As an estranged parent I am living through estrangement from one perspective: my own; but as a coach I deal with estrangements from several perspectives – and I must never assume that my own lived experience is the same as my clients’ experiences.
Every single situation is individual and unique although there are some patterns that present themselves. Within the estranged parents community a lot of parents subscribe to the belief that the majority of children who are estranged are selfish and entitled or have mental health issues – thus denying their own part in any estrangement. There is also a common belief that estrangement may actually be encouraged by therapists to the detriment of the estranged parents when (the) children seek their own therapy or counselling. This may be true in some cases and in some instances it is a necessary piece of advice (read on to find out more) but I wouldn’t agree that it is the modern trend that some say it is.
What is estrangement?
The Oxford Dictionary definition of estrangement is ‘the fact of no longer being on friendly terms or part of a social group’.
Within a family it means broken family relationships in which members have cut all communication with each other. Alienation, distancing, a cutting of ties and a refusal to acknowledge the other’s existence is par for the course.
Estrangement is not being ignored for a few weeks following an argument or your son or daughter only bothering to phone you once a month. Neither is it having one word replies to messages or frosty meetings. Family estrangement is a total cutting of communication and ties and can sometimes come totally out of the blue and can occur even when relationships were previously believed to be unshakable.
Different perspectives of estrangement
For many people outside the estranged community it can be inconceivable how any parent can actually get to this stage. There is often a general assumption that the parent must have done something dreadfully wrong to have been cut off and deserves whatever follows, or that he or she is not doing enough to get their child back into their lives.
Like everything in life there is more than one perspective but as estrangement is not always talked about – there is often shame, guilt, anger and denial, it can be easily misunderstood.
Consider these different perspectives.
Would you condemn the adult daughter who no longer speaks to her mother and jump to the conclusion that she is being rude and disrespectful? However, what if when she was an eleven year old girl she was repeatedly raped by her father after her mother left home with another man and whose mother, on finally being informed of the abuse dismissed her daughter and told her to put it all behind her and stop being so dramatic. That daughter’s mother might even be on social media groups looking for support as an estranged parent or asking all of her friends what she has done to deserve the loss of her daughter’s love, but does she deserve any understanding or sympathy?
How about children who tell us that they were abandoned by a parent and that they want nothing more to do with them? Are you quick to judge their parent for not caring and leaving home? However, what of the mother who had to leave a dangerous domestic situation quickly for her own safety and was then prevented from returning by her partner or out of fear, or who had to hide her new address following police advice because everyone was so afraid for her safety? What if the children were known to be safe yet the authorities had serious concerns for the mother should she come face to face with her abusive ex-husband. Often the police will advise the mother (fathers experience this too) to cut contact in the short term – however in that short time the manipulative and abusive father can manage to manipulate the situation to his advantage and present himself as the victim rather than an abuser to be feared and turn the children against their mother.
What about the parent who simply can’t help him or herself and has to control, bully or put-down the child even as an adult? How many children grow up in families with an abusive, selfish or narcissistic parent who is constantly goading, belittling or being cruel. When the child grows do they have to continue a relationship under those conditions no matter what the effect is on their mental health and wellbeing?
What about children who are subtlety (or not so subtlety) controlled by a new partner or a parent following a break-up of the family home, and who, whether they are aware of it or not, are encouraged to distance themselves from the rest of their family? Coercive control and manipulation is not something that many of us see coming, at least not the first time around anyway.
How to move on from estrangement
These are all real-life scenarios that myself, close friends or clients have experienced and knowledge of them has put me in a good place to deal professionally with estrangement.
The very first thing that I do once I have been approached for help is to listen and find out where the underlying hurt comes from. In most cases there is grief, in others anger and often a mixture of both. There may be a need to understand why an estrangement has happened or a searching for permission to put up boundaries and to withdraw from a harmful relationship. There can be self-hatred or on the other side of the coin, self-righteousness.
The next step is to establish what the desired outcome is and to establish what is within your ability to influence and control. There are many different coping strategies and techniques to help you to deal with each of these situations that will enable you to move forward.
There is often a need to come to an acceptance of what has been lost and I can help with tools and techniques to rebuild and move forwards from grief.
Letting go of anger after understanding where it has come from is always beneficial, and equally an understanding that it is not necessary to understand exactly why things have played out as they have, but simply come to an acceptance that what is, is.
Self reflection and an acknowledgment of one’s own behavior can be harder to attain but is not impossible – unless one is controlling or manipulative or abusive – in which case it is rarely acknowledged or recognized, but again acceptance is key to moving on.
And finally, to move forward there needs to be a rebuilding of the sense of self; as in self-confidence, self-esteem and self-belief. We are each of us much more than a mother, a daughter, a father or a son. None of us is perfect but we all deserve peace and happiness. Estrangement is always difficult no matter what side you are on, but it is possible to move on from it and to find peace.
It's a grieving process
When a child cuts all contact it is often likened to grieving a death – but one where there is no closure. For many people it is inconceivable how anyone can move on from such a traumatic event, and while many are unable to, many more do find a way to accept things and to move forward.
There may also be a grieving process when an adult child chooses to distance him or herself from a parent. In the same way that some parents have a different perception of an estrangement so too can the children. Not all children who estrange themselves are heartless and uncaring nor are all parents blameless and vice versa. In my coaching sessions I never judge, I never tell anyone what to do but I work to help you to find the best solution for you.
It’s never going to be easy but it is possible. If you are struggling or you know someone else who is stuck and unable to move on please reach out and send me an email. You don’t need to be alone and maybe, just maybe I can show you how to find peace and happiness.