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What Not to Say to a Friend Who Is Estranged From a Parent (and 3 Things They Need to Hear)

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As a product of a dysfunctional family, I find fulfillment in sharing my personal heartache to help others going through difficult times.

How to support a friend going through parental estrangement.

How to support a friend going through parental estrangement.

Estrangement Is Painful

As a 35-year-old woman who has been estranged from her father for almost two years, I have been lucky that my friends have never said the things I have expected them to say. However, the fear was almost crippling at first. Not only was I going through immense pain because I couldn't heal my relationship with my once-beloved dad—and realized things would never be what I thought they were or wanted them to be—but I was also dealing with the fact that I was the one making one of the hardest choices I have had to make.

It wasn't the first time, either. This was the second go-around with my father after an initial estrangement that ended up with us getting back in touch and trying again. In some ways, the second time was harder than the first because it seemed more final. I have less hope this time around that he can be a non-toxic entity in my life.

Manipulation and Letting Go

In my case, my father would manipulate me to serve himself. My wants and my needs were irrelevant to him. Sometimes, things would be twisted to look like a good "deal" for me, but it was always self-serving and one-sided. After years, I learned I was being manipulated by him constantly; eventually, after trying to talk to him about it, reason with him, overlook it, and fight it, I let him go.

I'm sure he loves me the best way he can in his heart, but his actions of being parasitic left me on the brink of a breakdown, and it wasn't fair to my husband or myself. We have to love each other from a distance. And although it's hard to say out loud, my life is better without him.

9 Things Not to Say to a Friend Going Through Parental Estrangement

When an adult child feels the need to cut a parent out of their life, it can be shocking not only to them, but also to the people around them. We all know we can stop being friends with people or get a divorce from a spouse, but to cut communication from a parent seems unheard of to many people.

It's not fun, and it is an absolute last resort for many of us. A lot of these adult children form a close-knit bond and create "family" elsewhere. If you have a friend that is going through a parental estrangement, here are a few things to try to avoid saying to them.

1. "They're your parents/mother/father."

This is true, we know this. That's part of what makes this type of toxic relationship so difficult. It is also why we probably didn't cut ties sooner than we wanted to. Usually, when an adult child has cut a parent out of their life, the decision wasn't made lightly. We know it is our mother or father, but something got so bad that they became toxic. We gave them every chance, every opportunity to allow them to heal the relationship and, for whatever reason, they couldn't do it.

Unfortunately, toxic relationships don't discriminate and limit themselves to bad people in a dark alley.They often come in the form of loved ones. As hard as it is to believe, they can even be our own parents. The very nature of abuse is when someone who is supposed to love us causes us harm and we let them out of "love." We can't ever allow it. Having a title doesn't give anyone on this earth a free pass to cause someone pain.

2. "They love you more than anything in the world."

This is probably true, but it also may not be. They most likely do love us, but they can also unknowingly or knowingly hurt and disrespect us. The odds are that if they got cut-out, they were not listening to what we needed for the relationship to continue. Parents don't always love their kids unconditionally. If your parents do, you are beyond blessed.

Some parents are very broken people when they have children and they have to mend themselves while they are raising us. It sometimes leaves them unable to love us unconditionally because, honestly, they don't love themselves. The idea that they are our parents and love us unconditionally should not allow us to tolerate toxicity more than we would other relationships.

3. "They only want what's best for you."

I generally think this is true but sometimes a parents own selfishness and unresolved issues get in the way. Sometimes, parents will live vicariously through their children. Sometimes this isn't harmful, but a natural occurrence. There are other times this has terrible consequences. Sometimes parents will take their own failures and disappointments out on their children and adult children and this can be where a lot of relationships fall apart,or worse, the person falls apart.

This is how my father was. As I got older, I realized that I was a means to an end. It wasn't enough for him to be my father and friend. I had to provide him with whatever he wanted. In his case, he was always wheeling and dealing. I would try to compromise and it was never enough. Don't tolerate it. That is called a one way relationship. It should be least expected from a healthy, vibrant, able-bodied parent.

4. "You're mean and selfish."

No we're not. It's actually quite the opposite. We have put our own needs and desires second to our parent's for a long time. We have forgone setting adequate boundaries in our lives that are beneficial, not only to us, but the people around us. We actually were more selfish before implementing any changes. We were unaware of how a toxic parent/adult child relationship was affecting our children, marriage, co-workers, friends, and ourselves.

We are also not selfish because sometimes things need to get worse before they can get better. Sometimes an estrangement is like an intervention. It may have to happen to gain attention that something is seriously wrong in the dynamic. Estrangement doesn't always last forever. For some it might, but for others, it may be essential in a new, healthier beginning.

5. "If you'll cut your own family out, how will you treat me?"

I have been concerned that my friends would wonder if they are seemingly disposable. Certainly if I would cut people from my own family out of my life, they would be easier to cut out and it would be inevitable. That is not true, If you're a positive, loving entity in my life. They have all been gems and completely understanding in my situation.

Don't assume because your friend is estranged from a parent that you'll be cut out next. That's not how it works. Odds are, we have a long complicated relationship with our parent and as we have grown into adulthood, we have realized how toxic the relationship is. We have usually chosen friends that are better than our own family.

6. "I could never do that."

That may be true and we hope you never have to. We wouldn't wish parental estrangement on our enemies, let alone people we love. If you do have a toxic parent and find you can't cut them out, we know how hard the decision is to make and most of us would never try to force you to do what we have done because we know it's not a light decision. We may try to guide you, but well never pressure you. So don't worry if you can't. We're not judging you either.

7. "You'll regret it one day."

Perhaps we will, but will they? Probably not. Why should we be the only ones carrying a burden of guilt for a broken relationship. A relationship requires two people. The breakdown of a relationship also requires two people. You know what we definitely do regret?

  • We regret that our boundaries aren't respected as we've entered adulthood.
  • We regret you can't, won't, and don't hear us as we tell you our concerns.
  • We regret the manipulation, gas-lighting, and any other mental abuse that we have endured at the hands of your "unconditional" love.

But do you know what we regret the most? That we have to make the responsible and hardest decision ever to save our sanity, mental health, physical health, marriages, and children. And that at a certain point, an estrangement may be the last resort in a resolution. So will we regret when the parent passes away someday and we never got the blessing to have a health, happy relationship with them? Yes. We will take 50% of that regret and let them have the rest.

8. "Just forgive your mother/father."

You're right! We must forgive in order to find peace and be free of pain and hurt. What you don't know is that we may have forgiven them. However, forgiving doesn't mean that we need to maintain a toxic relationship. A broken relationship is not fixed though forgiveness alone. Sure it is a first step, but then their needs to be work done on both sides for the relationship to be rebuilt and healed.

If they are unwilling to do that, forgiveness and continuing a relationship will only cause further hurt. Forgiveness is for the forgiver not the forgiven. In a perfect world, forgiveness given unconditionally without any expectations of the other person.

9. "You need to honour thy father and thy mother."

It's a cheap shot to us, no matter how religious we are. We may honor our parents, but we may do it from a distance. To honor doesn't mean to dishonor ourselves or allow them to get away with abuse of any kind, be it emotional, verbal, or physical.

Sometimes the kindest thing us grown children can do is withdraw as to not stay in a toxic relationship with will never be one of mutual respect. As a grown child of my fathers I can assure you, I have treated him with more respect and still respect him more than he respects me.

3 Things Your Friend Would Love to Hear

1. "Even though I can't understand what you're going through, I respect that you did the right thing for you."

We know that the people that we love may not understand how we could estrange ourselves from a parent. It's a catch twenty-two. While we want you to understand and be able to feel what we're going through, we would never wish this feeling on our worst enemy.

Ultimately, we just don't want to be judged and though of as "bad people" for doing something some might consider mean, cold, heartless, or selfish. We just want to understand we are practicing self-love and we will extend that love to the wonderful people in our lives who have our best interests at heart.

2. "I know that you treat people fairly, I know you will do the same with me."

We will! If we did something as hard as cutting out a parent due to poor treatment and not respecting boundaries you can bet your bottom dollar we are more aware of boundaries than ever before.

3. "Think of me as your family."

Since we have eliminated a very crucial relationship from our lives, we want to fill our lives with good relationships and other family. Often though, we choose people that aren't technically "family" as family. If you are in our lives, we want you in our lives. In some ways, I feel there is no purer relationships than the people we choose as family. Nothing says we have to be together, yet we are.

Share Your Story!

What helped when I was in the darkest part of this process was reading articles like this and, even more importantly, the comments from people with similar stories. Please share your stories below to give hope to those who are dealing with this. When I first started realizing I had a problem, I felt so alone. Then with some research, I realized I wasn't. What a gift that was.

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.

© 2019 Jess B


Anna on May 20, 2020:

Thank you for this article. My father has been more or less absent in my life for the last 28 years, occasionally showing up for this or that but never really being there. He also spent at least 25 years of his life drinking him self to near death, and has been financially irresponsible his whole life. At 70, he can barely make ends meet despite having many talents and high intelligence. Now he has had a brain hemorrhage and may never fully recover, but I have chosen to not be a part of his "rescue team". For many years I wondered what I would do if he were to become seriously ill, but much to my surprise I hardly felt a thing when it happened. Everytime I got involved in some way, I felt so upset afterwards and I realized that it was affecting my ability to be a good parent and take care of my family. I eventually decided not to be involved and not call, not send any cards, just not do anything. He has only held the title of a father and done perhaps half a percentage of what a father should do or be to his daughter. I realized that the gap that he has left in my life has had immense effect on me and that I had for many years held him as some kind of fairytale father, and continued to give him a chance, hoping that he would see the light and start investing in our relationship. I've finally understood what a useless father he has been to me and there's no need to continue to give chances. The good thing is that realizing this almost immediately opened a gate to something inside me where much more patience, caring and nurturing than I had for my own kids, was waiting for me to come and find it. I love my kids very much but have struggled being a mom, but now I fully understand that it's really hard to give something that you have never had. Only the realization and accept of that could help me to coming closer to being that patient and accepting parent I want to be.

Jess B (author) from United States on October 26, 2019:

Hi Alexandra,

I'm so sorry to hear you are going through something like this too. I completely understand the feeling, you are so not alone. I come from a place of experience rather than expertise. Articles like this, as well as, reading the comments and realizing I wasn't alone was the best medicine for me when I was in the depths of it. It is the reason I wrote this because there isn't a lot out there from the child's perspective. A lot of articles paint us as "loser children" and parents as innocent victims. While there are situations like that, parents can be just as guilty of alienating their grown kids and estrangements occur as a result of their actions and it can feel so taboo. It is so hard, hang in there!

Alexandra Caraway on October 25, 2019:

I am scared I’m going into this situation right now. I’ve tried everything, like you said can happen I’m not at the brink of a breakdown. My dad has been my best friend and hero for so long but now at 28 it’s fallen apart and just gotten worse. I read an article about codependent parent child relationships and ticked every box and just about every word. Basically, I’m realizing this is the situation to a T, and I mean a T. I’m sad, I’m heart broken. I lost my mom in a difficult and very sad way when I was 17. Oh man I wish she was here. I’m sad but I feel more knowledgeable and somewhat better now that I’ve run across this type of information in my research. This sucks.

Jess B (author) from United States on June 28, 2019:

You're so right, Madeleine! It's so hard as a Christian to sometimes do what's best for you because it is so ingrained in us to be "good people" and to forgive, and of course like you said, the stigma of cutting out a parent is so unthinkable for some people. I think there are a group of us who fall in the middle of loving others, forgiving, turning the other cheek, and being of service to others, while also making ourselves a priority, setting boundaries, and also removing toxic aspects from our lives where we can. I think we are an especially strong and well adjusted group of people who hug both lines out of necessity and we are just trying to grow, find happiness, ad find success so that we can be the best version of ourselves to give back to the world. It's not as selfish as some people think ;) I'm so happy for you that, although it was a hard thing to go through, you have come out the other side to reap the benefits of living our best life.Thank you so much for reading!

Madeleine Clays on June 27, 2019:

This is a very good article and I can relate to what you are talking about. Unfortunately, even in religious circles, there is a stigma associated with estranging oneself from a parent. I suppose some people cannot understand, or don't want to understand, what would lead someone to do this. I could not agree with you more that it is sometimes absolutely necessary to distance ourselves from a toxic parent in order to take care of ourselves.

I too had to estrange myself from my father for a long period of time because of his (and his wife's) highly toxic behavior. When I did so, I was able to start to heal emotionally and that's when I started to grow so much both personally and profesionally! But when I would try to talk to Christian friends about my relationship with my father, they were usually silent or would change the subject. It was so hurtful.

The Bible is full of stories of dysfunctional families yet many Christians seem to avoid discussing these sorts of issues. Very sad. I am glad Jesus wasn't and isn't like that.

Thank you for sharing your story.