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David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Dear Estranged Adult: You Are Strong and Worthy of Love
by Jen Hinkkala, Tiny Buddha
Nov 3, 2020

Dear estranged adult,

What I want you to remember is that it was never really about you, although it might have felt like it at the time and it might feel that way now.

When your parents told you over and over you weren’t good enough, that you would never amount to anything, they were just projecting their own feeling about themselves on to you because deep down, they do not feel they are good enough and don’t believe they have amounted to anything.

Maybe these feelings were passed down from their parents, or maybe your parents have regrets about their lives that they transfused on to you, but these reasons are not that important. Not as important as that fact that what was said to you, what was done to you, was never your fault. It was not about you.

You were always good enough; you were always going to amount to something. and that might have threatened them. No one is born unlovable or unworthy of love, no one.

Over the years I have learned that people’s words, actions, and beliefs have very little to do with me and are more about themselves.

As people interact with others, they project how they think, what they believe, and how they feel on to others. In fact, we all do this, even you and I do it. But what sets us apart is the fact that we can reflect on how our actions and words impact others. We can see the world from our own perspective and can also understand how others might see it.

If you grew up in an environment like mine, you were taught the incorrect belief that how others see things and how others see you is more important than how you see yourself. You were likely taught to put your own thoughts and feelings aside and instead engage your parents’ thoughts and feelings.

In some cases, you might have mistaken their thoughts and feelings as your own. You might have heard their voices in your head over and over, and you might have found yourself saying their words.

Over time, if you were at all like me, you began to experience dissonance with what your parents told you, and you began to connect with your own ideas, thoughts, and feelings.

In some cases, you might have felt doubt about your ideas, and you might have tried to suppress them. In other cases, you might have found yourself on a teeter-totter between your thoughts and their paradigms of you on the other side. But either way, you found your truth, and even though it caused you pain you found your voice.

As you found your voice you found yourself and started to speak your truth. As you started to speak your truth you were told over and over “But they are your parents, they love you, you can’t cut them out, you can’t let them go. They are getting older, they need you.”

In your heart you know the truth, but because you were taught to listen to and believe the voices of others you questioned yourself and tried over and over to reconcile. With each attempt to fix a broken relationship, your heart ached until you knew you could not take it any longer. You had to listen to your own voice, or you would break.

You likely wrestled with guilt and you might feel guilty now. If you are struggling with guilt over going no contact with your parents, let me ask you a few questions:

How do you feel after you have interacted with your parents in any form? Be honest with yourself.

Do your parents respect your boundaries?

Is there healthy reciprocity in the relationship?

Do you feel you can be who you are, and state your truth without judgment?

Do you feel respect or love or acceptance from your parents?

If the answers to these questions are painful, know in your heart you have made the correct choice for you. You have made the choice that is best for your health and well-being.

Now here you are, an estranged adult child. You are navigating the world without connection to your family of origin. You might be stronger than you have ever been, in some cases happier, healthier, and more confident then you have ever been.

Every day you confront the childhood trauma that brought you to this choice with clarity, resolution, and strength to work through it.

You might have done things you did not know you were capable of doing; you might have built a supportive family of your own and/or helped others in the ways you needed help. You might be taking small steps every day to live as your best self. Take a moment to celebrate that!

You have done something that no one should ever have to do, you have made one of the most painful choices you will ever have to make, and you have been misunderstood by so many—and yet you remain strong. You remain true to yourself and your story!

Maybe you are desperate for people to understand your story, to validate your lived experience. You might long for your parents to say that they are sorry for the pain that they have caused you. I know because I have felt and longed for these things, but the truth is you don’t need these things.

You might question why. Why will my parents not understand the pain they have caused me, say they are sorry, and love me the way I have needed to be loved all my life?

I wish I had an answer that would satisfy these questions and somehow take away that pain. The best answer I can come up with for you and for myself is that some people are not ready to accept that they are the villains in your story, and they might never be. Rather than reflect on what you have asked, they lash out, desperate to protect their narrative as kind and loving parents.

Parents often don’t want to experience any cognitive dissonance, or things that cause them to question who they believe they are as parents and as people. This may be why you do not get the validation you deserve. The truth is, you don’t need that apology you might never get, and begging and pleading with them to validate your truth is likely hurting you.

Some people will never understand you; some people will hurt you in more ways than you can imagine, and they’ll walk away as if it was all your fault or as if nothing ever happened. This is about them; it’s not about you. You know your story and you are prepared to own it. You are living it despite adversity. and I am proud of you for that.

Please try not to focus on those who don’t understand, don’t try and convince them to see it your way. You will be better off emotionally if you abandon those fruitless efforts. Sometimes people can only understand what they themselves have lived through.

If your friends or extended family grew up with supportive parents, they might not even be able to picture what you went thought, and that is okay. Instead, try to surround yourself with people who do understand and do your best to validate your own lived experiences. Write or record notes about your experiences, and when you start to question yourself, look back at these and self-validate. This helped me when I questioned myself, and I still do this today. I know this is not easy.

Take time to celebrate you, because you deserve it. You have discarded the story your parents tried to write for you, and you have started to write your own. You have walked away from abuse and adversity in a society that sees you as the problem, and you continue to stay strong every day.

Tell your story, live your truth, and never be ashamed of the painful choice you had to make. The abuse and the way you were treated was never about you, it was about them. You have virtues, insights, and values. You are lovable and you deserve to be celebrated and loved for the person you are and the person you are becoming. You are not alone.


About Jen Hinkkala
Jen Hinkkala is a PhD student, researcher, and teacher of music and arts education in Canada. As a researcher Jen strives to understand what factors and experiences lead to higher levels of wellness, resiliency, self-care among arts educators. See her new Facebook group for adult children estranged from their parents.

Daniel E.
A study from seven years ago:

Estrangement between a mother and an adult child is more common than people might think, says an Iowa State researcher. A new study has found that estrangement is often the result of a difference in values.

There is a strong bond between mothers and children that when severed is often the result of a difference in values. That is the finding of a new study published online in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Megan Gilligan, lead author and an assistant professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State University, says mother and adult child estrangement is more common than most people might think. Gilligan and colleagues J. Jill Suitor, Purdue University, and Karl Pillemer, Cornell University, found one in 10 families had an estranged child, but it was the reason why that really stood out to Gilligan.

"I was surprised it wasn't a big event or that the child did something illegal. You might expect that if a child is incarcerated or in some type of legal trouble that mothers might be ashamed and that would lead to estrangement," Gilligan said. "Instead, we found mothers were upset about other issues that related to their core values and beliefs."

The study looked at two factors -- differences in values, as reported by the mother, and violations of societal norms -- to understand how each predicted estrangement. Violations included alcohol and substance abuse or criminal behaviors, but not serious violent crimes, such as rape or murder. While a difference in values between mothers and children was a strong predictor, societal norm violations did not increase the risk for estrangement.

Researchers defined estrangement as mothers who had no contact with their child (38.2 percent) and mothers who had very little contact with their child and described their relationship as very emotionally distant (61.8 percent). The data used were collected as part of the Within-Family Differences Study, a project funded by the National Institute on Aging and based at Purdue University. A total of 566 families met the research criteria -- mothers 65 to 75 years old, with at least two living adult children -- and 64 were estranged.

Mother hurt by divorce, not drunk driving
In their paper, researchers included narratives from interviews with mothers describing how their son or daughter violated their trust or expectations, related to their values. For example, one 75-year-old mother, a devout Catholic, explained how her one son's divorce and subsequent remarriage led to far less contact and support. Here is part of her narrative:

"It's a difficult situation. Now he has remarried and made a new family. So it's painful for me to be judgmental, but I have religion in the way and my own morals and social ideas."

Through the interview, researchers learned the woman's other two children both had been arrested for drunk driving and had a history of substance abuse. However, she was not bothered by these problems. In fact, she considered her son with the arrest record to be her success story because he is married.

Mother's marital status matters
In a majority of the cases, there was only one estranged child. However, in one case the mother's only two children were both estranged. In addition to core values, researchers found the mother's marital status was also a predictor.

Mothers who were divorced or widowed were more likely to have an estranged child than mothers who were married. Gilligan credits the role of the father.

"An explanation for this might be that fathers are maintaining contact with the child. Even if the relationship between the mother and adult child is strained, it's less likely to become estranged because of the father's pull," Gilligan said.

Researchers considered children's gender, but did not find any difference between sons and daughters risk of estrangement from their mothers. Birth order was a predictor as last-born children were less likely to be estranged, Gilligan said.

The study is based from the mother's perspective, but researchers were often able to verify the nature of the estranged relationship through interviews with other siblings and in some cases the estranged child. Gilligan is interested in exploring how children would describe what led to their estrangement in future research.

"Mothers are upset about these events, but I don't think they're always the ones cutting off the relationship," Gilligan said. "In some cases the mother may be upset and voice her opinions, but the child is the one pulling away in reaction to the mother's criticism."

Gilligan believes this paper has practical implications because it suggests that intergenerational estrangement is a more common experience. "Professionals working with families should pay attention to value dissimilarity between mothers and children because these differences in value appear to have severe, long-term consequences," she said.

Story Source:
Materials provided by Iowa State University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:
  1. Megan Gilligan, J. Jill Suitor, Karl Pillemer. Estrangement Between Mothers and Adult Children: The Role of Norms and Values. Journal of Marriage and Family, 2015; DOI: 10.1111/jomf.12207
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Daniel E.

A 2020 Cornell University survey of more than 1,300 people revealed that 27 percent of respondents were estranged from a family member, with the most common fracture (10 percent) between parent and child. “When we expect that a family is forever, or that parents unconditionally love their children and vice versa, it can be hard when that doesn’t manifest in our actual lives,” said Kristina M. Scharp, a professor at the University of Washington who studies difficult family transitions.

And it’s particularly tough on days like Father’s Day, when those cultural expectations “lay heavy on people,” Dr. Scharp said.

Studies have shown that giving to a cause that’s meaningful to you can help you feel happier. Make a donation to an organization, like the Boys and Girls Club, that pairs young people with adults they can look up to. Or use the day to celebrate “voluntary kin,” whom Dr. Scharp describes as “people you include in your life, who play supportive roles, who act like family.”

Daniel E.

Estrangement between parents and their adult children appears to be on the rise. Research indicates that about 25 percent of American adults are living with an active family estrangement that either they or another family member initiated. Some experts believe that at least part of the context for this trend is increased political and cultural polarization coupled with growing mental health awareness and recognition of the effects of toxic or abusive family relationships on well-being.

In spite of their prevalence, these painful relationships are rarely discussed openly because cultural norms and expectations make estrangement especially stigmatizing. That has led to widespread misconceptions about estrangement, including that estrangement is rare, that it happens suddenly, that there’s a clear reason people become estranged, and that estrangement happens on a whim.

In addition to abuse, toxicity, and bad parenting, mental illness and substance abuse are major contributors to estrangement. And although sometimes estrangement is a happy ending, it is also associated with a slew of negative psychological effects, including grief, anxiety, depression, ongoing trust issues in other relationships, a decreased ability to self-regulate, and a tendency to ruminate about problems in all relationships rather than enjoying their positive, nurturing aspects.
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