Today more than ever, the saying of, “blood is thicker than water,” doesn’t always hold true when it comes to the relationships of parents and their adult children. Often referred to as the silent epidemic, this type of estrangement can be incredibly painful and traumatic.
The Lonely Road of Parent/Child Estrangement
Why is it called the silent epidemic? Because, largely, estrangement between parents and adult children isn’t talked about. There tends to be a tremendous amount of shame involved regardless if you’re the parent or the adult child. Much of this is compounded when one of the estranged party attempts to open up to a family member, friend or co-worker about this struggle.
At best, the estranged individual may be met with an inability to help or understand the struggle. At worst, a feeling of being judged for possibly being in the wrong results. This misunderstanding can lead to an ever-increasing temptation to isolate and hide their feelings of deep, life-altering hurts from others. In my decade of work facilitating intensive groups therapy, I’ve seen people hold on to this pain for decades and decades. It breaks my heart but each time someone walks through our clinic doors eager to heal, we are ready and hopeful.
Many people in your support system who might lend a listening ear wish they could help but are unsure of how to proceed. They also may feel uncomfortable hearing about your broken relationship.
Another troubling complication of parent/child estrangement is that other family members often feel pressured to choose sides when such a rift occurs. This means you could lose more relationships than those initially involved in the conflict. This could include siblings or family friends or people who just don’t get how complicated this can be.
Why is Family Estrangement So Painful?
Although there are many unique reasons given the situation, there tends to be one reoccurring theme. A widespread feeling among parents and adult children is that it feels worse than the death of a close loved one (although the person initiating the estrangement may feel some relief if abuse was involved). Luckily, DCNE treats trauma from family abuse.
That description isn’t meant to trivialize the actual death of a close loved one. However, it can be easier to eventually accept the physical death of a loved one. In a sense, fate, destiny, or a higher power (whichever you embrace or none) has taken that individual from you.
You may go through deep bouts of grief after the physical death of an adult child or a parent. However, there’s a much greater chance that acceptance of the loss will eventually take place than there is with estrangement. Estrangement can feel worse because the “edges” of the wound are much more uneven. The potential for deep betrayal and hurt can lead to the feeling of a perpetually open sore instead of a scar that has healed.
With physical death, your loved one leaves you because they have to. With parent/child estrangement, your loved one leaves you because they choose to. That almost inevitably increases the pain for those involved.
What Can Be Done for Parent/Child Estrangement?
Both sides of a parent/adult child estrangement tend to have two very different viewpoints of what led to the rift. In some cases, one party involved may feel at a total loss to understand what has happened.
While I wish I could say that parent/adult child estrangements always become resolved, that isn’t the case. Those who do experience a restoration of the relationship usually have to see a significant personal transformation on both sides to come to this point in a healthy manner. Family counseling is also an option and DCNE recommends IMAGO therapy for this type of important work.
What can you do in the meantime if you’re struggling with estrangement? Here are some steps you can take to make this process more manageable.
Focus on what you can control—Trying to force your relative back to you through unhealthy control will only push them further away. Instead, focus on yourself and healthy changes you can make.
Improve your health—A healthy body, mind and spirit are crucial, especially when going through a tough time like estrangement. Practice self-compassion through exercise, plenty of rest, a healthy diet, reaching out to friends and connecting with a higher power.
Admit wrongs—If you feel you’ve contributed to the breakdown of the relationship, be honest about it in a letter without accusing the other party. You don’t even have to send the letter but writing it can be very cathartic.
Consider counseling—Because parent/child estrangement can be so complex and hurtful, it’s wise to consider reaching out to a licensed professional. You can realize that regardless of the outcome of the relationship, your life isn’t over. The Center for Neurocognitive Excellence can help you with this process. Scheduling with us is always quick and confidential.