Stages of Estrangement: Despair
Parents rejected by adult children can spend too much time here.
Posted Nov 17, 2018
In this post I’ll describe the second stage I’ve observed in rejected parents, Despair.
Remember these stages, like Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief, don’t necessarily proceed neatly in order.
Parents estranged from an adult child can spend much time in Despair. They may go in and out of it, visiting other stages in between.
The Despair stage is characterized by feelings of powerlessness. It can also be punctuated by anger, resentment, and even vengeful thoughts toward the rejecting child.
It’s a dark and sometimes fruitless phase, into which parents might fall repeatedly during the estrangement.
Parents in this stage act from emotion, busily trying and often failing to reconnect with their distancing offspring.
Sooner or later, they come to feel as though they’ve tried everything. They believe their only option now is to wait and hope for change on the child’s part.
Busy, But Not Productive
Despite feeling helpless, many estranged parents continue to reach out to their avoidant children during this phase. They send gifts, cards, texts, emails or letters fueled by hope and need, without any plan for actually repairing the relationship. (They don’t think they have the power to do so.)
The despairing parent’s only thought is to reconnect somehow, and hope for the best this time. But repeated rejection dashes hopes repeatedly. Sadness and resentment rule this stage.
The approximate counterpart to Despair in Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief is Denial. There may be important pieces of wisdom that parents are unable or unwilling to access right now.
Unacknowledged trauma, past losses, and long-buried emotional wounds in the parent float nearer to the surface during this stage, inviting introspection.
Estrangement brings parents face-to-face with their worst feelings, including painful insecurities of which they may not be aware. If they care to examine their own emotional landscape during this stage, there is much to be gained. Especially the start of overdue healing.
But denial is strong, and many settle in for an extended stay in this difficult stage.
The task for parents stuck in Despair is to hoist their attention off the rejecting child, and on to the rejected self.
Successful healing in the estranged parent often improves the relationship with their child spontaneously. This is because some of the disappointments that lead adult children to cut ties with parents are the direct result of the parent’s unexplored emotional wounding.
For example, a little girl who is treated with cold indifference grows up and has children of her own. The new mother vows never to disregard her kids as she was disregarded. She showers them with love and attention.
As her children grow up and get ready to leave home, the mother’s unconscious need for them to return all that love and attention is painfully activated.
She’s alarmed by any sign of independence in them because it threatens separation – and loss of love.
If she remains unaware of her unmet childhood needs, her children may have to pull violently away in order to gain the space they need to become adults, and parents themselves.
The unfortunate mother experiences this separation as a repeat of the cold indifference she suffered as a child.
Self-focus can bring such unconscious influences to light, and neutralize them with healing attention. Now, instead of controlling her behavior, the mother’s painful past is relegated to an object that draws her compassionate awareness.
Through awareness, self-compassion and the healing they bring, the mother becomes the captain of her own ship. Her childhood wounds can take their rightful place as an aspect, not a determinant, of her experience.
How to Move Forward
If you’re in despair over your relationship with an estranged child, try to bring your attention to your own emotions, past and present. What words would you use to describe the feelings evoked by your child’s rejection? When have you felt such feelings before? What’s the earliest you remember feeling this way?
Unhealed emotional wounds affect all our relationships. Giving kind attention to them is how we heal. Arguably, the parent-child relationship is more vulnerable than any other to damage from unhealed emotional wounds.
Find an understanding and compassionate friend, counselor or family member to talk with about your pain, both past and present. Stop focusing on how to get close to your child. Until you begin the difficult work of personal healing, you’re asking too much of yourself to heal any relationship with someone else.