Why do I feel guilt?

rejected by an adult childEmotional well-being series.
Innocent Guilt: normal after conflict

by Sheri McGregor

One mother rejected by an adult child recently wrote that she felt “guilty.” She also said she had wondered what she did wrong but couldn’t identify much. So, was her “guilt” valid? Let’s take a look at guilt, a common feeling associated with the loss of an important relationship – – and when there’s conflict.

Guilt when rejected by an adult child: Should I have…?

Many of us are familiar with the guilt that can accompany the loss of someone we love in death. It’s common to wonder if we spent enough time, wish we’d have said how important they were to us, or even feel responsible in some way. When rejected by an adult child, we feel a similar loss, with many of the same questions.

Did I spend enough time with my son? Did I give my daughter too much freedom? Did I show him enough affection? Provide her enough structure? Cook the right foods? Tell him I loved him enough? For moms whose children have rejected them, the list of questions can go on and on.

Rejected by an adult child and left to puzzle

In interviewing mothers rejected by an adult child, it has become clear that very often there is no open conflict over a tangible act, omission or offense. Many mothers rejected by an adult child tell me they don’t get it. They did their best. They nurtured their child’s interests, cared for their physical needs, read the bedtime stories, sponsored the sports teams and memberships, helped them learn to drive, apply for a first job. . . .

These parents of estranged adults thought all was well. Everything seemed fine, and then one day, something changed. They received a note or phone call requesting no further contact, or were given a cursory explanation such as, “I need my space.” And then silence.

Some mothers say they first noticed a sort of cooling off. But busy caring for younger children and/or working full-time, they didn’t immediately react. After all, their adult children had lives of their own, and were often busy with their own work and even with their own growing families.

In some cases, the cutting off itself is what leads to conflict. When moms question what’s wrong, the adult child lashes out with accusations, or says things like, “You were never there for me!” When pressed for specifics, the adult child refuses to talk, strings together curse words, or simply walks away.

Situations are unique, but often parents are left to puzzle. Despite repeated attempts, there’s no explanation given. Without a chance to hash things out, there’s no chance to make amends if necessary, and move forward with a clear understanding what went wrong for a better future relationship.

In trying to no avail, parents get tired. We look back on our parenting, many times with other adult children who tell us we did fine, and conclude the problem doesn’t lie with us.

Why guilt?

Most parents rejected by an adult child initially react with a feeling of guilt because we’re so floored at our adult child’s cold behavior that we believe we must have done something wrong. Then, even when we critically self-examine and see that we did our best, other people accuse or dismiss us.

An uncle raises his brow. “What happened to make her so mad at you?” The questions carries judgment.

A co-worker avoids eye contact. “I can’t imagine that happening,” she says. The statement seems to carry accusatory conclusions.

A friend says, “It’s just a phase.” His words show that he lacks an understanding about the tenacity of the problem.

We can feel all alone. We may continue to question our parenting skills. And a vague sense of undefined guilt may edge our thoughts.

Unresolved conflict and guilt

Part of the problem may be the conflict we don’t understand. Left without solid answers, the conflict is unresolved.

A recent article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Philosophy examines the concept of “innocent guilt,” which occurs after conflicts. This guilt without cause is experienced by people who are not responsible for wrongdoing. The article explores philosophers’ writings that connect feelings of guilt to people who aren’t guilty. When they’re still suffering, victims of wrongdoing experience guilt as part of the aftermath of the conflict. Ethical persons suffer “innocent guilt.”

Parents of estranged adults know all too well the ongoing nature of their suffering. The grief, sadness, anger and other emotions common to the situation can persist. Part of what we experience as “guilt,” may be an ethical response, a completely natural emotional reaction to the conflict itself.

Our values and the outcome

Another reason why a sense of guilt may be common to parents rejected by an adult child is because, for many of us, a twinge of guilt serves as a reminder of our core values. Many say that twinge spurs them to do the right thing in any number of situations.

Loving parents, like the mom who said she felt “guilty,” have values that made them conscientious parents who did the right things. But if they did the right things, then what went wrong? It’s a paradox.

One mom spoke with a sense of pride when she recounted the way she raised her children (now estranged). The outcome dismays her. “You don’t expect to fail at motherhood.”

Relieving the suffering

The Journal of Applied Philosophy article highlights a need to work at relieving suffering that’s related to innocent guilt. For me, helping others via life coaching, creating this website, hearing other moms’ stories, and writing about the subject to help other parents rejected by an adult child has been a big part of my own healing process.

In a future article, we’ll explore more about feelings of guilt that aren’t justified, and ways to overcome those feelings. For now, know that by seeking information, you’ve taken a positive step. Youre moving toward recovery from loss, and moving past the pain of this isolating experience. You don’t have to endure this all by yourself. Leave a comment below – – I’d like to hear from you.Or reach out by taking the survey to help parents of estranged adults. You can also share your story, or join the community forum. Be sure to sign up for the email updates so you’ll never miss an article (scroll up to find the sign up form, at the top of the right-hand column).

An abstract of the article about innocent guilt can be found here.

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7 thoughts on “Why do I feel guilt?

  1. Nancy

    I am having a hard day, July 5, is my sons 46th Birthday ,I am estranged from him and my daughter. They both treated me with disrespect and I couldn’t take it anymore. Well, two and half yrs have passed by and what hurts me the most is that there is no hope,hope of ever letting them back in my life. I would be afraid to because how can you trust them ever again to not do this to you again, that the sad part, the loss of trust.

  2. Ann F.

    My daughter stopped communicating with me completely shortly after I tried to take my own life. I had lost my job due to COVID, my son wanted to live with dad full time so I lost child support, and I was suffering from unmanaged chronic pain from Cerebral Palsy because hospitals were not doing elective pain procedures. I went into a depression spiral and when trying to calm down, just kept going taking a bunch of pills so I could just go to sleep forever. I gave up on life. I had tried to make it in CA after my divorce in CO, but the expense of living there on disability was just too hard. Nobody would help me when I had to move every year or so when rents would skyrocket. It was awful. My ex sent my daughter to check on me after I dropped off my dog at his house. She rescued me and called 911. After the suicide attempt and 4 days in the ICU, she stayed with me in a hotel. But, I was mentally in a really bad place and I said some things about my past, married to her dad. She adores her dad, so I am assuming that’s why she has left me. I just don’t know. My ex won’t tell me anything. I had to pick up and move to TX where I can live well on disability. So now I don’t have either of my kids. It’s been really hard. But I have been treated by a new pain Dr and a new Neurologist and that’s helping the pain that was contributing greatly to my depression. I know I can do it now. I just need my kids back.

  3. Vicky P.

    Thank you for your article. I have been estranged from my 2 daughters since 2017. I had been struggling with PTSD after being raped in 2003. And I suffered in silence for years. No one would let me talk about my feelings and I learnt it was better to say nothing. I was a good mum, my daughters told me so but they said they didn’t want the side of me that struggled with mental ill health. Know I let my younger daughter down, she had turned to a family relative who she would talk to, my sister in law, who chose not to come to me and tell me just how much my younger daughter was struggling. I thought I was protecting her by asking her to stay with her dad whilst I tried to sort my husband out who was struggling with his mental health. But she saw it as rejection, no me wanting to protect her.

    I miss them both so much. We were very close and very loving. My mental illness was managed well considering what I was going through, I worked hard and wanted them to understand that life can be difficult but we can get through, but when I was triggered by my husband’s behaviour they walked away.

    I have spent along time working on myself and continue to do so. I was doing it for them, I thought if they could see me now, I have received the help and compassion from friends and my dad and therapy which has helped me manage PTSD. But now I feel I have to live my life for me and not for my daughters because the continued rejection hurts so much.

    My older daughter who is now 27 told me, that it should not matter to a parent how many times their child rejects then, because the child does really want them, but they will come back when they are good and ready. This I think is so cruel, why should parents be at the mercy of an adult child who thinks in this way. For me, I was tormented for years by the rape, now I am expecting to keep on taking the rejection until they decide that they need something from me.

  4. Suzanne

    I enjoyed this article very much, and unfortunately I can relate with all of it. It has been seven years since I have seen my estranged daughter and I don’t have any more answers now than I did when the break occurred. Has it gotten easier? No. However, I have gotten stronger and have adapted in some ways to this new normal. It has changed me profoundly and even if she were to come back into my life It will never be the same. I try to practice forgiveness. For her and for myself.

    1. Kelly P.

      Suzanne, I do believe we will always go to a place of sorrow with an estranged child. There is a hole that can never be filled. What are they thinking of? Is it the Me Me Generation? All three of my kids are estranged from me. What are the chances of that? I have been able to connect the dots and believe my son has pitted his 2 sisters against me. I have written to him and asked that we turn the page, but still nothing. My kids were everything to me. I would never be so cruel. Does this younger generation face obstacles that force them to direct their anger at mom, a safe place? I feel for everyone going thru this painful journey. It’s hard.

    2. Ann F.

      Thank you, Suzanne. I am turning a corner. I was so devastated by the loss that I was emailing, sending gifts, cards, asking my ex to talk to her for me, etc. Now, I am trying to practice mindfulness and calming my heart and mind. It’s the hardest part because when I am crying and angry, I at least feel something for my daughter. Now, in this new phase, I feel I am having to say goodbye and that is a tragedy. But, I must for my own health. Hugs.

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