Parents of estranged adult children: Is it Groundhog Day?
by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
In the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays a self-centered weatherman assigned to the yearly event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He’s in for a surprise when the same day keeps repeating itself. That sort of rut is what this article is about.
In the throes of estrangement pain, we can become stuck, going through the same old motions, and hoping things will change. Even our thoughts may run on repeat, replaying traumatic memories like movie scenes, and bringing us to the same old looping refrain.
- How can I make him change?
- If only I had . . . . or hadn’t , , , X, Y, or Z (fill in the blank).
Unfortunately, as our thoughts cycle on repeat (without the rinse!), our behavior often follows, and we sink into a rut. At some point, we need to wake up and realize we have a life to live regardless of our adult children’s decisions to live without us. That doesn’t mean you must give up hope … but it does require a shift in attitude toward a better perspective.
Adult children’s decisions: A new day
As the tradition goes, the groundhog emerges from its hole and, depending on if it sees its shadow, winter continues or ends. The roots of the holiday can be traced to a variety of lore, as well as to different hibernators who emerge on this day that’s halfway between the winter solstice and spring. If the sun’s out, as the legend goes, the groundhog is scared by its shadow, prompting a retreat to darkness and heralding another six weeks of winter.
Can you relate? Many of us have spent numerous months or even years in a “winter” existence, hiding from the reality of our lives. We may have dreamed up fantasies that our estranged adult children will come around, that they will love us again, and that we’ll pick up where we left off. We may have believed others who told us this was just a phase and that our kids will wake up when they have their own children. We may have even told ourselves we can’t be happy until the relationships resume, that a good parent would never stop trying, or some other lore that keeps us stuck.
Time grows short, and most rejected parents do eventually realize they must take charge of their own happiness. As several books and song titles tell us, it’s an inside job. Yet, when they emerge after a long “winter” of distress, they can be as wary as a groundhog startled by its own shadow. Learning to live well again requires adjustment, which also takes time. My question: Why wait? Embrace your life now. What have you got to lose?
Adult children’s decisions: Face facts
I’m disheartened by some of the suggestions I’ve seen out there that keep parents of estranged adult children stuck. Even when parents are advised to reduce or entirely halt their efforts to reach out, it’s frequently intended as a tactic to prompt change in the estranged adult children—as in maybe they’ll miss you and come running. While that’s certainly a possibility, the idea keeps parents attached to an illusion of control.
The parents who read my blogposts and books are at varying stages of estrangement and its effects. Some are brand new to the disconnect. Others are years, and even decades, along. There is no such thing as one-size-fits-all advice, but no matter where you fall on the estrangement continuum, the reality is that the only one you can control is yourself.
For parents who are in the early daze of estrangement, that lifesaving fact might be clouded by the belief that you must have done something wrong. Why else would your own child disown you? <—-you may think. There are plenty who jump on the “blame the parent” bandwagon, but that doesn’t mean they’re right. While none of us were perfect parents, most of us did our best. In both of my books, I help parents manage their shock over adult children’s decisions, see their emotions in a new light, and look at themselves with clear eyes unfettered by a loved one’s revisionist history or downright abuse (link to article).
As one parent recently said, “Your books are like programs, with specific steps and support that helped me move ahead at my own pace. Finally, I’m feeling free to live my life, and now, I’m looking forward to each new day.”
Other parents who have made the decision to face facts and move forward for their own well-being have shared with me in recent emails:
- “In your two books on estrangement, you spoke to me in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I totally related to you and your approach, and it felt like a cool glass of water on a very hot day. Thank you so much for that.” Elle, a psychologist, and an estranged mother
- “You and your books have helped me so much. I have trained my mind not to reflect on the negativity.” Korrie, mother of two estranged adult sons
- “Thank you for the article referencing stalking estranged adult child. I found comfort in this topic because I decided to stop following my daughter 6 months ago. It was too painful to see my grandchildren. Also, your books are very insightful. I am keeping hope but facing the reality of what happened. Moving forward to recover from loss is my personal journey.” Diane, mother of an estranged child and grandchildren
- “After your books and writing things out, I am so super excited for the future! I will always miss my girls…but I can’t go back. I tried my best and they were always my first and foremost. Now it’s time to go forward for me!” Suzanna, mother of two estranged adults
Just as Murray in Groundhog Day made a shift in himself, parents can take hold of what’s within their power to change: themselves. That means first recognizing the need for change, and then digging out of old habits that keep you burrowed in distress. That’s true whether in your thinking or in what you do.
In Murray’s case, the shift included being more thoughtful of other people. Most of the parents reading this will need to be kinder to themselves. Some will also recognize that their sadness and preoccupation with the estranged one(s) requires the need to better appreciate the loyal ones in their lives.
Self-examination and commitment to positive change puts you on the pathway to self-care and fosters individual growth for your own well-being regardless of another adult’s choices. Whether there are clouds or sunshine, won’t you join the thousands of parents who have made the decision to nurture themselves and grow into a new way of life?
Take courage, face your shadow, and step toward a new season of your life. You can embrace your own brand of resilience and take charge of your well-being and your life. Your adult children’s decisions may have put you on this lonely road, but you can choose your route now. Make this your halfway point, the juncture where you make a turn, steer away from wintry sticking points of estrangement pain, and move toward spring.