by 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.”
Can 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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Handle your emotional triggers
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