Family dysfunction is emotionally crippling. Acceptance and coping are the first steps to reclaiming your happiness and life balance.
Definitions of Estrangement Per Merriam Webster Dictionary
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 ties are severed, resulting in estrangement in families due to a misunderstanding or faulty communication. How does one cope with losing a parent who's still very much alive? Please keep reading to learn my experience with this agonizing phenomenon and coping strategies to navigate these complicated waters emotionally.
Finding supportive research and literature when a parent initiates the estrangement and severs ties with their adult child is almost non-existent. Despite the lack of resources on the web, I'm willing to bet that someone you know has a toxic or absent relationship with one or both of their parents. The big difference in this discussion is that it was NOT the adult child who initiated the separation.
How I Became an Estranged Adult Child at 45
When a child turns 18, the parent's opinions are limited to what the adult child allows or requests. This is not to say a parent shouldn't offer help and advice. Still, the nagging, guilt trips, and bullying of their adult children usually precipitate the toxicity, causing the adult child to react in a way the parent finds offensive.
My story started with my divorce but, in revelation, stems much deeper than I realized. My ex-husband and I amicably went our separate ways after 25 years of marriage, back in 2013. Our children were aged from 16 to 24. I wanted an active future laced with travel and various goals, and he didn't. From day one, we joked about how we were "oil and water" but didn't consider that analogy would be our marital demise. I made a bold, frightful move to take control of my life and future and moved forward with an amicable dissolution. I'm not saying it wasn't rough or painful because it was all of that. Fortunately, it went as easy as it could have between us.
I thought the worst part of the whole ordeal would be breaking the news to our children and the nitty-gritty of the dissolution itself. However, I feared telling my parents, like no other. This shouldn't be an issue for a 45-year old, successful, and confident woman. But, as I'd predicted, my mother was filled with rage, judgment, and opinion versus caring, love, and support. It stung, but I mostly ignored the negative comments and went about my business. This was the emotional, immature-type behavior I'd grown up with. Like most adult children of my generation, I had "honor thy parents; they gave you life, I raised you better than this" doldrum beat into my head. What this basically means is, "do as I say, think as I think, and kiss my closed-minded hind-end" to keep the family peace.
I don't know why I expected some Hallmark Channel miracle when I made that dreaded call to my mother. I envisioned loving, supportive, sympathetic words from her, but I knew better because this was never how she was with me. I was always saying or doing something--everything--wrong. Even my best accomplishments somehow resulted in her disappointment. Still, I thought this could be THE time I experience the kind of bond my friends have with their mothers, and I'd lean on her for support. Yeah...No.
I wasn't the only woman in my circle of friends enduring a mid-life marriage or life-changing crisis during this time, so we thankfully had one another to lean on. I knew my father would be supportive (while still disappointed) once the shock settled. However, tragedy struck when he was diagnosed with stage IV cancer and passed away just a few months after my untimely news. My mother used this against me as she built her story to tell her friends and our extended family how horrible I was to do such a thing in the midst of my father's illness--never mind the fact this started before we knew he was sick. There was no time for my dad and me to discuss my situation because we were focused on what needed to be done for him, and I truly tried to leave my mess out of every interaction. Between the loss of my father (the kindest man I've ever known), the loss of my marriage, family as I knew them, my home, and my extended family, the stress was most days unbearable. Still, I stayed true to myself while trying to repair the damage, to no success.
I'll never forget the first words from my mother's mouth "you get your butts to counseling and fix this!" She also told me it was "all my fault," and asked what on earth was wrong with me. Then came the silent treatment and telling friends and family before I had the chance. The coming weeks brought even more guilt about how disappointed she and my father were. She had "nothing to brag about to her friends anymore," and thought I'd ruined the lives of my children. As extended family learned of my upcoming dissolution, most ghosted me. The Christmas cards and invitations to family events ceased, and during a family function I hosted, my aunt scolded me in front of my children, making a big scene. I felt so alone, not to mention humiliated.
The Roadblocks to Healing Continue
This all happened nine years ago, but it feels like yesterday. The wounds are so deep and raw; I feel they may never heal. I've remarried eight years ago and live the full and active life I dreamt of. But I still have no relationship whatsoever with my mother--it's toxic as can be, and it affects my children, grandchildren, and my only sibling. Every year or so, I reach out in good faith with a kind gesture. She's unwilling to move on, so we resume our mutual silence, causing angst for everyone who cares about the both of us. I dread the day I have to explain this to my four grandchildren, and I worry what message she's sending to them about how a family should be treated. I've allowed her actions to affect my "happy-go-lucky" nature deeply. Estrangement is an unnecessary heartache. When people ask about my family, I hate telling them I'm estranged from my mother. They automatically ask "why" and assume it must be something major. Sadly, it's many things. My divorce and my father's untimely death were the tips of the iceberg. I'd tolerated decades of emotional abuse and bullying. I'd still be tolerating it had she not cut me off. I have thick skin, and I can put up a lot because I have the introspection to realize everyone is battling demons. I know my mother has many, as evidenced by how she has cut others from her life throughout the years and is always angry about something. I believe she has unresolved childhood trauma. I can give her that grace, but as the old saying goes, it takes two to tango, and until we can communicate healthily, this is where it's at.
I finally broke the silence and started to share my experience outside my circle of friends and family by writing and participating in online support groups. I've learned that this type of estrangement is 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 between their grandmother and me and the negative emotional baggage it's created. They've begged me to fix it, but it's not fixable, no matter how much they (and myself) want it fixed. 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 positive, healthy family connections. I wonder what I'll say when they ask, "do you have a mommy, Nona?" How will I look into their innocent eyes and explain this mess to them?
How to Avoid a Toxic Mother/Adult Child Unhappy Estranged Ending
The next paragraphs contain advice on how to avoid estrangement with your own adult children as well as how I've been able to move forward and find inner peace, and I hope this can somehow help you too.
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 parents navigate their disapproval and not cause a rift that leads to estrangement with their adult children? These are my recommendations to set the stage for healthy boundaries:
- Don’t cause heated battles by nagging and forcing your agenda, beliefs, or expectations.
- Provide unconditional support to help your adult child navigate their personal challenges as they find their place in this world.
- Provide comfort, acceptance, and love, not opinions, expectations, and judgment.
- Refrain from inserting dominance or disapproval. Come to terms that your child is an adult now.
- Let your children be their own people, not who you want or expect them to be.
- You can break the toxicity cycle by being who you needed if your parents hurt or rejected your life decisions. Be the change and the solution, not the problem.
Adult children shouldn't be expected to live up to a parent's expectations simply because their parents birthed them. They're individuals and want their independence, just like you did at their age.
Nobody Is Guaranteed a Perfect Set of Parents
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. You can only control how you respond to this emotional abuse. It means allowing the parent to walk away when they don't get their way. It may be temporary--or in severe cases--permanent, like mine, which means 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. This doesn't mean you don't continue to try to reconcile, but the desire for reconciliation must come from both sides.
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 That Some Parents Struggle to Love Their Own Children
In some circumstances, it's a challenge for a mother or father to love or even like their children, particularly mothers towards daughters. I suspect this is from their own childhood trauma or mental illness, resulting in some of the reasons I've concluded below:
- 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 has always been stressed because the parent couldn't handle an active, strong-willed, or opinionated child.
- Perhaps something terrible happened to them as a child, and they haven't worked through it.
Ways to Cope with Parental Estrangement
First and foremost, it's acceptable to take care of yourself before trying to repair the damage of your parent's actions. Practice self-love and get your life on a positive path, such as moving for a fresh start, a new job or hobby, or a new relationship.
Distance and silence are critical in the beginning to allow fresh wounds to heal and to miss one another. Once you have clarity, reach out slowly with a call, email, text, 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 a twisted way, I can thank my mother for the lessons to not nag or meddle in my adult children's lives. I'm conscious of certain boundaries so they can live on their terms--I want them to live on their terms. I vet my words before causing damage to our relationship by inserting myself.
I'll always feel unloved by my mother, but I know her love and acceptance are beyond my control, and it's more than likely too late. I 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 life choices. I always felt the inflicted guilt by her about my life and parenting choices, how I spent my free time, my career, and mostly, the frequency of visiting her, which was never enough. No one has the right to control you, but it's up to you to break the cycle. How your parent responds to that break and how things proceed moving forward 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.