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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Handle your emotional triggers

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15 thoughts on “Emotional Triggers: Set yourself free

  1. Doris

    I haven’t had a setback in a while. But I did today. Our Son that we still have a relationship with, has a good relationship with his brother, the Son who’s wife despises us and has locked us out of his life. We visited he and his family last night and there was a picture of the three grandchildren we are not allowed to see. 7, 5 and 3….I felt the ground shift beneath my feet. As though I could not find my centre. I have not recovered from that feeling today. Reaching out to find out if that’s commonplace. It’s been 8 years now. We are mostly ok, but it feels like there has been a shifting of the Universe. I am sure someone out there must know this feeling?

    1. rparents Post author

      Dear Doris,

      I hope that you can, within a few hours or a few days, come to see the shift as more solid ground beneath your feet. It’s a huge dose of reality, and at least reality is honest. You can see, feel, and deal with what you know is real.

      It hurts. Yes. Now, though, you may dig deep into your own strength and even move more freely forward.

      If you don’t yet have it, now would be a good emotional turning point to get the next book, Beyond Done With The Crying. I think you will find it healing.

      Hugs to you dear Doris.

      Sheri McGregor

    2. JanPhyllis

      I can relate to a setback!! I also had one on Friday!!! My birthday and the holiday all in a 2 month time frame!!!!
      Yes PTSD was prevalent!!!!! BUT once again Sheri’s site has come thru and put me back on moving forward!! I still get upset but things change!! It’s how you see it and make it!!
      Happy thanksgiving and Ho! Ho! Ho! To all, most of all remember we celebrate Christmas for the birth of our Lord!!
      Not our children abuse!!!

    3. Effie

      Yes Doris…. I told my son he was being disrespectful because he talks down to me, then calls me and his dad by our first names. He wrote me off and said he didnt want a relationship and he would not stop us from seeing our grandsons. BUT when all calls are blocked …. you guessed it. Can’t see our grandons. Its been hell and years… and somedays I literally feel i will die from heartache. Holidays make it that much worse. So sorry and I do understand.

  2. Hedy G.

    My three adult daughters have chosen again to throw me out of their lives. The worst thing that they have done is made my grown grandchildren stop communicating with me. The pain at times becomes close to unbearable, and then I try to convince myself that I can get through this. Yes, it is very hard to hear stories from “friends” about what they are doing with their families, but I find myself feeling envy but not showing it. Very difficult and painful. Then suddenly this year my middle daughter sent me a Mother’s Day card telling me how much she misses me, especially on these days, but she is not sorry that all this occurred. For some reason she still blames me for marrying my second husband from whom I have been divorced from for 6 years. I just don’t understand. I suggested after receiving that card some form of communication but to that she never replied. As I write this I find myself crying. I truly wish she never sent me that card because I felt I was doing better. Last December I had a life threatening scare, a mini stroke, or TSM. My S/O felt they should be informed about my . I reluctantly agreed. After the surgery, he let them know that I was doing wel. All I received from the older one and the middle one was a text. From my youngest, nothing. I think about dying more than I should, but what keeps me from thinking that way is my Bella. She’s the love of my life, a Chinese Crested that I adopted while in California several years ago. I believe she rescued me as opposed to me rescuing her. She got me through my second divorce. We drove from California to Florida together. What scares me the most is how will I handle it when she gone. I try not to think about that too much but it is always in the back of my mind. Once again the holidays are coming and I fear my emotions will get the better of me. By the time thanksgiving comes around , the old depression sets in once again and I just try to focus on January.
    My best to all who are dealing with what I am.

    1. Terri

      Hedy, you sound so much like me.Im so sorry you are hurting so much. I too, have 2 daughters and one son, who have abandoned me.I don’t say anything when I hear from one of them so I don’t start world war three.I don’t have more than one friend because I don’t trust easily. I’m divorced twice, so I try to be good to myself. My little 12lb Sadie dog is such a a companion to me also. Maybe we can communicate a little to support each other?

  3. Hurtin Fer Certain

    I have a son and daughter-in-law whom we were very close with. My wife volunteered in assisting in our daughter-in-laws teaching job, etc…We now are grandparents and my son and daughter-in-law have severely distanced themselves from us. They live 10 minutes away in a 3 bedroom home we gifted to them as well as other things. Suffice to say we have done a lot for them.
    I believe we have been stellar parents, raised our kids on the farm, coached sports, private school, and college etc…I purchased homes years ago as rentals and after 20 years a home was gifted to my son and daughter-in-law.
    At this point they claim there’s “no issue” other than we only now see them at their home for birthdays and holidays. I perceive this as required formalities, you paint on a face and appear on their terms. They have not visited our home in 5 months. Our grandchild just turned one years old.
    I do know our daughter-in-law (whom we love) has insecurities and jealousy issues with my wife. I don’t understand this because my wife never challenges or has any problems or issues whatsoever. One complaint was that my wife always looks and dresses too nice….why would anyone get hung up over that?
    Anyway it’s a painful time, I’ve lost sleep, and my wife and I have cried over the reality it appears we’re not grand parents. The interesting my daughter-in-laws parents are….God help us through this.
    I wouldn’t wish this pain on anyone

    1. Red

      Your comments sound like I could have written them about my situation. Here is some of the things that our estranged children do to us:
      It is a form of psychological abuse
      It is ostracism
      It is a form of violence
      We are-targeted
      We are alienated
      We are shunned a intentional act of harming another by
      Silent bullying
      Torturous evil horrendous grieve and pain
      We are their scapegoat to make their life decisions ok.
      May god help us is my prayer. Parents out there don’t think it can never happen to you, I was like you but my loving thoughtful son totally abandoned my husband and I now going on 5 years.


    2. Diana

      I am sad to know your missing out on your grandchild my only son & his wife exiled me from their lives 1 Year ago, living less than 5 miles away. He never wanted children, so I think I prepared myself not to be a grandmother I can’t help but relate to what you said about your daughter in law being jealous of your wife. I mean it’s hard to believe but true that some people are shallow & insecure. I know that as a single mom I was extremely close to my only son, she felt threatened from the start, he used to get me the sweetest cards for Mother’s Day, my birthday etc, once she married him, she picked out all the cards. I felt like my breath was taken away at first, I cried all the time, my heart was broken, no Thanksgiving, Christmas, my birthday, Mother’s day, even when my 16 year old dachshund was sick & put to sleep, no text, no card, I had to come to the reality that these people are down right cruel. She runs him 100% I am sorry for his inability to stand up to her, but it’s their life, God gave me my life, not his, he lent him to me, for that I shall be grateful. I had a granddog, but I no longer get to see her either. May God soften his heart ❤️ I am praying for you and your wife that you will see your grandchild in the near future, please, keep the faith

  4. Free2B

    Covid has exacerbated estrangement for sure. What a perfect excuse to stay away. Their father lives in the same town, they have shared holidays with him despite Covid mandates. I am compliant. Perfect rationale to ignore me even further.
    My middle child died of alcoholism in May 2020. My remaining two children barely acknowledged his death. My kids are beyond indifferent, I could be dead & gone as well.
    I’ve been in therapy forever trying to come to some degree of acceptance. I can’t get beyond some deeply rooted belief that I did “something wrong”
    I just can’t get their reality to make sense. Nor can anyone else, professional & otherwise. I will go to my grave never knowing.
    Losing a child to death, in addition to losing the living ones to indifference is overwhelming.

  5. Angela C.

    So grateful Sheri used her pain purposefully and exposed this epidemic few yrs.ago finding her book was a reassurance of ‘therapy’of years up to that point.
    Born 60y ago into challenge,genetic Anxiety/Depression,abusive environment,unloved unprotected,the only daughter of 6,to our “parents”that should’ve never been-I loved them anyway-I lived and lead w/my heart Always.Many others would’ve never survived ALL I endured,never truly felt ‘whole/loved’,after my grandmother passed when I was 21 especially,as I believe her heart exists in me,the only “maternal”affection I ever had while growing up-
    We were never a ‘real’family under that roof,or since.Although I married(87)divorced(97)that which I came from(cold hearted mentally ill)-my home was full of my heart-,had my son(88),also severe post partum and 2 cancer surgeries,one of which was a malignancy
    I believe my son was born to save me for my true purpose on earth,his Mom(in 90 my daughter).I never felt more ‘whole and complete’…Mom(Dad plus)Unexplainable,Unconditional Love to 2 lil people who lived inside my heart for 9mths. and have ever since(despite estrangement)
    I raised them with No support system,as I’d never had one…..my “parents”overstepping,manipulating,character assasinating alongside my ex all these years,especially after we divorced-to make a very long story short-They used the innonence/vulnerabilty of my 2 for yrs.-it underminded and overrode every bit of “Our”life under my roof…Therapist back then said”you’ve been bullied by these 3 and you continue to stand up everyday this is what your sons’ adpted to,following if he’s not wanting to come in for therapy,I suggest you take care of yourself and leave there as they both leave for college now,my concern is for your wellbeing only at this point”-I didn’t listen of course,in general people will treat us by what we’re willing to tolerate–
    I survived so much before they were born,after and while raising them-used to hug them w/a kiss daily off to school and say”be the best you,u can be today”
    Estrangement from the only Authentic person they’d know(only parent not their friend),Organic n Genuinely loving them the very core of my being….it’s a Betrayal like none other,for others don’t matter—
    Life is an unpredictable journey,God builds some of us Strong to endure more than our share. I’ve made the most of each day greenside up without my 2,my only family there’s no quality of life-no matter what.
    For myself,I’m sure few others,it’s been my living death sentence.
    After I finally moved(2013) away from NY to Pa.(caretaker on mountain)then to Fla(again became household caretaker/financially feaseable)I had my lil fur son as we entered my final chapter under the palms-slowly my daughter began alienating herself.
    I emerged myself in what naturally came to me,caretaker of all-feeds my soul a lifetime of keeping my pain purposeful I guess.
    Losing my lil Alfie was all my brokenheart could bounce back from anymore,I continued on taking care of the dogs(a litter I raised) house yard etc,
    Covid lockdown was my breakdown as I became displaced…worst of all had to leave lil bear behind more…
    Been on the “mortality”adventure since,desperate to just meet my grandson born 9/5/20 I’m planning on driving up to L.I. from hotel in fla.to attempt to just hold him once.
    I know Sheri has said,doctors too…..and I’ve lived on in this truth is They chose estrangement-
    My estranged son has sent some pics,abit of texting in these mths.,not all positive of course-afterall yrs.back he came to Mom “she won’t let me break up with her”between the evil 3 already influencing him as a majority at that time….here we are-my daughter,my son…myendless pain is they chose to remain broken…Allows others involved to use Me as though I deserved it-because of their own Non accountability/mental illnesses…
    I’m drained from The Struggle….scared I won’t meet Peter before I die is why I’m hoping to hit the road this week,one last attempt? ✌ to all

  6. Vicki M.

    I am very sad today. I got to facetime with my 3-year-old grandson yesterday but I have not seen him in person for over a year and then only for 20 minutes at someone else’s house. My daughter is expecting another baby boy any day now. I had offered to come and help, but she let me know that her father who divorced me is coming to stay with her and help. I don’t know what happened because I thought we had a good relationship before she got engaged and married, but now she makes it pretty clear she doesn’t want me around. I realize it’s COVID time but the other grandparents get to come visit so I am the only one who is excluded. And it was the same before COVID — everyone else got to come and stay at their house but when I asked to visit my daughter told me I was being manipulative and that she would not engage with me. I think about it every day and I can’t get past it.

  7. Celeste T.

    Yes I have those jealously feelings also especially during COVID when I see families gather in my neighborhood even though I feel it’s not safe behavior. But my children are scattered in other states and we have agreed it’s not safe to travel. But my daughter who is terrible to me has our 2 beautiful grandchildren and it’s hard to give them up and I still grieve because she tortured me for 4 months and then when I was ready for the mental hospital called me and tore me apart. I am still in the process of letting go of her as she uses her children as puppets to us for acting the way she wants. It’s really difficult letting go but I am trying.

  8. happy

    I had a friend today tell me she was having a cookout with her son and his family and that old icky jealousy feeling came back and I said No, I am choosing to focus on the good stuff in my life. Yes I am wishing my EC well but I am moving on with life. Your book helped so much and this article is one of my favorites. Thank you Sheri.


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