Stages of Estrangement: Despair

Daisy Daisy / AdobeStockSource: Daisy Daisy / AdobeStock

In Part One of my series on stages of estrangement, I described the initial reaction of many parents when their adult child has cut them off: Shock.

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.)

Reduce the pace. Speak with your child in an unhurried way, pausing frequently. Wait a few seconds after your child finishes before you begin to speak. Your own easy relaxed speech will be far more effective than any advice such as “slow down” or “try it again slowly. For some children, it is also helpful to introduce a more relaxed pace of life for awhile.

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.

Mirror, Mirror

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.

Let them read what they want. Kids who read for pleasure excel academically—not only in language arts but, as recent research from the Institute of Education, in London, found, in math as well. So while you wish he would pick up Dickens, don't make him feel bad about a graphic novel. "A 'junky' series can be good if it gets kids hooked on the habit of reading," says Mary Leonhardt, a former high school English teacher and the author of Parents Who Love Reading, Kids Who Don't.

As these fortunate 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 angered by any signs 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?

"There is only one pretty child in the world, and every mother has it."- Chinese Proverb

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.

Turning your attention to constructive introspection (and possibly some constructive wallowing ) can nudge you into the next stage of estrangement, where positive change becomes possible: Acceptance.