Healing from adult children’s rejection: Persevere beyond “backdraft” to freedom

Healing from adult children’s rejection:
Persevere beyond “backdraft” to freedom

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Among the parents who’ve joined my online community, or worked with me individually, or shared email or phone conversations, some hail from difficult families. They may have been raised with guilt as a motivator, been “parentified,” or served in a scapegoat role. These parents willfully rose above their circumstances and parented their own children with a determination to treat them right. Regardless, one or more children grew up to desert or otherwise abuse them, and these parents find themselves puzzling over what went wrong. Like most parents, they go to their own actions first. Where did I go wrong? What can I do now? They may also think, I’ll do anything to fix this. 

When nothing works or their continued efforts are met with increasingly stiffer demands, they long for peace. Stepping away from their children and the drama feels like taking their lives back. Frequently, once away from the chaos, they begin to feel free to make the most of their own lives. They begin in earnest to work at healing, not only from their adult children’s abuse, but from the suffering inflicted within their family of origin.

Delia was one such parent. Her son and daughter, both from an early and short-lived marriage, had nothing but ill will toward her. They were similar in personality to her mother, an icy woman, whom Delia was, nevertheless, loyal to. Delia had raised her children with affection, always praising their success, supporting their endeavors, and making sure they had good dental care, including braces, as well as stylish haircuts and clothing. This was nothing like her hand-me-down history, mouthful of crooked teeth, and her mother’s “about time” attitude at any of Delia’s accomplishments.

Delia’s kids both graduated high school early and attended college Delia and their stepfather paid for. She was proud of them and, in their successes, found some self-worth. But it came with a price. “Since the teen years, our relationships were prickly,” says Delia. “As they finished college, married, and started their families, they got closer to my mother and my siblings. I became the odd one out.” She chuckles. “I’m used to that.”

While Delia is occasionally allowed to take her grandchildren, now boys of 8 and 10, she no longer seeks meaningful relationships with her son and daughter. “I’m no longer willing to accept abuse,” says Delia, who wasn’t always this self-compassionate or assured. At one point, as she processed her emotions and identified her history as the family scapegoat, the pain of moving forward was almost worse than agreeing she was the problem. “It was crazy,” she says. “Intellectually, I knew I was deserving but I couldn’t be good to myself. I looked at my children’s rejection and the way they aligned with my mother as proof that I was no good.”

For six months, Delia turned to alcohol to quell her anger, sadness, and negative thinking around what a loser she was and how no one would ever truly love her because she wasn’t worthy of love. “Not falling down drunk,” she explains. “Having a civilized glass … or three … of good red wine with dinner.”

When Delia realized she was using alcohol to escape the pain, as her father had done, she quit drinking. “I didn’t want to die young like he did,” she says. “But I also needed to learn how to live.”

Delia’s downward emotional spiral after beginning to offer herself the love, caring and nurturing she’d been craving her whole life and had always given to others, is an example of what self-compassion proponents and researchers call “backdraft.”1,2,3,4,5 The term comes from firefighting where “backdraft” occurs when a door or window is opened and fresh oxygen rushes in, causing the fire to flare into the space. Similarly, a new practice of self-compassion opens the door to old memories and negativity, fueling painful old behaviors and aggression, negative beliefs, and feelings of shame and guilt.6

Affording oneself kindness, empathy, and understanding as you would another has been shown to increase psychological well-being, decrease anxiety and depression, enhance interpersonal connection and motivation for self-improvement, and increase overall life satisfaction.7,8,9,10,11,12,13 Awareness of the possibility of backdraft, though, is important. Thankfully, mental health clinicians and researchers are taking an increased interest in this phenomenon, which doesn’t always occur.

Once Delia became aware of what was happening, she could be mindful of when and how the old thinking reared its head, explore its birthplace in her childhood as well as where and with whom she’d re-assumed the familiar caretaking, cheerleading, and selflessness. Delia had assumed those old roles that had once kept her safe and helped her to belong. With self-compassion for the little girl who had been so smart in doing what she had to do to survive, Delia could acknowledge the old trauma and hurt inflicted upon her. This allowed her to take steps toward an identity and future she herself chose, in a new way of life and for her survival now.

Perhaps you have also noticed old memories and hurts getting stirred up when you’ve begun to move forward in self-compassion and deliberative work toward your own healing. Frequently, there are many layers to healing. We revisit old wounds, clear away the emotional debris as we can, and then move on. We also return to old hurts, with or without the “help” of adult children who return to trigger the pain. In my award-winning 2021 book, Beyond Done, which was written as a follow-up to the consistently popular Done With The Crying, I discuss how these reminders, when viewed with discernment and self-compassion, can benefit our forward momentum. As you work at your own freedom in healing, it’s wise to prepare for potential setbacks and triggers, which can be a part of your progress.

Related Reading

Freedom for a new era (parents rejected by adult children)

Estrangement: Are you a firework, or still standing?

References:

  1. Germer, C. K. (2009). The mindful path to self-compassion. The Guilford Press.
  2. Germer, C. (2023). Self-compassion in psychotherapy: Clinical integration, evidence base, and mechanisms of change. In A. Finlay-Jones, K. Bluth, & K. Neff (Eds.), Handbook of self-compassion (pp. 379–415). Springer Nature. https:// doi. org/ 10. 1007/ 978-3-031- 22348-8_ 22
  3. Germer, C. K., & Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-compassion in clinical practice. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(8), 856–867. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp. 22021
  4. Germer, C. K., & Neff, K. D. (2015). Cultivating self-compassion in trauma survivors. In V. M. Follette, J. Briere, D. Rozelle, J. W. Hopper, & D. I. Rome (Eds.), Mindfulness-oriented interventions for trauma: Integrating contemplative practices (pp. 43–58). The Guilford Press.
  5. Germer, C. K., & Neff, K. D. (2019). Teaching the mindful self-compassion program: A guide for professionals. The Guilford Press
  6. Neff, N., & Germer, C. (2022). The role of self-compassion in psychotherapy. World Psychiatry, 21(1), 58–59.

7 . Brown, L., Houston, E. E., Amonoo, H. L., & Bryant, C. (2021). Is self-compassion associated with sleep quality? A meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 12(5), 1–10. https:// doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01498-0

  1. Cleare, S., Gumley, A., & O’Connor, R. C. (2019). Self-compassion,self-forgiveness, suicidal ideation, and self-harm: A systematic review. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 26(5), 511–530. https:// doi.org/10.1002/cpp.2372
  2. Ferrari, M., Hunt, C., Harrysunker, A., Abbott, M. J., Beath, A. P., & Einstein, D. A. (2019). Self-compassion interventions and psychosocial outcomes: A meta-analysis of RCTs. Mindfulness, 10(8), 1455–1473. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-019-01134-6
  3. MacBeth, A., & Gumley, A. (2012). Exploring compassion: A meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 32(6), 545–552. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr 2012.06.003
  4. McArthur, M., Mansfield, C., Matthew, S., Zaki, S., Brand, C., Andrews, J., & Hazel, S. (2017). Resilience in veterinary students and the predictive role of mindfulness and self-compassion. Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, 44(1), 106–115. https://doi.org/10.3138/jvme.0116-027R1
  5. Shattell, M., & Johnson, A. (2018). Mindful self-compassion: How it can enhance resilience. Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, 56(1), 15–17. https://doi. org/10.928/02793695-20171219-01
  6. Zessin, U., Dickhäuser, O., & Garbade, S. (2015). The relationship between self-compassion and well-being: A meta-analysis. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 7(3), 340–364. https://doi. org/10.1111/aphw.12051

 

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7 thoughts on “Healing from adult children’s rejection: Persevere beyond “backdraft” to freedom

  1. Patricia S.

    Today is my daughter’s birthday. I’m glad I read this email. It’s been nearly 5 years and most of the time I’m doing really well. It’s been a long time since I had that knife in the stomach feeling. I’ve adjusted and I don’t even know if I’d take her back unless she has changed. In the beginning I asked myself over and over what happened. I was willing to try to change to accommodate her so she’d enjoy me again, then I finally realized that I was a good mom. I have friends who have known me since my kids were little (30+ years) and they are as puzzled as I am. I loved being a mom and it showed. She started this in high school and it worsened in college. She works with college students and has become like this upcoming generation, canceling family and burning bridges with people who love them. It makes me so thankful for my son! I’m 61 and my mom did her best, though was depressed and a little neglectful because of her own struggles. I would never abandon her! My dad was abusive and now has dementia (thank God he’s become much kinder!) I couldn’t have fathomed that this would become my situation. Acceptance is peace. Thank you, Sheri.

    Reply
  2. Terri T.

    I survived the estrangement of my son while he was in recovery. Now my daughter is estranged because of an abusive marriage. I told my husband empty nest is not when they go off to college it’s now. I receive Sherri’s news letter it seems like just in the Nick of time. I am trying my best to take care of us. It’s so hard when you have dedicated your whole life to being a mom. But I will survive. I truly believe it’s today’s social society. There is no more respect for parents. We are the disposable generation. I pray for all of the estranged parents out there. You will have hard days but just hang in there a good one may be tomorrow

    Reply
  3. Liz P.

    The idea of backdraft is great! It explains so much. I continue to benefit from Done with the Crying and Beyond Done with the Crying. These are the ONLY books on the market that I have found to do any good. They are written with genuine real world experience, not the typical psychologizing and weird demands to break my own boundaries, apologize for things I never did wrong, and so on.

    Thank you for these books, Sheri; they helped me get my life back after a very bizarre and difficult estrangement from my high-drama 42-year-old daughter. I am now on a much better path and have gotten my life back.

    Reply
  4. Katherine

    Wow Sheri, this resonates with me! I too had a very cold, demanding and abusive mother. I made sure to raise my sons very differently than I had been raised, with plenty of love, support and warmth. So when my oldest son coldly estranged from me and our family I began to see the many similarities between him and my mother. I honestly think the traits were always there but not as obvious and we mostly disregarded them. I’ve given a lot of thought over these two years of heartbreaking estrangement to what I could have done vastly different but I keep coming up empty. My younger son is a wonderful, caring, loving man who is close to me and everyone in the family. So I’ve come to believe genetics and heredity play a much larger role in our kids development than I had ever thought. I wish more than anything I could do something to change this terrible situation but if this is how my son is wired I don’t even know if it’s possible.

    Reply
  5. Elaine T.

    Thankyou Sheri for the article entitled Persevere the back draft to freedom. I had a difficult childhood and strangely have been reliving events since my daughter estranged from me. I was an only child. I had a good relationship with my mother but she had serious health issues and I lived with the thought of loosong her all the time. My Dad was a gambler so kept the family short of money as a result. As a result of his gambling my Dad would tell people all that he had done for me fianacially which was totally untrue. In those days you did not stand up to your parents you just put up with it. My own daughter had nothing remotely like this to put up with but chose to estrange herself from her Dad and I. It just does not make sense. We live in a differant world today

    Reply
  6. Kam

    That backdraft is a real thing and I love the analogy. I am struggling with estrangement from my son but progressing slowly. Then, all of a sudden, I fall deep into a funk questioning myself all over again. This happens over and over, but with Sheri’s insight and coaching, these “backdrafts” happen less often as time passes.

    Sheri’s books have become as important as my bible. The binding got so loose, I had to order another copy, as I can’t imagine not reading a pertinent chapter when needed.

    It may still take a lot of time, but I know I don’t deserve to be treated the way my son and his wife treat me, and I am continuing to learn to put my priorities elsewhere. I have people in my that do love me and want to be around me, and they get my heart right now. He decided to break ties with his family, and it will be up to him when and if he chooses to come back to his family.

    Reply
  7. Krystle B.

    It’s so strange to have opened this email, because I don’t always open them.
    I have been struggling with the odd trigger here & there, & needing to revisit my new way of thinking & go through the process to alleviate the distressing feelings . However I have noticed that when I am triggered the impact feels different from before, I fall further than before & it seems to hit harder. I am trying to work through this & have been for months.. I think it’s time to revisit Sheri’s books, something was looking down on me telling me to open this email … thank you ❤️

    Reply

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