Are you “stalking” an estranged adult child?

stalking estranged adult childrenLurking parents:
Are you “stalking” an estranged adult child?

By Sheri McGregor, M.A.

The last time divorced mother, Vanessa, reached out, her daughter, Lynn, replied with a string of cruel texts laced with profanity that sickened Vanessa. Lynn then blocked her. Three weeks passed before Vanessa could go half an hour without tearful rumination and worry. Something must be dreadfully wrong. Vanessa would want to help, yet Lynn had pushed her away—again.

Other than a few blips of hopeful contact that never failed to disintegrate, they’d been estranged for more than five years. Mentally and physically exhausted, Vanessa knew it was time to go with the flow. She began working in earnest to develop a satisfying new normal, and to regain her sense of humor, confidence, and joy. A year later, she was doing well. She had a new job she enjoyed, a couple of trusted friends, and had even begun to consider dating. Life looked good. Then a relative said he’d seen her daughter emerging from a church’s evangelizing van—and the cycle of longing, compulsion, and emotional distress began again.

Vanessa researched the church online and discovered they broadcast livestreams of every meeting. After seeing Lynn, dressed in a long skirt and high-neck sweater like the church sisters she hugged and sang hymns with, Vanessa hunched over the computer screen every Sunday, hoping to catch another glimpse. She’d found a window into her daughter’s life.

As fit her daughter’s erratic pattern of high enthusiasm and then waning interest or even sudden disdain, Vanessa wasn’t surprised when her daughter stopped showing up on screen. She must have quit attending. Still, for several weeks, Vanessa watched each meeting in full, and then stayed tuned for the laying on of hands afterward. No Lynn. On Wednesday and Friday nights, she watched the prayer meetings online, but still didn’t see her daughter.

Consumed with worry, Vanessa felt compelled to reach out. When she did, she was still blocked. The cycle of emotional distress gripped her again.

Monitoring your adult children: What’s your purpose?

Observing our children is nothing new. Most of us had regular prenatal checkups including ultrasound imagery to monitor our child’s development in utero. Later, we installed baby monitors, watched over our children on the playground, and oversaw school progress with report cards and teacher meetings. Those old parenting habits are difficult to shake … but when it comes to adult children who want little or nothing to do with us, do we have the right? Or does it boil down to parents stalking an estranged adult child? Maybe that depends on who you ask. But is monitoring them good for us? Or for them?

Many parents tell me they keep track of their adult children over social media, their employer’s website, or in some other way. If you monitor your estranged adult child’s life from afar, consider this: The definition of “monitor” includes a purpose. A proctor for test takers, a security guard’s camera views to watch over a site, or a lifeguard’s function all include that element. Supervising children is a necessary part of parenting. But if your contact with an adult child is unwanted or non-existent, what’s your purpose?

Parents “stalking” an estranged adult child online:
Could there be surprise effects?

In science, there’s a concept called “the observer effect.” Quantum physics explains this at the subatomic level, where the movement of tiny particles is altered when observed. In psychology, this effect refers to people’s behavior changing when they are observed. Researchers seek to minimize the effect by using unobtrusive methods. What’s this have to do with monitoring your estranged adult children? In today’s world of internet cookies and algorithms, your observations may not be unobtrusive. Your estranged adult child’s online experience may be affected by yours.

Have you ever done a search for some product or need—and discovered that an advertisement shows up for that very thing the next few times you browse, even on unrelated websites? It can feel like you’re being stalked. Have you ever signed onto a social media platform and seen a friend recommendation for someone you don’t know? Chances are they’re connected to you in some way. Maybe a friend of a friend clicked on your picture when you liked a post. Or an inadvertent “like” of a shared meme shaped an algorithm and put you in a mutual categorical slot. Is it possible that our monitoring of an adult child’s social media puts us on their radar? Are we suggested as a “friend”? Do our internet pathways link us in ways that affect the ads they see, or who might be suggested to them? And if so, do they think of us in negative ways? (Mom must be stalking me again.)

I’ve seen threads on estranged adult children’s forums that talk about how they feel when parents “bother” them or they’re watched. Some ask for advice and get lots of me-too replies about parents they consider stalkers. They’re angry and view their parents as pitiful and weak. Some of the posters suggest changed behavior in response to being watched—the observer effect.

Monitor stress

Recently, a ten-year-old told me his classroom job as “test monitor” meant making sure everyone had a packet on test days—and he felt stressed. He always tried to hurry because the tests were limited on time. To beat the clock, students sometimes snatched a packet right out of his hand and immediately got started. Meanwhile, he couldn’t begin until he finished his job. Also, he confided, invariably, someone discovered a page missing, and it was on him to stop his own test taking, get that person another packet, and make things right.

The poor kid. He felt powerless. I suggested he talk to the teacher about his feelings, and he later told me he had. She apologized and changed the format so that everyone had a packet and checked for all pages before anyone started the test.

In this case, speaking up helped, but in monitoring … ahem … stalking an estranged adult children’s life from afar, identifying problems won’t come with that option.

Vanessa worried about her daughter’s mental health, but there was nothing she could do about it. Other parents see some changed behavior and guess about the cause. They become stressed but are powerless.

Instead of “stalking” an estranged adult child,
monitor yourself

Vanessa had worked hard to escape the tug of heartstrings toward a daughter who engaged abusively or not at all. Then her relative offered a tidbit of information, propelling her back into a cycle of hurt. Even the most well-meaning relatives sometimes can trigger emotional longing or worries that tug our heartstrings and halt our progress.

This and other family tug-o-wars are covered more in depth in Beyond Done, and I hope you’ll read that book. For now, if you’re triggered somehow or feel compelled to monitor your adult child, the first step for self-care is recognition. Be aware of your feelings and make sound decisions rather than act on impulse or emotion. We hear a lot about boundaries, mostly as they relate to other people. But boundaries are good to impose upon ourselves as well. Vanessa could have recognized her compulsion when she sat down to look up the church. She could have drawn a line in the sand toward her own behavior. She could have shut her laptop and walked away.

The simple act of observing yourself—your thinking, your actions, your feelings—can affect your life. Make the observer effect work for you.

“Stalking” an estranged adult child: Are you hurting yourself?

Are you monitoring your estranged adult child? Reflect. Does the behavior help or hurt you? Rather than putting front and center something (or someone) that makes you feel powerless and reminds you of hurt, focus on your own life and where you can make positive change for your own contentment. I hope you’ll share your thoughts by leaving a comment on this article. Interacting with other parents of estranged adult children provides insight and support as you monitor your responses to estrangement, become more aware, and grow.

Related reading

What is the observer effect in quantum mechanics?

What is the observer effect in psychology?

What about quantum physics observer effect?

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26 thoughts on “Are you “stalking” an estranged adult child?

  1. Tovah

    At the core of our estrangement with our grown children is hostility, lies, self serving embellishments, verbal violations, triangulations with extended family members, and a sociopathic narcissism practiced upon us by them.

    I would venture to say that many of the parents here can relate to that or something similar and not merely a life’s path that is no longer side by side in which one can observe their children’s victories with joy and just a little easy to accept loneliness.

    It’s hurtful to be judged for experiencing what you have experienced in either case.

    I don’t know what the situation is for everyone here but we definitely can not be described that way. We know few parents who are of the comfortable mindset that our children will desert us one day as if that is perfectly normal and acceptable.

    We certainly don’t wish anything but the best for our children but it’s not necessarily a happy time having to stomach watching them from afar after being rejected.

    As for the stalking terminology, Sheri is correct in pointing out that there is a definite impact from being observed. When I was using parental controls to keep our children from entering adult sites, for example, they never said I was monitoring them. They said I was stalking! Like many words, the meaning and many nuances of this one is wide open to personal perspective.

    With that said, I’m glad for anyone who is estranged albeit still a loving and supportive parent. I think that how the estrangement took place plays heavily into that.

  2. Lupin

    Monitoring is the proper term, the meaning of stalking includes harassment, or threatening behavior. Exaggeration is unnecessary in this context. I think this will be my last post here, the passive aggressive tone wrapped in “support” is too prevalent in online estrangement group . take care.

    1. Gloria

      Lupin, I am sorry that your opinion is that people here are passive aggressive. I was sorry to see your reply to one of the people on here, Carrie Ann, who lifts my spirits with her posts. I have read her reply to you many times over and I agree with her. Estrangement has taught me many lessons, one of them is speaking up when someone is being treated unfairly. I have eliminated people who do not treat me kindly or fair, it’s now my superpower! I wish you well.

  3. Tovah

    It’s been a big part of my healing process to withdraw from the previous role of guardian, overseer, watch guard, etc and that means refraining from any kind of online monitoring. It’s been made easier by the still searing recollection of the hurtful words used to push me and my husband away.

    I’m also acutely aware of the staged nature of social media and our EDs are expert at creating this facade, inventing images of success for the camera. They called that “Fake it till you make it.”

    So at least in our case all that glitters is not gold.

    Our children are not yet old enough to have made strides in careers but they do exert painstaking effort into creating impressive images of themselves with photo shoots involving various outfits, backdrops, and (sadly) sexy poses to splash across their vanity pages. As their mom this crude projection of themselves embarrasses me and turns any thoughts I may have had to monitor them into something cringeworthy.

    I can’t unsee what I have already had to see prior to them estranging themselves and honestly I don’t want to see whatever is currently out there.

    1. rparents Post author

      I can relate to this cringeworthy element in a horrific way. I guess that is one reason to put this article out there. So many “estranged parents” suffer horribly at the view, the sight, the reality of what a once adored, beautiful, intelligent child has become. Sinking, devolving, disintegrating…. I am not so much embarassed as it has hurt my soul.

      I do have faith though. Things can change. A person can become well, reclaim who they truly are.

      BUT … it isn’t up to me. People must choose, commit, work….
      Thank you for your comment.

      Sheri McGregor

  4. emily38

    This reader feels you’ve touched a nerve with your observations, Sheri. And good for you. Sometimes it takes more than a gentle prod to produce meaningful thoughts in a reader. And at the heart of what you’ve written, I find the Truth about relationships. All relationships. Any of them.

    One of the conflicts re relationships in the Estrangement experience is the entrenched belief that the parent’s relationship with an adult ‘child’ is somehow fundamentally different, at its core, than any other one. When “something” breaks, fails or disappears between two people IN relationship, we say the relationship is either broken and needs mending, or it’s ended.

    Mending takes two. Ending takes one. And whatever the form of “stalking” of the one who’s left the relationship, it guarantees the one left behind will not move on, heal, regain their sense of internal safety or emotionally thrive.

    Can people “get over” the destroyed relationships of divorce? The finality of a death? The rejection of a ‘child?’ Yes, to whatever degree fits their internal wiring. Can a person cobble together a new life successfully if they cling to parts and pieces of what no longer exists? It’s difficult to make a case for this. I read your column on stalking as one component of an almost irrational attachment to something that no longer is.

    The estranged parent who stalks (and I use that term more broadly than you do, perhaps) or ruminates over what that E son or daughter is doing or has done, who maintains an attachment emotionally which is one-sided, “stalks” in a different way. And as you’ve so clearly pointed out, the parent in an E situation is responsible for focusing on their own life. For facing reality. For doing the hard work of coming to terms with a life situation they didn’t ask for but one they got.

    Granted, coming to this fork in the healing road takes time. A great deal of time. Arriving is slowed by the nature of its one step forward, two steps back pace. And as you’ve often written, a healthy parent will potentially be in a much better place to reestablish some kind of relationship with an estranged ‘child,’ should that repair ever happen because the ‘child’ initiates it.

    I have family members who insist on telling me “news” of my ES despite my having said clearly I do not want it. Sometimes I feel a razor’s edge of disapproval of me, of my parenting, when they send information my way. Sometimes I wonder if they’ve ‘heard’ me? Sometimes I think they are thinking of themselves, not of me.

    This week, information was excitedly shared that one ES had a remarkable achievement in his professional career with a well-received publication. I heard the message, I had a moment when I “knew” I would not buy his book, and I simply did not want to go beyond the news.

    And most telling, I felt NOTHING. The news could have been about anyone. My day went on. In my world, for me, this was a billboard along the highway toward healing that had a bold message. I had separated emotionally from this person. I would not “stalk” him in any way, even though I obviously could. Our relationship was ‘then,’ not ‘now.’

    Again, your message, as always, Sheri, is about the wellness of the person left behind. The one who must put the pieces back together as best as they’re able. And you’ve given an example of one of the many self-defeating behaviors that would delay building that new life, a new way in the world.

    Thank you for your commitment to looking at the ‘other person’ in the parent-child relationship, the one often over-looked or delegated to “shoulds” and “musts” and “oughts” by “experts” in estrangement issues. The parent who must reclaim his or her life, daunting as it will be.


    1. rparents Post author


      Thank you for your words… partially because they make me feel a little soothed (I never want to hurt anyone’s feelings and was concerned prior to posting that this article would not “land” as intended with some). I thank you for that part, and also that you have articulated the “hard won” type of peace that I have frequently discussed, through your own experience shared here and also through the overall big picture lens: it takes time and energy for parents to grow toward healing … on their own time and in their own way.

      Thank you again for your posting. Talk about a nail head being hit.

      Sheri McGregor

    2. Lupin

      “And whatever the form of “stalking” of the one who’s left the relationship, it guarantees the one left behind will not move on, heal, regain their sense of internal safety or emotionally thrive. ”

      This is simply false, rooted in black and white thinking. One can accept the reality of estrangement and chose to maintain the natural interest in their beloved child’s well being, regardless if that love is returned.

      Those of us who have done the unselfish tasks of caregiving for a cognitively or mentally challenging family member understand this all too well.

  5. Kathy

    Hello Sheri,
    I have JUST discovered your site and am ordering your books. Our family was rocked in 1998 when our two oldest sons were killed in a car accident at age 16 & 19. Our remaining sons are now in their 30’s, one married with two little boys of his own, one remains single at this writing. I always told myself that I would rather die myself than go through such a loss again. And yet, here we are with many of the same feelings of loss and grief that feel in some ways very familiar and, in other ways, far worse. There has been no “event”, no catalyst to reference. And, while our son acknowledges that there has been “distance developing over the years”, he cannot seem to bring enough clarity to his feelings to have a conversation with me. He claimed to be more comfortable in communicating via email but another 8 weeks have passed without contact. I do see signs that my dil has done a deep dive into counseling, therapy, coaching, etc. to work through issues that continue to plague her from her childhood and am left only to suppose that there is an element of being guided toward conclusions that may be unfair. Whether they are or not fair, I am so anguished at our current reality that I am willing to sit silently and listen to anything, ANYTHING, he has to say to me to work toward resolution. Your advice to come to some level of acceptance and peace is a new concept I’d not considered until now. I do not, however, to give him the impression that I am giving up. My dil has said in the past that she is deeply jealous of anyone who takes his time/attention away from her but I do realize that I must tread lightly, that I would only damage our relationship further by revealing that conversation. It feels like a no-win situation but one that I’m sure is not without precident. I look forward to reconciling the overwhelming feelings of loss, grief, hopelessness and isolation through the avenues you provide. Blessings!

  6. Carrie-Ann

    Thank You Beautiful Sheri for this article, “Lurking parents: Are you “stalking” an estranged adult child?”

    The key to answering this question is the following question you wrote: “But if your contact with an adult child is unwanted or non-existent, what’s your purpose?”

    Communication is a two-way street…Just because “public access” is available, does not mean that the other person is ok with it…I would ask Lupin to ask her son if he is ok with her on-line searching and observing his life…If he is estranged, I doubt that he would be ok with it at all…

    For myself, I have a very light on-line footprint…Because I value and want my privacy and safety…I learned early-on that it was not healthy for me to seek out information on estranged adult children…One can love and be happy for their success; without “trolling” and “stalking” their lives online…I say “trolling” because if both people are not aware and are ok with it…then that’s what it is…My Heart Is With Each Estranged Parent…I Send Love, Light, & Peace…

    1. Lupin

      Yes Carrrie Ann, he is OK. Your doubts are misplaced. Estrangement is an unique experience and process. Please respect that. Maybe reflect on what I already shared before pushing your agenda. And look up the definitions of the terms you misuse.

    2. candleinthewind

      Hello Carrie-Ann and Lupin, in particular

      Frankly, it’s so very difficult, the estrangement business xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx which is why Sheri sends hugs all round, ‘cos that’s what we need xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

    3. rparents Post author

      Thank you dear Carrie Ann. I am sorry you have had to learn hard lessons. But … I am also glad that you have. Lessons learned means you get to proceed forward! Oh, go ahead … colkect $200. too, like the old Monopoly game. Get yourself a treat.
      Hugs to you, and zillions of blessings,
      Sheri McGregor

  7. Lupin

    Thanks Sheri, plenty of your ideas have been helpful to me. I think estrangement grief is largely love disrupted so I try to accept the misery at the same time I practice loving my son while watching his professional development on social media, I am rooting for his success. I find the process positive, helps me grow in compassion and knowledge.

  8. candleinthewind

    Funnily enough, I was just writing about stalking in my journal last night, and here we are with an article written especially for me??? Anyway, it’s the same wanting information about any ex, it’s just so easy to do in the lonely hours; at the heart of it is dealing with loss, emptiness and absence. Triggered sometimes by other people’s interference or good intentions, and you veer off the straight and narrow path. It’s not real anyway, as the person (the ex-whoever) has broken contact. We have to train ourselves to live in and face the present reality. Actually, when we do, it’s not all bad – there are some pleasant surprises en route, and we learn not to be so afraid of our emotions. Essential for not making stupid decisions.

  9. Annie

    I am blocked from their social media, however, I know that before the estrangement they used to record conversations we had on their phones without our permission. I have seen them drive by our house in the car we gifted them and they use relatives and neighbors to find out how we are doing. My guess is they can’t wait until we’re dead.

    1. rparents Post author

      That’s the other side, isn’t it? Their “monitoring” sounds unkind. I would find that intrusive. I believe taping conversations is also illegal.

      Take kind care of yourself,

      Sheri McGregor

  10. rparents Post author

    Dear Lupin,
    The article is using “stalking” as a way to consider the observed person’s perception of being monitored by someone unwanted and possible effects of online following, as well as the observer”s (possible) sense of compulsion and distress. Social media viewing of public feeds doesn’t usually fit the legal definition of stalking. However, if you were compelled to follow your son’s Twitter and other online presence sources, spent hours perusing it all for information, and were distressed … then if would be unhealthy. An estranged son might not like it either….

    Hugs to you,
    Sheri McGregor

  11. Lupin

    Stalking? Using social media is NOT stalking. Stalking is a specific action.
    I have never driven by my estranged son house, or followed him, etc.

    I do read his twitter account, and what I learn makes me happy for him.

    1. rparents Post author

      Dear Lupin,
      The article is using “stalking” as a way to consider the observed person’s perception of being monitored by someone unwanted and possible effects of online following, as well as the observer”s (possible) sense of compulsion and distress. Social media viewing of public feeds doesn’t usually fit the legal definition of stalking. However, if you were compelled to follow your son’s Twitter and other online presence sources, spent hours perusing it all for information, and were distressed … then if would be unhealthy. An estranged son might not like it either….

      Hugs to you,
      Sheri McGregor

    2. Lupin

      Sheri, to my mind these semantics shifts should be challenged not embraced, such as the distorted view of abuse applied by the majority of articles promoting cutting parents our of your life. Concept creep is a threat to a sane society.

    3. rparents Post author


      Ok. Your point is understood. This article is not helpful to you, and I am ok with that. Perhaps you will find something else here of use.

      In any event, many kindnesses and much joy to you.

      Sheri McGregor

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