Hurtful relationships with adult children:
Have you lost yourself?
by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
On my dad’s birthday when I was seven, he arrived from work holding a bakery box. His blue eyes alight, he set it on the table. “My friends at the office gave me this sponge cake.”
“A sponge cake?” I hung back, feeling strangely uneasy as he opened the lid.
“Well, come on,” he urged with a grin.
My siblings and I sidled up to the table to see a gorgeous rectangular cake with pillowy white icing. Other than a smeary spot at one end, perfectly piped yellow frosting framed the words “Happy Birthday” written in looping blue.
My mouth watered. “You didn’t eat any yet?”
“Nope.” My dad winked at my siblings. “I saved it for you.”
Puzzled, I looked from him back to the tempting cake.
“Here,” he said. “I’ll let you cut it.” He motioned to my mom, who pulled a knife from the drawer. They exchanged a glance as she handed it to him. “Go ahead,” he said, pressing the heavy handle into my little hand.
Something wasn’t right. Still, I carefully pressed the blade into the cake and pushed. It didn’t budge. I pressed harder, and the knife started to slip.
Everyone laughed as my dad wrapped his hands around mine and took back the knife. He spread aside some icing to reveal a thick wedge of man-made foam rubber. “They thought it’d be funny,” he said of his office friends.
My mom explained that there really was a dessert called “sponge cake.” Then she brought a real birthday cake to the table. After the song and candles, we all ate the chocolatey confection with vanilla ice cream. My dad recalled aloud how his office mates had laughed when he’d tried to cut into the cake.
You and your gut
My dad’s long-ago birthday is my first conscious memory of knowing without knowing that something wasn’t right. That day, I had been persuaded to ignore my siblings’ nervous smiles, my parents’ odd decision to hand a 7-year-old the knife, and a funny feeling in the pit of my stomach. My innate inner wisdom was overrun by the people I’d come to trust. And let’s not forget the tempting promise of delicious cake.
Obviously, nothing sinister happened that day. Fooling the youngest in the family had been in good fun. And at the office, my father had also been tricked. But as I look back now, trust and temptation achieved the desired result. I had ignored my gut.
My remembered incident is a benign example, but some future incidents weren’t so innocent and full of love—even if I thought so at the time and was duped. Maybe you remember times when you ignored your gut, whether in fun situations or ones that resulted in harm.
So badly wanting a bond, loving parents in hurtful relationships with adult children sometimes fall prey to similar scenarios. They listen to other people, overlook painful history, squelch their own wise inner voice, and ignore their gut. The temptation of sweet grandchildren they’d love to know, the memories of how things once were (so, how they might possibly be again), or the desire to go along to get along, or to make other family members happy can overrun better judgment.
The point of no return
Parents in hurtful relationships with adult children may be shaken awake with escalating psychological or physical abuse. Some parents invest their life savings in real property based on the promise of family togetherness in a joint living situation. They may even deed the real estate to their son or daughter, thinking this will simplify paperwork for their heirs upon their eventual death. Then, when it comes time to move in, the adult child suddenly makes blindingly clear the plan won’t be happening. Some parents endure a medical crisis and discover the one holding their health proxy isn’t reliable, or worthy of trust. Then, still healing, and grateful to be alive, they scramble to re-choose and redo their documents.
Sometimes, such a turning point leads to parents finding this website and my books. And then they may realize their grown child has been detaching for a lot longer than they were willing to see or admit. These parents had ignored their gut, their eyes, and even their ears for an elusive ideal they later realized with sudden clarity existed only in their hopes and dreams.
“I used to see my son’s name on the Caller ID,” says divorced mother Tammy, “and my stomach would drop.” Tammy’s gut instinct was not to answer but she felt she couldn’t say “no” to her son. She explains, “My endless giving was the relationship.”
Tammy knew from the past that if she didn’t give, her son would initiate the silent treatment, which would last for days, weeks, or even months. And during that time, she’d suffer physically with indigestion and a tight chest. Meanwhile, in her head she’d be playing familiar guilt tapes from other relationships. If she didn’t love them enough to help, then she wasn’t a good wife, sister, or mom. Even friendships had left Tammy with baggage. If she wouldn’t do “this one thing” then she was cold-hearted or wasn’t the person they’d always thought she was. If she didn’t give in to someone else’s will then she wouldn’t be loved. “I thought even God wouldn’t love me,” says Tammy.
On some level, we all carry what we unconsciously regard as truth tracks. Never mind that these reverberating words in our thinking are often far from the truth. They are manipulative talk or tactics from those who controlled us in the past. In our own voice, our inner critic will frequently use the language we’ve heard from authority figures, siblings, the pulpit, or society at large.
In Done With The Crying, I wrote that one of the first elements needed in my own escape from the quicksand of estrangement pain was becoming mindful of my thoughts. Once you’re aware of your thinking, the thoughts can be examined, questioned, and put where they belong—and sometimes that’s the trash heap.
In my second book (Beyond Done ), I discussed this thought analysis and the connected shifts in the sections on self-imposed boundaries, which I have also called internal or inward boundaries. As mentioned in Beyond Done , “Boundaries don’t always involve another person’s behavior. Sometimes, it’s your own behavior or thinking you must halt.”
Instead of taking on a mean or shaming voice, we can offer ourselves compassion and love. Instead of focusing on all that’s wrong—and getting caught up in an emotional pain loop—we can shift our focus to something in our physical world, bring our attention to the present moment, and take charge where we can. (Watch for more on this topic in the near future–join the newsletter so you don’t miss out.)
Well, hello there, Self. . . .
Whether you have been playfully tricked, or painfully duped or shamed into ignoring your gut, or you’re just out of practice at hearing your own voice and tuning into your body’s innate wisdom, you can change. Making a practice of getting more in touch with yourself can be very beneficial. The human brain and gut are directly connected via a network of neurons. It’s the gut that synthesizes much of and measures out neurotransmitters and neurohormones that affect moods and our bodily functions in response to our moods. When we get cues from the environment, our gut interprets them chemically. If we’re in touch with these subtle cues, we’re better prepared to interpret them in ways that allow us to utilize them in our decision making, relationships, and everyday lives. If, on the other hand, we’re used to tuning out those signals that, in the past, may have kept us safe or feeling loved, then like Tammy, we’ll probably ignore them and tune into old programming that’s become an inside job instead.
When we’re under stress, overwhelmed by hurtful, confusing relationships, or fighting to save them, we don’t have the space and calm to be truly mindful of what we feel or think. It’s vital for parents in hurtful relationships with adult children to gain enough distance to take a calming breather, look honestly at the situation, take note of how they feel, and hear themselves think. That’s why I tell parents that it’s okay to shelve it all, at least for a time, and get out and enjoy your life.
My newsletters, my articles here, the exercises in my books, and the meetings and discussion inside the membership community where parents like you are taking charge of themselves and their lives, are all designed to help. With gumption and support, you can be like so many who come to terms with estrangement and take back the power over their own precious lives.
Laura is a 77-year-old mother whose son, now in his 50s, walked completely out of her life two years ago. Laura was devastated but, during the silence, she read my first book and did the exercises. Then she started the second book, and things grew even clearer. “One never wants to believe that their own child doesn’t love them,” she says. “But I realize now that he began treating me badly way back when he was eighteen.”
In the stressful decades of frequent interaction, and under the spell of his warped reflection of her, Laura hadn’t connected her feelings of despair and bitterness to her unkind son. My books and their included exercises have helped her begin to, as she says, “see the light.” She adds, “It still hurts me, of course, but I suddenly realized I could change and do better. I feel lighter and much more positive.”
If Laura’s son wanted to reconcile, she knows she couldn’t go back to the way things were. He’d have huge changes to make because, in his absence, she has learned to take care of herself. She is like so many parents who emerge from hurtful relationships with adult children and begin to see themselves without the muddy, blame-the-parent veil. In short, Laura and many other parents step away from hurtful relationships with adult children and use the time to tune into their own needs and self-worth.
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