When your adult child is estranged: what to do about life events

when your adult child is estrangedby Sheri McGregor, M.A.

When your adult child is estranged, you can find yourself in complex situations. When it comes to momentous life events and happenings, our choices may feel limited. The awkwardness of the situation makes nothing we can do seem right.

Take Petra*, who recently confided:

“My son’s baby, my only grandchild, has her Christening tomorrow. I wasn’t invited. I’ve never even met the child, but I did send a gift when she was born. My son’s wife sent a formal thank you note, but no pictures. My son hasn’t communicated with me for more than a year. I’ve never met his wife.”

Petra wasn’t sure what to do.

“The mom in me says to send a Christening gift. My faith is important to me, and I’m pleased my son is honoring tradition. But I doubt he’ll reply. And then I’ll be hurting even more. Why set myself up for disappointment?

Petra’s dilemma was similar to Andrea’s*, a mom who emailed me the day before her estranged son’s wedding. For his engagement, she had sent a generous check, and received a formal note of thanks. She later texted to invite him and his fiancée for a visit at her home less than a mile from his.  Her son didn’t reply. Still, Andrea’s moral compass told her she should send him a congratulatory text or email him the day of his marriage.

Feeling cornered

Lauren* remembers watching TV news that showed hurricanes very close to where her daughter had moved far away. Lauren recalls feeling cornered:

“We hadn’t spoken for almost two years, and after all the hurt she had put me through, her silence was actually a reprieve. Then the horrible hurricanes hit her area. I imagined she might have been caught in one and hurt, or even that she’d died. What would people think if her own mother didn’t call to inquire about her?”

When your adult child is estranged: What to about big life events

Lauren was worried about opening old wounds, but also concerned about the message her not calling might send.

“I was finally moving on with my own life.The idea of opening the door to her hateful rants scared me. But I’m also her mother. . . .”

Unable to face potential judgment, or let her daughter think she didn’t care enough to call in the face of this natural disaster, Lauren did phone. But she admits to feeling relieved when the calls wouldn’t t go through.

“I went ahead and texted too, and after a couple of weeks, my daughter sent a return text saying she was fine. I sent a quick reply that I was glad. . . . And then I held my breath, wondering if she’d text back again.”

When no more texts or calls arrived, a familiar agony dragged at Lauren. After so much hurt and pain, she hadn’t really been ready for her daughter to make further contact. But she’d also gotten her hopes up. Lauren quickly reminded herself of the real reason she’d reached out: “To make sure my daughter was safe.” Then she busied herself and moved past the pain. “I do enjoy my life,” she says.

A moral dilemma?

Petra, Andrea, and Lauren each faced a dilemma: What is the right thing to do? Andrea even referred to her feelings as her “moral” compass.

Whether honoring ungrateful, cold, or even vicious adult children is truly a moral dilemma is open for debate. But as these women demonstrate, even parents whose children have hurt them may feel torn.

Lauren solved her dilemma by asking herself two questions:

“If something happened to my daughter, can I live with people thinking I didn’t care enough to call?

“Can I live with my daughter thinking I didn’t care?”

Lauren’s answer to both questions was, “No.”  She says:

“Although her silence has been welcome over her meanness, there’s still a tiny piece of me that hopes for reconciliation someday. I think calling her when those hurricanes hit let my daughter know this.”

Questions for clarity

I firmly believe we each have the answers we need to make the best choices in our own lives and circumstances. Often, using questions can help us get to those answers. Questioning ourselves can help us determine what’s most important to us, and gain the clarity to move confidently forward.

If you find yourself in a situation similar to the ones these mothers found themselves in, questions such as the following ones may be helpful:

  * If I call, text, or send a gift, and my child doesn’t respond, will his failure to reply hurt me?

 * If I don’t call, text, or send a gift, will I worry that I should have?

This may be a conundrum. If you text or call you may be hurt. If you don’t text or call, you may feel guilty. Which is worse?

When faced with such a conundrum, parents benefit from fully considering the situation and examining their feelings. If guilt comes up, consider reading more on the subject. My article on the guilt parents of estranged children can feel might help: Innocent guilt: Normal after conflict

To more fully explore your feelings, consider thoughts similar to these:

* I will not be able to live with myself if I don’t do the “right” thing.

* What really is the “right” thing to do? And is my view based on fear, or what I truly believe is “right.”

Lauren had worried what other people might think. While allowing others’ possible opinions about us isn’t always healthy, being honest about the concerns that come into our decision-making enlightens us.

Andrea worried that her son hadn’t told his fiancée’s family the truth about their estrangement. Andrea’s concern over what that family might think of her had figured into her earlier decision to send money when her estranged son got engaged. But her gift hadn’t changed anything. By letting her fears dictate her actions, she realized she was letting her son control her. In her family, unhealthy male dominance had often been an issue, and she didn’t want to validate her controlling estranged adult son’s behavior. Andrea decided that her earlier gift was the end of her moral obligation with regard to his wedding.

In essence, she was taking an important stance for moving forward in her life:

* I will no longer allow him to control me. Nor will I enable his hurting me. I will not make contact.

Thinking things through may help parents of estranged adult children better explore their feelings. Below are some other potential ways of thinking in these sorts of situations.

* I would like to open the door to my daughter’s possible return to me. I will reach out to congratulate her about her new baby.

* Even though texting my son on his wedding day feels like the right thing for me to do, in light of the animosity he has expressed toward me, this may not be a good time reach out. This is his special day. If I decide to make contact, it will be on another day. 

* I will text (call, send a card) because this is the only decision I can feel good about later – – regardless of my child’s response.

when your adult child is estrangedStrength and dignity

Petra sent her tiny granddaughter a beautiful Bible in honor of her Christening.

“Inside was a family tree. I filled that in with our side of the family, and wrote a personal note. My son didn’t reply, and I can’t control what he does with the Bible. But I can hope.”

Petra knew she might feel some disappointment, so she prepared ahead for the possibility. She made lots plans with people she cares about, got her favorite healthy take-out foods, and occupied her mind. For the first time in several years, Petra had her tax documents ready for the accountant early. She felt good about that, and the accomplishment made her feel productive and good about herself.

Andrea decided not to reach out on her son’s wedding day. Her earlier engagement gift had been acknowledged. Yet despite the close proximity of their homes, and her express invitation for him to bring his fiancée and visit, he never replied. She says:

“That’s all the information I truly need. He has not been a good son to me for a long, long time.”

Andrea has reached a point of acceptance from which she can draw strength.

“I will be fine, because I will not pursue anyone who doesn’t want me in his or her life. Of course, I wish things were different, but so do a lot of people, about a lot of things.”

Lauren, Petra and Andrea each faced unique dilemmas. When your adult child is estranged, experiencing dilemmas similar to these is common. These mothers made decisions and honored their feelings in different ways. While they recognize the future may hold trials, they are seizing the present, and moving forward in their lives.

For more sensible information presented with sensitivity, get the book, Done With The Crying. You can move forward too.

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Related reading:

Holidays, how to manage them

Mother’s day when your adult child is estranged

Father’s Day for father’s of estranged adult children

*To protect privacy, names and some details have been changed.

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3 thoughts on “When your adult child is estranged: what to do about life events

  1. Sarah

    6 years ago I divorced my adult children’s father for cruelty due to domestic abuse after he left me rather than seek therapy for his behaviour. Both my chn have been estranged from me ever since. They refuse to discuss the reasons for the divorce and have always aligned with their fathers version of events (which don’t touch on his behaviour but blame me for being difficult to live with). No of my inlaws have spoken to me either since my husband left. I have now been invited to my sons wedding. It is a ceremony abroad on a resort and my ex and family will be there. There will be an additional legal ceremony in our country as the abroad version is not legally binding. I have tried communication with my son about how I remain afraid of his father and worried about facing him. I have asked if I can attend the legal ceremony at home instead. He has said no and I have been given a managerial message to say he expects people to be cordial and there to be no awkwardness. I am dismayed at his dismissal of my anxiety and it speaks volumes to me about his lack of care towards me, yet I feel I will look awful if I don’t attend. Other members of my family will probably attend but I fear heightened emotions and alcohol will make this a very dangerous space for me psychologically. My son is indifferent to this. I don’t want a further reason for estrangement but also I realise I am not putting my needs in any place of worth, just so my son can have an Instagram wedding. I have not had peace of mind since and don’t know what to do. I know this is my sons choice but facing his coldness is hard. I never thought I’d be in this position when I was raising him.

  2. madeofstars

    This was very helpful. A while back, when my estrangement from my younger son was just a few years old, his older brother called sounding very excited because my estranged son’s fiancée wanted my contact info. I agreed he could share it, & the young woman sent a note asking for contact info for my parents & siblings, all of whom are also estranged from my son. Of course, this young woman wanted to include her fiancé’s relatives in the list of people receiving invites to their wedding. But none of us had ever met this woman. So I sent a note, copying everyone whose address she’d asked for, explaining that I wished her great happiness but would prefer to hear directly from my son if he wanted to break our estrangement and invite me to his nuptials. It was, I added, the least any self-respecting adult would expect. No call came from my son. But no invite came from his bride, either. The others in the family, who I encouraged to respond in any way they wished, all decided to ignore the invitations they later received. I still can’t imagine how awkward it would have made the wedding day for any relative to show up after a years-long estrangement. But I also struggle sometimes, wondering if I passed up a chance at reconciliation. This post reminded me that I did not – that reconciliation is simply not up to me alone, but will require my son’s involvement if it’s ever to happen. Thank you!

  3. Hopeishere

    Thank you for this! This explains my dilemma perfectly. I’m still working through some of this as my estrangement is very new and still very painful. But there are some birthdays coming up and I need to think some things through.


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