If your adult child has cut you out of his or her life—whether for a long or short time—it is a gut-wrenching experience, provoking deep feelings of shame, guilt, bewilderment, and hurt, all of which can easily turn to anger. On top of that, it can also arouse people’s worst suspicions (surely, the Smiths must be terrible parents for their daughter to cut them off like that!) and leave you feeling judged, even by friends and family.
Sometimes, of course, there are circumstances in which cutting off from a parent is the only viable option for an adult child (age 18 and older), for instance, in the case of past or present physical, emotional or sexual abuse from a parent.
Many times, however, estranged parents are left in the dark trying to figure out what went wrong. And while it’s common to pin the reason for the estrangement on everything from money issues, to personality conflicts, to divorce or difficult family dynamics, when you are in the dark, the easiest target to hit is yourself—to believe that you “failed” as a parent.
But here’s the reality: you didn’t cause the relationship to be severed; it was not your choice. Although you may have contributed to the tensions between you, you are not responsible for your child’s choice to cut you off.
Shutting a person out is a response to anxiety and fusion. Your actions or lack of action didn’t cause this. Cutting off is a way people manage anxiety when they don’t know a better way. The love and caring is there; the ability to solve differences is not.
Many adult children struggle with their parents, or with money issues, etc., but not all of them cut ties with their parents. Why do some cut off while others go through similar struggles and stay connected?
The Flight Response: Why Some Kids Distance Themselves
We humans manage stress in pretty predictable ways. We have a “fight or flight” response just like other species. And some people are more prone to distancing (flight) when emotional intensity gets high.
Let’s take Joe, for example. Joe was living at home after college, and his parents felt he was aimless. He would sleep in late, not help around the house, wouldn’t get a steady job, and was rude and disrespectful. Joe’s parents were understandably concerned and anxious about his lack of direction. They would nag, yell, and question him daily as to his game plan. He would be vague or get nasty, which caused his parents to get on his back even more. Eventually, Joe moved out. He didn’t tell his parents where he moved and didn’t contact them for over a year.
To understand Joe’s response, we have to recognize that when some people feel anxious, tired of conflict or pressure, or too much of the sticky family “togetherness” called fusion, their response is to distance themselves, be it emotionally, physically or both. When a person distances from others, they feel a sense of relief because the distance seemingly brings the conflict to an end. Of course, nothing is actually resolved; instead, more stress is generated.
On the outside, it looks as though Joe and his parents are disconnected. But on the inside, they are actually thinking about each other all the time and remain overly focused on one another. They are, in fact, still extremely involved with one another: they are emotionally bound up together, even though all communication has ceased. Neither is free from the original problem; nor are they free from each other.
Extreme Distancing: Cutting Off
Distancing, at its extreme, turns to cutting off. It can occur after long periods of conflict or as a sudden reaction to a difficult encounter. Whatever the issue, the person doing the cutting off has difficulty addressing and resolving the problem directly and maturely. Instead, like Joe, they stop communicating. Continuing the relationship seems unmanageable to them.
When a parent and child are enmeshed (too emotionally bound up with each other), they are more susceptible to cutting off when anxiety is high. Joe and his parents, for instance, were overly involved and entangled with each other. He was not taking responsibility for himself, nor were his parents taking responsibility for themselves. His parents did not stand up and let him know what they would and wouldn’t accept. Instead they nagged, begged and hoped he would change. He dug his heels in deeper, did less when pushed, and refused to address his part of the problem. They were living in reaction to one another, rather than each taking responsibility for their part of the family “dance.” The only way that Joe could see to get out of this tight tangle was to distance and cut-off from his parents; he didn’t have the skills necessary to untie the knots, to grow up and face himself.
Parents feel powerless when no contact is possible, when they can’t negotiate or even talk with their child. Should you contact your child or not? How long should you try? What should you say?
If you’re in this difficult position, here are five things you can do.
- Don’t go at this alone. Get support. Being cut off by your child, with no ability to understand, communicate and resolve things, is difficult enough. That’s why being connected to others who love and understand you is particularly important. In addition to reaching out to friends and family, consider joining a support group. If you are not able to function at your best, get some professional help.
- Don’t cut off in response. You are not the one cutting ties; your child is. Don’t cut off your child in response. Continue to reach out to him, letting him know that you love him and that you want to mend whatever has broken. Send birthday and holiday messages as well as occasional brief notes or emails. Simply say that you are thinking about him and hope to have the opportunity to reconnect. Send your warmth, love and compassion—as you get on with your life.
- Step back, look, and don’t feed the anger. It’s understandable to feel angry. And in their attempt to be supportive, friends and family may fuel your feelings of betrayal, inadvertently increasing your anger. Anger is natural, but not helpful. Step back and try to understand what led to this estrangement. What patterns were operating in your family dance? If you can look at your family from a more factual vantage point, it may feel less personal. No one is to blame. Now if the door opens, you will be in a much better position to reconcile.
- If the door opens, listen to your child without defending yourself. Listen with an open heart. Listen to her perceptions of what wrongs took place. Even if you disagree with her, look for the grains of truth. Be willing to look at yourself. It’s hard to hear these criticisms, especially if your intentions were misunderstood. So prepare yourself to handle this. Your adult child may need to hold on to blame as a way to manage her own anxiety. Just letting her know that you hear her will go a long way. Keep in mind that she, too, had to be in tremendous pain to reach the point of shutting you out. Try to empathize with her pain rather than get caught up in the hurt and anger.
- Focus on yourself, not your child. If you do begin communicating again, you will be in a position to learn from the mistakes of the past and work toward an improved relationship. Put your efforts into changing yourself, not your child. Let go of your resentments regarding the estrangement. Understand his need to flee…and forgive him. Get to know the adult child you have, not the child you think he should have been. Allow him to get to know you.If your child still has made no contact, grieve the loss and know there is still hope. Try to manage your anxiety, and do the right thing by staying in touch with him in a non-intrusive way: occasionally and lovingly. Things may change. Rather than blame yourself or your child for this pain, use your energy to learn about yourself, your own family history and patterns in your other relationships. Look for other patterns of cutting off in your family tree.
Remember that shutting a person out is a response to anxiety and fusion. Your actions or lack of action didn’t cause this. Cutting off is a way people manage anxiety when they don’t know a better way. The love and caring is there; the ability to solve differences is not. You did not cause your child to turn away. That was her decision. It may have been a poor one, but it was the best she could do at the time. Try to get your focus off of her at least 50 percent of the day, which will make a difference.
Your pain is real. Be mindful and compassionate of it, but don’t allow it to define or overwhelm you. Put the focus on what you have control of: your own life.
About Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.