after a sandstorm, and kept on driving.

If you’re like most parents, you believed in your vision even when your children turned on you. There had to be something you could say or do to bring them to their senses, make them see reality, and steer them back around. Surely your vision for family connection was also theirs.

Well….. The truth is that, for many of us anyway, while we were busy working at our vision, the world was actively tearing it apart.

More parents are writing to me about attitudes they’re noticing toward the decreasing importance put on family these days. I see this as well. Perhaps especially toward parents. Honoring your parents, whether in keeping a godly command or just because they brought you up, isn’t echoed in society the way it once was. Instead, parents are put on trial.

Some online influencers trash whole generations, belief systems, and typical lifestyles some now call “vanilla.”  Not to mention the prioritization of feelings over the facts. I’ve lost track of how many parents I’ve met who entered family therapy expecting a give-and-take and found a one-sided pursuit toward validating an adult child’s emotions, with the practice of “reflective listening” expected only of parents.

I could go on here about how the convenience of texting has replaced face-to-face or even telephonic communication. We could all add our specific examples of how the world has changed. For example, my kids were using instant messenger before I even understood what it was. Technology crept in under the radar and, before we realized it, became a necessity and then the norm. Many believe that an internet “family” of social media friends has replaced the need for a real, flesh and blood family.

In this new parenting era, it is what it is. Estrangement, semi-estrangement, disregard, or downright disdain. The reasons run the gamut. Persistent immaturity, emotional volatility, addiction, or absolute abuse. You fill in the blank—or don’t. Once you realize that, at least for now, your adult children aren’t budging, the task at hand is to learn to live without them.

My adult kids don’t like me: Adjusting to a new vision

I wouldn’t blame you for choosing to hold close a vision so beautiful and worthwhile as a loving family. If you have other family members around, show them how much they’re loved. Appreciate and honor them as you’d like to also be valued. Do the same for good friends who can become like family.

But with regard to the estranged one, face the truth. No matter what you wish will happen, aside from blurry hope still dancing on the horizon, their part in your vision has changed.

Ask yourself:

For me, this meant understanding that my family didn’t look the same anymore, but it was still good. As well as recognizing that, even without a huge rupture, families do change over time. People die, partners join, and children are born. Life in general is apt to change—family included. This meant I had to change, too.

To shift required reevaluating who and what I put first. No more chasing after someone who didn’t want to be caught. No more pretending an ideal that didn’t exist. If people wanted to judge me for something my adult child chose, so be it. At some point, we have to stop lamenting that “our own flesh and blood” children have betrayed us, and remind ourselves that our offspring are their own flesh and blood.

Seeing your way forward

In the years since my own experience with estrangement began, I’ve come up with a few sayings and practices, short-form visions, to keep me on track. Some were day-at-a-time tenets: Get through the next 24 hours. Others were about goals, remembering the good, or staying focused on what would count and arranging my environment to support that focus. And then there are overarching ideas: Be kind. Stay Calm. Remember who you are.

Having in mind an idea about who you are and how you’ll be helps when challenges present. So, whether it’s what to do about a birthday or how to respond (or not respond) to a string of unkind texts, your personal ideal helps guide your response.

Also, a vision you purposefully create provides focus or even a destination. A parent who says to themselves, “My adult kids don’t like me,” feels distressed. If your vision is inner peace and contentment then you’ll be cautious, for example, about how much negativity you consume, how much you fixate on this problem you can’t fix, or how much resistance or inner criticism you engage in.

Since launching this website in 2013 and offering help for parents of estranged adult children, I knew that I wanted to be kind and professional. I keep that thought top of mind as well as this one: Do as much good as you can while also taking care of yourself.

For me, crafting single sentences that embody how I want to be works as a vision statement. I can remember single phrases or sentences and pull them out as needed. They can also serve more than one purpose. “Be kind” might be focused on myself, on other people, or even on both. For example, if I’m exhausted and receive a trying email, to “be kind” might mean not replying. To pause and give myself time to take a breath and reflect is kinder to me (and to the other person).

You may benefit from a more formalized style. Here, we’ll discuss the basic idea. Then you can drive your own vision forward in life.

Crafting your vision

You may be more familiar with what’s called a “mission” statement. These two- to three-sentence statements are used by businesses to describe for what, how, and sometimes why a company does what it does. A vision statement is shorter, one sentence or even a phrase and, for a business, usually focuses on long-term goals—a vision.

Here, I’m using the term a little more casually. A personal vision statement may focus on an ideal or include what you’re already doing and want to do more consistently. Aim for a higher standard or more of what’s good and what you value. It’s also okay if your vision is something you know you need but haven’t yet achieved at all. You decide. Trust yourself.

One thing to keep in mind is that a vision is different from a goal. It involves meaning and maybe even transformation. So, you could start by assessing what you’d like to change.

For parents, that can mean getting to know yourself sans children you’re no longer responsible for. Without their needs coming first, you can focus on your own. That doesn’t mean your vision is all about you. Most of us enjoy connection and find value in serving in some way, in giving back. A vision can link to that.

Say you know your vision for your own happiness will probably include community involvement.  Community involvement could be about keeping your city clean.  Another person might want to focus on helping senior citizens or teaching children as part of their personal vision. Someone else might seek to preserve their area’s history, maintain its small-town atmosphere, or expand its resources.

Considering what’s important to you provides a goal and can even include a secondary vision (such as a clean city). With a goal, you can create steps to see the outcome through. Volunteer at a senior center, in the children’s library, or join your historical society. Meanwhile, you’ll be happily involved in the community, which is the original vision you know will bring human connection, provide meaning, and fill your calendar with activity.

A plus to a personal vision is that simplicity can prevail. If your vision is to be kind, you can infuse this quality in whatever you do. That widens your vision to spreading kindness and modeling it.

My adult kids don’t like me: Esther’s vision

When Esther’s two adult sons developed severe mental illness in their late-twenties, she tried to help. But just when they improved, they’d refuse treatment again, and the cycle of paranoid delusions and odd behavior would take over. Esther loved them but the verbal attacks escalated into scary episodes threatening physical harm. Over time, she changed locks, got a watchdog, and filed restraining orders. Eventually she concluded they were beyond her help and chose to save herself.  At age 67, she moved all by herself to a new area and set out to rebuild her life. Esther determined what she sought in this new life era and defined her vision: Connection, meaning, and fun.

After feeling abandoned by friends and extended family members during the strife, Esther didn’t easily trust people. She knew what she wanted though, and set out toward that future with daily, weekly, and monthly goals. A big calendar helped her list a variety of pursuits almost every day. Even the grocer became a place to try connecting. She worked on her small talk skills and began interacting wherever she could. In the community free newspaper, she found activity listings and she sampled many. “If I tried different avenues to meet people and fit in, I knew I’d reach the mountaintop,” she says.

Esther’s personal vision has kept her going. She weighed every activity and acquaintance against her desired future. “If they came up short, I walked on,” she says. “If things fit, I’d stick at it.” Three years after moving, she’s feeling pretty good about her life. Esther still thinks lovingly of her sons before they changed but views the good and bad times as seasons. Now she’s in a new season she sees as “pretty bright.”

What’s on your horizon?

Coming up with a meaningful vision for this season can serve as a roadmap. With a clear destination in mind, you can steer away from the potholes of a painful past, refuse dead-end thinking, and avoid avenues of despair or regret. Even for those who are new to estrangement and feeling stunned and sad, just considering a vision prompts forward momentum. Whether the estrangement is temporary or grows into a permanent state, it’s wise to look ahead for ourselves instead of eyeing the rear view mirror at what we can’t change.

We’ll talk more about creating a personal vision in a live meeting held in the membership community on May 29. Consider joining the membership to be a part of the event or to watch the replays or participate in this or other topic meetings with other parents of estranged adult children.

Related reading

Dreams: Help in moving forward after estrangement

Amends letter to adult children: Should parents write one?

My parents and I were estranged for years. Here’s what happened when we talked again

Prodigal child

Ask Sheri McGregor: Adult child doesn’t want anything to do with us but now he’s sick

adult child doesn't want anything to do with usAsk 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: Angry at adult children?

angry at adult children

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
  • Hypertension
  • 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.

Your turn

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.

Resources/Related Reading

Interview with Dr. Ryan Martin: Why we get angry

Negatively stereotyping parents of estranged adult children: It hurts

1. Anger: It’s impact on the Human Body

 

Moving when you have estranged adult children

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

Ask Sheri McGregor: What about giving my new address?

Q: Hello Sheri,
I look forward to receiving your emails. Thank you for helping parents like me who have an estranged adult child. I have a question for you.
My 33-year-old daughter will have nothing to do with me. I tried to get her to talk and tell me what was wrong, but she wouldn’t engage. After much heartache, she set some firm boundaries.  I respected them, hoping that would bring her back around. It’s been five years since I have seen or talked with her.
Three years ago, I went though a tough divorce from a 22-year marriage.  I am now remarried and will be moving out of state in about a week.
She is my only child and it breaks my heart that we don’t have a relationship. I would like to give her my new address, but she probably wouldn’t reply to a text. And besides, she made it clear I wasn’t to contact her. I don’t know what to do!
Any suggestions?
Thank you,
Angie B.

Answer from Sheri McGregor:

Dear Angie B.,

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!

HUGS,

Sheri McGregor

Angie B.’s reply:

Good morning Sheri,
Thank you for your quick response!  You are totally right!   I am so overwhelmed at this point. I will concentrate on the move for now, and worry about this at a later date.
Thank you so much for your assistance for helping  parents going through this season of life.
Angie B.
Related Reading

 

Letters to estranged adult children

letters to estranged adult childrenAsk Sheri McGregor: Letters to estranged adult children

I routinely hear from parents asking if I have sample letters to adult children, showing them what to say. They hope their words will motivate a reconciliation. With so many “experts” out there recommending amends letters to estranged adult children and telling parents what to do or say to get results, it’s no wonder so many parents believe that if they can say just the right thing, their children will respond as desired. I have written extensively about this subject in my books to help parents of estranged adults. Here, I’ll share one email from parents whose situation may be useful for others. We cover their question about what to say—and more.

Ask Sheri McGregor–Letters to estranged adult children:
What words will motivate reconciliation?

Q: Hi Sheri. Our 29-year-old son who does not live with my husband and I anymore, has mental issues including depression, anxiety and a mood disorder. He is currently in therapy and is taking medication. He also smokes marijuana and has been doing this for at least 10 years. 

 Six months ago, shortly after he moved out, he blocked us on his phone, and he did not reply to our text messages. He stopped speaking to us and would not reply to our emails. He only speaks through my parents, and only if absolutely necessary. He gets mad if we reach out or try to reconcile directly or through someone else. We hear from my parents that he wants to reconcile but he is not ready nor is he ready to apologize.

Is there anything we can do to get him to contact us sooner rather than later or do we have to wait for him to contact us when he is ready? We are sending an e-card to him on his birthday soon. Is there a good message to write in it to encourage him to call us? 

 As background, we were not getting along before the estrangement, and he was verbally abusive to us. During this estrangement, we have spoken only a couple of times, but it was not positive. He has been verbally abusive, talked behind our back and lied or exaggerated regarding our relationship and the facts. For six months, we have been hurt, angry and frustrated, but we understand it may be part of his mental illness or he is just taking it out on us that his life is bad right now. It is also hard to wait, but we will if we need to.

Is there anything we can do or do we wait? We are in therapy to learn how to better get along with him when he does come back. 

Thank you for taking the time to read this and we appreciate your response.

Bernice and Hal

Answer from Sheri McGregor

A: You know what, Bernice and Hal? You can just love him. You can say Happy Birthday and you can say you hope he’s doing well. You can even say you’d love to see or him, and if it’s true and fits, you could tell him that, in looking back, you regret your words or actions. (I add this because you said you weren’t getting along earlier.) However, to be absolutely honest, my guess is that he will do what he wants to do when he’s ready. If he is ever ready.

You asked if you “have” to just wait, etc. My feelings are that you don’t “have” to do anything. Having said that, though, trying to force him to speak to you isn’t likely to get a different result than you have already seen. Also, when sending letters to estranged adult children there are no magic, “just right” words to motivate your desired outcome (no matter who might say so). That’s his call. There are, however, things you can say that will perhaps push him away—and you likely know what they are. You mentioned your folks saying he’s not ready to apologize, for example. If you’re demanding an apology, mentioning that (again) might further enrage him.

You mentioned your son’s mental health issues. Anyone who has dealt with mental illness knows that those terms and diagnoses can’t begin to convey the actual situation, so I can’t fully know what all you have  been through. Let me just say that, when given agency in their own lives, and the responsibility for their lives, relationships, and behavior, even people with mental illness often make better choices. Is it possible that your son doesn’t need to do that? It may be true, if everyone tiptoes around him. I talk about this more in Beyond Done With The Crying: More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children.  Only you know how far you have bent toward enabling him or excusing his behavior, but you did mention his verbal abuse. My feeling is that abuse is not acceptable under any circumstances, and if it happens again, you might calmly say so and disengage from the conversation.

You also mentioned his long-term marijuana use. This will not enhance and may even interfere with any medication he’s taking. Nor will it help him think clearly toward his own progress. Unfortunately, in today’s cannabis friendly society, not all mental health clinicians are well informed.

Regarding the fact that you two are in therapy to learn how to better communicate with your son, that’s a wise move. Adult children with mental illness are sometimes manipulative or nonsensical, and patterns may have developed between you. Years of drain-circling conversations that make no sense can foster unhealthy communication habits. You are wise to educate yourselves in ways to break free from unhealthy patterns, learn to better recognize and manage your emotional responses in conversations with him, and avoid falling into argumentative traps that go nowhere and can escalate.

Finally, and I hope this doesn’t sound harsh, your note sounds a bit like your lives are all about your son—and perhaps have been for a very long time (even your therapy). While I understand the love and concern for his well-being, I hope that you will consider … just consider … living for yourselves more.

Rather than waiting around, consulting with your parents about him and worrying over your every word or action, how about forgetting about him a bit? How about enjoying a vacation together, or even just a weekend where you purposely avoid making him part of your conversation? How about trying something new—for the holidays and even beyond? How about letting him be an adult who will need to learn to navigate his challenges (even if he is mentally ill)? Small steps … letting go emotionally … might be helpful to all involved.

I know that this has all been heartbreaking and I fully understand your worry and hope for positive change. Believe me, I know. That’s your precious son! The thing is, you can let an adult child consume you—your time, your energy, your very life—or you can create boundaries for your own well-being and integrity (even interior boundaries in your thinking).

If, as your parents have said, your son does want to reconcile, taking care of yourselves now will prepare you. That’s every bit as important as learning to better communicate with your son. In any reconciliation, you will need to be strong and know how to take care of yourselves—because no one else will.

Sometimes, mental illnesses include elements of manipulative behavior as well as illogical thinking. So does addiction. While it is wise to learn how to better communicate and prepare for future contact, I hope you are working at your own wellness and future, too. You count. Parents can be supportive but cannot force adults to recognize that our support is needed by or right for them. Learn to care well for yourselves now, during this break.

As an aside, when other family members act as the go-between as you indicate your parents do, my alarm bells begin to ring. Sometimes, ulterior motives exist, or the situation is part of a bigger dysfunctional dynamic. I don’t know your details, so these thoughts may not be relevant for you, but grandparents may be eager to appease grandchildren. Their affection and love may follow a long history in their non-disciplinary roles with grandchildren. The old cliché of spoiling the grandchildren—and then giving them back to their parents—is at least rooted in truth sometimes.

Consider also whether the grandparents, in their advancing age, fully comprehend the situation. They may have found themselves in the middle, wanting to please everyone and trying to help. Too often, the peace of vulnerable older folks’ is highjacked by angry adults who are embroiled in family disputes and self-serving pursuits. This is true for grandparents and parents—who are getting older too. In Beyond Done, I cover more about the complexities of extended family as well as stress as we age and how we don’t recover so easily.

You may want to discuss your parents’ involvement in the situation with your therapist. With more complete details and your existing therapeutic relationship, he or she is can better assess your situation, and perhaps guide you and your folks to mitigate stress and attend to your own well-being,

I hope this helps a little.

Hugs to you, Bernice and Hal.

Sheri McGregor

Related Reading

Parents wonder: Does my estranged adult child have mental illness?

An adult daughter’s criticizing: When the child holds onto offenses

Angry adult children: Could Marijuana use be a part of the problem?

 

 

When estranged adult children call, parents ask: Are my feelings normal?

When estranged adult children call

When estranged adult children call: Your feelings

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

When estranged adult children call after a long period of no contact, parents often find themselves plagued with mixed emotions. They may feel guarded yet hopeful. They may consider the years that have passed in silence, the times they’ve reached out and been ignored, or remember past hurt the child inflicted. Depending on circumstances, parents may have worked hard to move forward for themselves, progressed diligently in their own growth and well-being, and not quite trust the child’s sudden outreach. Parents may look back on how many times they have been sucked into believing the best, only to have the rug pulled out from beneath them, and feel like fools. They worry they’ll be hurt all over again when they’ve worked so hard to shake the pain. When estranged adult children call, parents may even find themselves wishing they’d have stayed away. Then they feel guilty for it.

I’ve written extensively about managing these scenarios in Beyond Done With The Crying, and I hope you’ll get that book to help you navigate the sticky emotions, extended family situations, and more complex circumstances that go with estrangement. Here, I’ve shared a recent email exchange that exemplifies the feelings many parents have when estranged adult children call.

Question from Maya: Dear Sheri, Sorry for writing like this.  Until yesterday, the last thing my son ever said to me was, “I don’t want to know when you die.” That was three years ago. Then last evening, on my birthday, my son called. In a chipper voice, he just wished me a happy birthday and told me about how happy he is with a new relationship and his business.  Of course, I was surprised and pleased to hear from him! But now, I am left with this really uncomfortable feeling.  As if I am all opened up and vulnerable…I don’t know how I should feel. It has been three years of anguish, and now, I feel disconnected. During the call, it was like we used to talk many years ago, but now I’m confused and fearful. Do other people feel like this?  I don’t like this feeling of being….in shock?….is everything supposed to be okay now? I never expected to feel this way, like I’ve been punched in the gut, only that’s not even it, really, I don’t know how to describe it. I am not in control of my feelings now.

Thank you for all you do and for reading this.

Maya B.

Answer from Sheri McGregor: Oh, Maya, I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. But gosh, no. You are not unusual at all in this. When estranged adult children call suddenly, parents can be confused and torn.

To repeat what you said, your son hasn’t spoken to you in three years. The last thing he said to you was that he didn’t want to know when you died. My guess is that this last thing he said was not the only mean thing he ever said to you. My sense is there were many other mean instances. Maybe there were even mean acts. I don’t know your entire story, but if you reflect upon this, I believe you will see that your reaction and feelings are completely rational. Yes, you have accepted the call with gladness, and you talked with him like everything was normal. Except, you know it’s not. And you don’t trust him.

Very often, I hear from parents who ignore this feeling of being vulnerable, of wondering if they’ve opened themselves up for more hurt. Many quash that little voice that provides them caution. They instead jump on and ride a big wave of joy and celebration: He’s returned! He loves me! Things are back to normal! And … some do make it. They must.

I don’t often hear from those ones though. I hear the other story instead. That it all goes to hell in a hand basket when the previously estranged adult children call a few days later with a request (money, a place to stay, some other type of help). And then the parent thinks, great, I was just being used. Sometimes, the parent still ignores that voice, and goes along to get along because this is … their child.  He or she needs help, and a “good” parent (they tell themselves) does help.

I also hear from ones who open their hearts and homes and then are hurt in worse ways. I won’t go down the rabbit holes of those situations here, because problems like theft, fraudulent use of credit cards or identity, financial extortion and ruin, and physical abuse. may not be relevant to your situation at all. And if they are, you probably recognize your inner wisdom, likely based on history, warning you.

I completely understand what this is like, and the hope of it. You have loved your son. Because you are a kind parent, you are willing to forgive and maybe even forget. You always thought you would be close to your kid and have a loving, friendly relationship. Sometimes parents must try because they feel they can’t live with themselves if they close the door. And these are all typical responses, even though a son’s words that he doesn’t want to know when his parent dies is not normal (or nice) at all.

It would not be right for me to tell you what to do, or predict that it will all go bad or all go good. My suggestion is to tread lightly, and consider the facts. He called as if nothing happened, as if he never hurt you, as if you just talked yesterday. Would you ever do that to someone you love? To your parent? I sincerely hope that he has changed. I also hope that you will be extra sensitive to your own needs. You count, too, and no doubt, the three years have been pure hell for you. (Maybe even years prior to the estrangement also were.)

HUGS to you, Sheri McGregor

Maya followed up with this email:

Thank you, Sheri.  This is a tremendous help to me.  This is a rational approach that I don’t seem to get to on my own with my fluctuating emotions.  I shall reread this many times to ground myself in reason.  The service you offer parents like me is a Godsend.  Thank you again.

Maya

To which I replied:

You’re welcome, Maya.
It’s possible your son wants a genuine connection and doesn’t quite know how. If you do stay “grounded in reason,” then you can be a quiet strength that may help him to get to that place. If his intentions were/are something else, then you will not have lost yourself so deeply into the emotional mire.

In time, the situation is likely to better reveal itself. Meanwhile, go on and enjoy your life as best you can.

HUGS to you!

When estranged adult children call: More thoughts

For the record, I am not against parents being parents when estranged adult children call. Those feelings of wanting the connection and love are understood. I hope for Maya’s sake that her son is sincere and that he will nurture a healthy relationship with her. In time, maybe they can get to a comfortable point, whether that becomes a polite, cordial relationship or one that’s much more connected. But, it is always wise to listen to your inner voice.

When estranged adult children call, if you become troubled and worried, examine your response. Write down your reservations and doubts. If you’re instantly elated, consider that feeling as well. Are their “should” type thoughts that come up? Do you have feelings or thoughts that you judge yourself negatively about (as in “This isn’t how a parent “should” feel.)? Take the time and energy to fully understand how you respond to the outreach.

To consider whether feelings are grounded in sound reasoning, as Maya so aptly said, allows parents to be strong for their own well-being (and not just, or even mostly, for their adult child’s).

Hugs to all the parents traveling this unexpected journey.

Sheri McGregor

Related reading

Adult children who reject parents: Why do they make contact now?

Trying to connect with estranged adult kids? Solid growth can change you

Estrangement from adult children: What about hope?

Angry adult children: Could Marijuana use be a part of the problem?

angry adult children

Image by ELG21 from Pixabay

Angry adult children:  Is marijuana a part of the problem?

By Sheri McGregor, M.A.

 

Ever since I began this website in late 2013, lots of parents have mentioned alcohol as a contributing factor in estrangement. No surprise there. Abuse of alcohol has long been known to hamper relationships, impair judgment, and contribute to violence. 1, 2 Recently, however, more parents are mentioning cannabis use in connection with estrangement and, in particular, related to angry adult children. They wonder: Is marijuana use causing the anger problem?

In today’s positive social climate for marijuana legalization and use, any reporting about its potential ill-effects can get buried behind the “medicinal” hype. It isn’t my intent to make a case against marijuana, frighten parents, or turn their cannabis-using adult children into enemies, but knowledge empowers people to make informed decisions, educate others, and keep themselves safe. So, I’ve included some eye-opening facts and correlations. Parents who need this information may gain some insight into angry adult children’s behavior.

Marijuana: It’s all good, right?

Some who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s may remember marijuana as part of good times, a chill attitude, and a laid-back lifestyle. This attitude was reflected in a recent discussion I had with some writer friends. One had planned a trip to Colorado after many years, so I mentioned the increased collisions 3 and fatal car accidents 4 that occurred there after marijuana’s legalization.

Several years ago, soon after the Colorado law change, I made a day trip from bordering New Mexico. Just across the state line, there were many stores with the green cross signifying cannabis sales. Now, those signs are familiar in many states, but that day, I’d had to ask—and was surprised to learn they were marijuana dispensaries.

While driving back on the narrow roads out of Colorado that afternoon, we saw many pulled over by law enforcement. Much later, I read about the increased vehicle accidents and fatalities that correlated with marijuana legalization. But in talking with my writer friends, an older one joked, “More accidents? Don’t the dopers all drive slowly?”

Among those who used “weed” once upon a time, the presumption isn’t unusual. But when it comes to marijuana, how it’s used, the THC levels, and its effects, today’s cannabis is nothing like yesterday’s marijuana. Even the terminology is different. Marijuana refers to the products made from the plant’s dried leaves, flowers, and seeds. The trendier term, cannabis, generally includes all sorts of products made from marijuana and its derived chemicals. You’ll find other definitions online, but in general, cannabis and marijuana are used interchangeably.

The rise of THC

Prior to the 1990s, the amount of THC, the psychoactive compound within marijuana, was typically less than 2%. Since then, the cannabis industry developed new strains with much higher concentrations. Research from 2017 that analyzed cannabis products readily available in Colorado dispensaries found THC levels between 17% and 28%. This included edibles, as well as products to be smoked or vaped. 5

Now, even those levels seem low. A plethora of additional products have flooded the market, some containing 95% THC. 5 That’s a huge change from the marijuana that was likely used by celebrity stoners Cheech & Chong whose 1978 movie, Up In Smoke, depicted the slow driving my writer friend joked about. Higher THC doesn’t produce marijuana’s famous mellow mood. Instead, high potency can cause anxiety, panic attacks, and psychosis. Also, rather than being an anti-nausea agent, which is how it’s often thought of in medicinal marijuana circles, high THC levels create the opposite effect: excessive vomiting. 6

One good thing about the legalized availability of marijuana is the increased ability to research its effects. Marijuana use has deleterious effects, both physically and mentally. Adolescent users are particularly vulnerable to addiction because of the way the brain develops. In turn, addiction puts them at even higher risk for associated problems, at a time of life when they may be most likely to experiment. Problems include lower academic grades, impaired cognition, and lower IQ. 5

Marijuana use and violence

Marijuana use is associated with violence. In fact, many of the mass murders and other violence seen in recent years were committed by heavy users. That includes the Boston Marathon bombers, who killed three and injured 250 (2013), the New York Times Square driver who plowed into the crowd, hurting 22 people (2017), the young man who shot and killed 6 people and injured 14 others at a Tucson event for then-U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords (2011), and the high school shooter in Parkland, Florida, who killed 17 students and staff (2018). 7

Many heavy marijuana users implicated in violent crimes also suffered from paranoia and psychotic delusions. Some will dismiss the idea that marijuana is the cause, saying instead that its use is bad only for those with existing mental illness. However, changes in personality correlate with the onset of marijuana use. Also, at this point, that marijuana-induced paranoia and marijuana-induced psychosis exist is well known. 7

Angry adult children and you

I frequently hear from parents who report sons’ or daughters’ aggression or angry outbursts. Many of these parents and adult children have periods of reconciliation that disintegrate when angry adult children become increasingly verbally abusive, sometimes suddenly. Some parents even report physical violence, either to them personally, to the parent’s belongings, or even to an innocent and much-loved pet. These parents often tell me they know the adult child uses marijuana. Or, that they’ve stopped using … or started using again. They wonder if cannabis is part of the problem.

In fact, studies are finding correlations between marijuana use and aggression. Changes to the brain that relate to aggression and impulse control have been found in users. However, research that finds a correlation between one thing and another doesn’t automatically equate to a causal relationship. Other factors can confound research including questions about whether people who are more prone to aggression might also be more prone to use marijuana. Which is the chicken? The egg? 8, 9, 10 The research files are growing, so clearer answers are on the way. Impulsivity and feelings of hostility have been reported by marijuana users independent of any alcohol use, for instance. 11

Self-medicating with cannabis

People who are known to have a mental illness do, frequently, choose to “self-medicate” with drugs, alcohol, or both. With its easy availability and positive social acceptance in many areas, cannabis is very frequently the substance of choice. Withdrawal (yes, marijuana can be addicting 12) is also associated with anger and aggression, which interfere with the ability to nurture important relationships, such as those with their parents or other family members.

What do you think?

If you’ve noticed aggressive behavior or suffered any sort of abuse by angry adult children, consider whether marijuana use may be a factor. The perception of marijuana as a medical aid and access to over-the-counter CBD products in mainstream stores have blurred the lines between a THC-rich drug and low-THC creams, oils, and capsules touted as effective pain relief. That may contribute to it being viewed as safe and increase its use. The reality is that there are no truly THC-free products, even if the label says so  … but that’s a topic for another day.

What do you think? Is marijuana use a factor in your relationships with adult children? If your answer is “yes,” change in their behavior is their responsibility. It’s the same as with alcohol dependence or addiction to any substance. You can, however, recognize a problem, and use that knowledge to intervene for and protect yourself.

Here, we’ve just scratched the surface of this big topic. I hope you will read some of the links included below, do your own research into credible studies and research (there are many), form your own opinions, and share your thoughts in a comment to this article. By sharing your experiences and insights, you can provide information and help another parent know they are not alone.

Related Reading/Sources

  1. How alcohol affects relationships
  2. The link between violence and alcohol use
  3. Study: Colorado sees claim rates increase after legalization of marijuana
  4. Colorado traffic deaths up 75 per year since pot legalization, study says
  5. The problem with the current high potency marijuana from the perspective of an addiction psychiatrist
  6. Highly potent weed has swept the market, raising concerns about health risks
  7. A review of cases of marijuana and violence
  8. Marijuana use causes 7 fold increased risk of violent behavior
  9. Marijuana and anger: Can weed make you angry?
  10. Marijuana use may increase violent behavior
  11. Effects of marijuana use on impulsivity and hostility in daily life
  12. Is marijuana addictive?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Estranged parents: What about envy?

estranged parentsAsk Sheri McGregor: What about envy?

Frequently, I receive emails that boil down to distress over an uncomfortable emotion: Envy.

If you’re envious of others for their good relationships with adult children, take a deep breath and forgive yourself. You may have been taught that envy is bad, but it’s a human emotion with valid roots. No sense negatively judging yourself and feeling even worse. Rather, first recognize that feelings of envy come from a sense of injustice and deep pain. You never expected all your hard work, love, and devotion would result in estrangement. Therefore, envying another parent’s healthy relationship is a natural response.

Still, envy creates discord and distance in relationships you seek to nurture. So, while viewing yourself harshly for envy won’t help, neither will giving rein to the feeling. Beyond recognition and a bit of empathy toward yourself, indulging in envy promotes a sense of victimhood and keeps you steeped in pain. If you’re familiar with my work, you know that’s not what I advise for estranged parents. I recommend you deal honestly with what is, work toward your own well-being, and treasure your life despite the situation. There is no downside. You’ll be in a much stronger, healthier position if you do end up reconciling. As I show in both of my books, reconciliation isn’t usually easy or even what you expect.

Estranged parents and envy: Boiling it down

Let’s get into a couple of specific situations and feelings common to estranged parents. See if you can relate. I’ll include some practical strategies to deal with or move beyond envy. Use my thoughts as jumping off points for your own solutions.

  • “My sister (friend, cousin . . . fill in the blank) isn’t nearly as good a parent as me, yet I’m left with crumbs. How can this be?”

We believed that if we raised our kids with love, kindness, and a measure of discipline, they would become kind adults who loved us back. That same message is taught to parents even today: Raise your kids this way and get this result. Unfortunately, no matter how good of parents we are, our children grow up and make their own choices.

When another parent gets a better result—even if they weren’t, in your view, as good a parent as you—you have the right to feel envious. Just don’t offer the emotion a long-term stay. It’ll take up valuable space and energy that’s better offered to healthier emotions. As I say in Done With The Crying, to some extent, parenting is a crap shoot. Sometimes, things just don’t go as planned. Variables enter the picture, such as substance abuse, mental illness, a third-party adversary. . ., and our best efforts are squashed. Meanwhile, Sister So-So or Cousin Crummy-Parent has loving children.

Envy in parenting is like envy in anything. We can do our best and still not get the prize. That’s why there are so many “always a bridesmaid” stories. The Hallmark happy endings are what we all wish for, but don’t necessarily reflect reality. Even perfect families have problems, and perhaps keep them behind the scenes.

  • “I can’t even go to the park anymore. Seeing the grandparents with their grandchildren makes me so angry and sad. It’s just not fair.”

Give yourself permission to take a break from situations that bring on the pain—just not forever. You’ll need to eventually re-enter the world. Do it in small doses. Interact a bit. Offer an older person a kind word about the grandchild they love. You may be surprised how good kindness feels.

Make sure you don’t idealize others’ relationships. One father, Gabe, whose story is included in Beyond Done, looks at the sweet, young family next door, and recognizes these parents see the moon and stars in their children. They expect all to go well. “They’re living the dream,” Gabe says. And he would never try to spoil their delight by warning them about the possibility of stress ahead. However, he can relate to their naivete, which helps him to cope. Most of us can look back on some lovely, innocent times in our parenting, too. In some ways, grandparenting is the same. No sense assigning some la-la dream to others’ lives.

For every grandparent you see with a chubby-cheeked tot, there are others who are bone-tired and struggling to raise grandchildren full-time because the parents are incarcerated or otherwise absent. Some grandparents are in co-dependent relationships with their adult children. They feel obligated to say “yes” whenever asked to babysit, drive a child, or otherwise help—and their adult children know it. These same grandparents may not tell you the truth about how tired they are, either.

  • “Everyone else is talking all about their plans with family. . . .”

In Done With The Crying, you’ll meet Meg, who is successful in real estate and attends business meetings. She confesses to hiding in the bathroom stall because of colleagues going on about their family plans. She sheds a few tears as a release, uses firming serum to tighten the bags under her eyes, and then puts on a smile and gets on with what she is good at—business, public speaking, networking. Participating despite her sorrow builds her self-esteem and helps her cope.

She’s a successful woman who is also a good mother. It’s not her fault she is estranged. While you may be feeling like you had to have done something to cause the rift, all the good you did as a parent likely outweighs the bad. The exercises in my books can help you see that this is true.

  • “My only child is estranged. I’m envious of parents with bigger families. If only I had other kids, my life would be so much easier.”

To estranged parents stuck on this belief, there may be no convincing them otherwise. However, those of us with more than one child recognize that it’s an idealistic thought. First, the remaining siblings aren’t some infallible, mythical creatures spreading continuous warmth, support, and joy. They’re humans, with all the flaws and foibles common to our species. Sometimes they’re mentally ill, have addiction problems, trouble supporting themselves, or in other ways lean on or try their parents.

Also, parents who are smarting from estrangement can be so negatively affected that they:

  • walk on eggshells for fear another child will estrange
  • become guarded to protect themselves from the hurt they suspect may be coming from another child
  • remain overly involved with remaining children, clinging rather than letting go

Parents must learn to recognize and manage those feelings, and a host of others, for their own and their children’s sake. Thankfully, with awareness and work, most estranged parents do.

Estrangement by one child directly affects the siblings, too. They may suffer guilt about the normal elements of growing up, such as moving out and taking charge of their own lives. They may be burdened by worries about the future and the possibility of further discord and hurt they fear the estranged one will cause. They may feel the sudden weight of added responsibility toward aging parents and harbor anger or feel unprepared. Then there is the subject of reconciling, and the distrust and resentment siblings may experience if/when parents forgive the wayward one and expect them to get along.

These and other scenarios are shared at length in Beyond Done, providing insight for parents as they work to heal from the one child’s disconnection and move their family forward. These families’ struggles, as well as analysis, solutions, and my own family’s management show that “easier” isn’t a word those who have additional children often use for the situation.

If you envy those with many children, did I change your mind? Probably not, but perhaps you can better empathize with the vast complexities faced by bigger families. It’s less about comparing than it is about seeing the reality of your own life and coming to terms with it for your own well-being. Some estranged parents who are left with zero children have told me they’ve come to see their lives as simpler. They even say they enjoy the freedom of going solo.

  • “Everyone else has great families and they’re having so much fun.”

Well, that’s what it looks like on social media. Just as the Internet makes it possible to filter photographs, so skin looks smoother, hair looks glossier, and wrinkles are erased, social media lets people filter their lives. By selectively choosing what gets posted, the view is frequently all good all the time. When that skewed view gets compared to our own lives, it’s easy to see how we might feel like everyone has it better. A few recent studies point to social media’s influence on envy, and I’ve linked to a few sites that discuss those (below). Bottom line, if you’re feeling down about your family, don’t get on social media and absorb the skewed view. Also, consider what you might not be seeing. You probably know people whose Facebook pages paint a glowing picture that’s nothing like the nasty discord that’s really going on. I do.

Even in person, people may paint a rosy picture of their lives. You’re not as odd and isolated as you may think. If anyone does tell you their social woes, let it sink in. When we’re focused on how bad our own situations are, we may tend to discount others’ dilemmas and pain. Don’t be the person who hears about someone’s trials and thinks, “How can she complain? At least she has a family.” Maybe it’s true that your situation is a worse one, but as the rock band R.E.M.’s song says, “Everybody hurts.”

Envy: Final thoughts

In both of my books, full chapters and various sections deal with anger, envy, and a host of other emotions estranged parents feel. How parents cope is detailed through shared stories, to help readers come to terms with and manage their own strong, uncomfortable, but natural emotions. Envy is just one of those.

Have you been envious of others’ “perfect” families and relationships? I hope you’ll leave a comment and share how you’ve dealt with or overcome the feeling. That way, we can be envious of you.

Related links

The Movie: ENVY (comedy)

Your focus: Not “estrangement pain”

Emotional triggers: Set yourself free

Emotional triggers: How to handle them

 

Ask Sheri McGregor: Contacting estranged granddaughter

 

Ask Sheri McGregor: Contacting estranged granddaughter?

QUESTION:
Dear Sheri McGregor,

I just found your site and your Books on Amazon, and hope that you might help  –  I am looking for advice on composing a first-ever email to my 20 year old granddaughter whom I’ve never been allowed to meet. I was denied all access of any kind and never even saw a photo of her until this past summer, when I found my granddaughter on Instagram.

Let me give a little background—

I am a 75-year-old military veteran and have been estranged from my son since the late 1980s, when his mother and I began divorce proceedings. It was an extremely acrimonious divorce that took several years to finalize. I tried to keep contact but, over the years, my son has expressed hate toward me. It became clear that my ex-wife poisoned him against me. I missed major milestones, including my son’s wedding. He has two daughters and although I reached out to my son often, I was not welcomed in any way. Once, I even visited his home, but no one answered the door.

Anyway, this past summer, I found my oldest granddaughter, age 20, on Instagram and sent a request to “follow” her. She asked, “Grandpa?” I thanked her for replying and told her that I hoped we could communicate. Unfortunately, she didn’t respond again.

There is no telling what stories she has been told about me. Wanting any kind of relationship with her may be a futile pursuit, but at my age, I am not sure how much longer I have left on the planet. My own paternal grandfather died when my father was just a boy. So, I never knew him and have always felt that I missed out. Maybe my granddaughter has a similar feeling about me.

Recently, I found out she was living away at college and located her email address.  Can you help me with the exact wording to use when I contact her? I’m including a draft email, not yet complete, for your review. Here is that draft:

Dear XX:

I am sure hearing from me is a surprise, and I hope this doesn’t cause you any kind of conflict. I’ve known of you since the time you were born, just a week after my own birthday, so I have always celebrated my own birthdays with you in my heart.

I’m hoping you will consider beginning communication with me. I’ve really missed not being a part of your life and I would welcome the opportunity for you and me to get to know each other directly, using whatever method you are comfortable with (email, handwritten letters sent via U.S. mail, over the phone, or via FaceTime).

I’d be happy to send you your own phone with its own new number that I pay for the monthly billing thus no way for any of the calls to be traced/discovered by anyone else.

Give this some thought and reflect on my intention and I’ll always be ready when you are.

I’ll end this with Love, Poppa … because that is how I have always felt about you.

What do you think, Sheri? Thank you very much for reading my letter and I hope you can help.

Sincerely,

David P.

Contacting estranged granddaughter: ANSWER From Sheri McGregor:

Hi David,

I’m glad you reached out, and I do have some thoughts. While many who work with those affected by estrangement dissect their letters, I don’t typically offer specific wording as you ask. (See this excerpt from my latest book about that HERE). However, let me apply a broad brush, because there are many loving parents/grandparents who wish to establish a connection with those lost to them through parental alienation and estrangement.

First, just as you have said in your note to me, you may not get anywhere with your contact. There just are no guarantees, no matter how carefully you word things. For that reason, I would suggest that you consider altering your intention a little. That way, you can feel you have accomplished something good regardless of the outcome.

If this were me contacting a grandchild who doesn’t know me, I might consider what I could do to help her. Therefore, I might offer some information to her. This might take the form of a few photos of yourself and/or relatives from your side of the family, along with some brief historical information, links to genealogy sites with their information if those exist, or some interesting tidbits about their lives or even medical information if that makes sense.

In this way, perhaps you leave a legacy, imparting some knowledge that is helpful to her (now or in the future). I discuss the concept of leaving a legacy more in Beyond Done With The Crying More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children. In your case, perhaps you could offer to answer questions or provide more information as well as convey your desire to have contact with her. By including something that you believe would be useful, informative, or helpful to her, then you could feel good about contacting her regardless of the immediate outcome. You’d be providing her a gift.

If this were me, I might want to tell a little about myself, too. Where I live and my interests, briefly. By doing so, she could see you in a perspective that is perhaps different than she has been told or has imagined. Perhaps your sharing may connect with her interest and spark further communication.

I would not offer to buy a phone that could be kept secret as your draft email implies. In my opinion, doing this could be construed in a negative light and appear devious to someone who has possibly been told bad things about you (as you mentioned believing may have occurred).

David, please take kind care of yourself. I hope that you will get your desired outcome of a relationship with your granddaughter. Whether that happens or not, I hope that by reaching out with a gift as discussed here, that you will feel peaceful about the outcome and satisfied that you have done something good for your granddaughter.

Hugs from Sheri McGregor