Coping with Estranged Adult Children (2)

So many of my clients have suffered from the effects of having a relationship with an estranged son or daughter. The estrangement is not the choice of the parent – it is a choice of the adult child.

When the cause of the estrangement is obvious, there is less pain on the part of the parent. However, in the cases I work with, many of these parents (often it is the mother who seeks counseling) have no real idea of why their adult son or daughter no longer wishes to have contact with them. Not only does this cause extreme emotional pain to the mother, but as the cause is not known, there is nothing that can be done to rectify the situation. Most of these women have been put on antidepressants by their primary care physicians once the latter learns that they cry repeatedly over the loss of their child. Unfortunately this solves nothing in the long-term.

Let’s look at the case of Hannah. Hannah has two sons, Jeff and Cam. Hannah raised her sons from elementary school age on her own as their father left the family for another woman. However by the time her eldest, Jeff, was 21 he had decided that he no longer wanted any contact with his mother. Neither son has contact with their father. Jeff’s estrangement was a slow process, where he slowly extracted himself from Hannah’s life, refusing to accept dinner invitations, not answering text messages, occasionally phoning if help was needed. But the close relationship they once shared started to decline until there was nothing left at all.

Hannah was desperately unhappy and decided to ask her son what was the matter. His reply was that he no longer wanted to have contact with her but he did not wish to tell her why. This left Hannah with nowhere to go emotionally and no way to try to resolve the situation. Desperate for some sort of contact with her son, Hannah left messages on his Facebook page until he did what might be expected under the circumstances. He blocked her.

Heartbroken, Hannah then joined Facebook under an alias and could at least access part of his Facebook account. Facebook can be a great tool for keeping in contact with people, but doing this was a bittersweet experience for Hannah. She could see only a keyhole of his life, and she stood on one side of the door that he had shut, seemingly forever.

Meanwhile her other son, Cam, maintained contact with his mother but it was a very one-sided affair. Desperate not to lose this son, Hannah would do anything he asked. She invited him and his partner over for meals every week, spending inordinate amounts of money and time on meal preparation for them. With only a single income coming in, Hannah had always struggled with money but she was willing to do anything to please her son. Unfortunately Cam took advantage of the situation and had his mother doing his washing, putting in car in for a service, buying things for him in her “spare time” -- basically treating her like a doormat.

When Hannah came for therapy, she expressed no anger at the behaviour of her younger son, although she was willing to divulge all the things that she did for him. On one level she knew she was being used but was so frightened of losing her second child that she would do anything to prevent this from happening.
Meanwhile, Hannah’s health declined. Hannah was a person who had learned early in childhood to suppress her feelings and found it hard to cry about the broken relationship between herself and her eldest son. Instead she cooked and she cooked, and she ate and she ate and her weight ballooned out until she became morbidly obese. Other health issues followed. Diagnosed with Type I diabetes, high cholesterol and asthma, Hannah’s joints were also starting to deteriorate under the weight she was now carrying. Her doctor suggested joining a slimming group but Hannah’s problems were stemming from her extreme sadness and helplessness. She could not sustain any weight loss she achieved as she was addicted to food and comfort eating. Ironically, prior to the problems with her son, Hannah carried some extra weight, but every summer was able to quickly reduce to what she laughingly called “my bikini body”. In other words, Hannah was gutted by her son’s behavior and her coping method was to stuff down the pain by eating high fat/high sugar foods.

About once a month Hannah would have a crying session that would last for several hours, and then revealed in therapy that she cried for “about 30 minutes” every day just before she went to sleep. Her doctor upped her antidepressant dose which resulted in Hannah gaining additional weight, and feeling “spaced out”. At one point she had to stop driving as she was concerned she would have an accident.

She was then referred for therapy where we explored the losses in her life and the reasons for the overeating. There was no pressure to slow down the eating, since the source of it was her thoughts about her son and until that was resolved, there could be no permanent weight loss.

Hannah had ways to contact her son through other people, and occasionally she would ask them to pass on messages to Jeff. These messages were never acknowledged or returned. One night, Hannah was admitted to hospital with chest pains and fortunately it was not a heart attack. This was a turning point for Hannah. She asked for help, real help, in trying to get out of the situation she was in with her son.

In therapy she was slowly able to admit the her anger and sadness over the way in which her youngest son, Cam, was treating her. She acknowledged she was frightened of losing him too. However, over time, Hannah learned to set boundaries with her son and to say “no” to some of his more unreasonable requests. There was some friction at this point between mother and son, and then Cam’s partner also weighed in to put extra pressure on Hannah to comply with their wishes. But it was the excess weight, the loss of peace, the loss of free movement due to the excessive weight and finally the false alarm of the heart attack that kept Hannah firm. She realised that if she didn’t change, nothing would ever change, and so with encouragement, Hannah slowly changed herself.

In learning to say “yes” when she wanted to, but more importantly “no” to her second son, when it didn’t suit, Hannah learned to respect herself and in doing so, her younger son slowly started to pull back on using his mother. She pulled back on the weekly feeds and announced that it would be nice to have meals at each other’s houses instead and that if they didn’t want to do that, then that was ok and that she would only be doing family night once a fortnight. For eight months, she never received a reciprocal invitation to eat at her son’s house, so she spent that evening each fortnight at an aquarobics class to help with her fitness and weight issues.

Hannah persevered in setting boundaries with her younger son and also learned to express her sadness. Finally came the day when she allowed herself to cry. She cried solidly for 25 minutes and this was the beginning of Hannah’s recovery from self abuse. In denial for years, Hannah let down the barriers and admitted that her sons were treating her badly, that no matter what mistakes she had made in the past, she didn’t deserved the treatment she was getting from either son.

This resulted in Hannah setting further boundaries with her second son which included telling her son’s partner to speak to her with respect. Again, there were words spoken between mother and son but Hannah had changed. She decided that although she wanted to have a relationship with Cam and that she loved him to bits, she wasn’t prepared to put up with being treated as a second class citizen and dancing like a puppet to his every request. Slowly the relationship improved as Cam came to realise that his mother was not so easily manipulated. Hannah has now received her third invitation to dinner with her son and his partner. It’s been a long, painful but worthwhile battle.

But there remained the problem of her first-born, Jeff. Still overeating to fill the void, the newly-learned ability to cry was helping Hannah to release some of the pain that she was feeling at the ongoing estrangement for Jeff. It had now been six years with no contact. Realizing that keeping tabs on him via the alias on Facebook was causing her more pain, she was not yet in a position to stop that activity. She felt it was her last link to her son, and she couldn’t give it away. But each visit was a torment. Driven to see what was happening in his life, she was briefly satisfied to see what he was doing and in her words “to know that he was even still alive”. But she also knew that this behaviour was taking an emotional toll on her. Her friends were worried about her health and her doctor was constantly onto her to lose weight.

One day, after months of counseling primarily about Cam, she came to a realization about Jeff. She said “I’m slowly killing myself with worry about him and grieving the loss of my son. But I’ve decided he is not worth dying for!”

Hannah had to work through a lot of guilt, which I call False Guilt in her case, where she felt she must have been such a bad mother as to have a son who simply would not talk to her at all. And who would not tell her why. This situation, which had prostrated her for several years started to slowly change. After decided that her son was not worth dying for, she decided she would think about taking matters into her own hands regarding Jeff. She felt he had her over a barrel, that she was in limbo, and that she was powerless. But she realised now that this was all an illusion.

Hannah made a decision about her son. Read Hannah’s continuing journey in the article Hannah and Jeff -- How a Mother coped with her Estranged Son

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