Family dysfunction is emotionally crippling. Acceptance and coping are the first steps to reclaiming your happiness and life balance.
Definitions of Alienation and Estrangement Per Merriam Webster Dictionary
Alienation: Withdrawing or separation of a person or a person's affections from an object or position of former attachment. (to cause a friend or family member to become indifferent, unfriendly, or hostile; to turn away).
Estrangement: To arouse especially mutual enmity or indifference in (someone) where there had formerly been love, affection, or friendliness. (no longer in a friendly or affectionate relationship with a family member or friend).
Parent/Child Estrangement Runs Both Directions
Every day, hundreds of family ties are severed by a parent towards an adult child(ren) due to a misunderstanding and poor communication. How do we cope with losing a parent who's actually still alive? Please keep reading to learn my take on this phenomenon and the coping strategies used to navigate this complicated but real-life situation emotionally.
Finding supportive research and literature in the case of a parent severing ties with an adult child is almost non-existent on the web. This behavior exists, and we most likely all know someone who has a toxic or absent relationship with a parent, whereas the adult child didn't initiate the separation.
How I Became an Estranged Adult Child
Once a child turns 18, a parent's right to opinions is limited to that which the adult child allows, accepts, or requests. I'm not saying a parent shouldn't offer help and advice, but parents need not nag, guilt, or bully adult children for their disagreeable decisions. Avoiding knee-jerk reactions when faced with disapproval and being a supportive parent is the best gift you can give your adult child, in my opinion.
My story started with my divorce but stemmed much deeper I've learned. My ex-husband and I amicably went our separate ways after 25 years of marriage in 2013. Our children were aged from 16 to 24. I wanted a specific future laced with travel and goals; he didn't. We always joked we were "oil and water"...ironically, that label was our demise, and I made a bold move to take control of my life.
You'd think the worst part would be breaking the news to our children and dealing with the nitty-gritty of dissolution, even if amicable. Instead, what I feared most, was telling my parents--something that shouldn't be an issue as a 45-year old, successful, educated, confident woman. But I was never recognized as such and instead, always met with judgment and opinion, rather than love and support. I knew this was the case and, for the most part, ignored the comments and went about my business. I'm not saying it was easy, but I also grew up in the "honor thy parents, they gave you live" doldrum, which basically means, don't be your own person and kiss their hind-ends no matter how they treat you.
I don't know why I expected some made-for-TV Hallmark Channel miracle when I made that dreaded call. But I somehow envisioned these loving, supportive, sympathetic words from my mother. Deep down, I knew better because this was never the situation with us. I was always saying or doing something...everything wrong. Even my best accomplishments were somehow wrong or disappointing in her eyes. Still, I thought this could be THE time I might have the kind of bond my friends had with their mothers, and I could lean on her for support. I wasn't the only woman in my circle of friends enduring a mid-life marriage or life-changing crisis during this time. I knew my father would be that rock for me once the shock settled; however, tragedy struck when he was diagnosed with stage IV cancer and passed away just a few months after my news. There was no time for us to ever talk about my situation because I focused on saving and helping him, especially being a nurse and knowing more than I'd like to about the evils of cancer. Between the loss of my loving father (the kindest man I've ever known), my marriage, respect for my children, my home, extended family, friends, it's amazing I'm rational enough to tell my story.
Things went about as bad as they could have when I told my mother. I was sternly instructed to counseling immediately to "fix this" and told it was all my fault. She asked what was wrong with me and said I must be insane to do such a thing. Then came the silent treatment and telling friends and family before I had a chance to. The coming weeks brought even more guilt about how disappointed she and my father were. She had nothing to brag or be happy about to her friends anymore, and I'd ruined the lives of my children. As extended family learned of my upcoming dissolution, many stopped associating with or responding to me. The Christmas cards and invitations to family events ceased, and there were even confrontations at a family function I hosted when an aunt scolded me in front of my children. I felt so alone, not to mention humiliation.
This was almost nine years ago, and I'm remarried. I live a robust and happy life, but I still have no relationship with my mother. Every year or so, I attempt basic communication by reaching out with a kind gesture, but she's unwilling to let this go and makes sure we go back to mutual silence. I've allowed her actions to affect my mood, motivation, and frankly, people are sick of hearing about it, too, even though they feel bad for me and wish they could help. This kind of unnecessary heartache is no way to live. I'm a happy and positive person by nature, and I had to get back to being that person for everyone's sake.
I broke the silence and started sharing my experience outside my circle. Not only am I not alone, but it's also more prevalent than I'd imagined. While my children have adjusted to their father and me apart, they can't wrap their heads around the estrangement with their grandmother and the negative emotional baggage it's created. They've begged me to fix it, but it's not fixable, no matter how much we all (including myself) want it to be. I'm most angry my children are in a position to choose and be secretive about their relationships with their grandmother out of fear of hurting me. I'm sad my grandchildren will grow up not knowing the connections. I wonder what I'll say when the day comes; they ask, "do you have a mommy, Grandma"? How will I look in their innocent eyes and explain this mess to them?
The next paragraphs explain how I've been able to move forward and find inner peace, and I hope I can somehow help you too. I assume if you're still reading, you're in a similar situation.
Adult Children Need a Healthy Relationship With Their Parents at Any Age and Stage of Life
As a parent, you needn't approve or agree with your adult child's choices. How do we, as parents, navigate our disapproval and not cause a rift that leads to an estrangement with our own children?
- Don’t cause battles by nagging and forcing expectations.
- Provide unconditional support to help your child navigate their challenges.
- Provide comfort, acceptance, and love, not opinions and judgment.
- Refrain from inserting dominance or disapproval.
- Let your children be their own people, not who you want them to be.
- You can break the toxicity cycle by being who you needed when your parent was hurting or rejecting you.
Adult children shouldn't be expected to live up to a parent's expectations, simply because parents created them. They're individuals and want their independence.
We're Not Guaranteed Perfect Loving Parents
If you're a target of family aggression, estrangement, or a victim of emotional abuse, it's time to remove yourself once you've exhausted measures to reconcile.
It sounds cliche', but when a parent pushes you away due to their disapproval, the issues they have aren't with you, but with themselves and their unhappiness; and you've no control over their happiness. You can only control how you respond to their emotional abuse. It means allowing the parent to walk away when they don't get their way with you. It may be temporary--or in severe cases--permanent, like mine. It could mean you remove the toxic parent from your life if they aren't willing to have a healthy relationship with you. Forgive your parent and break free of the guilt. Forgiveness isn't for them, it's for you. Your happiness is a priority and you have that control.
A dysfunctional family is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and often child neglect or abuse on the part of individual parents occur continuously and regularly, leading other members to accommodate such actions.
— David Stoop and James Masteller
Understand Some Parents Can't Love Their Children
It's a challenge for some mothers and fathers to love or even like their children, particularly mothers towards daughters. These are some of the reasons I've concluded:
- Jealousy over what the adult child's accomplished.
- They've nothing in common and can't find mutual ground on which to connect.
- The parent has high or unreasonable expectations of the adult child.
- The parent must always be the center of attention.
- The parent/child relationship was always stressed because the parent couldn't handle an active or opinionated child (the "seen and not heard,” “show me respect at all times" kind of parent.
- Perhaps something terrible happened to them as a child, and they haven't worked through it.
Ways to Cope and Respond to Alienation and Estrangement
If you're a victim of the above actions by your parent(s), it's acceptable to take care of yourself before trying to repair the damage of their actions. Practice self-love and get your life on a positive path, whether it's a move, hobby, or a new relationship.
Distance and silence are critical in the beginning to allow fresh wounds to heal. Once you have clarity, reach out slowly with a call, email, or a card. If that's successful, try a meetup for coffee or lunch. Don't expect a happy reunion at first. In fact, expect nothing, and you'll not be disappointed. The most important aspect is you tried.
If you continue in good faith to reconcile or find common ground and again get bitten, resume the silence and distance until your parent seeks counseling or gains maturity and takes responsibility for their behavior.
I've found a few books loaded with advice from experienced writers and professionals who've lived this phenomenon or helped those who have. Take advantage of these reads. Talk to your friends or see a therapist. Start a yoga practice or take up a new sport as an outlet for your frustration.
My two favorite books on this topic are as follows:
Difficult Mothers Cure: Toxic Relationships With Narcissistic Mothers Understood and Overcome Forever. It's written by a man who had a strained relationship with his mother and he even wished he could've had a different mother. He wanted her to be proud of him. His outcome has a happy ending and he shares how they repaired their strained relationship. When I first read it, it gave me hope my relationship with my mother could also be repaired. I'm still waiting and hoping.
I then looked for advice to cope and move forward without my mother. That's where the book Mothers Who Can't Love: A Healing Guide For Daughters came to my rescue. The author's a therapist who's helped many people with their feelings of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem etc. as a result of feeling unloved or controlled by their mothers. She further breaks down the types of difficult mothers, such as the "competitive and the narcissistic mother". This book provides emotional support for people like me, who've been handed the card of permanent parental separation.
If you're an adult child of parental estrangement, you're likely self-aware of how you react to your own children. In some twisted way, I can thank my mother for the lessons to not nag or meddle. I'm conscious of certain boundaries so they can live on their terms. I vet my words before causing damage to our relationship by inserting myself.
As for me, I'll always feel unloved by my mother--I can't change that, but I know her love and acceptance are beyond my control, and ultimately, it's too late. I even think I've already grieved her loss if that makes sense. I've identified my need to break away from toxic behavior and feel good about my adult, mother, and grandmother choices. I always felt the inflicted guilt by her about my parenting choices, how I spent my free time, my career, and mostly, the frequency of visiting her. No one has the right to control you in that manner, but it's up to you to break the cycle of emotional abuse. How your parent responds to that break is entirely up to them.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: What happens if all the others in my family, kids, and husband, are selfish uncaring narcissists that continually hurt, abuse, and disclude me?
Answer: I agree, the continual pain is debilitating at times, but this is where self-awareness and confidence come into play. As hard as it is, you must take the high road and not fuel the fire. If your husband's doing this to you, you may need to evaluate your relationship and seek counseling or therapy, if he's willing. Seek solace in your friendships and find hobbies and activities you love...where you can meet new people and experience inclusion, rather than disclusion. I found that establishing a regular yoga practice at a local studio was my saving grace. Not only am I giving my body the love it needs, but I'm also feeding my soul with powerful, positive, vibes, mental clarity, and new friendships. I hope this helps you in some way. The bottom line is, you must take control of your life before it controls you. I wish you peace and joy and hope my advice if of some help.
© 2018 Debra Roberts
Indra on February 14, 2020:
I am so happy to read your post I so want to understand my daughter whom I love so much yet she are so hard to please I also have a son I love my children equality as a parent children are different one like to hug and one dont I always been fare to both of them but my dauther never sèe it always have to be her way .For a long time she got her way .I finally stand up to her now we dont talk my choice until she can talk to me with respect how can we talk .
Angie on June 11, 2019:
I agree with all of these! I grew up in a dysfunctional home and it took me to the age of 33 to release my mother was very unhealthy for me! I have greater peace without her!
Lyosha on June 10, 2019:
That is such a important post. I (rather thankfully) not to relate to it but it is good to aware for such points. Family is so important, I can't really see myself (or even I afraid) dealing with it
Thuy on June 09, 2019:
I know a dad friend of mine who goes to a support group for alienated parents. They have a daughter in college and they say that having people to talk to really helps them avoid feeling helpless and alone. Yes the kids become adults and get to make their own choices, but there’s no denying the influence of a dysfunctional family and how it shapes their opinions of their parents
Live Learn better on June 09, 2019:
This is one of the touchy topics I hate to deal with. Family is what you call it. it could be blood or friends but in the long run, we're all in pursuit of happiness.
When I'm pissed at you I want nothing to do with you, and I won't trust you around mine.
Call it whatever you want, when the kids mature they can make whatever choices they wish to.
Snehal on June 09, 2019:
Um.. You hit the spot dear with this article. From my personal experience I can share that yes a dysfunctional family can lead to alienation. But you know what hurts the post..that no one is taking a step to bring us closer :/
Despite Pain on June 08, 2019:
Debra, I am so sorry you are dealing with this. I think more people than we realise live with family problems. You can only try so much to try to improve the relationship, but they need to make an effort. If they don't, then you have to do what's right for you, don't you?
Tracy C on June 08, 2019:
My recently ex-sister-in-law and my 20 something year old nieces are going through this right now. It’s so hard to be in the middle because I can see both sides. I’ll have to check out these books and see if they may be helpful for them.
Scott DeNicola on June 07, 2019:
My mom and my sister and my mother in law as well are extremely jealous of the life my wife and I have built for ourselves. They all constantly comment about how many friends we have and how busy we always are. Our response is always that life is about being with people you enjoy and who enjoy you. The frustration is that you’d think they’d be happy that they raised children who have made a nice life for themselves. It’s never easy to cut out toxic people or relatives from your life but as an adult it is your life to live as well. Very well written article and very deep.
Brandi on June 07, 2019:
It is very tough sometimes! Thank you for this article!
Debra Roberts (author) from Ohio on May 10, 2019:
I could have also written this reply! You and I sound like we have similar situations and both have tried to no avail. I'm sorry for you because I know the grief and guilt and judgement that comes along with it. I didn't choose to cut her out, he did that part. I just wanted to move on and agree to disagree but she she would not have that. I'm her only living, biological child too, and I thought that would mean something. Hugs to you Erica.
Erica (The Prepping Wife) on May 10, 2019:
Oh Deb, I’m so glad I found this post! It hit so close to home because I’ve had to cut my mother out of my life. It took me a very long time to realize she was a complete narcissist and it was time for me to make the healthiest choice for myself. It’s sad when I want nothing to do with her, and then there’s always the judgement from others to go along with that. I tried reuniting with no expectations. It was still disappointing because she took it as we were best friends again and had done nothing wrong.
Bruce Fruehan on December 10, 2018:
Very well written and very true. I've never had a better friend or one I respect more.
Debra Roberts (author) from Ohio on November 13, 2018:
Thank you Anna. It was deeply emotional indeed for me to write this as no one wants to admit their family situation is not so great. I used to find it very embarrassing until I started writing about it. Thank you for your thoughtful feedback.
Anna on November 13, 2018:
Your site is something I am very interested in as it talks about deep emotions that we go through and struggle with in life. I enjoyed reading this article. Thank you!
Debra Roberts (author) from Ohio on September 29, 2018:
I had never heard of NPD until I started reading and researching and trying to figure out why this happened...and why things have always been so contentious with us. The more I read, the more I have learned that it is more common than I thought. I'm definitely not alone in this struggle.
Liz Westwood from UK on September 29, 2018:
A friend of mine once did some study on narcissistic mothers, which was interesting to read. Your article further enhances my understanding of the subject.