The Moving Beyond Family Struggles Summit, hosted by Family Support Resources (FSR), this year featured 26 experts in the field of family estrangement, communication, relationships and personal growth.
The entire 2022 Moving Beyond Family Struggles Summit, including all videos and other materials, is available for purchase through FSR.
However, FSR has generously provided the Reconnection Club with the opportunity to share the video of Tina Gilbertson’s interview below.
If you appreciate this interview and the work of FSR, consider purchasing lifetime access to the Summit, and join the Reconnection Club mailing list to find out when the next Summit is scheduled. (Note: The Summit is FREE while it’s live.)
Here is Tina’s conversation with FSR co-founder Yasmin Kerkez…
YK: Hello everyone, and welcome to the Moving Beyond Family Struggles Summit. In this conversation, we’ll be talking with Tina Gilbertson. And I’m going to start by reading out Tina’s fantastic bio to introduce her to everyone.
Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist and consultant specializing in supporting parents unwillingly estranged from their adult children. She’s the co-founder along with her husband, Mike, of The Reconnection Club, an education and support website for estranged parents.
Tina also hosts The Reconnection Club Podcast, a show that helps parents understand and address common issues that lead to and perpetuate parent adult child estrangement.
She’s been a guest on TV, radio and podcast interviews as well as being featured in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Forbes, the Washington Post, and many others.
Tina is the author of two books. Reconnecting with Your Estranged Adult Child: Practical Tips and Tools to Heal Your Relationship, and Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them. Tina, it is such an honor to have you join us today. Thank you so much for being here.
TG: It’s my pleasure, Yasmin, it’s always a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks for having me.
YK: Of course, thank you. Well, Tina, to start with, and for those that are meeting you for the first time, I’d love if you could share with us what led you to do work in a field that is still nowhere near talked about enough.
TG: Right. Well, like many people, I didn’t even know that estrangement was a thing especially between parents and adult children. As a new therapist in 2007, I started to notice that a lot of my clients were talking to me about their parents and their relationship with their parents. And they were telling me how disappointed they were, how they didn’t want to go home for the holidays.
And when I asked, have you talked to your parents about this? Often the answer was, “No, I can’t.” Or “I’ve tried, but it just doesn’t go anywhere.” And I realized that the parent on the other side probably was in deep distress and pain over the situation. And didn’t know what I was learning about what the adult child really needed in the relationship.
And so I became interested in helping the parent, because I knew the parent had a lot of power in the relationship that they may not be aware of.
YK: Exactly. Well, your experience, your everything, all the work you’ve done, and it really shines through in everything you do, Tina, that deep understanding, that compassion.
And I’d love to jump straight in and focus on one of the toughest realities of family estrangement, which is that many live with ongoing separation in their family. But before we do, I’d love if you could first explain for us the difference between estrangement compared to what is so commonly referred to as the silent treatment.
TG: Yes. Well, sometimes those can be very, very hard to differentiate, especially when it’s an adult child who’s estranged or giving the silent. It can be pretty hard to tell, but in general, I think there are some very basic differences.
And one is that the silent treatment is pretty clearly a punishment. It typically stems from, you and I have an interaction, it doesn’t go well, and so I stop talking to you in the wake of that.
You have an understanding about why that is. Obviously, we had a bad interaction, Tina is not talking to me right now, and it’s clearly, this is the reason and this is a kind of punishment and I’m making a point with my silence.
There is a point to my silence that you are supposed to get. And the hope is that you understand why I’m upset and you will never do that again, whatever it was that you did.
And so it’s something, it’s a form of communication that is used when we don’t know how to communicate in a more constructive form. So it’s a punishment and it takes place within the context of an ongoing relationship.
It’s understood, this is temporary. It might be a few days, it might be a few weeks, this is us engaging in a relationship and right now I’m giving you the silent treatment and this is part of the ongoing relationship.
As opposed to estrangement, which is not intended as a punishment, typically. This is what we know from the research. It is — people do not estrange, let’s say their parents or families, to punish them.
If there’s a history of the silent treatment in the family, this is where it gets a little squishy. Maybe there is some silent treatment going on as well, but typically, estrangement is stepping away from the relationship, disengaging from the relationship, not for me to punish you, but for me to feel protected because the relationship no longer feels safe to me. And if you’re hurt, I’m sorry, but I have got… I’m putting myself first in this case.
So it’s quite different from, I’m making a point with my silence versus estrangement where I’m being silent because I have nothing further to say, I’m removing myself for now.
YK: Exactly. Thank you.
TG: And it’s not clear when we will resume our relationship.
YK: That’s so good to hear the distinction between the two, because understanding the situation can help bring so many answers and healing from that feeling of being overwhelmed and just not knowing.
And to talk about that further, Tina, in regard to the silent treatment, which is, like you said, a punishment, it’s an action that people can take. And I can imagine that there are many answers to what I’m about to ask you, but what are some of the reasons why adult children or family members do give that silent treatment? Have you experienced from a lot of your work, that are there some common reasons why people feel that they want to punish or give that cold silent treatment?
TG: Well, in my work, I typically assume that the silence is not intended as punitive. What I see a lot of is people stepping away in order to protect themselves for reasons that the research has uncovered as being pretty diverse.
I mean, the kind of factors that go into it, anything from trauma around infertility can contribute, divorce of the parent or the adult child can contribute, financial wrangles can contribute, but I believe what it comes down to — and if you talk to people who estranged themselves, what it comes down to, is feeling somehow not safe in the relationship: unheard, unseen, not cared about enough, not understood, judged, criticized.
TG: So it’s basically a dissatisfaction with the relationship.
YK: And that also really feeds into beautifully the truth that we need to dive deeper than our initial assumptions and reach that place of compassion. And that beautifully highlights that, Tina.
Now, in your book, Reconnecting with Your Estranged Adult Child, you talk further about the pain of silence and the truth, exactly what I just said and what you highlighted that we are so quick to take it personally with thoughts such as, like I labeled it, a punitive exercise or thoughts such as, all those negative thoughts we go through, ‘You mean nothing to me,’ or ‘I’m never going to talk to you again,’ or even ‘I hate you’ and all those negative, painful thoughts that we are so quick to label something with.
And can you share further with us what you just touched on that, how damaging our initial interpretations can be and possibly suggest how we handle that initial response?
TG: Absolutely. “Damaging” is a good word. And I fear that in many, many, many cases, there’s already been damage done to us elsewhere at an earlier time that makes us go to that place of “You’re not engaging with me, it’s because you don’t love me anymore. It’s because you find me unworthy. It’s because you want to hurt me for some unknown reason.”
There’s all this emotional reasoning that if I feel hurt by you, it’s because you want to hurt me and you’re trying to, and it’s working and ouch. But I think that coping with silence and the pain that comes up from it is a matter of recognizing that it is not your silence that I have to cope with, it is my self-talk that tells me what your silence means, that I have to cope with.
YK: Exactly. That’s so well put.
TG: Many, many people have been carrying for decades a belief, “There is something wrong with me. And if somebody finds out about that, if somebody sees how wrong I am as a person, they won’t love me anymore and they will leave.”
And living with that is something that a lot of people are just used to. And when, say an adult child becomes estranged, it reveals this wound, ah, there it is, I knew it, there is something wrong with me, my child has figured that out and doesn’t love me and is leaving me because of it.
This is like your worst nightmare come true. That’s why it’s so devastating for so many people, it really is their worst nightmare.
And if it’s true that there’s something wrong with me that makes me unlovable and so you’re leaving, where do I go from here? There’s nowhere to go. It’s a dead end.
And so it’s just a daily ordeal with very little hope, which is why it’s so important that people reach out and start looking for help because you need to really have the experience that actually there’s something wrong with this picture. It is not hopeless and here’s why.
YK: Exactly. Well, you really did touch on one of those that a real deep, deep, deep heartache of the situation. And so what are some of the steps people can take, Tina, or options available to them when dealing with that pain and that self-reflection and no contact and what pain that causes, what are some steps that people can start to take?
TG: I think the first one is to become aware that the pain is in here, it’s not out there. It’s not the silence that’s causing my pain, it is the silence that’s triggering my pain. And start to work with the idea that I’m operating under some misconceptions that are hurting me and hurting my relationships.
An example of just sort of dismantling some of these, that’s kind of, I guess what I’m suggesting is starting to dismantle some of the internal misconceptions.
YK: Yes, which is so needed. Because like you said, there’s that initial reaction, the emotional reaction to look outward and to look at what is being done to you, but exactly what you reminded us of that need to look internally.
TG: Yes. But what comes in from out there is not, I mean, we’re not silly to be looking at that as evidence of something that’s true. That’s not silly, but as an example, what happens is this is a terrible feedback loop that we get into where I feel like there’s something wrong with me, and then…
So let’s say you are my daughter and I was mercilessly bullied in high school. And so here’s you approaching high school age and I’m getting very anxious and I’m really, really worried for you. And I don’t want you to go through that. And there may be a part of me that’s like, if I can just get this right for Yasmin, then I’m making it right in some sense for me. And so I get very intently interested in your social life and your experience at school.
And so it’s this, I indulge in these behaviors that are compensating for something in me, in my history that has nothing to do with you. And you on your side experience those behaviors as controlling, intrusiveness. You experience me as not being confident in your ability to make your own decisions or to get along in life. So you have that.
Now you have distress. I seem intensely focused and concerned and maybe irritable around your life. And so you, unbeknownst to you, I’m having all this internal stuff, but you just experience me as controlling and all this stuff that you don’t want.
So depending on your temperament, you may get angry at me or you may sort of slip away and just try to spend as little time with me as possible.
And the feedback loop is, “Yasmin is in distress because there’s something wrong with me.” You see, I don’t see my behaviors, my compensatory behaviors, as causing your distress, I see my flaws as causing your distress.
And then I think, ‘Why can’t my daughter accept me with my flaws? Why am I being judged so harshly? Why can’t she forgive me the way I forgave my own parents?’
So I don’t see that it’s my behavior that’s compensating for my stuff that you’re reacting to. I think you’re reacting to my stuff, my insecurity, my failures and flaws. So it’s a terrible — And then you are hurt because of my behavior and I’m hurt because of your reaction to my behavior.
It’s a terrible, terrible thing. And that seems like evidence to me that there is something terribly wrong with me, because look what I’ve done to my relationship with you.
YK: Exactly. And so wonderfully pointed out Tina, that reality because it’s something I think we do more so in family, exactly what you pointed out, stemming from a caring for our family member and wanting them to not have to go through possibly things that we experienced and wanting to protect them.
And that’s something that is so much more real and present in a family environment as opposed to just normal relationships with work colleagues or friends. And so it’s really wonderful to be aware of that because it is something that can so powerfully exist within family and between [crosstalk].
TG: Yes. And it’s squishy, it’s messy because the parent may be a highly compassionate person who simply doesn’t want to see their child suffer. That’s true. And also there might be another piece alongside of it where the parent needs to get this right the second time around, which has nothing to do with the compassion for the child.
Both can be true. And the parent may be very aware of their feeling of not wanting the child to suffer and just feeling protective, but less aware of a kind of compulsion to fix the past that they experienced.
YK: Exactly. Now moving on from that, Tina, and to go further from that, for people that are living with estrangement and ongoing separation within family, without communication, without response to attempts at communication or possibly even without an explanation, from your experience, is there a common timeline for this separation or does it really vary from situation to situation?
TG: It really varies from situation to situation. That’s why the best thing I think you can do on the receiving end is to, well first, to kind of stabilize yourself so that you’re not in a state of constant pain and panic, but then to gather all the information you can to help you figure out and sort through your situation and figure out what is it that’s needed here.
Because in some cases, it may be that the adult child needs an apology and a very specific, really good and heartfelt apology may be really most of what’s needed.
In other cases, the adult child does not need an apology at all, they just need some space. They just need time and space to develop outside and maybe they’ll come back later or they just, right now, all they need is space or maybe they need something to… They don’t need the apology from the past, but they need something to change today and then they’ll be ready and they may need, they may just be wanting to take some time no matter what you do. Or they may be ready to reengage when you are. So it really varies.
YK: That’s so good to know, because again, that helps, just having answers or being prepared can really help with that place of feeling overwhelmed where people really do struggle with the uncertainty of it.
And I love that you so wonderfully pointed out that, okay, a first step we can take is to ground ourselves, to strengthen ourselves so that we are prepared for that emotional journey or that journey of not knowing the ups and downs and some really good reminder to first address our strength and our emotional wellbeing so that we are prepared for that journey.
TG: Yes. And it does take strength often even just to take in information about things like family dynamics, things that you might not have been aware of. When you become aware as a parent, that there are intergenerational dynamics that you have inherited, you may feel like, oh no, I didn’t know that.
And you may have terrible regrets about things you didn’t realize were playing out. And if you don’t have enough support and enough stability in your life, that can really send you into a downward spiral again, if you have that shame, that inherent, there’s something wrong with me, that’ll play right into that. “This happened because of me.”
YK: Exactly. So true, Tina. And to dive deeper into this struggle with duration of estrangement, for many, like we just touched on there is that huge anxiety and grief about time ticking by and the anxiety about will it ever end.
And can you help with suggestions on how to face this, that uncertainty, and also share with us a belief that, because I’ve heard you say this before, sometimes the more time that goes by can also lead to a more likely reconnection in the future if it’s possible. So I’d love if you could share a bit about your thoughts on that.
TG: Yes. I mean, I think that’s kind of common sense, but in some cases, not all, but in some cases where there’s a lot of heat in the interactions and a lot of mess and a lot of agita, time may be required for things to settle a little bit before it’s even possible to reconnect. So time might be not only unavoidable, but actually required.
The fact that time is ticking by and there may be grandchildren whose lives you’re missing out on, that’s just a tragic sad fact that no one can do anything about. Some there are… So I think grieving is appropriate for what you’re losing right now, but also being aware that if you were in touch right now, it’s not like the relationship is good.
So even if there was an enforced togetherness right now, it might not feel very good for anybody. So it’s not like there’s this beautiful, perfect life going by without you and you can’t touch that, it’s that there isn’t this perfect life, there isn’t this beautiful thing happening right now that you’re missing out on because it’s not beautiful right now.
YK: Yes, that is a really powerful point to make Tina, so true because we do, we so quickly and easily focus that we are missing out on something beautiful, but the reality, which I think offers such relief is the truth that it isn’t perfect at the moment. So time is needed more than anything else to help that find a better place. That’s a really —
TG: And the time thing is a big question. I’m sure you’ve been talking a lot about it to all kinds of people, because there’s a lot to say about time. And there is that part where it’s just unavoidable.
But it’s also important I think to recognize that this estrangement, a lot of people are very much in a hurry. Like I need to fix this today in order to avoid that loss of time. But once you become aware of estrangement, it’s too late, it’s too late to avoid what’s happening now. It has to unfold.
It is going to take the time it takes because there has been time perhaps unbeknownst to the parent. Estrangement has a history in the adult child. It doesn’t, most people don’t turn around and decide one day casually to cut off their parents. For the adult child, there may have been decades of time with them struggling.
YK: Very true.
TG: And so on the receiving end, it’s important to recognize that, okay, this did not happen overnight. Now that we’re in it, it’s not going to resolve overnight most likely, so what is the best use of my time? And there are good ways to use your time.
YK: Definitely. And again, Tina, can you offer any suggestions for how to navigate the separation gap? I know from your work, you advise people to consider the rule of 10 and for anyone that hasn’t heard that, can you share with us what the rule of 10 is and how this helps us shift our mindset to coping more effectively?
TG: It’s just a mindset that says, in essence, this is going to take 10 times longer than I would like. When I get to that point where I am in contact, I need to, in some cases, I need to say a tenth of what I have to say. So there’s all these sort of ugly tens to keep in mind just to kind of keep your, to hold it more loosely, to not be in such a hurry, to not need to say it all at once.
I think it’s a big mistake to be in a huge hurry. And because you don’t have the tools initially that you might need in order to make the repairs that usually are needed, not always, but often.
YK: I think that’s a great step and framework to follow because it really does help us to release that pressure from ourselves. Exactly what you just said, that we don’t always have all the answers, all the tools immediately. So to give ourselves that space and time to just take things one step at a time, and I really find that your rule of 10 reminds us of that to stop and breathe and to really do that, to focus on one thing at a time, rather than that initial feeling of wanting to fix everything instantly, or know what to say, or I find it really effective framework to follow for that reminder to ourselves. And Tina-
TG: When you say… Sorry, go ahead.
YK: No, no, you go.
TG: And when you say to fix everything at once, a desire to fix everything at once, which we can’t do, there’s a paradox that pops up for me in my mind of, of course we can’t fix everything at once, but very often we fixate on fixing this thing over here or that thing over there instead of the global, more global issues that do need to be addressed.
So in a sense, you do want to step back and look at the bigger picture. You might call that, trying to fix everything at once, except that your focus, it’s not the same as, it’s not very active, it’s not, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that, I’m going to send this, I’m going to apologize for that, I’m going to, it’s not all of that. It’s what is underlying this and this and this and this that I feel like fixing? What can I fix underneath?
It’s like, if you have mice. If you see a mouse in your living room in the middle of the day, and you’re like, I need to get that mouse. I need to find out where it went. I need to plug that hole. Right? That’s your impulse.
But the idea that your house is infested can be overwhelming. But if you’re seeing a mouse in the middle of the day in your house, you may in fact be dealing with something bigger than that hole over there, or this particular mouse. So ultimately you’ll need to look at the infestation and it may require doing some research on how to [inaudible].
YK: Yes, no, that’s a great way to look at it. So true as well.
TG: The analogy there.
YK: No, I love that. And Tina, you would know better than anyone, the challenges people face when trying to overcome no contact and the silent separation that we’ve been talking about and people can fight emotions such as what we’ve touched on, grief, anxiety, fear, anger, rather than accept those emotions and work through them.
And I’d love to know what your thoughts are on this. And this is where I’d love if you could touch on what you share in your book, Constructive Wallowing, can you share with us what this means and how we must experience these emotions so that we can work through them?
TG: When you talk about experiencing emotions and working through them, that’s like eating pure brand for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Nobody wants to do that. And it’s not clear what the value is of sitting with grief. Like why should I not be working on an apology letter instead of sitting with my grief?
But the truth is I believe that an inability to sit with and tolerate feelings is at the root of a lot of relationship problems. So it’s a huge skill to be able to sit with feelings and process and work through them. And I did come up with a technique, it’s quite simple in concept and it’s called the T-R-U-T-H Technique.
YK: Great. And how does that work?
TG: Well, there are five parts to it. It’s spelled T-R-U-T-H, truth. So the first thing is you just tell yourself the situation. “My child is not talking to me and I can’t raise her on the phone.”
And then realize what you’re feeling. This is where you put words to the feeling, not words like my daughter isn’t talking to me, but words like abandoned, betrayed, sad, scared, angry, resentful. You get to the feeling words.
Then, I mean, these happen all at once. They don’t have to happen in this sequence, but the “U” is uncover self criticism. This is where you start to root out the little things that you don’t typically directly think about, things like I shouldn’t be feeling this way or I’m unfit and that’s why this is happening. Anything that kind of makes me feel smaller and worse about myself while I’m having this experience of being in pain over my estrangement. So you uncover any self criticism.
And then the next “T” is try to understand yourself. Why would a good person be experiencing this? Why would a good person feel the way I do? Why would a good person feel angry at an adult child for not talking to her?
Well, let’s see, we feel angry when there’s a sense of injustice. “I know how much I sacrificed and gave to my child. I know what it cost me in terms of effort and emotion and time to raise this child. And now what I’m getting back is so much less than what I gave, that it just seems like a terrible injustice, no wonder I’m angry. I’m not asking for much. And I gave my parents a pass, even though they were worse in some ways than I was with my kid. So that’s not fair.”
So there’s all this injustice. So that’s why a good person would feel angry. So that’s an example, try to understand yourself.
The H is just to have the feeling, have it, experience it. Feelings cannot hurt us anymore than we’ve already been hurt. We can sit there and be angry. We can sit there and even feel hatred because hatred is just simply like a combination of powerlessness and resentment.
YK: Exactly. That’s a fantastic exercise, Tina, and really effective in that you mentioned it, simplicity, but I think that’s what makes it so powerful is that it’s an easy to follow step by step framework that really does tap into showing us what we are feeling, why we’re feeling and understanding and allowing those feelings to exist.
And it gave me an idea, in keeping with what you’ve shared with us throughout this talk, the healing effect and the wonderful benefits of understanding our family member as well. And I almost feel like you could sit down with that framework and do it for your family member as well to really understand possibly what they’re going through so that it deepens your understanding and compassion for the situation.
And do you agree, can you share with us again what you think about really being able to understand our family member, rather than what we talked about before jumping to those assumptions of why they’re doing what they’re doing?
TG: I think that’s the goal, is to understand why the person has made this choice, but it is a hard ask if we are not in a position to, I think most parents want to do that, most parents want their kids to be happy. They want to understand them, they want to give compassion, they want to be there for their kids in the way exactly that the kid needs, but a lot of things get in the way.
Trying to understand my kid, I have to first get past my resentment or my anger at them for the pain that I’m feeling. I can’t just leap to understanding because no one has understood me. I haven’t experienced that understanding, which again is why it’s so important for me to give that to myself.
I have to have that experience of being accepted in all of my feelings before I can accept that my child feels disappointed in me or angry at me. If I can’t accept my own feelings, I cannot accept yours.
YK: Exactly. And I’m so glad you touched on that, Tina and shared the truth of how important that is, because I think especially in family, we can often do exactly the opposite because we think we’re being selfish, or we think as a family member, our role is to care and put our family member first. So I’m so glad you pointed that, because you’ve touched on that a few times, this, the importance of really looking after ourselves as well.
TG: Yes. And that way you’re protecting your family members from your own resentment, which is going to happen. Not because you’re a bad person, but because the recipe for resentment is, I’m going to give and give and give and give to you. You didn’t ask me to, but I’m going to, and then I’m going to expect a little something back for that. And if you don’t comply, that’s going to make me resentful. So to protect you and myself from that eventuality of resentment, I do need to put myself first sometimes.
YK: Exactly. Well, I’m so glad you shared that. And Tina, everything you’ve shared has been amazing. We could talk for hours on just each little point alone, but as a final question, for those that are living with separation in their family, with no contact at the moment, do you have one final piece of advice from the heart that you could share or a final piece of encouragement for anyone that is in that situation?
TG: Yes. Most estrangements are temporary and you do have more power as a parent than you may realize. Waiting may be required, but it doesn’t have to be passive. There’s so much work that you can do if you’re up for it and willing.
And I think I might have said this last year: There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with you. So really if you have a sense that there’s something wrong with you, that’s a false belief that was installed there a really long time ago, it doesn’t belong.
So that’s something you really don’t, no one should walk around living with. So that would be the first place I would go. There’s nothing wrong with you.
YK: That’s wonderful. Well, I’m glad — you may have shared it last year, Tina, but I’m glad you shared it again because I know from my work and we all know that that’s something, especially as a family member, we really do put on our shoulders and it’s the most beautiful and needed reminder and advice. So I’m so glad you did share that.
Now just quickly, Tina, you have created an amazing platform of help and resources. I touched on this earlier, your website, your counseling services, your books, The Reconnection Club membership and podcast, and we’re sharing links to everything next to our video so that people can go straight there and find everything.
But is there anywhere you’d like to personally recommend as being a great starting place for people? Or should they just go to the website to explore and connect with you?
TG: Thank you for asking. I think in most cases I would say, start with the book just to make sure that the approach speaks to you. But even before that, if you have trauma in your history, if you have abuse in your background as a child, I would not put estrangement as the first thing that you’re addressing. I would take this time right now to focus on working toward healing from what you have experienced in your own early life. That would be number one.
YK: That is wonderful, Tina, I think that speaks to the heart of all of us as well, it’s wonderful advice for every everything and truly needed definitely in the world of family estrangement. So thank you for saying that.
And Tina, thank you for everything, for all the amazing insight, wisdom and help you’ve shared with us throughout today. It has been such a gift to have you involved on this summit. Like I said, we could talk for hours, but the help you have given in this talk is just wonderful. So thank you for that.
TG: It’s my pleasure. And it’s always a privilege to be a part of anything that you’re doing. And I’m so glad that — to anybody who’s watching this, good for you for signing up for the Summit and taking in all this good information. And I’m sure it’s probably a little bit overwhelming, but the pieces that really need to speak to you right now will jump out at you. So anyway, Yasmin, thank you for the opportunity.
YK: Thank you, Tina. It’s been so wonderful. Like always, like you said, so wonderful to talk together and so wonderful to have you involved. So thank you so much for being with us today.