You gave birth to them, nurtured and loved them. You look forward to enjoying them as adults and hope that when you need them, they will be there in turn. But somewhere along the way, the relationship can become distant. Some children are even hostile. Then one day, they may reject you altogether. The pain of losing an adult child can be devastating.
It is especially frightening to be cut off from your child when you suspect that they have a substance abuse problem that is spiraling out of control, or they have an untreated mental illness. It is also devastating to have lost a child through a divorce and the other parent has villainized you. Typical reactions of a parent who is cut off are guilt, anger, helplessness, fear, uncertainty, and failure. To believe that your child needs help, but is rejecting your assistance, can cause anxiety and heartbreak. In fact, you have little control over your adult child’s actions.
So, why did they reject you? Many parents are in the dark. One study found that 67% of children said they had concretely informed their parent why they were cut off. Yet, when the parents were asked if they had been told the reason for the cutoff, more than 60% said they had never been told the reason for the estrangement. They don’t understand what they did wrong.
There are no perfect parents and every child can easily list their parent’s faults. There may be serious disagreements about life choices. But not every child will find it necessary to cut off the parent. Cutting off is a way people manage conflict when they don’t know a better way to solve problems. In the fight/flight/freeze continuum, some people are more prone to distancing (flight) when they feel unable to resolve problems in a direct way. They stop communicating when the relationship seems unmanageable.
There are cases in which it is in the best interest of the adult child to cut off a parent. Abuse should not be tolerated. Physical, emotional or sexual abuse of the adult child is cause to seek safety. Conversely, if the child is at risk of harm to themselves or others, the parent should intervene to get them help, if at all possible. Enlist the help of police to perform a safety check. If they are a danger they may need to be hospitalized.
Is there hope of a reconciliation? 60% of the adult children in one study said that they would like to have a relationship with the person from whom they were estranged under certain conditions. They would like an apology from the parent, want their parents to take responsibility for their poor behavior, and want their parent to have better boundaries. If these conditions are met, they are willing to re-engage.
Here’s my advice. Continue to reach out to your children, letting them know that you love them and want to mend the relationship. Do so periodically, but without giving them cause to feel harassed. Manage your own feelings of betrayal. Anger is a natural feeling, but is not helpful. Step back and look for ways that you might have contributed to this problem. If the door opens, listen without defensiveness. Be willing to accept some responsibility for a solution. Focus your efforts on your own life. Don’t allow yourself to be consumed with this relationship betrayal. You have the right to enjoy your life.
If you are a parent who is estranged from a child, you are not alone. You may benefit from a website http://www.estrangedstories.com where people post personal anecdotes and get support.