Estranged from adult children: Deciphering the path forward

estrangement from adult children

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Estranged from adult children:
Deciphering the path forward

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Beyond the thick, dark curtain lies a blur. I blink, orienting to flecks of dancing light in the dimly lit room. On the walls and floor, spatters of neon pink and green spark to life beneath ultraviolet blacklights. I pause, relieved to see an older gentleman in street clothes wearing a benign smile. He waves me forward, and on I go.

The rubberized floor surprises me, and in the mix of light and color, I waver and consider turning back. But just ahead, another smiling face appears. A man in a silly zip-up jumpsuit printed with glow-in-the-dark skeleton bones urges me toward another dark curtain. Breathing more easily again, I smile back, secure that this haunted house is will be more funny than scary.

Beyond the second curtain, impenetrable darkness envelopes me. My feet are rooted. A zing of fear straightens my spine. Then a scene lights up ahead. Dancing skeletons—more zip-up costumes—and I laugh as the silly bone troupe steps aside, encouraging me to pass. Glowing arrows on the floor direct me forward, and I step toward the light.

Another curtain, a longer period of darkness, and this time only glowing arrows appear. My heart races and my mouth goes dry. In my logical mind, I realize this is all man made. A silly series of dark rooms, corridors, and scenes, timed to titillating perfection.

As I approach the next curtain, a figure leaps from within the wall. I startle, then see that he folds himself flat again, into the depths of the fabric-covered wall. My skin tingles, and I clutch my cross-body bag, hugging myself against a mix of rising fear and the logical awareness that this is just a Halloween performance. But stepping forward, my gaze darts to every corner and crevice, ready for the next surprise.

And so it goes, escalating fear until, at the haunting’s end, I’m sweaty and scared, running through a maze of hanging body parts, to the heightening buzz of a chainsaw. The curtains part. The cold air hits my face. And around me is light, people pointing, laughing. I slow to a standstill and look back at the exit, my palm pressed to my heart as another victim rushes into the cool night air. Silly me.

How silly is this?

Haunted house creators know exactly what they’re doing. They count on our human alert system, which remembers one danger and gets prepared for the next. That way, with each new spooky skeleton, sinister clown, or increasingly intense scene, the fright factor builds—until as I did, you’re running for the final exit.

You’ve probably heard about this phenomenon before. Cave (wo)men learned that, if a wild beast prowled a certain part of the jungle, they’d better avoid that area, be ready to fight, or run. It’s that same fight or flight system at work, even in a Halloween haunted house. We know going in that nothing is real. No actual monsters lurk. The sign out front said none of the actors would even touch us. We’re scared anyway and may even return year to year for the fright. Knowing it’s not real, that it will end soon, that we’ll return to normalcy, keeps it safe.

When it comes to estrangement from adult children, I’ve seen these concepts work in a couple of ways. I’ll share them briefly here. Maybe you can relate.

First, we’re used to forgiving our children’s mistakes. Kids do dumb stuff and, as they grow, we forgive them, teach them, and then move on, expecting the best. And when it comes to parenting and estrangement from adult children, maybe a similar expectation rattles our chains but keeps us coming back.

Frequently, once parents whose adult children cut them off are beyond the confusing passageways and out into post-estrangement light, they look back and see the warnings of trouble ahead. But they never saw estrangement coming. Conditioned to forgive, forget, and move on toward loving adult-to-adult relationships in a forever family, they didn’t take note of or fully understand the signals that, in hindsight, they can clearly see. They thought the dark landscape of troubled times would end. That their child would mature or have a child of their own and experience a shift in perspective. In some ways, I fall into this category. Years later, I realized there was a prior estrangement, though short-lived and not seen for what it was at the time. And emotional estrangement? Several stints of that, too. Yep.

Second, parents in on-again-off-again relationships with adult children who are abusive, manipulating, or controlling, may learn to blunt their responses. They walk on eggshells, and tiptoe down dark relational alleyways with every nerve attuned to possible twists, turns, or torture ahead. They’re always at the ready, prepared to clamp their mouths shut, agree, or apologize, even when compliance feels like a minefield and, they know from experience, a freshly laid trap can suddenly appear. It’s a regular house of horrors.

For some who have suffered past abuse or trauma, they may be so used to ignoring their body’s alarm signals that ignoring them becomes familiar, a sort of “comfort zone,” that keeps them stuck in bad situations. I hear frequently from parents who have begun to look back over their lives and can see where they have been caught in sticky webs that, with insight, come into view. Then comes the work of recognizing traps as they’re spun and giving themselves permission to take an alternate, willfully chosen path. Helping people recognize the blind spots and move beyond them is one area of my work as a life coach, and I am honored to partner with amazing, inspiring people who are shaping their lives toward deeper meaning, more self-worth (and earning power), and greater fulfillment for themselves and for others.

Haunted by the past?

Obviously, I’ve simplified these explanations of the human nervous system and its survival tactics to fit a Halloween theme, but you get the idea. Our well-being depends on our ability to decipher real threats from fake ones. However, even the faux fear fight or flight response to modern day stress can be monstrously harmful if we’re not coping mindfully as advocated for in my books.

Letting go of adult children can be a difficult prospect. Sometimes, the graveyard of what once was haunts our memories or beckons us toward paralyzing hope or pain. Don’t take on the tunnel vision of a cyclops. Put on a helpful costume as needed and continue working on your own well-being and strength. Then you’re more prepared to unearth old memories, savor the innocence and joy of a loved past life, and take charge of a new and cherished life now.

Related reading

Going batty

 

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26 thoughts on “Estranged from adult children: Deciphering the path forward

  1. Joyce M.

    Thank you Sheri for letting all of us read such interesting articles and stories of others suffering
    We all feel alone and that no one cares-you do- i live alone, a senior and last year with my adult
    daughter was very traumatic for me. I try to cope the best i can. I see her every week and bring
    ourdog over and she takes him for walks, just like she did before she left last year under terrible
    circumstances. We never talk about last year’s horrible event and its for the better because I
    cannot holdany more pain. I take over anything she needs that she had at home and try to
    help from adistance. It isvery painful, but I do knowthat others are having the same problem.
    Your insightful logic into these experiences helps us toknow that we are not alone. There are
    many sites that refer to coping withanxiety, but they do not feel the sadness like you and we
    do. Never stop reaching out to all of us as this journey is a long one. thank you forbeing you.

    Reply
  2. Jim G

    Dear Sheri, Thank you so much for addressing this issue which, as you have said, has been suppressed in stigma.

    My wife and I are now facing the horrible prospect of having to choose between sacrificing our own personal integrity or face estrangement from our daughter and grandchildren. We are no spring chickens. We are well aware that we might not outlast an estrangement. Nonetheless, avoiding estrangement could easily entail acquiescing to an endless penance of “being in the wrong” when every fiber of our being, including my wife’s 50 years of experience as a professor of Public Health, tells us that our prepubescent granddaughter is not mature enough to be making decisions about her gender. I fear that sacrificing our personal integrity to this high level will sacrifice our health with it.

    Meanwhile, there are certain things that have been made clear to us from our daughter in no uncertain terms. Our love of our grandchildren is now only accepted as love if we *unconditionally* accept of their chosen pronouns (no matter the age). Any questioning, any attempts to present concerns, any attempts to present evidence that contradicts the narrative (e.g. not accepting pronouns places a child at risk of mental health and suicide) is considered a *summary indictment* of us NOT loving our grandchildren. Even such small things as expressing the “wrong” body language, “wrong” tone of voice, or any hesitation is considered “proof” of not affirming and therefore not loving. And such infractions are considered accumulative and placed “in the record” from any time in the past. We are not permitted to present *any* evidence whatsoever. The very act — even suggestion — of doing so is summarily considered not loving our grandchildren and not loving our daughter. Furthermore, the very fact of *delaying* in agreeing to support our granddaughter’s chosen pronoun is considered evidence against us in the allegation that we don’t love her. Such is the irrationality and intolerance of this “movement.”

    We are heartbroken and every day feels like we exist under a constant low level of stress that robs us of our sleep and distracts us from the simple joys of our life together. Many have suggested sending the parents evidence, sending them books, sending them articles, or attempting to speak rationally with them. Unfortunately, none of these approaches will work. We are skating across the thin ice that this irrational movement has created for families. It will take only one misstep for us to fall through to the freezing waters of being estranged from our family and it appears no one can help us.

    I want you to know that we have purchased “Done With the Crying” in hopes of finding some solace in knowing that we are not alone and that we will find a way to cope with estrangement if that choice is the only one left to us. I love my wife dearly. It breaks my heart to see her suffer like this.

    Reply
    1. CC

      Hi , Jim
      Your situation is similar to mine. But not the same issue. But your description of the requirements on you to accept something you can’t accept, else be branded as unloving, resonated with me. Our daughter walked away from us years ago. We are completely no contact now. Her reasons had to do with protecting her boyfriend/fiancé/now-husband from us and our concerns/admonitions about his moral integrity and character. We, like you, were concerned (grieved) by the possibility that her choice would bring her more harm. She told us that not accepting him was not accepting her. And that we would have to “change some of our opinions“ if we wanted to be in touch with them. We haven’t been able to change some of our opinions. You called it integrity. For us it’s a matter of deep-held concerns, our moral code, our faith, and decades of life experience that prevents us from changing our opinions. And so we’re not in touch. I live dumbfounded. Our relationship with our daughter was very solid. I grew up without a dad, and to know that my daughter has walked away from a loving father like my husband is beyond me.
      At the end of the day, our children can choose what they want in their own life. They can choose their own partner, they can choose to raise their children how they see fit. And when their push comes to our shove… it’s not always resolvable? My husband and I could not see a way forward, pretending like everything was fine, as if we were in support of what we considered to be a harmful relationship. In our case, we couldn’t “agree to disagree.” Our daughter was not interested in any form of compromise (e.g. we hoped to be able to stay in touch with her just to know that she was well, etc.). We had to be all in or all out. Our being “all out“ seems to be exactly what our daughters partner wanted all along. Realizing that we were losing our daughter brought out emotion in me I never knew I had. And the estrangement has changed many aspects of my life. But I have a loving husband, and two other adult children, and life must go on. We learn to live with the loss.
      Unloving? No. On the contrary, it is because we so desperately love her and want the best for her that we had concern and responded the way we did in the first place. Even being here now, after all these years, is a sign of how much I love her. I continue to look for insights and inspiration as to how to progress through this loss and possibly even solve it one day.
      My wise mother, now passed, felt strongly that my daughter “would get a snoot full“ with time. I tend to think that these life choices our children have made will play out, and a more moderate/safe perspective will prevail. But then again, maybe not. And even if they did, how broken “is now” what once “was?” Could we ever redeem what we thought we once had?
      Wishing you well as you navigate all this. Take good care of yourselves.

      Reply
    2. Jeanne

      UGH…so sorry! My heart is with you!! Getting caught between a rock and a hard place sucks! This generation is nuts….and we are supposed to go along with it! It’s crazy!

      Reply
    3. Jan K

      Jim, I used to be able to talk about everything and anything with my son, but since he’s changed towards me I realise these adult children really don’t want our opinion or advice…they just want us to agree with everything they think/do etc and woe betide us if we don’t. If you want to continue seeing your daughter and her children you need to just go along with it and don’t give your opinions on absolutely anything. It’s your/your wife’s choice what you decide… it is that cut and dried.

      Reply
  3. Kathryn

    I have a 30 year old son who has been ghosting me off and on since high school. Periodically throughout the years we have spoken but he never communicated with me. Two years ago Thanksgiving he started screaming at me telling me that I abused him, I am a sh!tty mother and parent and have no business being on earth. Then he hung up on me.
    I never called back. I’m tired of walking on eggshells, apologizing for everything and biting my tongue.
    Needless to say I never abused him. One time I shared my abuse with him. I was beaten, locked in a closet for hours and hours. My mother was a sick person who had me write on my blackboard “ I am a bad girl” and “ no one wants me “. She told me she wished I had never been born and that my birth ruined her life, etc. I explained to my son that THAT was abuse. I am at the happiest place in my life now and I deserve it. I have worked so hard to work through things in my life that would break someone else. His father is a narcissistic gaslighter- and a sadist. He brainwashed my son. I’m not complaining I’m explaining… There are times when I lived minute by minute, trying to get through the despair. For several years my plea was “ what did I do?”. Bit by bit my mantra became “ I am a good person and I did my best “.
    To other discarded parents I say be kind to yourself. XOXO
    PS this is the first time I’ve ever written about this

    Reply
  4. Lisa

    Your message is really on point about wearing a costume. It’s a way to hide the sadness. Even though it is our daughter who abandoned us just over three years ago, I wear a costume around our son and his lovely family so I don’t lose them, too. I not afraid to feel, I’m afraid to reveal them to others, especially my son, in fear of another loss. That, dear Sheri, is something I could not live with.

    Reply
  5. Lynne

    Thank you once again for this thought provoking article. It was filled with so much to think about. It’s been 5 years now for me. Both my grown children chose that they thought their lives were better without me in it them. It took much time to learn to go on and try to live a happy life. I am writing this from an rv park in beautiful, sunny Florida. My husband and I are on our first rv adventure. We are snow birds from Illinois. I believe this adventure is helping my mind and spirit in that I needed so very much to leave my broken heart behind me. I knew their would be lessons for our lives when we began this journey. Some very hard and some very good. I know the greatest gift is to see I have become stronger through the years of estrangement. I pray this morning for All parents to stay strong and enjoy Your life. Thank you Sheri. God bless you for all you have done to help us all.

    Reply
  6. David

    Like a lot of people, I write here for my own therapy. I don’t expect a reply from anyone, it’s just good to put thoughts into words.
    This post had special meaning to me, as it was just the last week I dug into files on my computer, letters written to my estranged daughters over 10 years ago, when they were in their late and early teens, respectively. And it caught me by surprise, I was dealing with the SAME ISSUES back then that eventually drove us apart, in the last four years. The same differences in politics, the same grievances about how they convinced themselves, with my ex-wife’s encouragement, that I was neglecting or disrespecting them.
    So I should have known it would turn out like this, right?
    As Sheri points out, along this process, we never imagined it would turn out so badly. We thought family ties would prevail and:
    “Conditioned to forgive, forget, and move on toward loving adult-to-adult relationships in a forever family, they didn’t take note of or fully understand the signals that, in hindsight, they can clearly see. They thought the dark landscape of troubled times would end. That their child would mature or have a child of their own and experience a shift in perspective.”
    How naive and blind we look in retrospect. But still I can’t escape the conclusion that something has broken in our culture, that this estrangement should be acceptable, that BOTH my girls would think and act this way. It makes me very worried about the future, and what further divides await us, even what violence is in store for us the same way Germany became a land of violence and intimidation under the Nazis. The future looks very dark to me. If such a thing is possible, what will happen next?
    Still, I need to focus on my own health and welfare, first. I had a serious heart attack five years ago, and lately am showing signs of weakness and exhaustion, what I suspect is early stages of systolic heart failure. I probably have a few years left, and thank God I have a devoted new wife who will help me stay as happy as possible.
    But when I contemplate getting weaker and dying without seeing my daughters again or ever seeing my granddaughter, the sadness returns. Like Sheri wrote in another post, about an old dog who stopped chasing squirrels with her own daughter, life has inevitable cycles, and endings. I should face the future grace and with God’s encouragement to keep fighting the good fight.

    Reply
    1. rparents Post author

      David,
      Thank you for this touching post and sorry it took me so long to approve it. The comments are increasingly littered with abuse (which I wade through and weed out).

      I hope your heart grows stronger.

      Hugs,
      Sheri McGregor

      Reply
  7. Mary

    Thanks for this post, it’s been eight years since my only child/daughter cut me out of her life. It was done with hatred and lies. I’ve done years of soul searching wondering how/why this happened, I guess the tipping point was that I left an an abusive marriage to her father, which oddly enough she had encouraged me to do. Needless to say, my x jumped on this bandwagon and ran with it. While it was her decision to do this, he merrily jumped on to offer his support.
    Looking back, there were red flags, condescending behaviour, threats of cutting others off in her life if they didn’t meet her expectations, etc. it’s obvious now, but no parent ever expects this to happen, I never even considered her cutting me out of her life.
    I walked on egg shells around her allot of the time, as Sheri said, it became my comfort zone, it’s what I knew from the way my x treated me for 38 yrs, little did I realize that my daughter had watched and learned this behaviour from him and inevitably ended up treating me the way he did.
    Many days my ED still crosses my mind, but it is very seldom now where I sit down and shed tears over it. As many of you have stated, I am also getting older and need to get on with my life while I still can. All of the necessary paper work and will have been addressed also so as not to leave my “end of life” care in her hands. Why would I ???
    Thank you Sheri, you have amazing insight into this tragedy of parenting.

    Reply
  8. Kristine

    There is a mental component. It’s called immaturity with NPD.
    Ghosting, the silent treatment are abusive and immature responses to adult situations.
    The inability to sit down and work out, the issue or what made them feel “slighted.”
    My son 28, never acted like this until he met a very, blatantly immature GF. He’s a video game addict.
    They voice they hate working 40 hours, so right there, they feel “entitled.”
    I gave them tough love, after my son squandered trust fund education money and left college after 7 years with no degree. GF moved into dorm I found out later.
    My son was being abusive toward me and called me awful names I can’t repeat.
    GF told everyone I’m the bi✝️ch. 27 and 28 year olds need to “get a life,” pay their bills and communicate when issues arise.
    Since they can’t or won’t communicate, there’s nothing I can do.
    Wish them well, and say goodbye.
    I am done crying and apologizing for doing nothing but be supportive of my son having a solid foundation to find his dream job.
    Blaming me for putting in 0 effort isn’t a burden I’m going to carry.
    I never had opportunities like he’s been afforded.
    He’s picked his major and changed that 3 X’s and I allowed it with no argument.
    I’ll always be his mom, but I refuse to be the scapegoat or whipping post.
    PS: “I don’t want you to be in my life, but can I still be the beneficiary of your Will?”
    Can you believe this crap?

    Reply
    1. Susan

      I guess if I’d been more aware and looking closely at what was happening I would have noticed that this estrangement had been happening for a least 13 years before I reacted. Instead I was the easy going kind Mum who had no idea of the dark murky dangerous waters I was wading in. Add that my Daughter married someone who had been estranged from his parents for years. His Mother got cancer and my Daughter initiated a reconciliation. This became a very strong reconciliation at my expense. Her Husband is well practised at what he does and has joined company with my ex Husband. He tried to set me up to be the bad one several times and when these backfired he threw tantrums like a two year old. My Daughter was oblivious to it all and when I would try to discuss anything I was met by a high cold brick wall. It’s has been 8 years this November when enough was enough I walked away my heart and mind broken. The final text my Daughter sent was “you are the one missing out”. (Missing out) really , they would not have even been aware I was missing, they never had time to visit or invite me to their house or meet for a meal somewhere close to them to save travel time. I tried everything. I was excluded at birthdays, christenings, christmas.
      It’s funny how it just creeps up like that skeleton beside the Ghost Train agghhh that’s it I can’t do this anymore, I am worthy I can’t do this anymore, I was a good Mum I can’t do this anymore. It’s taken a long time to heal. I’m no longer angry I’m no longer hurt I’m no longer scared I survived the ghost train and I escaped an abusive Stockholm Syndrome situation.

      Reply
    2. Jane W.

      I believe it as I, too, am living it. I’m sorry for your pain. It has taken me years to stop blaming myself and realizing there is nothing more I can do to change the selfish, immature attitudes of two of my daughters. Clearly, I am worth more to them after I die than having a healthy relationship with them while I am alive.
      It’s not easy to let go. But it is important to move on and live your life with people who truly care and appreciate you. I wish you the best.

      Reply
    3. Candy

      Very well put.. I totally agree and can relate to the feeling of grown adult children (age 30 and 25) still acting like entitled teenagers not wanting to grow up, have children of their own, respond and talk like adults when issues arise, playing the blame game, abusive silent treatment/ghosting and the list can go on and on. It’s unreal how long this has carried on by now (10+ years) that the only sane and logical thing for us to do now is to simply move on if even for ourselves. The internal pain never goes away but the blessing of being numb in a sense carries us through more days than not and for that we are grateful. – Sincerely, 2 Loving Parents who gave our girls a life we never had… a life that was wadded up and thrown back into our faces as if we didn’t do a good enough job… this generation expects sainthood and perfection meanwhile they are entitled to act like the devil himself and we better not have anything to say about it too. –

      Reply
    4. Kristy

      Kristy,
      Keep strong wont you. Our children deliberately seek to harm us with their insults and denigration.
      My estranged son also abuses us when he can and calls us terrible names in private messages and publically. Our two teenage grandchildren have been turned against us by the parents but now want money which is left in my will for the two grandchildren. Doesnt work that way …its just bullying and coercion.
      They have no insight in the damage they do and entitlement they have

      Sometimes you just have to be angry and say enough. We are good mothers and they cant take that away from us. Someone once said to me if they werent related to you would you want contact with them. Not really.
      Take care and thank you so much Sheri for this place and your books. Youre an angel for helping us see that we are not alone in our pain. Thinking of all the lovely ladies and men who struggle xxx

      Reply
    5. Sharon B.

      Kristine,
      I have two estranged adult sons . The oldest has 4 sons- precious and I love them so much. For some reason not given to me I’m not allowed to see them anymore. After three years of silence and holidays spent alone I had my Will done and left each grandson a trust and my home to my brother. Clearly nothing to my sons. They have been financially irresponsible and could use some help but I just can’t do it at this point. Am I the bad guy? Sharon

      Reply
  9. DORA

    Gracias por el artículo tan esclarecedor y orientador.
    Quisiera adquirir el libro pero en mi país no lo consigo. Un abrazo.

    Reply
    1. rparents Post author

      Hola Dora, ¿Lo necesitas en español? Me gustaría encontrar la manera de traducirlo al español…. Un abrazo para ti, Dora. Sheri McGregor

      Reply
  10. Sue N

    Thank you, Sheri, for your helpful newsletter, as always. I have found myself falling back into the graveyard of what once was, many times. I know, for the rest of my life (I am almost 77 yrs), I will have to work very hard at charting a sustainable path. Having reached the 3-yr point, I’ve seemed to realize that hope is now a futile thing. I will never understand why these children don’t want to talk, in order to figure things out. Do they derive happiness in imagining our pain or are they simply lacking in empathy? I keep thinking there is a psychiatric component – wish I knew the answer to that.
    I thank you for your constant, much needed support, Sheri. Blessings to you for all the help you give to us….

    Reply
  11. karen S.

    Thank you for another meaningful and thought provoking article Sheri. When the estrangement bomb exploded for us 7 years ago, I couldn’t see a way through. Six months later, I discovered Done With The Crying through a friend who recommended it. When I read that many parents, looking back, might recognise signs of estrangement from years before, the light suddenly came on. I realised that our son had been in the process of estranging from us since he was a teenager and had taken steps along the way to eliminate us from his life. Then I understood why I wasn’t going to change the situation. The only reason he hadn’t gone through with it previously was because we were still willing to support him financially. Once he realised there was no more money coming his way, he had no reason to go through the motions of keeping in touch. It was a hard truth but it made sense when so many other things didn’t. I’m still devastated but don’t let the estrangement cloud my blessings. Thanks to Sheri and heartfelt hugs for anybody who reads this post x

    Reply
    1. bluesolstice

      Hi Karen, the timeline you describe with your son is about the same it’s been with my estranged daughter. Also, the reasons you listed for your estrangement are very similar to my situation. In retrospect you describe seeing this coming and looking back is there anything that stands out to you that you now recognize as one of those steps your son took over time toward estrangement? That is, if you don’t mind sharing.

      Reply
  12. Karen C.

    I can really relate to this post. Thank you so much. I tried to explain to a friend once that it felt like a nightmare from which I would never wake up, so this idea of the haunted house rings familiar. But much like nightmares and haunted houses, we do wake up or come to the exit. Each moment for me now is an exercise in putting myself first.

    Reply
  13. Diane H.

    Thank you for such a thought provoking article. I think we all need to be so mindful of our reactions to stress. I have recently had a job that I didn’t enjoy at all. Coupled with the forever heaviness of estrangement, I think it upset my hard earned balance. I talked about it with friends and told myself I was OK and could see the finish line, but still, I started getting frequent headaches, sore back and shoulders and put on weight. It really is true – our bodies do keep the score. I have only a week to go and a new job to go to, but it was a reminder for me that my well being is fragile and to continue to be kind to myself. The alternative is to feel fairly rotten all the time, a state none of us deserve.

    Reply

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