Coping with Estranged Adult Children

In Walking the Mother-Daughter Tightrope, we looked at the sometimes complicated relationship that develops between mothers and daughters, particularly when adolescence hits. The teen years can be difficult ones to traverse and the former set of articles dealt with many of the pitfalls that accompany this transitional time in the lives of our children.

In this article, and ones to follow, we will be looking at relationships between parents and their adult children. In particular, when those supposed adult-to-adult relationships go horribly wrong.

One of the features of many of these relationships is that the parent does not know why they are now estranged from their adult children. And, of more concern, when they try to ask what is wrong, the parent is often met with a wall of silence. The adult child does not wish to discuss what is wrong. And so, in many cases, the situation cannot be resolved because one of the parties won’t engage in any sort of meaningful conversation.

Many parents of estranged children have also repeatedly apologized for the things they did wrong, and even for things that they are unaware that they may have done, in a hope for reconciliation, but to no avail. They are still met with a wall of silence. The lives of these parents are filled with an unbearable sadness from which they can escape partially during the day, but the first thoughts of the day and the last at night are filled with memories of their “missing” child and the question “why”?

Parents have likely had problems with their adult children for as long as humans have trodden the earth. But today, either through access to better communication and lifestyle changes in the Western world, there seems to be almost an epidemic of parents relating the problems they are experiencing with their grown children, ironically in the area of communication.

The “terrible twos” and the teenage years seem to have taken a back seat to the difficulties that parents have to deal with in regard to their children, who are now in their 20s and 30s. These adult children can be of either gender, and each gender type seems to bring its own problems. But the result is the same. The parents, and often it is the mother, is distraught, unhappy, even depressed, feeling powerless and unloved, while at the same time caught in a web of trying to “fix” the relationship, trying to find their “lost” child – the one who used to be so nice but now can hardly be bothered to give their parent the time of day. Unless, of course, they want something.

Then there is the saddest group of all – those parents who have been cut out of their children’s lives to the extent that they don’t even know where their child lives and haven’t had communication with them for years. The estrangement is total, yet the parent occasionally tries to keep in touch via the odd text message or email, which is never returned.

The degree of estrangement may vary – it may be partial or total, but either way the pain for the parent is searing. Let’s have a look at some case studies at the various degrees of estrangement and the way in which parents, most commonly mothers, expend enormous amounts of energy in trying to rectify the relationship, desperately keep in touch or, where estrangement is total, try to get on with their lives while nursing a broken heart.

Renee is in her 40s, and two sons in their 20s. She is not totally estranged from either son but both relationships are strained. The older son is in debt to his mother, has been declared bankrupt but knows that every time he asks for money, his mother will oblige. She does this because she knows no other way of keeping in his good books other than by complying with his wishes. He knows this. He also has a son himself and if Renee wants to see her grandson, she agrees to any offers to babysit just so she can see her new little man.

Renee is a very loving and generous person by nature and when she found out she was going to be a grandmother, she went on a spending spree buying furniture and clothes for the new baby. All these gifts were accepted without a word of thanks; in one case, she was asked to take an item of clothing back because the color was disliked. Given that babies grow so quickly, and Renee had given so much, the lack of respect for the fact that so much had been given was obvious.

She was also cut out of having the child for an overnight stay. While this is common with new mothers, this situation went on for almost a year until the couple decided they wanted to go on a cruise. They booked and paid their tickets in advance, and all the arrangements were made. It was only then that they informed Renee that she was going to have to babysit her grandson for 10 days. Renee was furious, but to ease any friction between herself and her son, she was forced to take eight days off work in order to accommodate her son’s needs.

The house that her son and his wife had recently bought needed extensive re-stumping and new floorboards. Although Renee and her husband, who was a builder, had repeatedly told their son not to buy the house, the more they protested the more the son and his wife turned a deaf ear. Finally the son told Renee and her husband to “butt out”. After the sale went through, and the problems with the house became apparent, Renee’s son asked her if she and his father could help re-stump the house. Again, thrilled that her son was talking to her again, she agreed. She and her husband paid for the raw materials, the father did the laboring and Renee cooked meals and babysat her grandson so that work could go on interrupted. All was happy in Renee’s world as she felt the family was “finally pulling together”.

Unfortunately, once the job was completed, the son resumed his usual pattern of not returning texts, not dropping in for normal family get-togethers, and the access to the grandchild was stopped. Of course, it didn’t formally stop, it was just never convenient whenever Renee suggested having her grandson for the day.

Some months later, Renee was in a car accident and damaged her back. She was unable to work and spent her time either lying down or having doctor’s appointments. Neither her son nor daughter-in-law came to visit her or to bring food to a family under stress, something which Renee did on a week-to-week basis just out of love, not need. Renee is still unable to work and is still being ignored by her son. She now has “nothing to offer”, and needs help herself which her son is either unwilling or unable to supply. And because she is immobilized by her back problems, she is missing out on seeing her son and grandson, simply because the former “hasn’t got the time” to visit her. As she is of no use as a babysitter, she doesn’t even get the chance to be “used” for that purpose. Renee feels gutted.

With a different twist but with the same underlying features, let’s look at the story of Lyndall. Lyndall’s husband left her for a casual affair, which caused a permanent breach and she was left with four children to bring up aged from 7 to 15. In a low-paid job, she struggled to make ends meet, but she worked hard in a job that had flexible hours so that she would always be home for the children. Her ex-husband maintained minimal contact with his children for about twelve months and then disappeared off the scene. It was the youngest child, at seven, who was most affected by the split. Lyndall tried to be both mother and father to her children and attended their football and basketball games and helped them with their homework. She made sure they had birthday parties each year with their friends, as she knew there would be no word from the children’s father.

Lyndall encouraged her ex to have contact with his children, but it never really got under way. During their formative years, the children never saw their father or their paternal grandparents. Lyndall’s children are now adults in their 20s and 30s. Three are still at home. The elder two have full time jobs but every week there is an argument over getting the nominal rent from them. Their girlfriends, who also work, live in Lyndall’s house as well.

She asks her youngest son to mow the lawn for her as she works in a manual cleaning job and is exhausted by the weekend and needs to recharge. The youngest son, now 25, plays computer games while his mother, fed up with asking for help and tired of looking at the unkempt lawn, does the mowing herself. At 57, she is finding her large steep block more and more difficult, but even more so when she can see her son playing games inside in the air conditioning while she does the heavy labor. With three males in the house, she even puts out the garbage herself.

Lyndall became fed up and asked her two elder sons to either pay their peppercorn rent or leave, intending to rent out their section of the house so that she could make extra money for her retirement years. Neither of these sons will now speak to her and tell the rest of the family that their mother “threw them out”. They do not mention that they owe years of back rent. Worse, they have re-established contact with their father and neglect Lyndall. From a place where her children once gave her Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gifts because, in their words, "you have been both mother and father to us", Lyndall is now totally estranged from two of her children, and on poor terms with her youngest, who refuses to work more than part-time. There are no Mother’s Day presents anymore.

Lyndall has been on antidepressants for several years as she cannot carry out her job which she needs to maintain herself. She can see no happiness for herself while she has such an unhappy relationship with the children she brought up alone when their father walked out. She recently tried to commit suicide when her two eldest sons blocked her from their social media site so she could not even see pictures of her two grandchildren, one of whom she helped to raise in her own home.

What is happening in these situations? In the next article, we will look at more stories of both partial and total estrangement and the stress it causes to parents who, for the most, simply don’t understand what has happened to the once happy relationships they shared with their children.

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