With Mother’s Day just behind us and Father’s Day around the bend, these holidays of appreciation can certainly open our hearts. But they can also pour salt into a terribly broken one. In my practice, I see a great deal of family strain. Particularly difficult is the breakdown between adult child and parent. Total estrangement is more common than most think. For some, it’s a temporary separation with hopes of reconciling if the dynamic changes. Often, the broken bond includes estrangement from the grandchildren. It’s a raw and intense pain for both parent and child.
The basic need for close family ties never leaves us, so what is behind the parent-child estrangement when the bond runs so deeply? And even more importantly, how can we heal these broken relationships, support those who are estranged, and proactively nourish a healthy parent-child relationship over the lifespan.
Some splits between parent and child come from something sudden or dramatic, but most broken ties develop gradually and stem from misunderstandings and less extreme, albeit hurtful, interactions. The grievances I hear most often from my clients who go “no contact” with their parent(s) sound something like:
- I feel criticized or disrespected ... about how I look, my lifestyle, my choices.
- My wife and mother cannot work things out. I feel caught in between and have no idea how to help them get along.
- They don’t listen. I’m not a child anymore. No matter how many times and ways I've tried, he/she keeps repeating the same old habits that make me feel rejected or bad about myself.
- My father doesn’t know how to connect, and I’ve grown used to being distant. Now we don’t even talk or see each other.
- My mother in law diminishes me and oversteps her boundaries time after time. I just can't have her around.
- I don’t understand how my parent(s) so blatantly gives special treatment to my sibling(s) and now their families.
While sometimes it’s the parent who breaks ties, most typically it’s the adult child. I agree with Teri Apter, a psychologist and writer of family dynamics, who says: “While family estrangement is sometimes temporary, an adult child who instigates estrangement is likely to believe that a functional relationship with a parent—a relationship that does not involve pain and humiliation, or bring with it a sense of betrayal—will never be possible.”
So let’s now talk about what hope there might be if you are estranged from your parent or child. Here's what I recommend:
- Seek Relationship Counseling. Yes, there are counselors who work with healing family break ups. Even if you've never felt comfortable with counseling, this is not the time to hold back— whether you’re the parent or the child. No matter how stuck you feel, or whatever stigma society imposes, this action step tells your loved one that your relationship is most important and that you are willing to take some ownership in the breakdown. An objective mediator can take the pressure off of right and wrong and help you take simple steps which can make a difference. Counseling can open healing doors by making sure each person is heard and help to identify healthy changes.
- Educate Yourself. As Albert Einstein said, “More the knowledge, lesser the ego.” We want to shrink the arena of what we don’t know that we don’t know. Read anything you can about family dynamics, adult development, reasons for estrangement, getting along with in laws, how families work things out, personal growth. I like Teri Apter’s books for family dynamics and Michael Berg’s Becoming Like God for understanding our potential and our ego blockages. You can also check out some of my previous blogs: Dealing with difficult family dynamics or Best practices for getting along with in laws
- Turn your learning toward yourself. Look for blind spots, get feedback from honest friends and professionals, be open to growing. Explore where you can listen better, show more support, stay quiet. Listen inside for expectations, wanting things your way, entitlement.
- Connect To Your Center Point
- For the parent. Ask yourself if you’ve made your children your center-point in life. Whenever we put anything or anyone as our center, instead of our own personal and spiritual growth, we need to be on watch for the E word— Expectations. Turning externally for fulfillment creates emotional dependency and doesn’t allow room for each person to find their own truth and path.
- For the adult child. Your wounds might run quite deeply and caring for yourself by healing these wounds (with help) can help you connect to your center point as well. No one else is responsible for your happiness. Counseling can strengthen your sense of self, your voice, and empower you to build skills and courage to kindly and firmly teach others how you want to be treated. The stronger you grow personally and spiritually, finding and living from your own center point, the less triggered you will likely be by your parent and the stronger footing you will secure in yourself to respond from an empowered place. Healthy people create healthy relationships and boundaries. This doesn’t guarantee that your parent will follow suit and that a reconciliation will flow easily, but your own growth will only enhance any outcome.
- Let Go and Accept. Whether we like them or not, our parents are our root. We benefit greatly, in heart and soul, to do everything we can to prevent a total cut off. One strategy to maintain some kind of connection is learning to be in two places at one time. This requires one of my favorite states of mind— ACCEPTANCE. We only gain more peace and love in life when we let go and appreciate that each individual has the free will to live by rules of life they deem relevant. Acceptance is certainly not easy but vital for both parent and child to give each other the space to be themselves. Building from our acceptance, we can practice being in two places: finding common ground where we can and then reserving our innermost truth in private—sharing ourselves more fully with other like-minded and hearted people. We don’t need to agree and being in two places doesn't mean accepting abusive behavior. Yet we can often appreciate whatever common ground we can find, and let that be enough.
From the variety of research on family estrangement, all agree that those involved feel like they're not receiving the support they need, in fact they can feel judged and stigmatized. It's a type and level of grief that most don't understand, unless you've been there. If you know someone cut off from family, it's a good time to be more sensitive to their feelings and needs. Don't be afraid to show comfort or perhaps talk about it with them, even if there's no apparent solution.