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Estrangement by adult children: Weathering the storm

estrangement by adult childrenEstrangement by adult children: Weathering the Storm
By Sheri McGregor, M.A.

“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.

Estrangement by adult children: The Breaking Point

Here where I live in Northern California, we recently endured an historic storm. What’s called a “bomb cyclone” merged with a level five “atmospheric river” (new-to-me terms). The combination brought strong hot and cold winds, and boatloads of rain, over a very short period of time. We were all stuck inside, hoping for the best.  Satellite TV faded in and out, broadcasting alarming predictions of flash floods full of dangerous debris that could sweep down from nearby burn scars left by recent wildfires.

As the sun set and the steelwool sky grew darker, a loud crack split through the pounding of rain, followed swiftly by a muffled thud. I went to the window and wasn’t surprised to see big branches from one of our heritage oaks lying on the ground. Uprooted trees and fallen limbs had been reported all around the area. I went to bed that evening hoping the stately oak outside my bedroom wouldn’t surprise me with a broken limb crashing through the roof during the night.

The next day, the air was still. Shafts of sunlight strained around cotton clouds, sparking rainbow prisms in droplets clinging to the crimson leaves of the maple tree out front. I put on boots and tromped around the back of the house and down the hill to examine the damage to the oak. An offshoot of the tree’s massive trunk had broken in two and lay on the ground, exposing its empty middle. Hollowed out.

Just last week, we had sought an arborist’s advice. That sunny day, as we walked the property, looking up into the canopy of several ancient oaks, he had confirmed our suspicions. The majestic trees that had so bewitched me upon first seeing this place in the winter of 2020 had been neglected. Heavy deadwood hung precariously in a few of the oaks that stood at the base of the hill. The trees nearer the house had been trimmed more recently, but even those showed signs of neglect. Many, the arborist said, needed airing out for lightening, and some limbs cut back for shape and strength. A couple of the biggest trees appeared to have root damage or were hollowed out.

Estrangement by adult children: The constant drip

estrangement by adult childrenOne reason for root damage and hollow trunks is apparently the result of slow-to-heal wounds that are left open when a tree limb is cut or cracks off on its own. In rainy months, the constant drip-drip-drip, over time, can form a channel inside the trunk. Water trickles down and weakens the tree at its core. I frowned upon hearing this. The hole I had marveled over when fledgling birds peeked out a few months earlier was really a weak spot the arborist said should be covered with plastic during the rainy season.

Too late now, I thought on that morning after the storm. I squatted next to one of the fallen halves with its gaping center. The end of an earthworm peeked from disintegrating wood, like soil, inside. Shelf fungus had also taken up residence inside the tree. Boring insects probably also get in through the holes, and further weaken vulnerable trees.

We’re not so different.

When betrayed by a loved one, even the mightiest of us are not so different than those towering oaks. Rejection by a child who has been so big a part of us and our lives, the cutting off, is like losing a limb. We suffer a wound, and for many of us, the wound gapes, allowing for even more hurt to get inside, to penetrate our very core. The reality is that we don’t want to close ourselves off and grow hardened to our own child. So, many of us will hang open, waiting, hoping they’ll return to their senses and join us again. That is what will heal the wound, we think.

Meanwhile, there’s a constant drip. Shame. Judgment. A steady rain of worries, what-ifs, and whys.

In the fragile shadow of an adult child’s abandonment and/or abuse, our identity gets blurred. Estrangement changes everything. Who are we if we’re no longer a parent? How can this be fixed? What have we been doing all these years? What can we do now?

No wonder that father rejected by an adult child said he felt hollowed out.

Estrangement by adult children: Take care.

Just as an arborist can provide education about a tree’s needs, trim out dead bits, and protect wounds during stormy seasons, rejected parents must learn to care for themselves. We must get support to protect ourselves, clear out faulty thinking that weakens us, hollows out our confidence, and makes us vulnerable.

Whether you have been estranged for many years and know the drip-drip-drip of estrangement pain or are new to the situation, I’m glad you have found your way to this website. A literal forest of parents—thousands each month—come to this site, read the articles, and leave comments to help others. I hope you will join the conversation. Some parents arrive at this site so emotionally gutted that they believe they have nothing to offer. But even expressing their deep and cutting pain can validate another parent’s feelings.

My books are another way to learn about estrangement and ways to heal. Give them a try. I hear from parents every day who tell me Done With The Crying (2016) has changed their lives. My latest book, Beyond Done With The Crying: More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children hit the shelves in November, 2021–and I’m hearing that it “goes deeper” and is “helpful in a whole new way.” Parents appreciate the practical information and help with the complex problems that can plague them due to estrangement by adult children. The research, reflection questions and exercises in both the books prompt new perspectives, promote growth, and enhance well-being.

I hope that my work can be a little like an arborist, helping you to trim away the deadwood of faulty thinking and let in sunlight to illuminate the slow drip that’s part of estrangement by adult children and help you heal.

Estrangement by adult children: New beginnings

As I looked at that broken, hollowed out tree and remembered the words that father of estranged adult children used to describe himself, I hoped he could see that, even in brokenness, all is not lost. Our wounds can make the way for new life, just as those birds found the perfect nesting spot. The lowly earthworm and the shelf fungus found a fertile core for new beginnings. We can too.

Related Reading

Estranged by adult children: Parents, use weepy days for your own good

The shadow of estrangement

Sending a card

sending cards estranged adult child

In parent and adult child estrangement situations, we deliberate over sending cards. Moms and dads stand in the card aisle reading verse after verse, wondering how it will be received. Will my estranged adult child read an unintended message between the lines?

Parents click through electronic greetings for just the right words, images, and animation. Is it too jolly, too mushy, or does it overstate the current relationship?

Even when parents find what they consider an appropriate card, they wonder if the effort might be rewarded or only bring them more grief.

  • Will she misinterpret the message?
  • Do I dare hope for a rekindled relationship?
  • He might be mad that I didn’t enclose a gift card or cash.

It’s so sad that, in parent and adult child estrangement situations, contemplating something as simple and lovely as sending a greeting card can trigger such grief.

Consider reaching out a gift

Argentinian poet Antonio Porchia had it right:

“I know what I have given you, I do not know what you have received.”

In the end, the card’s design, colors, pictures, or message, no matter how carefully selected, will be interpreted by the receiver in a way that they choose.

The answer? Give freely.

My intention here is not to tell those parents in estrangement situations that they should or should not send a card. Each situation is unique. Those sorts of decisions are not mine to make or judge you for. But at this time of year in particular, I hear from a lot of parents who are deliberating.

My suggestion: If you do decide to send a card, do so freely—as you have so many kindnesses toward your child from as long ago as forever. And then let the outcome go.

Always remember:

parent and adult child estrangement situationsHugs from,
Sheri McGregor

Related reading

Parent and adult child estrangement situations: What about hope?

Thanksgiving for estrangement situations.

Thanksgiving for hurting parents of estranged adult children

Adult children with mental illness: Guess who’s coming to dinner

adult children with mental illnessGuess who’s coming to holiday dinner: Adult children with mental illness (known or suspected)

By Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Whether your semi- or previously estranged adult child has been officially diagnosed with a mental disorder or you’re just speculating, if you’ll be saying to relatives this holiday season, “Guess who’s coming to dinner,” this article is for you. While you can’t control everything, you don’t have to feel helpless. Here, I’ll help you devise strategies to manage interaction at holiday events in your unique circumstances.

Adult children with mental illness: One family’s story

Beverly and Thomas are apprehensive about the holidays. This year, their previously estranged daughter will be present. “And that can mean drama,” says Beverly.

From her early twenties, their daughter, Trish, was unstable in her jobs and relationships. Periods of full estrangement alternated with times when she was irritable or distant. Beverly and Thomas suspected mental illness, but their daughter vehemently opposed any evaluation that might lead to help. She eventually cut them off completely, and for three years, they had zero contact. Their daughter also refused contact with her siblings.

Beverly and Thomas were devastated but they got on with their lives. Then, they received a telephone call from an in-patient behavioral health care facility. “The social worker told us Trish needed a place to go upon her discharge. She’d given the social worker our number.”

Beverly choked up as she talked about hearing her daughter’s voice over the telephone line a day later. “Trish was tearful and apologetic, and she sounded so childlike and needy. She’d been preliminarily diagnosed with bipolar, borderline personality disorder, and anxiety, and she’d been evicted from her apartment. She was scared and conciliatory … and she needed her mom and dad.”

Beverly and Thomas could finally confirm their suspicions: Mental illness caused Trish’s instability and the years of discord and disconnect. They forgave Trish for her past cruelty to them and asked Trish’s sisters to do the same. They thought that now, their daughter would get well, and the family would heal.

Trish was discharged a week later and lived with them for more than a year. The parents were patient, kind, and trying to help. However, they describe her time with them as nothing short of volatile. Trish was hospitalized twice for psychotic episodes that included suicide threats. She also drifted in and out of several outpatient treatment programs.

“It was a tough time,” says Beverly. With a sad laugh, she adds, “Anyone who knows anything about mental illness knows that statement is loaded.” She describes her daughter’s constant mood swings and the ceaseless tension that filled their home as almost unbearable at times. “Drama unfolded minute by minute with her, and then there was the roller coaster of treatment. Hope arrived with each new program or medication, and then disappointment each time she refused to continue with the help she always said didn’t work for her.”

Thomas says, “And the failure was always someone else’s fault.”

Eventually, the couple’s daughter was stable enough to crave her independence. She found an entry-level position with a marketing company where her degree was useful and moved out. Beverly and Thomas were concerned about her living on her own, but they also admit to feeling relief. Since then, their daughter’s contact has been sporadic at best—sometimes peaceful and sometimes not. “We’ve tried to be welcoming,” says Beverly. “But we’re never sure how a visit will go.”

Thomas explains, “There’s no predicting what triggers her verbal abuse, which is mostly directed at Beverly. The last time she was here, I had to tell her to leave. Then the next day she sent flowers with an apology.”

“It’s the mental illness talking,” says Beverly. “But that doesn’t change how much damage she can do.”

Adult children with mental illness: Mitigating the damage

In my latest book, Beyond Done With The Crying: More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children you’ll find sections devoted to managing situations involving adult children with mental illness. Parents who’ve made the choice to stay in touch do so with purpose that accomplishes goals and limits their exposure thus their hurt. Examples of reconciling with adult children with mental illness (or undiagnosed instability) are included.

Identify your concerns for holiday interaction

For Beverly and Thomas, the main concern was the possibility of their daughter’s verbal abuse. An outburst would be confusing for their grandchildren. “Our other daughters have five children between them, aged six to twelve,” says Beverly. “If Trish suddenly explodes, she’s likely to call me names like ‘evil’ and ‘psycho.’ She might accuse me of abuse and say I’ve always hated her. It would be upsetting for the kids to hear their grandma treated like that.”

Beverly is still learning to navigate the murky channels between her daughter’s abuse and her own patience. She and the family are weighing what they have learned about mental illness in general, and Trish’s disorders specifically, with their desire to help and the need to stay safe themselves.

Some mentally ill individuals aren’t aware of their own disorders. The lack of insight, called “anosognosia,” makes convincing them to seek or continue treatment a rocky road. Agreeing with lies or allowing abuse is not wise or advised, but Beverly and Thomas don’t feel ready yet to completely lose touch. They speak for many parents of adult children with mental illness.

No one wants the children exposed to Trish’s venom toward Beverly, yet they can’t predict her behavior with certainty. Therefore, they’re hoping for the best. She will be welcomed for the holidays … with a plan in place.

Adult children with mental illness: Gathering your team

When a family member is mentally ill, expert consensus recommends those close to them form a team of support—for the affected individual and for each other. “That’s not easy to do when you’re accused of trying to turn the family against them,” says Beverly, whose daughter has accused her of this. “But how could we have a holiday dinner with her present and not all of us talk about it first?”

Beverly, Thomas, their other daughters, and their sons-in-law have decided on some basic rules:

  • They will be aware of Trisha’s whereabouts at all times.
  • The children will never be left on their own during the party.
  • The adults will work in pairs to supervise the children.
  • At the sign of any outburst, the children will be ushered into a separate room or outdoors, with planned, neutral language (Let’s go out here and see this . . . .).
  • Family members have decided upon a hand signal, a phrase from a movie that won’t fit normal conversation, or a clap (depending on the situation) to alert the others to possible conflict.
  • If necessary, Thomas and their oldest daughter’s husband will escort Trish to her car, attempt to calm her, or see that she leaves.

Your circumstances: Your unique plan

If you’re expecting difficult personalities at the holiday celebration, first identify your concerns. Perhaps, like Beverly and Thomas, you’re worried about verbal abuse that can confuse children or other relatives who may not be fully aware of the circumstances. Unfounded blame or accusations can stir a domino effect, causing questions or damaging gossip among relatives. Or your concern may be the individual’s penchant for a particular topic, drinking too much, or as one parent voiced, “Bringing cannabis-laced food.”

Once you know the concern(s), devise plans that are doable and as non-intrusive as is sensible for the circumstances. For some, that might mean avoiding hot button topics or eating out. For others, a more elaborate plan may be needed, such as the one arranged by Beverly and Thomas.

Here are a few more ideas:

  • Assign a “safe” person to the affected one. (Sometimes, one family member is most trusted, brings out the best in the individual, or is well-equipped to defuse and deescalate conflict.)
  • Celebrate in a restaurant or other public space, which may be more neutral (helping to avoid emotional triggers).
  • Don’t serve alcohol.
  • If one person is the “target” of the difficult personality, minimize contact by strategic seating arrangements, and make sure that person is never left alone.

“No” is an option

Some families in these volatile semi- or previously estranged situations decide to forego the holiday gatherings entirely. Alternative pursuits such as travel are always an option. If you need to beg off this year, don’t go on a guilt trip. Instead, pat yourself on the back for the part you played in all the beautiful celebrations and good times past. The holidays appear every year. If you can’t celebrate as usual this year, all is not lost. Also, recognize that taking kind care of yourself, even during the holidays, is a vital step toward your own healing.

Your turn

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for planning holidays when adult children have mental illness. Ditto for gatherings where difficult personalities will be present, or when navigating prickly semi- or previously estranged relationships. Some of you may be attending events at others’ homes, where your estranged adult child will be present. Beyond Done With The Crying: More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children offers specific advice for tense events of all sorts.

Do you have a worrisome event ahead? I hope you will share your thoughts to help other parents who may be managing these sorts of issues this holiday season.

Related Reading

Why do adult children estrange? Let’s look at nature or nurture

Emotional triggers

Does healing from estrangement mean you’re “cold-hearted”?

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

parents healing from estrangementJaylene, a widow whose only daughter is estranged, said she recently looked in the mirror and—in her words—saw a cold-hearted mother staring back.  “I decided not to give my estranged daughter holiday gifts this year,” she said. “I’ve become indifferent. I guess I’ve healed so well that I no longer care.”

But she did care. She cared so much about being a good parent and a forgiving person that she harshly judged herself for the various actions she’d taken over the last ten months to save herself. Suddenly, she was in turmoil.

 Healing from estrangement: Your feelings

Over the years, I’ve heard similar accounts from other parents as they work at healing from estrangement. Kind, loving mothers and fathers who had come to realize that letting go was the only sensible choice. Leaving their happiness in their adult child’s hands wasn’t an option. They’d been down that sad road of wishing, hoping, trying, and being rebuffed. No matter how apologetic or accommodating they were, their adult children spewed hate, assigned blame, made fun of them, or refused to talk at all.

In our discussion, Jaylene said she and her daughter used to have fun together. Then, when her daughter reached her late 20s, she changed. Suddenly Jaylene was the enemy. In shock and worried, Jaylene had eggshell walked for years. Things would go smoothly for a little while, but Jaylene was always on edge. She was careful to keep her opinions to herself around her daughter, whose eyes might suddenly narrow as she centered on a misplaced word or unintended slight.  Jaylene was forgiving, helpful, and accommodated her daughter’s lifestyle, schedule, and opinions without complaint. In short, she loved her daughter, and hoped that one day, she might be kind and caring again.

Each time her daughter cut her off, Jaylene was the one to smooth things over. When her daughter finally reconnected (after weeks or months), Jaylene tried to keep the peace. She prayed for patience, ignored her daughter’s snipes, and even made excuses for her behavior. She remained devoted and friendly. Yet, without fail, her daughter eventually hooked some imagined offense to her revised version of their history and left her mother in a lurch again.

 A turning point

Ten months ago, as the New Year approached, Jaylene stared down her upcoming 60th birthday and decided she’d had enough. Her daughter was 33. Much too old to act like a petulant child. Jaylene saw a new decade ahead and began to wonder how many years she had left. Did she want to spend the rest of her life drowning in her daughter’s disrespect? No.

When Jaylene first contacted me, the stress of an angry daughter she was forever trying to please was harming her health. Jaylene was exhausted, frustrated, and hurt. When she looked at her life going forward, she knew things had to change. Rather than continuing to placate a daughter who clearly did not like her, it was time to go with the flow instead of fighting the inevitable.

Healing from estrangement: What’s in your control?

Take a hard look at what you can and can’t do. Evaluate the dynamics of the relationship. What were your own responses, reactions, and coping tactics? Were they effective? Were they hurtful? Did you maintain your own integrity? Did you lose yourself?

Deciding to change

To move in a new direction, Jaylene first had to let go of the idea that she could make her daughter happy, and then shift gears to please herself. As is true for many parents, this required dropping the lens of negativity about herself that she’d accepted from her daughter, looking back at their time together with clear eyes instead, and seeing all the good she’d done as a mother. She also had to drop the rose-colored glasses of hopeful wishes and see the current situation as it was.

Jaylene used the exercises in Done With The Crying to reclaim her identify as the loving, supportive mother she’d always been. Then, she could affirm her decision to free herself of meanness and disrespect she didn’t deserve, and work at moving forward for herself and her own happiness.

At first, letting go was difficult. The chasm between them grew. Jaylene saw more clearly that, for several years, their “relationship” had been one-sided.

Jaylene set her sights on a new way of life. She focused on whatever brought her happiness and was consciously grateful for any good in her life. She took up new hobbies, made more friends, and after nine years of widowhood, considered what it might be like to find a romantic companion. Most of the time, Jaylene was happy. She didn’t know how many years she had left, but she did know she’d make the most of them.

In the last 10 months, Jaylene had progressed considerably. She no longer felt the need to try and make her daughter love her. And she’d accepted that whatever it was that had caused her daughter’s change, whether that was mental illness, substance abuse, societal influences, or something else. She couldn’t fix those. Jaylene had taken charge of what she could—in her own life—and she was happy.

Then, as the trees began to turn color, the pumpkins and costumes appeared in the stores, and the holidays loomed, her outlook dimmed. That’s when she looked in the mirror and had a tough time seeing herself as anything but a terrible mom. Instead of focusing on her own life, she took on the familiar “mother guilt” that had once made her responsible for her daughter’s happiness. Jaylene wrung her hands, fought indigestion and overeating, and repeatedly asked:

  • What will my daughter do for the holidays if I don’t invite her?
  • Will she be all alone?
  • How will my daughter feel if her own mother doesn’t send a card or gift?

Monster in the mirror? Santa Claus? Or just a tired parent?

The more Jaylene focused on her daughter’s possible pain—and took responsibility for it—the more she harshly judged herself. In talking it through, Jaylene began to realize that the holidays with their family focus had triggered her thoughts and feelings. Yet, she also realized she had come too far to let the joy-joy, family-family atmosphere derail her progress.

I hear the same reactions from parents when a birthday or some other special day rolls around. Your trigger might be a certain time of year or hearing about how close and loving a friend’s adult children are. Even a well-meaning individual who loves you but who doesn’t understand might say something intended as helpful that pushes you back.

The truth is a lot of people don’t have a clue about the complexities that sometimes accompany estrangement. Idealistic notions about parenthood and unconditional love may be beautiful, but they become unrealistic and hurtful given the circumstances. The verbal abuse and mind games that may have gone on for years can become a shadow that can entangle parents into thinking badly of themselves or believing that it’s too late to change.

Don’t let your thoughts enslave you

“I don’t like him anymore,” one mother said of her abusive grown son. “But that’s not how a mother should feel.”

“He’s mentally ill,” one father said of the manipulative adult son who had talked him out of money once again. “But if someone’s father won’t stay loyal, who will?”

Like Jaylene, these parents were caught by a wave of emotion stirred up by the holidays, triggered by a special day, or fueled by the latest chaos. Instead of looking outward to the adult children who treat them badly and seeing their own desire to retreat as normal and even healthy, they see a monster in the mirror.

Believing that the children we have loved so much might love us back when they become adults is natural and normal. When they don’t, and we grow weary of trying to maintain or nurture a relationship to no avail, we can still face the mirror. We don’t have to reconcile their uncaring, unkind, or dismissive behavior with our own growth and self-discovery, and judge ourselves harshly for working to heal.

Don’t berate yourself. When adult children so hurt you and desecrate the relationship, your feelings of strong dislike or indifference are normal. You might even wish you’d never had children, but your entire history as a parent or as a human being must not be defined by the thought. These feelings are usually fleeting, the result of frustration, anger, or desperation. You can acknowledge your losses, accept your feelings for what they are, and adjust your outlook. By recognizing and accepting your feelings, you validate yourself and your experiences. It’s okay to make your healing from estrangement about you and your growth.

 Healing from estrangement: An honest look

After reading an advance copy of my latest book, Beyond Done With The Crying: More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children, Mara Briere of Grow a Strong Family sent me an email in which she called the book, “REAL. Honest. Helpful.” She added, “It is an important, must-read for anyone impacted by estrangement, and especially the well-meaning and misguided professionals who think they can help families traumatized by this phenomenon.”

This new book provides a raw look at parent-and-adult-child estrangement. It’s a follow-up to my first book for parents of estranged adult children, Done With The Crying, and I encourage you to read that one and work through its exercises first. Done With The Crying shares my story and takes a gentler approach in helping parents face reality and venture forward for their own well-being.

In Beyond Done, the gritty experience of estrangement with its frequent chaos and complexities is cracked open and laid bare. Mental health issues are included. Even parents who have made mistakes they consider huge, and not the typical ones that all parents may inadvertently make, will find themselves represented—and more importantly—supported in moving beyond their guilt and pain.

With new information and innovative exercises that build resilience and growth, parents can face themselves square in the mirror no matter their thoughts, acknowledge their responses as normal given the circumstances, forgive themselves as needed, and move toward a happier, freer future.

 Ongoing healing from estrangement

With support, Jaylene made decisions about the holidays that sustained her self-growth and forward focus. She would send an e-card because it didn’t feel “right” not to acknowledge the holidays—and admitting her hope was honest. She would not send a gift or otherwise reach out though because that would feel like stepping backward into pleasing-her-daughter mode. She could live with this decision. It didn’t mean she was a bad person, cold-hearted, or even indifferent.

No matter what you’ve decided for yourself or your relationship with your estranged adult child(ren), get ready for the holiday season early so you’ll be prepared. Would a charity appreciate your help (whether monetary or hands-on)? Can you do something different this year and make a new tradition?

I know how resourceful those who read this blog are! I hope you will leave comments to this article here, where you can learn from and help other parents who are healing from estrangement. What do you think: Does your healing make you cold-hearted? Is it okay to be indifferent to someone who doesn’t treat you well? What will you do to make the holiday season bright?

Write your thoughts in a comment so we can learn from each other.

Beyond Done–Almost

Sheri McGregor new estrangement bookTwo and a half years later…I just finished organizing printed copies of research and double checking all the citations for my next book. It’s a follow up to the first. If you haven’t yet read Done With The Crying, I hope you will do that before getting the next (soon available!). UPDATE: Now available at some stores.

If you have read Done With The Crying, consider sharing how it helped you by leaving a comment here to help other parents know it could be worth their while.

HUGS to all on our continuing journey! ❤️

New estrangement research beats a dead horse (October 2021)

new estrangement research

DUH.

Do you remember that word from childhood? Maybe you remember it with an eye roll: Duh-Uh.

The word came to mind when I read of a recent survey study on estrangement.

“New” estrangement research

The survey of 1,035 mothers of estranged adult children asked the women about the cause of the estrangement. Many of the moms talked about people who stirred up trouble between them and their adult children. I called these people “influential adversaries” in my book, Done With The Crying. They include the estranged parent’s ex-spouse, a son- or daughter-in-law, or other family members or friends who create division. Nearly two thirds of rejected moms from the new research also talked about an adult child’s mental illness or an addiction as contributing to estrangement.

My own estrangement research consists of more than 50,000 responses to surveys for parents of estranged adult children. I have also personally interviewed hundreds of abandoned moms, dads, and siblings, and I interact with them daily (as well as am a rejected mother myself).

All of this “new” information reads like yesterday’s news. But what is even older is that when the study authors looked at existing research, they found that the adult children cited different reasons for their choice to estrange.

Did you catch that? The adult children who estranged themselves disagreed with their mothers.

Duh-Uh.

Estrangement: Very real issues

I could go on here about the very real problem of parental alienation syndrome, about how those with personality disorders can be neurotically possessive to the point of isolating another person from their own family, and how these persons will generally blame everyone else for their problems … but I won’t.

Many, maybe even most, of you, the loving parents who are rejected by adult children and read this blog, are familiar with one or more of these issues. You have lived through them and suffered the consequences. The supposed revelations of this “new” estrangement research is old news to you, too.

DUH.

Hugs from Sheri McGregor

For some genuinely new and helpful info, my latest book will be out very soon.

Reference:

Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J. et al, Mothers’ attributions for estrangement from their adult children, Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice (2021). doi.org/10.1037/cfp0000198

Will you leave a “toxic” inheritance?

By Sheri McGregor, M.A.
toxic mom toxic inheritance

You always wanted the best for your children. You probably still feel that way, even if one or more of your kids grew up and called you toxic. Moms and dads with estranged adult children struggle with decisions about estate planning. Should you leave things to them? According to the ideas of one money expert, an inheritance from estranged parents could do them more harm than good.

Toxic inheritance?

Margaret M. Lynch, author of Tapping Into Wealth, believes some money is toxic. She explains that money from sources you don’t feel good about drags you down. That could be income from a hated job, a career you feel guilty about, or something like gambling that takes time away from family or goes against one’s beliefs. Soured relationships also fit, so loaned, given, or inherited money could be considered be toxic. Inheritance can be toxic? Interesting. . . .

Parents, if your adult children no longer accept you—your values, politics, or whatever else—then, by Lynch’s standards, anything you leave to them could be considered a “toxic inheritance.”

SKI

The first time I heard of older folks learning to SKI was from a so called “toxic” mom who cracked a joke. Her two estranged adult children had decided they wanted nothing to do with her or their father. So, she and her husband were SKIing around the country in an RV.  I didn’t get it, so she explained:

S -pending

K-ids’

I-nheritance

Since then, I’ve seen all sorts of blogs and articles reporting on this endeavor. There’s even a T-shirt!

That rejected mom laughed about SKIing, but saving estranged adult children from toxic inheritance is no joke. Freeing them from the emotional burden of a “toxic” inheritance may be worthy of consideration.

Toxic money isn’t the only thing rejected parents must consider. Our lives have a way of filling up with things.

toxic mom

Finding our treasures a home

We might have collected things our whole lives, imagining that one day our children would cherish them as much as we do. These days, even to adult children who remain close, our treasures may be viewed as little more than clutter. To our estranged children, it’s probably downright junk! Whether necessitated by downsizing or motivated by not wanting to leave a toxic mess for others to clean up when we’re gone, it’s wise to sift, sort, and trim down possessions while we can. Here’s a shortlist to get to you started.

  • Photographs and home movies. Have the sharpest ones digitized or ask who among relatives wants to preserve family history. Or, consider donating images and films of vacations to various city sites, State, and National parks to historical societies. Each society has its own criteria for fair use, so do your research. Draft and photocopy an inquiry letter, or create an email template, in which you plug specific names and addresses, then send it to organizations. One mother shared family photos of historical sites with local museums. At the very least, trim down your collection. Maybe you’re like Nanci. After 14 years of estrangement, she expressed feelings of glee when shredding old photos of her estranged son’s wedding—the last photos she has of him and her together before the years of separation began.
  • Valuable items. Antiques, Persian rugs, or artwork can be sold. If the idea of running ads and fielding calls doesn’t appeal, hire an estate service to come into your home and manage sales for you. When you receive the proceeds, reward yourself. Use the money to fund an exotic vacation, a trip to the spa, a stay at a lavish hotel, or for something else you’ve been wanting to try. Or, donate to a cause that’s important to you.
  • Fine China, silver, or flatware. Check with Replacements.com for possible sales. They specialize in customers wanting to complete their sets. Or, as one mother did, smash the dishes to bits! I’m not suggesting you destroy anything, but you could use the China pieces with their artistic motifs in crafts such as pretty garden art, jewelry or ceramics. In the spirit of new beginnings, maybe you end up opening an Etsy shop to sell the things you create—or offer them to existing Etsy artisans.
  • Donate. Take excess belongings to a local charity or use one that offers curbside pickup at your home. Most charities list on a website what they do and don’t take. You might be surprised—I recently took some new picture frames still in their original cellophane packaging to a donation site that turned them away. Also consider listing free items on Craigslist or Nextdoor. Upcycling is in, and no-contact, porch pickups have become routine.
  • Precious custom heirlooms or other special items. Diana always thought she’d pass her jewelry to her daughter. Many were commissioned for her by her late husband and are one of a kind. “The items won’t mean anything to my daughter,” says Diana. “She’d only sell them.” (Toxic treasure=toxic money.) Diana has no other family but has found an upscale jewelry restoration store that will buy them outright or sell them on consignment. “My exquisite jewelry will go to people who love it!” she says. “With the money, I’m taking one of those hiking vacations I always wanted to go on. And if there’s enough left over, I’ll get a walk-in tub installed.”

Getting serious about your estate

While the idea of SKIing is a semi-humorous way to look at the idea of leaving inheritance (and makes sense for some), for most parents, estate planning is serious business wrought with emotional landmines and distress. That’s especially true when estrangement is part of the family portrait.

Some of us have estranged adult children with mental health issues or disabilities, or we weigh their dismissal of us against our own sense of what’s right or wrong. We may think of our other adult children, the ones we have stable relationships with, and decide it would be unfair to them to reward a sibling’s bad behavior. Or, perhaps we consider how an inheritance might be viewed by an estranged adult and want to send a message with any gift or non-gift.

In Done With The Crying, end-of-life sections with a variety of scenarios and reflection questions help rejected parents think things through and make sensible decisions. The WORKBOOK: for Parents of Estranged Adult Children allows more room for expanded notes and brainstorming. In my newest book, planning for one’s demise is covered in a different but equally vital way. Beyond Done With The Crying: More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children will be available soon.

What about you?

After polishing up her toxic treasures and transforming them into a SKI trip that will bring her hiking vacation joy, Diana deserves a good soak. Will you SKI? Will you save estranged adult children from a “toxic inheritance”? Perhaps you figure an heir is an heir, regardless of behavior. Leave a comment and let other loving parents know what you’ve decided to do about estate planning. It’s an important topic.

Related reading:

Estate planning: Is the paperwork done?

Parents rejected by adult children: Looking for the good

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

parents rejected by adult childrenIf you’re a parent rejected by adult children and you’ve come to this site, you’ve probably read some of the comments and realized just how many are affected by parent-and-adult-child estrangement. Couple that realization with all the other chaos that’s happening in the world lately, and things can start to look negative all around. Bad stuff plays incessantly on the news and topples off tongues in almost every social situation. That means if you don’t actively look for the good that’s still around you, it may be obscured. Don’t let positive energy, kindness, and joy get buried. Look for the good.

National dog day

Did you know that August 26 is National Dog Day in the United States? When I think of my dogs and how much pleasure they bring to my life, I can’t help thinking that they represent everything good. What better time than National Dog Day to look for good in the world?

First, I’ll share this very short clip of a squirrel shaking its tail.

This guy loves to stand in the Japanese maple tree and tease my dogs. They stand at the slider waiting for him. Let’s just say I use a lot of window cleaner. . . .

Everyday is dog day at my house.

Want to find out more about this special day? Here’s the official page. Be sure to watch the video at the bottom too (you might need Kleenex).

Random acts of kindness

When things get crazy and sad, it’s easy to start thinking the world (and the majority of people in it) have gone mad. A steady diet of bad news isn’t good for anybody. Especially parents rejected by adult children who may already be feeling down. If you’ve been wondering if you’ve entered the set of some crazy version of Invasion of The Body Snatchers, then you need to take a closer look. There are still good people in the world, and this YouTube channel proves it. Watch the video and a zillion others they share.

I dare you

Now it’s your turn–and it’s a two-part dare.

First: Just as keeping a gratitude journal can be good for you, so is sharing with fellow parents rejected by adult children about anything you’re grateful for. Were you the recipient of a random act of kindness? Did a lizard share a nap in the sunshine on your porch today? Did the deer leave at least one rose on the bush to bloom? Did your package arrive on time? Did curbside pickup go smoothly? Did the checker at the grocer smile?  We can all think of something–a kind interaction, someone we love, or just a few moments of peace in an otherwise hectic day. I challenge you to think for a few moments and leave a comment about something good that happened to you today (or yesterday or this week).

Second: In the near future, be a random act of kindness. That means doing, saying, helping …. Think of a way you can make another person’s day bright. Even making your pet happy counts. Doing something nice for another person is good for you, me, everybody.

 

 

Rejected Parents ask: When should we get on with our lives?

Ask Sheri McGregorAsk Sheri McGregor

Most parents feel stalled and uncertain about the future when adult children’s hearts turn cold. It’s a natural response when someone you have loved so very much becomes a person you can barely recognize (if at all).

A rejected mother asks

Sheri, I have two of your books and the have helped so much. I have a question for you.

Our adult son has little to no contact with us. We are thinking of asking him if “no contact ” is what he plans to have for the rest of our lives. That way we can tell him then we will move forward with our lives and not sit around wondering.

I don’t know if it’s a bad idea to even ask. I’m angry and not sure I want to give him the satisfaction of feeling in control of our lives.

Any thoughts Sheri ? I am open to hear.

Keep going what you do, as you are helping many.

Regards,
Brandie H.

Sheri McGregor replies

Hi Brandie,

I can understand your reluctance to give your estranged adult son the power to control your outcome. Must your lives and the way you live and move forward for yourselves be contingent on his answer? What if his answer is uncertain or ambiguous (such as, “maybe, not sure yet”)? What if he doesn’t answer at all?

It’s possible to release someone, allow them to do what they will do, and move forward for yourself. You don’t have to sit around wondering what he will do as a condition of what you will do. You have no real choice but to release him anyway. He is an adult, making adult decisions. You can release him and go on and enjoy your lives, fully live in them, find things that bring you joy, get support as needed, etc., with the idea that you are open to the possibility that he may one day return. If he does, you can cross that bridge at that time. This way, you will not have wasted your lives (months or years or decades).

If you take care of yourselves and enjoy your lives, don’t be surprised if you grow and your perspectives about him, what he has done, and even your own selves and self-worth change. The “home” an adult child leaves behind does not remain static. Abandoned ones instead grow and even bloom. I wouldn’t want to tell YOU what to do, but I would not stunt my own growth by giving a person who has hurt me power over my life or destiny.

Nurture yourself. Give yourself the ingredients for a life well lived, and make it so. Do this independent of him or his plans.

Hugs to you,
Sheri McGregor

Brandie’s reply

Thank you so much Sheri. I am crying, in a good way because I feel you are so right on.

I could go on and on. I just had a double mastectomy 6 weeks ago. All I got from him was a “good luck.” I felt like he was just “checking the block” to make himself feel like a good person. That pissed me off.

You email back is so helpful and has help to give me the strength to move on.

Hugs back to you.

Brandie H.

Sheri’s next response

Dear Brandie,

With your recent surgery, it is yourself and your healing and wellness that requires all your focus right now. That’s a lot to endure especially amidst the cruelty of estrangement.

If you only knew how many moms and dads write to me with a major illness and cruel children. . . .

Take kind care of yourself. I hope you get to listen to some birds singing each day, smell a flower, and find something to savor.

Hugs to you dear, Brandie.

More from Brandie

Brandie replied one more time, and I include a portion of her email here so readers will know more about her:

Sheri,

I just listened to a radio show you were once on, run by Daniel Davis, on Beyond50 radio.

The discussion on grandchildren really hit me and was something I could relate to. I have 6 granddaughters I can’t see due to estrangement. One of which I was quite bonded with. Estranged adult children don’t seem to see the damage they do to their children when they kick grandparents out of grandkids’ lives. Such a powerful discussion and I thank you for touching on it.

Related reading

When your adult child wants nothing to do with you: Time to go with the flow?

First steps to getting past anger when your adult child rejects you

Anger: Positive energizer? Or easy fix?

Rejected Parents NewsFlash: Heartache and Tears Quilt, Canadian Grandparents Rights Association

By Sheri McGregor (2021, July)

Have you ever heard of Christmas in July? That’s my excuse to share this video, produced in December 2020, that highlights Heartache and Tears Quilt. Created by grandparents across Canada who have been denied the right to see their precious grandchildren, the close-ups of the individual squares in the video tell the heartbreaking story (tearjerker alert!).

The Canadian Grandparents Rights Association promotes grandparents rights and helps families re-establish broken ties.

Grandparents Rights

Current volunteer president of the Canadian Grandparents Rights Association, Daphne Jennings, has written a book, featuring the Heartache and Tears Quilt on its cover. The book: The Canadian Grandparents Story: It’s Never Too Late to Say I’m Sorry, gets to the heart of the organization’s mission.

Hugs from Sheri McGregor

Related Reading

Wall of Silence: an artistic expression about living with estrangement