Why estrangement happens: Puzzling it out

why estrangement happensWhy estrangement happens: Puzzling it out

By Sheri McGregor

Why? It’s the million-dollar question. Ask on the Internet and you’ll find a lot of theories and blame. The parents are often negatively stereotyped in myriad writings that confirm an existing bias: parents must have done something to cause the estrangement. Providing theoretical answers to why estrangement happens has become a sort of global pastime but just because we live in a blame-the-parent era doesn’t mean we’re to blame.  However, trying to find answers is a natural response.

Questions have a way of taking over the brain and its thought processes. Puzzling things out is human nature, which is troubling when, so often, there is no logical answer. No wonder so many parents of estranged adult children report being distracted and getting hurt or suffering from brain fog. That’s one reason why, in Done With The Crying, I suggest parents settle on a “good enough” answer, at least for a time. That way, they can rest their mind enough to move on to a better question: What now?

Coping mindfully

We’ve all done a puzzle at some point. Puzzles are foundational among learning toys for even the youngest children. That’s because they help with visual acuity, spatial recognition, problem solving and more—plus they’re fun.

Puzzles help adults of all ages derive the same sorts of benefits, and during the pandemic lock downs, puzzles have increased in popularity. They fill time, and even in an uncertain atmosphere of fret and fear, they engage eyes and minds on something safe and even predictable.

Also, when pondering something big like why estrangement happens, we can benefit from a more relaxed mind. When not focused on the problem, our subconscious mind will work at the issue behind the scene, often in new ways and with better results. A break in struggling to understand why estrangement happens to good parents may shift toward a question that’s more within our reach. Like, “What can I do to take care of myself?”

Puzzlers know the activity keeps them present and focused on a task. That’s good for parents of estranged adult children whose minds may wander down rabbit holes of worry and emotional pain. In my books I talk about coping mindfully when estrangement happens. I’ve only recently realized that doing puzzles, brain teasers, and challenge games can be an absorbing and rewarding part of that.

Lately, I went online to purchase a couple of jigsaw puzzles and was surprised to find that there are puzzle boards with sorting trays to keep pieces contained. Some trays come with a cover so even in-progress puzzles can be safely stowed. For the dedicated puzzle builder, there are tables, preserver sheets, pushers, magnifiers. . . . Have a look at some of the accessories. You might be as surprised as I was by what you find.

Puzzles, brain teasers, and other games don’t have to be expensive. They’re staples of dollar and discount stores. Some neighbors even set up puzzle trades on social media platforms, so they can be passed along (free). You can find free game apps in the play store on your smart phone (free versions do have annoying ads.) Or, opt for free games online, completing brain teasers and puzzles on your phone, tablet, or computer. A search will locate a variety of sites. Here are a few options:

  • Jigsaw Planet. Choose your challenge level by selecting the number of pieces, starting with as few as 24. It times you, too, so you can track your skill progress and see if you get faster at recognizing patterns and fitting shapes.
  • Free Games.org. Brain teasers, puzzles, quizzes, speed games, word searches, matching, and mazes to test your memory, sight, and mind. Share your scores to social media or remain anonymous.
  • The Jigsaw Puzzles. A puzzle of the day, desktop icon for convenience, and downloads to print and cut out paper puzzles. This site places a picture of the completed puzzle at the top right of the puzzling space so it’s easy to refer to as you work.

Why estrangement happens: Putting the pieces together

Even if you haven’t done a puzzle since childhood, you’ll remember the sense of completion you felt when those last few pieces fit into place. Answers about why estrangement happens aren’t always so neat and tidy. Parents are frequently in shock and, at least at first, point at themselves for the answer to that hideous question: Why?

In time, and with encouragement, they examine their history and recognize all the good they did. Parents frequently write to me after reading my first book on the topic, Done With The Crying. They say it helped them give themselves credit. They did their best by their children and were good, decent parents. Not toxic or deserving of disdain.

Recognizing patterns

Once you can view the estrangement with a clearer head and a calmer heart, you may want to delve into family history, culture, and genes as I have. My latest book, Beyond Done With The Crying: More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Childrencan help. Along with practical information and encouragement, a few sections guide readers to explore and fit together the pieces of their own lives (or even their ancestors’ lives). Familial traits and patterns may include or contribute to estrangement. As with any puzzle, fitting together our personal pieces, bits of knowledge and history, can provide a sense of completion, closure, and even peace.

Related Reading:

Why do adult children estrange? Let’s look at nature or nurture

Peace: Achievable in the chaos of estrangement?


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27 thoughts on “Why estrangement happens: Puzzling it out

  1. Erin

    I just ordered your book and looking forward to reading. If you ever told me 5 years ago my only daughter and only chld would choose estrangement from her entire family and old friends I would not have believed it. I went from speaking and doing activities constantly with her including daily conversations to her estranged completely besides texts once in a while. She was 28 when the process started and seemed to ignite during the pandemic in the summer of 2020 . As of March of this year she has cut out all family members and old friends , dropped off social media , quit her job and moved in with boyfriend # 3 . The way she has shut us out is heartbreaking I would never want another parent to live with it. She has in particularly broken the heart of her elderly grandmother and dying grandfather who she was alway close to.

  2. Loni B.

    Good news! My son who wanted no contact for 11 years, asked to have “a gentle word” with me. I was wary, and it has been years of ups and downs for me, and hurtful things I won’t relate now. But it turns out he said, that he felt his actions were responsible for some stress that he thought was the cause of some bad effects on my health. He thought a complete cut off was best, as he thought I may not approve of some of his life choices. I was so surprised to be called upon to be the mom again – to be the big person and to tell him he was not to blame. I had no idea he was feeling that way. I don’t know if he totally believes me or has let go of the guilt he felt, but he is happy to see us.

  3. Mike

    I am easily reminded of the ongoing estrangement. Our oldest daughter has severely harmed the lives of her children, a 17 yr old sone and a 12 yr old daughter. Our grandson is a prodigal, but he knows we are his safety net. Our granddaughter lives with her father and step-mother. Both grandkids love us and show it, which makes our estranged daughter so angry. She goes from man-to-man, about two per year. She is so hateful to my wife. I think it is because her kids find security in us. We find that estrangement does remove much of the day-to-day drama before the estrangement. We are a couple of Faith. Our situation is not a Godly one, from a Christian perspectively but we have tried everything to reconcile. Our daughter is bi-polar which makes things more complicated. Yet, she is slow to do the things necessary for helping herself. So, we accept our situation and try to keep hearts that forgives. It hurts.

  4. AnotherPointofView

    My biological and extended family are all estranged from each other. A family train wreck.
    We were first generation Migrants to Australia.
    Not one of us got together this year and haven’t met for a decade
    When my mom was alive it was a regular family meeting but after her death the cement was gone
    My Christmas Day without 2 Non interested EC and no extended family. Once again
    Christmas lunch with my husband and his mother was lovely. I was invited and felt accepted.

  5. Sue B.

    This “gift” from you is timely, helpful,profound and full of practical suggestions for movement forward.
    I am a brand new member of this site. Thank you. I am so impressed and grateful.

  6. Lisa H.

    Hello I have found these articles really helpful. Without going into too much detail I am estranged from my youngest son who is 24. The last civil conversation I had with him was a year ago on the 18th December 2020 and even then it wasn’t genuine as he was wanting his Christmas money early so he could go out with his friends.
    What I’m struggling with is when I have had conversations with him he will throw accusations at me but not give me a chance to respond or explain. I could write a letter but I’m sure he would rip it up. I have sent emails but they are ‘returned to sender So I am strugling with not being able to have a conversation where he will allow me to respond. Maybe it’s too soon.
    Lisa xx

    1. rparents Post author

      Dear Lisa,

      The definition of a conversation is when people listen as well as speak. He IS listening to himself, and that’s a monologue.

      I suggest that you turn your conversation to yourself in a way that helps you live well, feel joy, etc. You can’t change someone else but you can change yourself.

      Hugs dear Lisa. I know how hard this is.

      Sheri McGregor

  7. Dianne

    I’m encouraged and enjoy all of what you have to say Sheri. Your experience and wisdom is refreshing. If I were to look back at my history not with our son but with my family even, my mom and dad would off and on would pretty much shun me. That hurt even worse than my son. I think I have a handle how our son made the decision to leave us which his he married someone that has some issues. Although we didn’t recognize the same person as we thought we knew, that person is still underneath it all is there. It’s not good or health for me to try to piece it all together because it’s okay that it doesn’t make sense now. Does our family sometime talk about him? You bet but we don’t dwell on his choices, we flat out miss the kiddo that decided to create a life without us. After all I don’t look as my kids belonging to me, he’s God child I just got the honor in being his mom and raised him. May you all that read this know there is so many people like you and I and you will get to a place where it’s about you , your health and your joy and peace. Hugs for all.

  8. Elizabeth L.

    Thanks so much Sheri and everyone, for posting such positive advice and experiences, it really balances out the previous sadness and puts it all into perspective.
    I’ve come to realize that like Gwen, my ed had planned her estrangement in secret for many years and it started when she was a teenager, egged on by some of the people around her at school.

    Jigsaw puzzles are marvellous things. They help me to disappear inside a different landscape every time. One of those trays will be a gift to myself as soon as I settle into my permanent address, for sure!
    Happy betwixt week!

  9. Gwen

    I find reading and creative hobbies (knitting, sewing, beading, photography amongst others) a great source of satisfaction. My work is cerebral (clinical psychologist) so doing something which I can point at and think ” I made that” helps. My estranged son has not initiated any contact with me for several years and I have finally stopped doing it too and I am OK with that now. He knows (or would if he has read the letters I have sent) that the door is open for him to call or visit if he chooses. I recognize this is not likely and no longer torture myself with the whys and what ifs. I have not seen him at all for about 6 years but his choice to cut himself off started when he was a teenager.

  10. Dee

    Thank you so much, Sheri, especially for sending out these letters during the holidays, when parents can be more sensitive and vulnerable to the hurt our adult children have caused by shutting us out of their lives. The idea of engaging our minds with something safe and fun, like puzzles, reading books, playing mind challenging games is a wonderful way to put the sadness and wondering aside for a while. My husband and I have begun power walking at least 5 miles a day, and we are regulars at the library, picking up books on hold so we always have something to read before going to sleep. We even started doing some online surveys, where we earn gift cards. Between the two of us, we build up our winnings, which becomes our “Mad Money” to use for things we need. Meanwhile, when I begin to feel sad or question why our daughter shut us out, I pick up a good book and focus on someone else’s story. It really helps!

    1. Pamela

      I agree. A good book takes me out of my story and into a story I’ve chosen. I also do sudoku, jig saw puzzles and art projects. Volunteering gives value to my worth, even when my adult children do not.

  11. michelle m.

    I have found puzzles a nice distraction too! I also read lots of books. When I am sad, I look for comedy. Or take my loyal fur baby to dog park. I work out daily and it has been good. Exercise and going to the YMCA saved my life after the divorce and continues through my estrangement. Someone on a prior blog mentioned praying to St. Monica. So each day during this holy week, I have done the novena to St. Monica. I pray for both my ed. It has been a source of comfort.

  12. Looby

    I too did the puzzle in my mind over “Why did she do it” for years. It overtook my life completely. Always searching gave me the feeling that if I knew “why”, then I could fix it. One day, I realised that if I fixed whatever it was, she would create a different way.

    Finally, the last puzzle piece clicked in with the only answer, “My daughter left me because she could”.

    1. Pamela

      Looby you have enlightened me. You are so right, even if I knew what I did wrong there would be another reason to shut me out. I’m going to let it go. Thank you!

    2. Lisa

      Looby, I completely understand where you are coming from. The last time my ES spoke to me, he said horrible things that were so far off the mark and untrue that I was somewhat speechless. When I would ask him to give me an example of the thing he was accusing me of, he would quickly change it to something else. After several attempts to get an example of each of the things, it clicked; he simply didn’t want us in his life and he was trying to justify it to himself. We are now in the moving on phase and enjoying time with our other 2 sons and re-establishing the friendships we put on hold while we walked on eggshells to be able to see our grandkids. No more! My husband and I have let go and the freedom feels amazing. There are days that the sadness catches us, but those days are getting further apart.He is our son and we will always love him, and we would be here is he wanted to to go to family counseling to get help with whatever issues he has. That is a boundary we have set; any discussion will be with a family therapist. We don’t have high hopes for this, but we have left this in God’s hands. We will always wish him a happy life. Take care.

    3. Chris

      Loony- the truth in you statement, “She left me because she could” hit me center of the heart. The awareness in those words shook me. My ED left me BECAUSE she could. Full stop.

  13. Lupin

    The cause is our daughter-in-law and our son is unwilling to push back despite telling us he would bring his child over if she remained opposed to family togetherness. She created the distancing and then cut off out of her anxiety and has destroyed our once loving family. We are ready to forgive and move forward, she is not.

    1. Trudy

      From all the different things I have read about estranged adult children in-laws seem to be the biggest problem many of whom are very insecure and need to prove something.

  14. Jan P.

    Thank you for this latest article. Hobbies are a great diversion—I don’t do many puzzles, but I am an avid crocheter. Creating complex designs from published patterns and seeing them through to completion is very satisfying and keeps my mind occupied as does my weekly mah jongg game and other activities (including regular exercise). I will say that the “why” of estrangement from my ED still haunts me, but not as much as previously. I have identified a trend on my mom’s side of our family—the way they dealt with conflict was to cut off communication and relationships. That has never been my way, and I would have thought my ED would have learned from those family experiences rather than succumbing to them. So, we are moving forward into a new year both on the calendar and personally. Wishing everyone a happy and accepting 2022!

  15. Eliza

    I’m particularly interested in the family history aspect of the “why” question, as recently I’ve come to realize that my original family was not an especially caring one. There were/are some individuals I was/remain close to, but also some that I am deeply estranged from, w/out fully understanding why. What I do know, after much soul searching, is that I didn’t do anything to bring it on…it’s like an opportunity presented itself, then took on a life of its own and I was powerless to stop it.
    The other thing that interests me, and is related, is the role of genes in all this…maybe the best parenting in the world can’t overcome bad genes, and my kids certainly had ample opportunity to inherit some….and no matter how talented, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. I sometimes think a different father would’ve made a big difference in this outcome…but it is what it is, and I can’t reverse that. I am, at this point, fairly convinced there’s an element of destiny in all this…no matter what I did, things were going to eventually turn out this way….and maybe I shouldn’t have tried so hard to have it be different.
    All this said, I really enjoyed a quiet day yesterday and wasn’t wishing I was in the middle of a big family get-together…so maybe my genetic inheritance is toward the peaceful, quiet, and contemplative rather that than the chaos of a raucous family, which is what my children prefer – and I don’t fit into.

    But it is

    1. Betsy S


      I, too, puzzle over the nature vs. nurture debate. See my post on Dec 27th ( i think). One son estranged for 3 years now. Oldest son still communicating with me, but the last two visits we had spaced a year apart (he lives over 1600 miles away) each had spats where he yelled at me and said the foulest things. I muse about whether he inherited my exhusband’s quick temper or whether he learned from observing his Dad’s temper tantrums that one could behave like that with no consequences.

      It’s a puzzle my mind will visit from time to time. But in the mean time how much more enjoyable to do other kinds of puzzles. . .

  16. Gracie2021

    Good morning the day after Christmas. We made it !
    As far as keeping busy (to keep my mind from dwelling on estrangement), I am very blessed to live in a caring community where I have great neighbors, play LOTS of Bridge, and beautiful rural scenery. Sheri, you have been a lifesaver in diverting my attention, especially about a year ago now. Thank you !
    Here’s to a wonderful 2022 for all us parents still saying “what happened”?

  17. Barbara G.

    Great article Sheri !! Thank you !!
    As for me trying to figure out an answer to why this estrangement happened is exactly what I had to let go off !!
    I did that for years and for me it was really not helpful but again everybody heals different and for some parents they need answers ……
    I also believe even parents that did “ wrong “ by their children but have true repentance about it and seek forgiveness deserve to be treated with kindness ….
    there is a saying : Hurt people hurt people “
    and I have to watch myself constantly not to fall into that category myself ……
    As parents most of us did the best we could at times under very difficult circumstances and therefore it was far from perfect ……. forgiveness of our own failings and acknowledging all the good we did though ( and there was plenty )for our children will slowly bring us to healing in our own hearts
    Puzzle on my beautiful friends ❤️

  18. Elizabeth

    Well written, Sheri!! I especially like these ideas if you are older and more housebound. For us now, it is impossible for us to do much of anything for others…which would be more fulfilling perhaps. But especially once we are handicapped, having something to help the mind stay active is indeed good. We have also found quite a few youtube people who share their lives…more than we know of at least one child and family. In a strange way, for us, these youtube people are a kind of family…we look forward to watching them, some of them building their own home as we did when young. Some have animals, some of which we also did years ago. They have no idea the joy their sharing is for folks like us…but indeed we are grateful. Sometimes we pray for them in some of the hard places of their lives too. Again, they do not know. Maybe one day I will write to say thank you, but they have huge numbers of viewers so no lack there of that. It is no wonder in our day…they could not know how much they bless us in what they share. And you too, have blessed us all in providing this helpful place, Sheri!! THANK YOU again!!

    1. April

      Elizabeth, I also have found young families on Instagram that share pictures and videos of their children growing up. I look forward to seeing their pictures even if I don’t know them. I am grateful that they share their lives with strangers and it does put a smile on my face.


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