Many self-help books address the problem of remote and unaffectionate parents. And yet such rejection can happen the other way around. Children can and do reject their parents, often when very young.
Rejection and Its Causes
The reasons for this vary. Generally, such estrangement occurs during the child’s teens or 20s. Some parents, however, find that a child rejects them from the very start. Those with a large family, for example, sometimes find one child hostile and manipulative even as a toddler. For whatever reason, there is a clash; the child seems to dislike you, to see you as an enemy, and to set its will against you.
More often, the problems occur later. The child is sweet and loving right up to his or her teens and then everything changes. Where once there had been laughter and fun there is now a daily round of fights, tears, and drug abuse. The child’s partner is often at the heart of such problems. You would not be the first parent to disapprove of your child’s boyfriend or girlfriend only to see them side with him or her. When grandchildren are involved, your child may feel they have no choice. Sometimes, in spite of your efforts, your child’s partner takes a dislike to you and does all he can to turn your child against you, maybe suggesting a new start somewhere far away.
Often, the child rejects just one parent. For example, a couple divorce once the husband’s affair is uncovered. His children side with their mother and refuse to speak to him. Such rejection is common when a girl learns that her mother cheated on her father, or when a boy is told his father cheated on his mother. In such circumstances, the child of the opposite sex often feels protective.
Addiction is another common reason. Whether it is alcohol, opioids, or even gambling, addiction changes people. They become devious and untrustworthy. They also become selfish. And addicts quickly sink into self-pity as well. Alcoholism or drug addiction is no fun. When people endure that kind of pain – pain they are inflicting on themselves – they want someone to blame. Who better than mum and dad?
Indeed, this pattern of misery, self-pity, and blame is often at the root of estrangement. The child is unhappy and bitter. She browses social media sites and looks at photos of old school friends, now happily married or running their own business. She wonders why she isn’t the same. Her last two relationships were a disaster, and she hasn’t the confidence to start a business of her own. So here she is, lonely, single and broke. She grows bitter and angry. Someone must be to blame. In the end, she decides it is her mother and father; they didn’t encourage or praise her enough. It’s their fault she has no confidence and can’t sustain a relationship. At the next family meal, her mother makes some harmless joke about her being single and she explodes, storming out of their life for good.
Simple immaturity is another problem, especially when the child becomes involved with the wrong people. A teenage girl, for example, raised in a sheltered environment, falls in with a gang of older girls during her final year at school. She begins drinking, smoking, and cutting class. Shortly after graduating, she dates an older man with a bad reputation. Her family disapproves, but their disapproval only excites her. Being naive and romantic she sees herself at the center of a tragic romance and decides to run away with him.
A Range of Emotions
Should your child reject you, be prepared for a whole range of emotions. First, there may be sheer disbelief. Most people assume this kind of thing only happens to dysfunctional families. For a child to reject its parents there must be a serious reason – hidden abuse, for example. And yet here you are, having raised your child in a loving family in the leafy suburbs, facing exactly the same thing.
As the shock wears off, it will be replaced by fear. At a subconscious level, people often have children as a way of enlarging and protecting themselves. No matter what happens, your child is always your child. Parents may age and die, marriages break down, but you and your child will always be there for one another. When they leave, the parents feel diminished and weakened. Some feel small and cold – like a child themselves.
Then there is fear for the child itself. A daughter who runs away with her drug-dealer boyfriend is now beyond your protection. Knowing she is alone and mixing with dangerous people can be hard to take. Parents may even feel this way about a grown up son. He falls in love with a beautiful woman and leaves his wife. You are furious, and his new partner, who is arrogant and vain, turns him against you. But you also know she is fickle and that it is only a matter of time before she leaves him. Who will be there when that happens?
Of course, you must also deal with simple hurt. Being rejected by anyone hurts, but being rejected by your child is the worst of all. If you struggle with self-esteem, or maybe felt unwanted by your own parents, this confirms your deepest fears and doubts. When you lose grandchildren as well, the pain is greater still.
A sense of guilt and failure also play their part. People wonder if they drove their child to this. Maybe all the cruel and cutting things they said were true. Maybe you did fail them. People conclude that they must have done something wrong or they would not be in this predicament.
Finally, there is sheer helplessness. At first, the parents may dismiss it as one big melodrama (their daughter always was a little drama queen and attention-seeker). But a few months go by and their attempts to contact her are ignored. Birthdays, Christmases, etc., come and go and they realise it is for real. Such helplessness is especially acute when the parents know their child is also unhappy.
Controlling Your Thoughts
When a child storms out of your life, they leave an empty silence behind. Do not fill that silence with self-tormenting thoughts. And be careful not to look for someone to blame. When in pain, people lash out. You may convince yourself that your husband or wife are really responsible.
Catastrophizing is another danger. Without any contact, you know nothing about their life. In such circumstances, people imagine the worst. They picture their child lonely and frightened but too proud or too guilty to ask them for help.
Self-loathing is also common. Not every estrangement is regretted of course. In fact, some parents are relieved when their child storms out. Often, however, they feel ashamed of this. They think of friends who devote so much care and attention to their children and then feel appalled at their own sense of relief. But your friends aren’t you. They are dealing with a different child and a different situation.
It is also important not to give way to despair. Monitor any thoughts about the future – the “what ifs?” If not, you will drive yourself mad. What if I never hear from her again? What if I am dying and she still refuses to see me?
Forgiveness, Acceptance, and Hope
To set your mind at rest, try sending a letter to your child (assuming you wish to be reconciled). Tell them you love them and will always be here. Don’t apologize if you feel you have nothing to apologize for, but don’t be aggressive or defensive either. Simply assure them that your love for them remains. Next, ensure they actually read it, maybe sending it recorded delivery or asking a trusted friend to place it in their hands (if not, their partner may intercept and destroy it). This alone should bring some peace. You have done all you can. What happens now is beyond your control, and you must accept this. Indeed, the more you pester them the more likely you are to provoke another, and possibly terminal, argument.
The next step is acceptance. This terrible thing has happened. Whatever the reasons, and whoever is to blame, this is where you are. Bitterness and blame will get you nowhere. Be especially careful of blame. Do not go looking for someone to vent your misery on. Some convince themselves that their own mother or father is responsible: they showed me no lover or tenderness when I was a child, they failed to nurture me, and so I had no idea how to bond with my son. Thus a whole new round of arguments and confrontation begins. When the dust settles, you are estranged from both your parents and your child!
You should also be wary of blaming your other children. If the son or daughter you have lost had a troubled relationship with her siblings, you may convince yourself that they drove her away. The last thing you want is to become estranged from another child.
Finally, never give up hope. People tend to confuse acceptance with despair, but they are not synonymous. You can accept the reality now but still hope for the future. Obviously, it all depends on your particular circumstances, but children often do come back: they mature, leave a manipulative partner, grow out of an addiction, even have a child of their own, and suddenly their whole perspective changes. Often, a family tragedy or bereavement brings them back into your life, maybe when you least expect it. So be prepared, and be willing to forgive.
Children reject their parents for all sorts of reasons. Indeed, this painful experience is more common than you realize, largely because people feel ashamed and keep the estrangement hidden. Don’t suffer in silence. Begin by joining an Internet support site. If nothing else, you will at least be reassured that you are not alone.