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When you first realize you’ve become estranged from your adult child(ren), you may be shocked. Also confused, afraid, and maybe a little bit panicked.
Some parents who’ve had a particularly difficult time with an adult child for many years may also experience a sense of relief, not having to navigate those choppy waters for a while.
As estrangement continues over time, other emotions arise. Perhaps there’s anger. Fear. Regret. Hopelessness.
In the mix there may also be sadness, loneliness and longing.
Misery can comprise an unhappy blend of painful feelings including all of the above, plus feelings of rejection, powerlessness, remorse, and more.
It’s important to understand that all emotions — even hatred and rage — are normal and acceptable. Because although behavior can be right or wrong, good or bad, feelings shouldn’t be judged that way.
One of the best practices for people suffering the pain of estrangement is to name their emotions. In the academic world, this is known as “affect labeling.”
Why give attention to negative emotions during an unwanted estrangement, you might ask? Isn’t it better to try to keep busy and not let them dominate?
Yes and no.
Though not necessarily intuitive, just labeling feelings has been shown to help regulate emotion.
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with keeping busy; distraction is a valid coping mechanism for emotional overwhelm. But ignoring or suppressing feelings over time can negatively affect mental health and subjective well-being. In short, shutting emotional pain out of our awareness doesn’t work in the long run, and makes us feel worse.
Naming the emotions of estrangement can help you make sense of, and get your mind around, an otherwise chaotic experience.
Let’s name some common emotions that many parents feel during an unwanted estrangement by an adult child.
As you read the following list of emotions, try on each one for size. Feel whether it fits for you. If so, say it. “I am feeling ___,” or “Yesterday I felt ___.”
Whatever you feel today, felt yesterday, or experience tomorrow, is acceptable.
Feelings don’t happen by choice. Once they’re triggered, it’s too late not to have them. Your only choice is whether to name and feel them, or deny they exist.
Good People, Bad Feelings
Statistically speaking, you are a good person. Sometimes you feel bad. But bad feelings don’t make you bad.
Estranged adult children are also, for the most part, good people. They have bad feelings that affect their ability to engage, at least for a time. Most estrangements are temporary. Evolution is constant in any relationship, regardless of contact, as long as at least one person is changing.
Emotions are intimately involved in personal healing and growth, which are both forms of change.
Your continuing healing and growth will change you and all your relationships, including with your adult child(ren).
If you can accept that good people sometimes have bad feelings…
And that you and your child are both good people…
You may more easily be able to accept, label, and constructively tolerate the emotions of estrangement.
Many of us have trouble knowing, naming and tolerating our emotions. Therapy with a feelings-friendly therapist can help. There’s a chapter on how to identify that kind of therapist in Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings By Letting Yourself Have Them.
Therapists are human; we have our own relationship with emotions. As in any group of people, there’s a wide spectrum of comfort and tolerance for difficult feelings. Try to avoid therapists who seem to want to talk you out of how you feel.
In theory, anyone can help you embrace and explore the emotions of estrangement. It doesn’t even have to be a therapist. They just need to be comfortable with the full range of feelings, including the really hard ones.
If you have someone in your life who can help you name your emotions and sit with them, without trying to hurry you towards feeling better, you’ve struck gold. The more room you and your witness can make for all those normal but painful emotions, the faster you’ll feel better.
Repeat the process of naming your emotions and feeling them until they dissipate, as often as needed during estrangement. There may be periods when you have to do this every day, or multiple times a day.
You can’t’ choose not to be in pain if you are. But you can give your heart exactly what it needs to stay healthy and open during this challenging time, while also potentially gaining some long-needed emotional healing.
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