Estranged Adult Children: When People Blame the Mother
By: Beth McHugh 2015
The phenomenon of estranged adult children is on the rise and affects more families than statistics indicate. This under-reporting is largely through the embarrassment of parents who are hesitant to admit to anyone outside the immediate family that they have not heard from their adult children in months or even years. It is seen as a failure on the part of the parents. Casual comments like “How’s your Sam going now?” is met with the standard answer of “Well, thanks, he’s still in the banking sector” or whatever the last employment position of the adult child was known to be.
Hence, there is a conspiracy of silence about having an estranged child, and this adds to the feelings of pain and isolation for the parent, who feels they cannot tell how they are feeling for fear of being censured by the questioner.
There are many sites on the internet devoted to parents of estranged adult children, and for the most part they are supportive. This is positive because, as with mental illness, it comes as a relief to know that you are not the only parent who seldom, if ever, sees their child, or has even had to fight in court for the right to see grandchildren who are estranged from their grandparents by default.
It is always beneficial to know that you are not the only person experiencing this problem, mainly for the reason that you can be assured that you didn’t necessarily “stuff up” your children. Logically and statistically, it’s not possible that every parent who has a partly or wholly estranged child is a “bad” parent. This simply does not make sense and does not take into to account the inherent personalities of children and the part that genes play over environment in many cases. It also goes against the fact that many families which consist of several siblings do not display complete isolation and estrangement between every sibling and the parent. In fact, many families may display healthy attachment, with only one adult child who is estranged.
Despite this, on some non-moderated and non-professional websites that discuss estranged adult children, parents who have themselves been abandoned by their children will turn on a new guest who is pouring out their pain. As most of these sites are frequented by mothers, it is actually women who are making these hurtful comments to women who are already distraught because they have little or no communication with their adult child.
All parents make mistakes – this is a given and needs no further explanation. However, it is concerning to me to see mothers cut down other mothers who are crying due to the loss of a child. As a psychologist, I have to question what the agenda of the participants on these “would-be” help forums are trying to achieve, because it certainly isn’t support. Yes, it is not the best thing to have given your child everything. Yes, it’s not the best thing to bail your adult child out every time they come to you for money. These are but two examples where mothers are flayed by other mothers for doing the “wrong thing”. I understand the fear that the latter mothers have that leads to them giving money or other forms of help, such as babysitting, whenever their adult child requests it, in case they lose that child forever.
And no, this isn’t the best way to deal with the situation, but it is all that that parent knows until educated to use better methods. Sometimes that takes therapy to undo a lot of poor choices and build better ones. But there is little to be gained in grandstanding against these unfortunate mothers, particularly as the dismissive mothers presumably also have problems with their own children which they cannot solve.
Again, as a psychologist, I see that it is very empowering for one mother to tell another mother she is “doing it wrong”. However, we have to look at why the first mother would say and do such things – some of which can be quite painful and ultimately harmful for the beleaguered mother who has come onto the forum for support. Happily, this situation has not arisen on this forum, and many forums are excellent, but others simply seem to be places where damaged and hurt mothers take out their frustration and pain on other mothers in the guise of “help”. This is where professionally un-moderated forums can do harm to participants, leaving the participator feeling worse after they have poured out all their pain for the world to see. It shows me that the mothers who write attacking posts treat people in a certain way – including their own adult children. It’s also easy to see why they are on the forum in the first place. Empathy is the first step to empowerment. Motherbashing is only replicating the situation that already exists.
And blaming the mother is not only of no real use — other than to boost the ego of the writer — but it isn’t always the fault of the parent when an adult child decides to go “no contact” or have minimal contact, or worse, contact on their terms only.
I read one comment on such a forum where the poster espoused firmly “It is always, always, always, the fault of the parent when the child won’t communicate”. This is where a lack of psychological training becomes blatantly apparent. If you are one of the recipients of advice like this, take heart because it is almost certainly 100% incorrect. This is because a genuinely unfit parent, one who does not love their child, cares nothing for their wellbeing, has no interest in them, doesn’t know much about their adult child and it doesn’t concern them that that is the case, would never contribute to a forum on the pain of having an estranged adult child in the first place.
Thankfully, most parents are interested in their children, even if they have made some terrible parenting choices along the way. And these parents do not need to be further abused by irresponsible parents who chose to abuse, instead of having the time and patience to lend a hand and show a better way. People who inflict pain on others are not happy people – another fact to take on board if one experiences unhelpful and cruel “advice” from anyone.
Sometimes, it is the fault of the adult child when the parent/child relationship goes sour. Babies are born with different dispositions as any developmental psychologist and indeed parent of a large family will tell you. Our personalities are inherited, and although favourable and unfavourable home and external environments can and do influence the personality, it is only to a relatively small degree. Motivated children thrive even in poor environments because they have the drive to do so. So-called “difficult” children do better in homes with well-adjusted, consistent and patient parents but usually end up being “difficult” adults to some degree. If teamed with adults with low parenting skills, then the parent-child relationship becomes less stable and problems can arise.
However, it is never, ever, always the fault of the parent when an estrangement occurs. The only time when this is the case is when the parent, for whatever reason, is disinterested and does not want any life at all with the their child. In this case, the child and later, adult child, does suffer terribly and certainly has a case to remove themselves from the situation. Alternatively, the parent may suffer from a mental illness, and be unable to provide the consistency of care required throughout childhood and adolescence, particularly in the formative years of the child. But even then, this is not the fault of the parent. It is an unfortunate situation whereby the parent is afflicted with an illness that compromises their ability to parent to the best of their capabilities.
Some years ago I wrote an article on mothers who worry about not being good enough. For those of you struggling with an estranged adult child, it may provide some comfort. You can find it at http://youronlinecounselor.com/Articles/im-a-bad-mother.htm
The other important alternative to consider is that the estrangement between parents and their adult child may be due to the presence of mental illness in the latter. Many parents write that they had quite good relationships with their child until the late teens or early to mid twenties, and that full estrangement occurred by the late twenties or early thirties. Clearly, this is not an adolescent “phase”. The reason for the estrangement is serious and it appears permanent. There may be resistance from the adult child to even discuss what is wrong, which leaves the parent in an extremely difficult position because change is difficult if the parties involved cannot talk.
Some of the behaviors noted by parents with such offspring include a high level of entitlement on the part of the adult child, where events/meetings/communication is controlled by the adult child, and favours are expected which are past the realm of normality. The latter are requested, but also expected, and the hapless parent gives in in order to have some sort of contact with their child. This is an extremely difficult situation for the parent as they are aware they are being blackmailed but can’t see a way around it. It is often these sorts of cases where a parent will verbally abuse another parent online for putting up with this behavior and tell the bewildered parent that it is their entire fault. This helps no-one, as noted above.
What remains unknown to many of these detractors is that the adult child may well have a mental illness, most likely a personality disorder, and that is the reason for the behaviour that is occurring. As personality disorders are not well known and not well understood by the general public, it is sometimes the case that a grieving parent, who has all but lost their child, is being re-abused by a forum participant who knows little about developmental behaviour and mental illness in general.
Since personality disorders are not diagnosed prior to the age of 25, and sometimes slightly later due to the behavioural norms of Gen Y (although these disorders can be diagnosed later in adulthood), many parents unwittingly are dealing with an adult child who is estranged because they are ill. Neither party is likely to aware of this. Typical illnesses that can cause estrangements are substance abuse disorders, borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, schizoid personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorders. Others, such as bipolar (particularly bipolar I), and schizophrenia, are customarily more obvious and are usually picked up and hence any resultant estrangement is not accompanied by such profound confusion on the part of the parents.
In conclusion, when people blame the parent and the parent alone, in the case of parent/child estrangement, they are doing both parties a disservice and creating further pain, again for both parties. Pointing fingers, traditionally at the mother, is not helpful.
We all try our best. Sometimes, for many reasons, that doesn’t
always guarantee a happy ending.