Fear: Common after estrangement from adult children

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

estrangement from adult childrenDuring the first holiday season after my son’s estrangement, my self-worth crumbled. While the Earth outside stilled into winter’s quiet, I rushed about, determined to keep my family’s spirits bright.  I cleaned, cooked, and shopped. I wrapped and prepared. I raced around, creating a Christmas to remember— and perhaps to forget. My heart wasn’t fully in it.

Looking back, I can see there was an anxious pitch to my behavior, as if making everything picture perfect for the holiday would make me picture perfect. And prove to myself and others that I really was a good mom.

In the silence of night after Christmas was done, I wasn’t satisfied or content. Did I do enough? I imagined myself alone and old. Is that how I’ll end up?

My eyes opened to the darkness. No matter how silly and self-indulgent, the thought rang true. I had told myself my holiday frenzy was normal, but fear was at the root. Fear had me working my fingers to the bone to make the best holiday ever, to hang onto my remaining family.

Tears welled, and I felt powerless. My estranged adult son had made choices. No matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t change that. That night in the darkness, I realized that all the presents and favorite foods in the world wouldn’t hold the rest of my family together. If my four remaining adult children chose to leave, this perfect holiday wouldn’t stop them.

After estrestranged from adult childrenangement from adult children: Uncertainty reigns

I know the fear that plagues parents after estrangement from adult children. If something so precious and basic can fall apart, then what is safe? What can you count on? Who can you trust?

The whole world looks different and bleak.

Fear can be paralyzing, so don’t let that feeling become your new normal. Shape your new normal into a good and happy life.

In my book , the word “fear,” or an iteration of it, is mentioned more than 60 times. There are examples and tools to help. That’s because fear is so common to parents of estranged adults.

Estranged from adult children? Get clear on fear

Don’t let fear take over your good judgment. Don’t compound your problems and over-drink, overeat, or indulge some other unhealthy behavior to numb the feeling. Instead, get clear on your fear. Identifying your specific fears can help you get a handle on them.

Do you fear your other children will also leave? Maybe you worry your estranged daughter won’t be safe—and you can’t get in touch to make sure. Do you imagine the future, and worry your estranged son will have regrets? Are you afraid of being judged? Fearful you did do something to cause the break? Afraid you’re losing your mind?

Does the fear that you’ll never see your son or daughter again steal your peace? Or maybe you’re afraid that if your child does return, you’ll never be able to trust. Some fear that their grandchildren they were once so close to will believe vicious lies. Others worry their raw emotions will burden other people they love and drive them away.

Among the thousands of parents who have reached out to me, those are a few of the most common fears expressed.

Fear: Like a riptide

It’s easy to get caught up in our fears. If we don’t identify and confront fears, they can carry us  along and take control without us even realizing. That’s what happened to me during that first frantic holiday season after my estranged son walked away. Like me, you might find yourself catering to others to the point of exhaustion. Or maybe you attempt to protect yourself by isolating, and shutting out the possibility of pain. If you do that, you can end up like Lila, watching the world pass her by, whom I wrote about in Emotional scars after an adult child’s estrangement. Fear is a powerful emotion. If we let it, fear can hinder our recovery from the trauma of an adult child’s rejection, and keep us from moving forward in our lives.

Among the thousands of parents I’ve heard from, many concur that that after estrangement from adult children, it helps to honestly examine fears, and identify they’re effects.

Fear: It’s all in your head

By pinpointing your specific fears, and taking stock of how they affect you, you can then begin to take control. The truth is that fears are all in your head. After estrangement from adult children, many of the fears we worry over can’t be controlled. If you fret for fear your adult child isn’t safe but you have no contact, there’s not much you can do to put your worry to rest. You may worry you’ll never see your child again, but if your adult child won’t connect, it’s beyond your control.

For some, it might help to recognize why you have the fears you do. For instance, if you fear everyone will leave, maybe fear of abandonment derives from the past. Somebody else important left you, or you always feared they would. It’s okay to have the feeling. It might even be normal for you. But it’s not okay to let it rule your life to your own detriment.

If you fear for your child’s safety or health, your fear may come from some concrete reason, such as knowing your son or daughter uses drugs. Your fear may be rational, but your fear can’t control your child’s choices, or the outcome.

Worrying about the possibility your adult child will have regrets might come from your own experience with regrets. Or from natural parental love that wants to protect. But our sons and daughters are adults. Decisions have consequences. We don’t live in bubbles, and neither do they.

After estrangement from adult children, take action where you can

By identifying fears and their effects, you can recognize them when they creep up. No more surprise ambush in the darkness on a holiday night. You can observe fears as they occur, and loosen their control over you.

You can recognize fears for what they are. Don’t cling to imaginings that lead you down paths of despair. Appreciate fears for what they are, appreciate any rational reasoning behind them, and then you can purposely dismiss them.

Try a positive spin about a negative feeling: I don’t like not knowing, but since it’s out of my hands, I can accept it for now. Or: This isn’t ideal, but I’m strong. I can tolerate it.

Don’t let worrisome imaginings carry you helplessly away. Instead, Train your thoughts on what’s constructive and empowers you.

The Landscape of loss is fertile ground for growth

Every one of us has had struggles. We have all had situations and circumstances we’ve had to rise above. For many of us, losing a child by estrangement is our most significant obstacle to date, but recalling how we’ve handled past difficulties can help. By taking stock of fears, and supporting ourselves with understanding and acceptance, we can get through this too. We can let go of outcomes we can’t control, dismiss fears that don’t help us, and take action for our own happy lives.


Join the newsletter

Pine 300x225

Subscribe to get our latest content by email.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

22 thoughts on “Fear: Common after estrangement from adult children

  1. Gretchen

    I remember a Christmas Eve day that I cried the whole day while working to create the “perfect family Christmas,” without one of our sons. After my other children and extended family arrived, I began to feel better, because I was surrounded by love. Three years have gone by since my son and his family have separated themselves from all of our family. I have come to the conclusion that there is no medication, therapy, or prayer to completely remove the sting of grief from the loss of a child through their choice. I can identify so much with your words, Sheri. My husband, children, their spouses, and I had a happy, close family. Trying to win the love of a daughter-in-law (my son’s wife) that despises you only serves to make you feel worthless. I have mailed gifts to our son’s two children. I don’t know if they receive the gifts or if they are thrown away. My son has indicated that they don’t need gifts. In fact, he was quite cruel about a card I sent asking for forgiveness again ( I had previously apologized many times to my daughter-in-law for her grievances against me) and reconciliation. So, this year I decided not to send any gifts. We have never seen the two year old and have not seen the five year old since she was two. I hope I am not making the wrong decision, but it hurts so much to try to figure out what to send and to know they may not receive the gifts. I concentrate on my other 3 adult children, their spouses, and my three other grandchildren. I have learned to handle my grief better, but I think it will always be there.

    1. Debbie C.

      Gretchen your situation sounds almost exactly like mine. I have also lost my son and his family due to a controlling daughter-in-law, who despises me most, but actually all of my son’s family and old friends. They sent back cards and gifts the first Christmas and this will be the third without them. We also have a 2 1/2 year old granddaughter we have never seen and a 7 year old grandson we haven’t seen in 2 1/2 years (but had babysat for 5 days a week for a year). I tried so hard for over 6 months with apologies and trying to talk it out, but it only seemed to make things worse. I realize there is nothing I can do and it is out of my hands, but it is hard and I still have moments of panic and fear. We fortunately have another son and his fiancee and we all get along very well together. I don’t think the grief from losing my oldest son will ever go away. I never expected to lose him. We were so close until he met his wife. Christmas and birthdays are the hardest.

  2. Gretchen

    Over the years, I have read your column and found your words such a help and an anchor to hold onto amidst the storm of my grief and depression. Thank you, Sheri, for your encouragement and the work you do to help other moms.

  3. Pam

    The thing that bothers me the most about Christmas is that just around the corner is a new year…. another year without my children. Reality starts to really show its face. This life is very hard to wrap my heart around, but i have been able to see that I can still have joy even thought I’ve lost hope in ever seeing my sons. Six years….. unbelievable.

  4. Charlene D.

    Thank you sheri!
    Another Christmas without my son, daughter or their families – 7 years without my daughter and 3 without my son. How does one quit counting and forget ? You just don’t!

    I’m having a tough time this year but it’s been that way every year. Yet this year I just feel like I have nothing to look forward to. This year I know this is something I cannot forgive no matter what. So this year marks the first of many where I’ll hurt and cry because now I know there is no chance of reuniting – I do not want any of them in my life. So very sad.


    1. rparents Post author

      I’m sorry Charlene. I get what you’re saying. A new realization to grieve. I will be thinking of you fondly … As will so many others here.

      Sheri McGregor

    2. .Bev

      I know exactly what you mean! I want my grandkids ONLY & have the briefest of hope that they will ever be back when they’re grown – feels like an eternity from now – if ever. I have spent a lifetime “forgiiving” my daughter, until THIS. I know we should forgive for ourselves and not the other person, but don’t know how to do that. Nor do I want to. I don’t like her behavior, choices or HER. We must find happiness in some other ways. I won’t let her absence be the end of my happiness any longer. Good luck to you!

    3. suzanne

      I understand that. I feel that way about my youngest son. I don’t know how they sleep at night. How can a normal person disown their mother?

  5. Anne

    This is the 6th year without my 3 children…they were 13, 15, 17 when I divorced their father. They blamed me for “breaking up the family” and felt I abandoned them. Their father stood by while the kids pulled further away from me and even had me arrested for trespassing when I tried to see them. Texts, emails and calls go unreturned. I don’t even know where my 2 oldest live. My youngest is critically ill and I can’t even give her a hug. She pushed me away again and told me to leave her alone.
    Counseling was helpful, but until they are back in my life I will never be well…there is nothing more I can do and that’s so hard to accept. My fear is that I will never see them again and as a result never feel whole, never feel happy.

  6. todie

    Ann, I understand your pain and hurt. I had to leave my home and 3 teenagers many years ago to get away from my alcoholic husband and his abuse. Now many years later 2 adult children are angry and don’t talk to me. I have realized(in between tears) that God has walked every step through this journey along side of me. I still break down because I’m so lonely but I find that I have Joy in spite of it. So we are very similar in our experience. Thankfully we can all help and lean on each other. Thank you for your honesty as it has helped me so much.

    1. Marrilyn

      I am so glad that I have found this group. I had to leave my home and 3 children due to Alcohol, Emotional and Sexual abuse. Their father filled their minds with hatred for me and I lost contact with them for 5 years. Now as adults they are very angry people and want nothing to do with me. This happened in 1988 and they are still angry. My tears have not stopped and I wish sometimes that I could forget that I gave birth to them. I have moved on however, every birthday, christmas etc. I feel so sad. I have faith in God and without that I would not be able to carry on. Thankyou for listening.

  7. Dee

    I’m losing count, is it three years or four? It will be four since I have seen my grandchildren. My daughter has a boyfriend I have never met. She told my sister a couple years ago that she would be willing to meet me and talk but the next day all bets were off.
    I too wonder what my grandchildren have heard about me and if they miss me.
    My strength comes from my faith, otherwise I don’t know where I would be. These are such painful circumstances and feel so unfair.

  8. Annie

    Good for you Dee. Thank God we have faith. I know things can feel like one big blur as far as the time goes. Today I walked into a store and there was my ES daughter and her husband. I walked right out; just couldn’t deal with idle chit chat. It’s not who I am.
    Made me sick to my stomach actually. What would you have done? They didn’t see me as they were talking and laughing with another couple. Very odd. They are like strangers after 3 years. Just pitiful.

  9. Patti S.

    I’ve never been so devastated in my life. Both my daughter’s have left my life. My oldest has been gone 5 years this April. My youngest, 2 years with my only grandchildren, to another state. There were no goodbyes. No explanation whatsoever.I think I want to die it hurts so badly. Your book was extremely helpful. I’ve experienced every emotion in the book. I felt you were writing it for ME. THANK YOU.

  10. Annie

    You keep sharing here. We’re all here for one another. I’m sorry for the loss and heartache. The parent alienation thing can cause so much damage. Sheri’s book will help you a great deal. So glad you have strong faith. Take good care of you. I pray your children one day mature enough to see the truth.

  11. Chrissy

    Hello, through searching the internet for answers, I have found this page. I have 2 sons who will be 16 and 20 this year. My oldest son walked out the door after what I thought was a small disagreement, and he hasn’t spoken to me since then. Hours turned into days, which turned into months and now it will be 2 years this July. We had a beautiful, loving relationship and absolutely no one can fathom how or why this has happened. My beautiful son has decided to cut me from his life and nothing I say or do initiates a response from him. The grief, heartbreak and sorrow is almost unbearable. I have good days but this has consumed me since the day I realised he didn’t want me in his life. I feel alone, embarrassed and never tell anyone my story for fear they will judge me as a mother. I’m 41 and always looked forward to enjoying these years with my adult sons, a vision that is now slipping away and instead is replaced by a mother who spends many nights crying on the couch in the dark, into a cushion so no one else can hear her pain. I guess my reason for telling my story here, is I didn’t think about the fact that there are other parents going through the same thing. I’m relieved to have come across this page. Sadly, no one suggests that there may be support groups for something like this. I wish I had of searched much earlier, instead of enduring this pain on my own.

  12. suzanne

    God bless each and all of you!!! I don’t understand these adult children……more like children…..today. I never thought this would happen to me but my youngest, 37, has only been in my life for the last 19 years because of my effort. Now we are estranged. He showed only disrespect for me and has shown this in front of my grandkids who think it is acceptable as they also show disrespect and get away with it. My other son calls rarely and is either working or drinking beer weekends. I raised them as a single mom and worked in a men’s prison to do so. Their father paid support only and was never around as he married his pregnant mistress and started a new life with his new family. I am certain that he has turned my son against me……like somehow it was all my fault that HE was a loser. He and my son are very close! Unbelievable that I was the one that was there and this is the result. I tell myself it is his loss but mother’s day and the holidays suck. I am 60 years old and as much as I love him it has gone too far to ever be possible for him to undo the damage and hurt he has caused me. Back to my original comment : how in hell could a child do this to his mother??????

  13. Beaner

    Due to controlling significant others,I have no contact with both of my sons,here is what I have learned.
    1-You learn to love and put yourself first
    2-I was happy before I gave birth to them and I’ve learned to be happy since they’ve left.
    3-They didn’t choose us and we forget…we didn’t choose them,my friends treat me with more respect
    4-Life is too short to dwell on an adult child’s abandonment,I chose to make the remainder of my life rewarding and just to enjoy who is in my life now.
    5-I cut them out of my will,since the estrangement,I’ve become financially well off,I plan on leaving my money to animal rescue organizations.
    6-I chose not to give in to “emotional blackmail”….I don’t feel fear,I feel empowered,taking “your”life back is okay.

  14. Peony64

    Fear has gripped me at times, along with dread and feelings of pressure and anxiety.
    My estranged son is the oldest of 4 children.
    My youngest just graduated from college a week ago. I was feeling a bit anxious about attending, since my oldest would also be there. But I made preparations all week long IE: getting oil changed, having maintenance done to vehicle, shopping for graduation clothing to wear – I even had agreed to join my ex and the boys (3) afterwards for dinner. I thought I would be brave enough to set all of the feelings associated with the estrangement aside, and be physically present for graduation and for my youngest son’s celebration of this great accomplishment. I was very wrong.
    Saturday morning came and I was in a state of dread that was really overwhelming for me. It was a fear that took on its own life. I hadn’t arranged to sit with my ex and 2 sons, nor ride together from the stadium to the auditorium, only that I would join them at the restaurant. Knowing that I was going to wrangle (I use this word because that’s how it made me feel) parking and finding a seat and then finding the next building along with more parking, blanketed me with dread. And sadness. And shame. I didn’t want to make my ex or my other son uncomfortable by asking to sit or ride with them, since my estranged son would be with them, but that morning I couldn’t push myself past those awful feelings and actually attend graduation.
    This was at a large State University and the campus is vast and I am unfamiliar with it.
    I did watch the video live stream and let my graduating son know that I was remaining at home.
    I only told him that the crowd and parking were my obstacles for attending, not directly that his oldest brother’s rude behavior was the actual catalyst in my anxiety.
    My son’s choice to ignore me has been in operation for a few years now, and it is the topic that none of my other children and I discuss.
    I try to put forward the act of being strong and okay for my other kids, and I was going to continue with that for graduation, but it all fell inward on me and I was paralysed.
    The articles and stories I have read over this time of estrangement have opened my understanding only to a point of feeling less alone. I am not the carefree, upbeat, fairly fearless person I used to be.
    I have lost interest in many of the things I used to do, I have gained weight-because nightly ice cream combined with no exercise will result in that-I don’t try to look my best like I used to. I don’t recognize me since this has been happening.
    My thoughts even stray into that horribly scary place of, “will my other kids follow suit one day?”
    Do I alter how I interact with my other children so as to prevent this from happening with them?
    Do I broach the topic head-on with them to open up the conversation about any ill feelings they may have, as an attempt to Avert the Awfulness that could be another reality with a different child?
    I will continue to consider those, but I know for certain that I need to Stop second guessing my self, stop questioning my parenting history and realize that everything passed is unchangeable and that everything coming is unknowable.
    Reading the posts here and in other places will continue to buoy me when I’m feeling pulled under, so I will come back and visit.
    Maybe sharing more of my experience will also help me, and possibly help other parents. I’ll mull over that option.
    For now, thank you to those who have shared


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Website Protected by Spam Master