“One of the reasons there is a lack of understanding about parent-child estrangement is because none of us are talking about it. That makes us think it is rare, even though it is not.”
When we can’t talk about our pain with our friends, where do we turn?
Recently, someone who is estranged from two of her adult children shared with me several encounters with friends who not only do not understand what she is going through, but one stands in judgment and the others dismiss her pain as inconsequential. These types of incidents with friends or family can add to the crushing pain of the estrangement. She is wondering if distancing from these friends is the right thing to do. But if we lose friendships, too, we can spiral into a pit of despair, never to emerge again.
I think one of the tragedies of family estrangement is the social taboo against admitting that our family is anything but perfect. A lot of us grew up with “Father Knows Best,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “The Brady Bunch.” These were all picture perfect families who had garden variety problems that were solved with a calm and steady hand, a sense of humor, and love and respect. All’s well that ends well, and happily ever after, and all that stuff.
The reality is, few families look like that. But because we have been conditioned to believe they should, it makes us feel that we have failed in a fundamental way. The shame of failure is real, and the judgment meted out by others — and ourselves — is like pouring acid on an open wound. headtopics.com
We all work very hard to hide our failures from the prying eyes of others. When we do dare to share, and we get blank stares, or dismissal, or judgment, we have to remember none of those reactions is about us. It is about the other person’s discomfort. This topic sends parents into a state of anxiety. They fear that something similar could happen to them. Even if they would never admit it, even if they are smug in their assurance that none of their children would do such a thing, somewhere deep in the recesses of their parental brain an alarm is going off. Their need to minimize or judge your experience is their way of not admitting it could happen to them. It strikes terror in any parent’s heart to even entertain the idea.
One of the reasons there is a lack of understanding about parent-child estrangement is because none of us are talking about it. That makes us think it is rare, even though it is not. So our friends have no tools to help us deal with it. If someone you love dies, they know how to handle that. But this is not a death — not like the ones they are used to, anyway. They can’t relate to your grief. And many times, when people don’t know what to say, they either say the wrong thing or they say nothing at all. Most of us aren’t well-equipped to deal with uncomfortable situations.
We are faced with a dilemma. We can either break ties with our friends, or we can make the choice to continue the friendship but choose not to share about the estrangement. When we push away those who don’t understand, we are whittling our life down to the most painful denominator. What happens all too often is that we go from being a multi-faceted human to being an
estranged parent. That becomes our entire identity. This is the danger of cutting out friends who don’t understand, but who add value to our lives in other ways. Those friends can keep you in touch with the real you, because they are the ones who know what you love to do, will call and invite you to lunch, or will let you know when the yarn shop has a sale. headtopics.com
If a friend is cruel, judgmental or totally unsympathetic, you may want to rethink the value of that friendship. But if they are just having a hard time finding the right response, and are otherwise kind and loving, you may want to give them a pass. They may just not have the right words.
So Where Can I Turn?There are more and more resources for estranged parents. These are things I wish I had had access to at the beginning of my estrangement. It would have made such a difference to me. It would have assuaged the loneliness that was piled on top of the grief. If you can plug into these resources, maybe you can let your friends off the hook. If you can stop expecting them to give you the support you need (because they don’t know how) then you can enjoy their friendship for all the reasons you always have.
Support GroupsCarefully choose a group to be a part of that offers not only support, but helps you work on yourself, guiding you gently through the self-exploration that is needed at this time. Groups that bash estranged children are not helpful and will certainly not help us become better parents with the possibility of reconciliation.
There are two support groups I recommend. The first is called the Reconnection Club. It was created byTina Gilbertsonwho is a psychotherapist and author who specializes in family estrangements. There is a support group and a cache of resources that will help you navigate the journey of estrangement. There are a lot of free resources, but you can also join a private group and get access to even more, and the support of other parents. Her headtopics.com
is wonderful — and free — and I have found it to be very helpful. You can listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or on her website.Gilbertson’s book,sets the right tone of compassion, and at the same time, helps parents see where they can change and how to start the process of reconciliation.
The other support group and cache of resources I recommend was also created by a psychologist,Dr. Joshua Coleman. He is an expert in family estrangements, and actually experienced estrangement from his own daughter for several years before they reconciled. He has a weekly newsletter, podcasts and webinars that I find valuable. Some of his sessions have a fee, but he does free call-in sessions every Monday.
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