Emotional Triggers: Set yourself free

estrangement from adult childrenby Sheri McGregor, M.A.

On a pleasant day late in summer, my husband and I sat on the sofa together in comfortable silence. Outside the window, our massive fig tree was alive with birds, feasting on the fruity spoils. My husband’s mobile phone rang, startling us from our reverie.

Brian glanced at the screen, and then he answered, his voice immediately strained. . . .

Some of you may recognize this passage from my book. If you do, then you know the caller was my estranged son. He asked to speak with me, and my husband held out the phone. But I hesitated.

Panic flared, the wreckage of our last few exchanges coursing through me.

That call on a summer afternoon came close to a year after the estrangement began. I had worked hard to move beyond my sadness and pain because I knew my adult son’s estrangement was out of my control. Yet there he was on the phone, opening the wound.

It’s like that for many who are estranged from adult children. We hear some bit of news, and the pain comes slamming back. Maybe there’s soaring hope, muddied by distrust and fear.

Emotional triggers can occur for many reasons: memories surrounding a certain time of year, specific events, holidays, or even when we least expect them and don’t immediately recognize a cause.

As I’m writing this, the birds are again in the fig tree outside my window, but I’m not thinking of my estranged son and feeling sad. Those memories no longer have a hold on me.

Triggered emotions when estranged from adult children:
Are we controlled like Pavlov’s dogs?

Some parents who are estranged from adult children have likened this triggering of old hurt, and the anger, fear, worry, or sadness that follow, to Pavlov’s dogs.

Russian psychologist, Ivan Pavlov, did experiments in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, which paved the way toward what’s now known as classical conditioning. In short, Pavlov rang a bell when he fed the dogs. Therefore, the bell became a sort of cue. The dogs became conditioned to the sound. So, when they heard the bell, they salivated, expecting to be fed (even when no food was present).

When it comes to triggered emotions, we can recognize what’s happening. We can observe our feelings. We can take them out and examine them, put leashes on and feed them positive input that nourishes and makes them better. To exhaust the Pavlov analogy, we can make them heel.

And we can recondition ourselves. We can view our feelings in a new and helpful light, and then respond wisely to them.

On the other hand, we can choose to let our feelings rule us, run wild, and lead us into despair. When we do, the agony of estrangement smothers joy, strains other relationships, and can even cause physical illness.

Some people do make a choice not to move beyond the bad things that happen to them. Some even feed the pain, and keep it thriving. Others don’t intend to remain victims, but slip into defeatist thinking, and even convince themselves (and others) that they can’t get over the pain.

And there are others to whom this article doesn’t yet apply. Their estrangement is very new, and they can’t imagine “moving on.” Even these parents can benefit from some emotional pain management.

Emotional triggers: Must they have a hold on us?

Let’s face it. Some of us require more time to heal than others. Some of us may even need to work harder at it once we’ve made the choice to reclaim our self-worth and move on with our own lives. But with determination, the right tools, and support, I believe that most of us can.

There are parents who, in their stress and grief, might be suffering from clinical depression. Or for other reasons might be best supported by a licensed clinician in their locale. In time, and with the right support, I’m hopeful that even these people can develop happiness and meaning in their lives, despite estrangement from adult children.

Getting free from emotional triggers: How long does it take?

Some are able to move on quickly. One mother recently said she had gotten on with her happy life in just a few months. She made a choice and followed through—and is an amazing testimony to the strength of intelligent will.

I’m really happy for her, and for all the others who have sent me emails, Facebook messages, or posted reviews about how my book has helped them to move on with their lives—sometimes after many years of walking on eggshells, and/or allowing hurtful drama to cloud their lives. I’m rejoicing right alongside you!

Even so, the fact is that just as each estrangement is different, so is our progress forward. A parent’s ability to move joyfully on doesn’t necessarily mean that they will never ever feel hurt again. We are human after all. At some point, even those who have successfully moved beyond the shock and sorrow, and are happy, might one day have a reminder, and perhaps feel sad. You might be like the mother in my book who happily went to get a kitten who needed a home, and was reminded instead that she was orphaned herself!

In those sorts of moments, you might even catch your thoughts turning a sad or self-pitying corner. Maybe you wish things were different. It’s okay to allow yourself that honest thought. But then, you can remind yourself that you’re resilient. You can recognize that your power lies beyond wishes. And you can reaffirm your path.

There’s no set time to be done with the crying—but the sooner you convince yourself (and others) that you can, the sooner that day will come.

Reclaiming our own lives doesn’t mean we won’t ever experience bad feelings. But when sadness, anger, guilt or fear barks at the door, or claws at our hearts, we have a choice. We can let our emotions take over. We can react—similar to the way Pavlov’s dogs reacted to a cue—or we can choose to recognize the feelings for what they are: proof that we’re human. Our emotions are normal. Our feelings are a product of the vast stores of love, time, and energy we invested in people we at one time thought would be in our lives forever.

And then we can take ourselves by the hand. We can lead ourselves on. All any of us can do in the face of loss that we cannot change or control is to adapt. In the book, there are examples, questions, and tools to help.

Estranged from adult children? Get Ready, Get Set, and Prepare

To expect that you’ll never have residual feelings is unrealistic. That’s why a chapter in my book is devoted to managing the ambiguity, uncertainty, and ongoing nature of estrangement, and the emotions that can accompany it.  As some parents have shared on this site and in reviews, they plan to refer to those pages as needed. They’re interacting with the book and its tools as was intended. Learning to recognize and understand your feelings, and accept and manage them for your own health and happiness, can take practice. Some people are quicker studies. Others are more equipped, or perhaps more committed to work at it.

Estranged from adult children and moving on: Invest in yourself

If you like the idea of moving forward in your own life, perhaps even while holding out hope for an eventual reconciliation, make the choice. Invest in yourself. Choose to get educated, and get the tools you need to plan ahead, and prevail over pain. It may take commitment, and even some work. It may require facing uncomfortable feelings, finding new and helpful ways to see your feelings in a new light (per Chapter 5), and the desire and discipline to retrain your thinking and how you respond.

Will you remain bound by pain, forever reacting to the “bell” of estrangement’s hurt and uncertainty? Will you feed the pain, and continue as a victim? Or, as one estranged parent said in an Amazon review, will you wish your beloved children well, and get on with your life? We can remain forever caged, “imprisoned” as this parent says in her review, or we can choose, as she did, to give ourselves “the gift of freedom.”

estrangement from adult childrenCan you be free?

You may feel a strong desire to move on, and to look forward to your life. But maybe the cutting pain you’ve experienced makes you doubt the possibility.

I believe you can. Take a step. Even the tiniest steps can move you forward.

In my book, I share about Meg, an estranged mother with one friend she felt she could fully trust. That friend allowed Meg to wallow a little in her sorrow. Her son chose to estrange himself, and it hurt. Meg’s friend empathized and cared—and then she did what the best sorts of friends do. She reminded Meg of her previous life struggles, and that she’d gotten through those and gone on to live a successful life. She reminded Meg of her strength.

If you’re estranged from adult children and have a friend like that, thank her for her help. And even if you don’t, be that friend for yourself.

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Related reading:
Handle your emotional triggers

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25 thoughts on “Emotional Triggers: Set yourself free

  1. Diane

    I was in the middle of reading this book when my 33 year old daughter dropped dead after cutting me off from her life after two years. How do I have closure? Nothing’ I have found about this. It’s feeling like surreal.

    1. rparents Post author

      Hi Diane,
      I’m sorry about your daughter’s death. That must have thrown you for a loop—and you’re dealing with grief of a new sort now. It must have come as such a shock!

      If you’re feeling up to it at all, the tools in Chapter 5 about dealing with loss might be helpful, and towards the end of the book–about creating the life you want, the person you are, etc.

      Take good care of yourself, Diane. Hugs to you.

      Sheri McGregor

    2. Pat

      Hi dianne, that is do in really sad for you. I am in a similar situation and my ES has 2 months to live. It is certainly a different sort of pain as he has refused to see me. I am hoping that the pain of the estrangement will lessen with his death. My thoughts are with you pat

  2. Jean

    Thank you for this Sheri, wonderfully helpful article. I am reading the book, it came at the right time for me to make the transition from ‘got to live with this for what’s left of my life’ to ‘hey I can move forward’. This is a huge breakthrough after fifteen years.

    1. rparents Post author

      Hi Jean,
      I’m glad this was helpful to you. Thank you for writing. Your kindness is appreciated!

      Gosh … 15 years. Yes, set yourself free!!!
      There’s a good life to live.

    2. Denise

      My 34 year old ED whom I’ve seen 4 times at family occassions in the last 8 years, texted that she’s pregnant. This is her first child. I called her and surprisingly she picked up the phone. We talked for 4.5 hours. Bottom line, I will not be seeing her child unless the family dynamic changes as she will not expose her child.

      For the past 20 years I’ve been on this emotional roller coaster. I’d finally stopped hurting and realized I had no control.

      My sins: I divorced the father of my 2 daughters when ED was around 12, the year after thro I’d cancer and him taking a job 3 hours away without telling me. My 18 years of marriage was filled with the same lying and emotional warfare. He had as many jobs as years of marriage.

      My ED fought to live with him and finally I gave in. He’d promised her a car and a wonderful life from her evil neglectful mother, me. She was gone for one year. During that year she experienced some horrifying things. My only thought is that she chooses to state that I kicked her out so that I also am blamed for her bad choices that lead to her horrifying experiences.

      Fortunately, she lives 13 hours away and refuses to visit the area where her sister and I live. She also refuses to allow me to visit her where she lives.

      She has texted hinting her material desires after telling me she’s pregnant. I sent her money as I bought maternity clothing for her sister.

      I feel her child will be used as a weapon of mass destruction against me and her sister.it opened a wound I didn’t know still existed.

      I never would have imagined this would happen, as the rest of the beautiful loving parents in this blog. I pray for all of us.

      It’s a relief to know I am not alone.

  3. Denise of Imagine Joy

    I want to read Your book . I love visiting with You through Your web and FB page and keep reminding Myself to visit B&N to purchase Your book.Not much I’ve read concerning My own depression has rang so true and right to the point of My sadness.Every single word and thought I can relate to- WOW! I don’t know Your spiritual views but I do know My God and He has blessed You with this Ministry. It’s a powerful MUCH needed ministry.Thank You

    1. rparents Post author

      Thank you, Denise. Awful circumstances can be transformed!
      I’m truly grateful to be of help to other parents.

      Sheri McGregor

  4. Jim W.

    I am grateful about finding your book. I’ve been fighting this alone for a long time.

    The hardest thing for me is I thought I’d done everything right and then BAM.

    Kinda funny in a way – I told my close friends and when they got mad, I started defending my children.

    Right on top of all this, my wife died.

    I found Nicholas Sparks’ books helped me enjoy the power of Love

    I have three masters and lived all over the world with my kids when they were young. They are all professionals now. I find great solice in that.

    1. rparents Post author

      Hi Jim,

      Thank you very much for your comment here. I so appreciate hearing from you, and am glad you’ve found my book helpful (and the realization that there are so many others in similar situations). You’re right to take some solace in knowing you did a good job in launching young professional adults.

      Much sympathy on the death of your wife. I know that must have made the estrangements even more difficult. Please take care of yourself. I hope you will continue to visit the site whenever you feel the need, and that the book and website will continue to be of help.

      Sheri McGregor

  5. todie

    Hi Jim. I want to say there is joy after rejection. Little by little my children stopped calling on holidays and blame me for living 40 minutes away. I received my book Done with the crying and just finished reading it. What a wonderful awakening I had. I was not alone. Every thought and emotion I have experienced for over 15 years was in the book. You are not alone. Nor are you unlovable. My whole outlook and attitude has come so far up. I will now read my book a second time and learn even more. Keep your chin up.

    1. rparents Post author


      Thank you for your generous comments about the book. I really appreciate your generosity and kind words, and it makes me feel good to know that it was helpful to you. Come back to the site anytime.

      Sheri McGregor

  6. Triplecap

    This is my first post, I am new here. Something in Todie’s Sept. 5 post really struck home with me – “nor are you unlovable”. Unlovable is how I’ve been feeling for years now. I thought, if my own children don’t love me, and some other family members as well, then how can I be lovable at all? I plan to get the book as soon as it comes out on Kindle, and look forward to reading it. After all these years I finally have found out I’m not alone in this. I was Googling to see if I could find a support group because after so much time I’m still hurting, and I found this site. I’m so glad. Thank you.

    1. Sharon

      Triplecap, please don’t wait for the Kindle version, if there ever is one. Apart from the bits you can write in, for your own plans, ( I bought a notepad to write in to save the book, it’s got ‘I did my Best’ on the front, what a find!) you will need and want to dip in and out of parts of this book and go back to parts and flick through it for quick inspiration and a book is so much mor tangible too. I carry mine like a bible. It IS my bible. Buy a copy.

    2. rparents Post author

      Hi Triplecap,
      There is also a facebook page (http://www.facebook/rejectedparents) if you’re interested in it. I’m glad you found the site, and hope you will continue to feel connected here. You are not unlovable, but you’re among a group of parents among whom many have had those feelings. I’m really glad you came across Todie’s posting, and that it was helpful to you. No doubt, your words here will make a difference to another.

      Thank you for your comment.


  7. Sharon

    This is my first post. Today is my sons 30th birthday, Saturday is his party, myself and my daughter are not invited. His wife sees us both as competition for his affection and has alienated him. And he has allowed it. His anger with me for not supporting the decision to leave his sister out of their wedding party, a spiteful, deliberate omission, on the part of the bride, continues after the wedding. I went to the wedding and was ignored by his wife and her family. He will hear nothing against any of them, it’s all my fault. Except, it isn’t is it? Thanks to this book I am learning to accept that which I cannot change. But it’s a long hard road. Best love to all parents out there whose children have been kidnapped by aliens and appear to like it.

    1. Judy

      Wow, your last sentence says it all and is exactly how my husband and I feel. Our son is 40 and you could have knocked me over with a feather if I ever in my life thought we would be down this estrangement path. It is truly heartbreaking for everyone involved and we miss our granddaughters the most. Thankfully we are still able to talk to them occasionally on the phone (they are 12 and 9 and have their own phones) but that is no replacement for sleepovers and other sharing in their lives. As I read all of these stories, it just makes me sad sad sad.

    2. mummy

      Sharon, God love you, you took the words out of my mouth! ‘whose children have been kidnapped by aliens and appear to like it’ TOUCHÉ ! so I’m not alone either!

    3. rparents Post author

      Hi Sharon, I’m sorry for your loss and stress over all of this. I do hope the book will be of good value to you. Yes, it’s a tough road…one none of us thought we’d be on or would choose. Your aliens line reveals your good sense of humor—keep it! I know that others here will see that line in your comment and smile.
      Thank you for posting. You’re welcome here any time.

      Sheri McGregor

  8. Alison

    I have just ordered your book after reading the many positive reviews. My story is a bit similar to Sharon’s, I had offered a considerable sum of money towards my sons wedding. The guest list was to be 100 with around 70 from the brides side and thirty from my sons side of the family, three people were left of his side of the list, my best friend of over thirty years and her husband and the only great aunt left in the family. When I gently pointed this out I was told the friends were not family therefore could not be invited!! I was hurt and sent a non confrontational email requesting if they could please reconsider especially as I had been informed at least 10 of my invited family would not be attending due to work commitments, he responded with an angry and very hurtful email back in which I was accused of trying to take over and interfering, absolutely none of which was true, long story short we met to try to resolve the issue but to no avail, when I asked if they wanted us at their wedding my son said no, I then asked them to leave and stated as they were doing so I was withdrawing my funding. Now I bitterly regret saying this and retracted it within 12 hours and apologised, but it was in response to his reaction to me. I was also told they had made other financial arrangements in the interim. We went to the wedding where everyone made us welcome apart from the bride and groom, we were not seated at the top table but at the furthest away table with our backs to them and were ridiculed in the speeches. Afterwards I tried to reach out as I had done so many times but to no avail. He then sent copies of the emails and responses around all family members, when he did not get the reaction he had hoped for he turned on them and told them he wanted nothing to do with them, in response to my olive branch all he had to say was goodbye and that he was dead to all of us. His wife is behind a lot of the untruths in the email but he has allowed this to happen.
    I am truly heartbroken, and although it is early days, I feel reconciliation is unlikely as he can be very stubborn. I look forward to reading your book and trying to find a way through this. Thankfully my faith and the love of family and friends is helping to keep me together for the moment.

    1. Sharon

      Oh Alison! I empathise with you. How do situations like this arise, and how do they so quickly spiral out of control? I was never even given a guest list so only people they chose attended the debacle of my sons wedding, I won’t bore you with it all but I was told by the bride it would be my privilege to go to their wedding!!!! I’ve had all this rubbish for two years now, I’ve tried, God knows I’ve tried but they’re just not listening and I have decided to let go and stop setting myself up for more hurt and rejection. I can’t do it anymore, it’s affecting every aspect of my life and my other relationships. Until my son remembers the family who love him I’m wasting my time and energy. Please, Alison, don’t beat yourself up about the money, just because you’re a mother doesn’t mean you stop being human and having your own feelings. You were hurt, angry and bewildered. Their behaviour was appalling. No excuses. Forgive yourself and hold your head up, no grovelling. If they want to be adults, best they start taking responsibility for their behaviour. Good luck , but by the time you have read through this brilliant book, you won’t need luck.

  9. Pansy

    This is also my first posting. My only child, a son of 36 years, 2 months ago, decided that I am too negative to have in his life. This has surprised everyone in the family as they all thought that we have always been so close. He is married, and his wife still communicates with me. We watch their daughter, our first and only grandchild once a week for them. We also take care of their dog while they work weekdays. My son seems to be okay communicating with his dad and all the other family members. My husband’s sister and I are close, and my son seems to have replaced me with her. She has tried to be compassionate towards me, but it really hurts when she tells me how often they invite her over to spend weekends and when they go out and do things she is always included. How do I deal with this without becoming jealous and resentful towards her, which I find happening to me.

  10. Jo Ann

    I am so happy that I ‘found’ your site. I totally relate to everyone’s stories. But I have not heard one situation that entails a grown estranged child that ‘left us’ simply because she ‘wants to be a part of the high life – night life’. She left college with only one semester to go because she ‘found a job as a Hostess’ working at exclusive penthouse parties in major hotels in NYC. She works/parties 7 nights a week, drinking is part of the job, and provocative dress. She has no time for us as she gets home from ‘work’ at 6am every night, then sleeps the entire next day. My husband is taking this as bad as me, but he doesn’t have the visceral deep heart pain that I feel. I had her at 40 years old, my only child, and now at 62 and not feeling well, I just am totally beside myself with grief. So, what about the kids that leave and pursue a very dangerous lifestyle that you have to be afraid for them along with dealing with the estrangement? Please, is there help out there for me too? And, this is very embarrassing for me to even tell everyone what she is doing. My Honor Student daughter is doing things she never saw in our home. How do you ‘let this go’ when they put themselves into dangerous lifestyles? And, have to get over estrangement.?
    Any little bit of help in this type of situation will be GREATLY appreciated. Thank you all.

    1. rparents Post author

      Hi Jo Ann,
      Among the thousands of estrangement situations I have learned the details of, there have been a quite a few parents who have shared stories such as yours. Their children are on drugs, or pursuing risky lifestyles and/or careers in the se* industry. The letting go is similar for all parents, although yes, it’s an added burden of worry. The bottom line is that you hope they will be okay … and you still have to realize that they are making choices in their own lives–over which you have zero control. Some parents like you are finding the exercises and examples in the book helpful. I will think on this a bit more and perhaps write an article for the site that might speak more specifically to your situation as well.

      Your post here may spur a few parents who are in similar situations to comment here. Thank you so very much for choosing to comment (it will help others to feel more comfortable sharing).

      BIG HUGS,
      Sheri McGregor

  11. Jo Ann S.

    Oh Sheri, I thank you so much for answering! I’m not very good with computer stuff and surely thought I would not get a response. Sorry it took me long to see you reaching out to me as I have been in a wheel chair for the past 5 months trying to avoid surgery for tears in the tendons in my foot. The pain, tests, and just the ‘fear of more rejection’ of not getting a response has kept me from even checking your site with my question. I really wish that my writing down my situation would prompt more people, and I know there ‘has to be’ more, to come out and share this very scary and heart wrenching problem. I know all estrangements from a child are horrible and an unexpected experience, but when you add to it that the child didn’t leave because of something you did as a parent, and ONLY because she wants to ‘work/party’ in nightclubs which entails drinking and promiscuity, it scares the heck out of you. You are not only stunned, because you have had such a close/tell all/share all relationship, but it includes not finishing College, loss of all interest in her career, lost all interest in her years of playing/reading and writing music, and a complete ‘loss of her entire DAYTIME LIFE! This is horrendous to us. Imagine the loss of your child’s ‘entire daytime life’? This is not, for the lack of a better word which would not get eggs thrown at me, NORMAL. If one more person/therapist tells me that ‘she’s trying to find herself’, or ‘there’s nothing you can do about it’, or ‘try to remember what YOU were doing at 22 years old’. I’ll tell you, NOTHING LIKE WHAT SHE’S DOING!! Yes I moved out, BUT, I finished college, had a good professional job for a VP of a Brokerage firm, and that’s how I was paying my rent. And I remained ‘in close touch’ with them. Seeing them once a week for Sunday dinner. Yes, I ‘partied’, but on Weekends. Not Seven Nights A Week. Oh, I am going on and on. I am just so deeply hurt and scared for what has happened to my little family, only three of us. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is helping me. I try to meditate, I pray constantly, I keep busy going to places and out for dinner, but it’s all done ‘under extreme tension’. I think my marriage of 26 years is now at risk. So, here I go again, complaining. I will continue to come to this site and hear other parents stories, as they ‘do’ give me some strength, even if only for a little while. But I thank God you are here Ms. Sheri, I truly do.
    Peace, Love, and Big Hugs back, from JoAnn


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