I and Thou: April is Stress Awareness Month

An open note to estranged parents:

Deviating from the norm of this blog, I share this article to bring light and hope to parents who have been alienated or estranged by a child.

I know the depth of my love for my child and the void in my heart. I feel the intensity of pain that never seems to go away. I ask myself why? Why me? Why my child?

Estrangement is not normal, so the rules of normalcy do not apply. I urge you to read each of the 8 stages slowly and carefully. I pray that you will glean a nugget, a treasure you can hold in your heart to help you move forward. I finally feel I am moving forward…less pain, more acceptance, and more healing.

May the God of love, mercy, and healing be with you and your pain today. May tomorrow be less stressful, less painful, and much brighter. 

8 Stages of Estrangement

There are eight stages of estrangement between a parent and child. In this article, a child refers to any child at any age, including adult children. The estrangement in this article is the estrangement of a son and a mother. A son blocked his mother from social media and stopped all communication with her. She tried endlessly to reconnect to no avail. Ten years later, she still does not know what triggered the estrangement. Parent alienation may have been at play. 

Estrangement and grief go hand-in-hand because, at some level, estrangement is loss, and so is death. The difference is that death is final, and estrangement may not necessarily be absolute. There is hope in estrangement. Death is final. One could probably argue that hope is not healthy, and perhaps hoping less will lead to more efficient healing.

On the other hand, others will continue to hope – a glass-half-full, half-empty type of analogy. Emotions play a critical role in the process of healing from loss. Individuals who are more empathetic and have more of an advocate personality may have a slightly more difficult time processing loss. Those who are less empathetic and more optimistic may have an easier time with loss. 

According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, experiencing these five stages of grief, regardless of order or even vacillating between each one, leads to healing. There is plenty of information on the internet regarding grief. Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief are:

Denial

Anger

Bargaining

Depression

Acceptance

E. Kubler-Ross

In estrangement, a similar set of components are necessary for healing and moving forward. This process can take years or even decades to complete in both grief and estrangement. The eight stages of estrangement are:

Denial

Acceptance Part 1

Rejection

Shame and Blame

Anger

Acceptance Part 2

Fear

Healing

R. Walton

Denial

Denial is not believing a situation exists. It is pretending that the estrangement is not real and hoping it will disappear. Surely, a child cannot estrange themself from a parent. What type of child would do that? Denial is a normal response, and it is the path of least resistance. It is typically short-term. Eventually, denial replaces accepting the reality of the situation, whether the parent likes it or not. In death, denial does not want to believe a loved one has passed on from this world onto the next. Denial is a defense mechanism wishing the estrangement is not absolute, and normalcy will return. However, that is often not the case. Once parents understand the estrangement is not going away, Acceptance Part 1 begins.

 Acceptance – Part 1

Once the denial phase is over, a parent begins to accept the concept of estrangement. A parent first seeks to understand the growing number of estranged parent-child relationships by scouring the internet for possible resources on the subject. A parent may not even know how commonplace it is and can quickly become an expert on the topic realizing other parents have encountered a similar situation. In this Acceptance Part 1 stage, a parent acknowledges that the parent-child relationship has changed. At this stage, reconnection becomes an obsession. A parent attempts to discover the reasons that led to the estrangement and remains hopeful for reconciliation. During this stage, a parent realizes that the relationship that once was is no longer. Coming to terms with this acceptance leads to rejection. Furthermore, feeling both accepting of the situation and rejection by it simultaneously is quite common.

Rejection

Rejection is an emptiness and a feeling of loss and causes both physical and emotional stress. Rejection of a parent by a child is a traumatic experience. It is very much related to power and control. A child has exerted power and control over the relationship by walking away from it, which is hurtful. Reactions such as anxiety, panic attacks, and other physical pain or stress occur when rejection occurs. If estrangement occurs during a divorce, a rejection by a child can add fuel to the fire of feeling rejected by the spouse. In some cases, an entire set of relatives and friends disappear in what may seem like an instant. During this stage, a parent feels physically and emotionally depleted. Lost. Loss of a child. Loss of a marriage. Loss of a family. Loss of what was. Loss of what was to be.

Shame and Blame

Shame typically begins during the rejection phase after a parent has worked through the acceptance part 1. The reality of the estrangement starts to set in. The questioning begins. A parent may think they lack parenting skills. What on earth did a parent do for a child to shut a parent out completely? Or, what did a parent not do? This stage is when a parent internalizes the pain and questions the validity of the source. Frequently, a parent does not know the reason(s) for the estrangement. A parent begins to feel shame. The mere thought of a child rejecting a parent is vile; therefore, a parent experiences shame. A deep to the core type of shame. The shame of a child’s rejection and the shame of what behavior a parent may have or may not have done or said or not said. Shame and blame often coincide. A parent blames themself. A parent blames a child. A parent blames a spouse (or former spouse). Or, in the case of parent alienation, blames a court system. In the end, the question remains, was the estrangement caused by another human being? Or was the estrangement caused by an action? A miscommunication? A series of misfortunate incidents? Lack of communication? Or no communication at all? There is blame, shame, and anger all around. 

Anger

Anger is the reaction to an unpleasant situation. It is a normal emotion and frequently occurs in the everydayness of life. The anger resulting from estrangement runs deep – much more profound than the everyday kind. This one is the ugly cousin of shame and blame. This anger is volatile, yet, it can also be quietly simmering beneath the surface, waiting to explode. During the estrangement process, anger is necessary. It is anger with oneself, a child, a spouse or former spouse, family, friends, and even God. Anger that questions the estrangement and the role others may or may not have played to either lead to the estrangement or to support and encourage it. Did a parent do all they could do to prevent this? Did a spouse (or former spouse) encourage counseling? Did family members disown the estranged parent or intervene? Was there a feeling of hopelessness? Or did not do enough? Or did too much? This anger phase involves questioning oneself and others, which is necessary for healing. It is vital to vent by deep breathing, talking to a therapist or friend, exercising, or alleviating the stress that builds from the anger during this anger stage. Even though thoughts of murder, suicide, and kidnapping may occur, one cannot act upon them.

Acceptance – Part 2

Once the anger has dissipated, a parent can start the next phase of Acceptance Part 2. This stage is where a parent accepts the estrangement as part of a bigger picture whereby a child may not have estranged willingly. Or thoughtfully. Or knowingly that the estrangement would last for months, years, or decades. The acceptance stage acknowledges that a child may not know how to reconcile. It also comes to terms with a child making “no contact” and respecting the decision. This stage is a promising one. Once a parent has accepted the estrangement as part of life’s circumstances, a parent can start to let go of the past and realize that there may be no future with an estranged child. A parent should no longer attempt to mail letters, send friend requests, and ask others who may know the child for any information. This stage is tough to journey through, especially for hopeful and generally optimistic people. Thinking that one day, reconciliation may happen conjures up visions of unicorns and torture. The goal of Acceptance Part 2 is peace and respect for oneself and others, including an estranged child.  

Fear 

This stage involves non-estranged children. It is the fear of potential estrangement from another child. After estrangement, fear clouds the relationship between a parent and the non-estranged child. This fear negatively influences parenting decisions. A parent will discipline the non-estranged child less. A parent will adjust their communication for fear that something said will trigger the non-estranged child to estrange. Is the fear realistic? For a parent who has lost a valued relationship with one child – the fear is real – it is a perceived danger and potential threat. The risk of losing another relationship often leads to also avoiding intimate conversations. The relationship is fragile, and a parent wants to guard it to ensure it does not break. Living and parenting with the fear of estrangement are not easy. It is a difficult stage to endure and learning to live day by day keeping worry at bay is a good goal to have. As the non-estranged child matures, the fear of estrangement may dissipate based on their behaviors and communication.  

Healing

Healing comes in all sizes and shapes, and moving forward with life and becoming unstuck, is essential. Healing can begin with writing, therapy, exercise, or workshops. Breathing retreats can help. Seminars on Living a Miraculous Life can help. Spiritual vacations can help. Whatever helps heal a parent from estrangement is worth doing, especially if it means being open to a conversation with someone who loves a craft or activity that you do not. No matter how healing takes place, there is nothing more important in this world than for a parent to be their best authentic self.  

 About the Author 

Ruth is a blogger of I and Thou Reflections on WordPress and Facebook. WordPress exhibits her heartfelt reflections on life, love, and relationships. Facebook contains excerpts from her devotional book on human relationships as well as her I and Thou Reflections. She has authored a fiction book on love, travel, marriage, and separation due out at the end of this year. Ruth has also written a 365 devotional on reflections on God, scripture, and human relationships, which will be part of a series tentatively titled, Sacred Traits, hoping to publish in the following year. Ruth is currently working on numerous other writing projects, including a Career Journal. She is a former director of career services at the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, AR, and Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. Her younger son recently graduated college and lives on the east coast. Ruth’s eldest son lives on the west coast and estranged from her more than ten years ago. Through research, writing, and prayer, she has healed to the point where she can respect his feelings and remains hopeful for a reconciliation.