What does one do when someone erases you? What does one do when the history of your life is distorted or recreated by someone else? Someone you love? Someone you thought loved you, someone you raised? Someone you birthed? I have avoided being specific about this issue and how it has impacted me but perhaps my thoughts and experiences will help others with this growing problem.
I’m not talking about memories being gone from Alzheimer Disease, dementia, head injury or stroke; I’m talking about deliberate, take you out of their heads and hearts type of memory erasing or the rearranging of history type erasing. It sounds crazy, right? But it happens around us everyday, and mostly, I have come to realize, there is nothing that can be done about it unless both sides want to fix it. So, Parents, stop beating yourselves up!
What is this curse? It’s the pain of family estrangement and all the characters in this type of family drama know their lines well, they play their chosen roles, they enter and exit stage left with a smile or a tear and they can even construct plot points one and two and completely turn the drama around…especially if they have a Greek chorus, an audience, to take sides, root for them, and cheer and cry at the twists and turns.
With any estrangement there is never and always a reason for the estrangement, depending on who is doing the talking but especially when the players grip tightly to their grudge ropes and hang on. Especially if any of the parties stay stuck in the “and then he said this and then she did that” mode of life but most especially if secondary gains are received for the act of estranging. For me, my adult child has decided that he had a bad childhood. His Father and I know its’ not true but it took us awhile to get to a place of peace about it. We know that we raised him, beginning as teenage parents, with all the love we had in our hearts, with all the time, nurturing, work, money and devotion possible, giving him guidance and educational experiences well into adulthood. We had fun with him, cheering him on as he played sports, excelled in school, developed his many gifts, especially his sense of humor! Even when he became an adult and went through some bumps in his life, we were always there for him. Mistakes made? Yes, but wouldn’t everyone love to turn back time as Wisdom is gained?
But our son has decided that his reality is different from ours thus, like many estranged parents, we have finally realized there is nothing we can say, do or ask to change that. So much time lost. Through the years, we have “taken the high road” when his words have hurt us, like when we stayed up late at night just to hear his voice on the radio speaking about his new writings or accomplishments only to hear him eventually blame any troubles or poor decisions on us, his parents. We have anonymously gone to book signings, standing in the back, to see and hear him speak and support him but then left when he took a negative turn. Most recently we watched him on C-Span talk about his latest book and he was really interesting and we loved his passion and heart but then we heard him describe that he had a bad childhood and that reading books helped him escape from it; he actually laughed as the narrator prompted and validated the response from him! He had a choice to recant but he smirked as he verbally threw us under the bus again and effectively ran over us and the interviewer didn’t even blink! But you know what?? I felt sorry for him that he couldn’t or wouldn’t at least remember the many times he was on my lap being read to as a child, being taught to read and write, being listened to and encouraged to help others, study and seek higher education or the deep discussions he had with his father over many, many books and movies, especially on their long-distance runs and adventures. It has made me question stories people tell about their childhood or when I read so-called memoirs, even those described as fictionalized. It has made me wonder what students are being taught in schools…is it to avoid responsibility and to blame others? Thus, with some wide-awake, righteous anger tears on my computer keyboard and to set the record straight before I am too old…I write this to estranged parents everywhere.
We all have our filtered memories but they’re best explored for insight and self-correction not as justification for hurting others or especially not in the name of “truth-telling”. Friends have told us perhaps we should seek legal action or actually confront interviewers about spoken distortions but we realize that it could just add fuel to our son’s displaced anger toward us. Additionally, we have noted that our son’s writings are negative toward many people he has met in his journey of life, so we pray for his heart to soften. We believe that deep down he has a good heart. Like many Parents in our situation, we have tried everything possible to change the relationship with him…letters, cards, gifts, apologies for whatever… but he has used the bad parent platform to surround himself with supporters, write and sell books, do book readings, radio programs and television, and tell others, all evidence to the contrary, that we raised him with a bad childhood…
AND noting this is when I frequently say out loud “Help Me Jesus”!
Estrangement is often started by a sort of self-induced filter of many defense mechanisms about past mistakes by everyone in the drama. As in any memory, strong feelings may add more significance to an event, even some with seemingly small issues. What a Parent may feel is minor is remembered forever by some children and vise versa. But then the memory can take on a life of its own with stories and excuses that are embedded in the travails of the brains’ synapses leading to deep ruts of revised or reflective memories, real or exaggerated. Some family members stay stranded in certain decades or time periods, or even on certain political issues and they never move forward. Some may repeat the same worn-out stories that by now they firmly believe. Yes, sometimes estrangement is definitely due to less than perfect parenting, or to outside forces (drugs, alcohol, mental illness), to shame, guilt, or bad decisions of selfishness, like we hear about when parents abandon or abuse their children or when adult children are addicted and abuse their parents. But mostly estrangement is actually a choice, a choice made by the adult child to disengage emotionally and physically from a relationship with a Parent or other family members. It’s a choice. It offers some sort of psychological safe-space, a corner in the mind with a feigned apathy, which becomes increasingly difficult to crawl out of…and crawl is what must be done….for all of us. If we do cross those created boundaries of estrangement it takes crawling out from under pride with humility, empathy, forgiveness and GRACE. But if those boundaries are crossed, the parable of the Prodigal Son can change the Script and GRACE abounds.
Other than actual illness and death of a child, estrangement from an adult child is the most painful arrow in the heart for parents. It creates an active bleeding then a slow-drip wound that doesn’t go away. It is a rejection that can’t be described, only felt and anyone who helps or enables the process is contributing to that pain. It can be band-aided but without the medicine of acknowledgement, empathy, forgiveness and GRACE it never heals. To reconcile, old issues don’t have to be re-hashed and all parties must agree to “let-go” but that also means behaviors must change not just words.
With estrangement, when others ask normal questions, like “how’s your son?” or “have you heard from your daughter“, Estranged Parents come up with responses like “It’s complicated” or “We don’t get to see him/her much” but then we often see the questioners’ downward glances intimating “Wonder what they did wrong to their child?“. Then we blame ourselves more. It is like a death without a funeral because no one really wants to hear constant parental pain and you can’t blame them! Mostly other people just pretend your adult child doesn’t exist.
Over and over this problem of estrangement is growing in many homes and actually being encouraged at times by “professionals” and media programs or self-help and trendy groups. Adult children are encouraged to “get more space” from Parents; explore their own needs and sadly, not to worry about senior Parents as they age or become ill. Self absorption is rewarded in our social media age. Certainly Parents can’t be emotionally dependent on their children but they do have the right to expect friendship and respect! I suppose estrangement started increasing as families were ripped apart by changes in societal norms or also as parents were ridiculed on television and in the movies. In fact, currently parents are often portrayed as dummies, bigots, and uncool as family traditions or morals are mocked. Instead of adult children, siblings, parents, cousins…being encouraged to talk, maybe even argue, through a problem or issue, with help if needed, people are often encouraged to not rock the boat, to disengage, estrange, ‘ghost’ or even gaslight family members, and the problems never get resolved. We also see Parents who enable abusive adult children because they are so fearful of being estranged by them! These Parents often develop physical and psychological illnesses. They are hurt constantly by their “bully” adult children and ride a roller coaster of pain with them. They never put up real boundaries because they are emotionally blackmailed by the potential loss of grandchildren or being left alone. With estrangement, excuses are bountiful…Parents are blamed for every problem or labeled ‘toxic’, other family members may listen, gossip and even offer encouragement to the estranged child, never once confronting them to say “you know what…I knew your parents, your mother, your father and they were pretty good folks”... thus the problem grows and the gulf between parent and child becomes too wide as time marches on and the bridge that is needed is washed away by tears.
And then, suddenly, you wake up and realize that as parents you have effectively estranged from your adult child. The difference though is empathy….your door is still open, albeit with a weak chain-lock on it before you open-wide trust again. You haven’t cut the adult child off and you want them to have peace and love, however you now have “let go” of trying, constantly reaching out and waiting for a real phone call from them just to check on you or to hear your voice. You have been desperately wanting them to want to talk with you! You then realize that you want to hear their voice…however they don’t want to hear yours. You realize that all along you were believing in reconciliation through your own filtered memories of love.
As all parents do, we only want the best for our son and we have to let go, pray and hope he finds some moments of gratefulness for our parenting. We will always be his Parents, that can’t be erased.
As a Nurse, do I have a Prescription, a RX for Estranged Parents?? Well, there is no particular one, there is no magic pill and Parents will be at different stages. We have learned it is a Grief Process and its’ much like any of the Recovery Steps.
We call it a Benign Detachment.
- Surrender your feelings to God. He knows you love your child, that you did your best and He loves you and you are His child.
- Surround yourself with others who care for you, make new friends, even if you have to find strangers everyday to give you a smile.
- Seek and Share ways to help others as much as possible. You will encourage someone else and renew your self-worth.
4. Stay grounded in health, fun and prayer.
5. Stop thinking and living in the past or blaming and beating yourself up. Trust me, your estranged adult child does enough of that about you!!
6. Self deprecate…It may take awhile but try to laugh at yourself through your tears. (Sometimes it is pretty funny now for us as we see ourselves getting jerked around by estrangement control games, like the no relationship allowed “one-text only response” game from our son or the passive aggressive “pretend I didn’t get your phone call” game by his spouse or the “block parents on all social media” game.
7. Stay away from enablers when you can, especially the passive-aggressive kind who say they “don’t want to take sides” (Parents don’t want sides but when someone says that to you, trust me, they are betrayers and have already taken a side and it’s not yours!)
8. Scrutinize your own heart as much as possible. Don’t make decisions out of spite or revenge…I’m not saying I haven’t done this, just advising that it doesn’t usually work out!
9. Schedule down time for yourself…Rest, read, pray, exercise…you ARE worth it!
10. SCREAM if needed….but then SING. You’re a survivor, and as my well-known Preacher says all the time: “Be a victor not a victim”.
Excerpt from soon to come new book “Recovery Room” @ by Anne Stewart Helton