Whether it’s low contact or no contact, Mother’s Day is one of the hardest days of the year for mothers estranged from a son or daughter. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the current epidemic of estrangement from an adult child, it’s this. The ordinarily reliable norms and guidelines we use to navigate any other interpersonal breakdown successfully can go up in flames and backfire beyond imagination with our adult children.

That’s why estrangement from an adult child is so confounding and can leave parents agonized, bewildered, and seriously destabilized. “I’ve tried so hard. I’ve tried everything I know to do. What am I missing?”

It’s like we’ve trusted our instincts, headed off in what we think is the right direction, only to end up in the middle of nowhere.  “Why are you doing this? What have I done wrong? Tell me, so I can fix it — or at least understand it.”

When things don’t make sense, it usually means we’re either missing or somehow misinterpreting critical information.

parent-adult child estrangement

 

You may have something to do with the problem, but the problem may not be what you think. 

  • Before the estrangement, did you generally have a good relationship with your child?
  • Are the reasons, if any are given, for cutting you off vague or global generalizations with few specifics?
  • Does your child show no interest in discussing the issues with you, directly or indirectly?

If that’s the case, don’t automatically assume your child’s behavior is most certainly motivated by punishment for your past mistakes as a parent or pure loathing for you as a person.

So if that’s not it, what is it?

Back off? But that feels so… wrong.  

It may be that you need to back off. And your child may be using an emotional sledgehammer to drive that message home. Your son or daughter may need to make you very wrong or very bad to justify the sledgehammer solution or just avoid the whole thing altogether by walling you off. Instead of seeing this behavior as retribution or a sudden sociopathic tendency, there may be another explanation.

Backing off goes against all the programming most of us have as mothers. Backing off feels like we’ve stopped caring about our kids and are giving up on them.

There’s nothing wrong with missing your child and wanting to be with him or her. That just means you’ve joined the human race. The problem is when you make it your child’s responsibility to make your uncomfortable feelings go away.

In other words, don’t underestimate how hard it may be for your son or daughter to smoothly, graciously, and maturely set limits with you. In spite of the disrespect and disregard being shoveled at you, you are probably more intimidating and impactful than you may realize or feel at this moment. It’s counterintuitive, I know, so stay with me.

Think of it this way. You didn’t always do a great job of being a parent. No one does. In the same way, your kid may doing a really awful job of individuating from you. Justified or not, your child is now in a position to go toe-to-toe with you. That’s a game-changer. So it’s time to pivot.

Do you know what I like best about the back-off approach? It can take you out of the victim role, which may generate more respect from your child, as well as more self-respect. He or she may also feel relieved that the pressure is off them to be totally in charge of and responsible for the relationship reset.

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Backing off doesn’t mean you stop reaching out to your child.  

It’s important to keep reaching out. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to learn how to back off and how to keep reaching out— at the same time. Don’t be surprised if you need help developing this superpower. It will pay off.

The reality is that we become less significant in our children’s lives as they become adults. And it’s our responsibility to do the personal growth work necessary to deal with it… so we have a better chance of keeping them in our lives.

The Other Mother

As we have transitioned to a more child-centered society, it’s like Mother Nature’s process of weaning has somehow been turned on its head. The young calf, colt or pup is now in the uncomfortable and ill-prepared position to have to wean its own mother, versus the other way around. 

Here’s what I mean:  If you grew up around animals or watch a lot of nature shows, you’re familiar with how Mother Nature handles the weaning process: When baby mammals begin developing teeth, their suckling begins to irritate the mother. So mom tries to make baby to stop nursing (ouch!) and baby tries to make mom continue to provide milk. Mom will physically force the baby away or leave the kids on their own for longer periods of time. The process looks rather cruel, and it’s stressful for both mom and baby. (Both a mother cow and her offspring will lose weight during this stressful process.)

It’s also a necessary part of how, as young adults, we become self-sufficient, independent, and confident that we’re capable of reaching our goals and running our lives. That’s a young adult’s job. It’s not your kid’s job to validate you as a parent or as a person.

How did it come to this?  

The reality is that as parents, we get a lot of our emotional needs met by our children. In our country, we live independent but isolated lives. Adults in the U.S. report having fewer close friends than ever, our families aren’t as close as in past generations, and our neighbors often don’t know us very well.

We live in big houses and want big relationships with our children. Our relationships with our children can take on a significance that may be beyond our child’s ability to meet our need for connection. The weight of our emotional need and expectation may overwhelm your child’s current capacity for that level of intimacy.

If you’re guilty as charged, please don’t judge yourself. I certainly don’t, because I know it’s just another way we go about being human (aka vulnerable). And I also know that beating yourself up about it will only keep you stuck and unable to make the progress you need, so reconnecting with your child can become a possibility.

Make yourself a bigger mental “container” for holding Mother’s Day. 

Your child may not acknowledge you on Mothers’ Day, but you can still honor another mother, as a way of helping yourself. How can honoring your own mother, whether she is alive or not, or somebody else’s mother on Mother’s Day possibly relieve some of your suffering?

Offering kindness or goodwill intrinsically feels good, and as our minds recognize and recalibrate this reward, it has the effect of temporarily tripping the circuit of suffering laid down in the neural pathways of our brains.

Here’s how one woman got creative and gave herself a brief respite from the pain of estrangement from her adult son: She and her husband planned a day trip to place flowers on his mother’s grave on Mother’s Day. The woman had never visited this area of the country or met her mother-in-law, but she was aware of the loving relationship her husband had enjoyed with his mother. The whole experience had a way of disrupting the estranged mother’s suffering with something strikingly different.

Don’t underestimate the power of these small moments, repeated many times in many ways, to accrue and help you gather the resilience you’ll need to complete the marathon of motherhood and estrangement.

I’ve developed a specialty in estrangement issues because so many parents are struggling with them. The shame that often surrounds estrangement from an adult child has made it a silent epidemic. I’d like to see that change.

Mother's Day