No matter how sudden or abrupt it might seem, estrangement is a problem with a history. — Tina Gilbertson
When a teen or adult child estranges themselves from a parent, the question arises, “Who’s at fault?” Is it always the parent’s fault that the child walked away? Is it the adult child’s fault? Do both parent and child bear some of the responsibility?
The answers to each of those questions is No. Yes. Maybe. It depends on the circumstances.
Looking at all possible angles can help us pause before we jump to judgement about someone else’s estrangement. Just because our experience is one way, it is not possible to assume that all others are the same.
When Parents are Not at Fault
When a child suffers from mental illness, has a drug addiction, has been influenced by the other parent or other family members, or is breaking away to individuate — these may all be times when the parent truly bears no responsibility for the estrangement.
If the parent is a victim of parental alienation by the other parent, or of abuse by the child, then they are certainly not to be held accountable. It is harmful when people automatically blame the parents. Every situation is different and cannot be judged at face value. Sometimes the parent really is innocent.
Relationships are tricky and can be fragile. The parent-child relationship is rife with opportunities for the two to get crossed up with each other. Especially when children are young, there are times that a child’s understanding cannot make sense of something, and the way they cope is to create a narrative around it that allows them to put it in a tidy box.
If, as the child gets older, they do not update their story, they can react from their rehearsed narrative of the situation and not from the truth.
A wonderful example of this is a story that Mary Karr, bestselling author and memoirist, tells. She starts her story by saying, “The truth ambushes you.”
She said she always had this narrative that her daddy abandoned her. She has written about it in her memoirs, and started her second book, Cherry, with a scene of saying goodbye to her father. After her parents divorced, she chose to live with her mother, and she created this story about her father abandoning her.
She says for years she was so invested in this story about her father being this horrible abandoning force in her life that she could not see the truth. It wasn’t until years later that she asked herself, “OK. When did he leave you?”
She said even as she got older he would still ask her to go hunting and fishing, he would bring her a supper plate at an all-night switchboard job she had, he always showed up when she called. Nonetheless, she had created this story and it created cognitive dissonance.
She had been in therapy for years and still could not see the truth until one day it hit her. Her grief and sadness was not about him leaving her, but about her abandoning him. He had always been there for her, but she was the one who walked away.
She concludes by saying that every book she has written she has had to revise her view on her history.
I love this story because I think it encapsulates what can happen in relationships, especially parent-child relationships. In this case, Mary Karr estranged herself from her father based on a story she had created. I know this is not uncommon. The parent may be perfectly innocent, and still be held responsible for something they didn’t do.
In her guide for parents of estranged children, Tina Gilbertson, a psychotherapist, author and speaker, says that estrangement, at its heart, is a communication problem. There are many opportunities for miscommunication in the parent-child relationship.
Sometimes a parent is not at fault, but still has the gut-wrenching experience of losing their child to estrangement.
When Parents are Responsible for Estrangement
Parents who are mentally, emotionally, or physically abusive, or guilty of abject neglect, are certainly responsible for their child choosing to estrange themselves.
I have heard and read so many heartbreaking stories of parents who abuse their children in the most shocking ways. I recently read about parents who punished their son by making him sleep in an unheated garage. He died of hypothermia. The father is a cop.
I have a close friend who was sexually abused by her father and her mother denied it ever happened. The trauma of her abusive childhood has taken her a lifetime to heal.
There are parents with mental illnesses that cause them to created havoc in their families, traumatize their children and scar them, many times, for life.
There are parents who never should have been parents, with little idea how to care for and nurture a child into adulthood, and little interest in doing it well.
When a child is raised in these kinds of trauma-inducing environments, they have a right to walk away as adults to save themselves. In these instances, the parents are most certainly at fault.
To say that parents are never at fault for an estrangement is just as unreasonable as saying they are always at fault.
When Parents May Be Responsible
Parenting is a confounding, almost mystical, responsibility that most of us are not really prepared to do well. Many of us figure it out enough not to bungle it too badly, and not to overly traumatize our children, but it is not necessarily instinctive.
When all we had to do was keep children alive and then teach them how to hunt and gather, it was a lot easier. But our complex society demands that children be prepared to navigate a myriad of emotional mazes and sometimes we as parents aren’t even good at that.
We can make mistakes that cause harm even when we are trying to do our best.
We can create co-dependency, become overly entangled and smother our children out of our great love for them. All of these behaviors can stunt our children’s emotional growth, but we can’t see it because we think we are giving them all the love and attention they deserve.
Loving, caring parents can make lots of mistakes that harm their children. Even children raised in fairly healthy families can find reasons to distance themselves from their parents.
If a parent is overly critical or disapproving of their child’s chosen lifestyle, partner, or profession, the child may feel the need to create a safe distance.
If a parent is needy, and relies on the child to take care of their emotional needs, the child will feel they cannot bear the weight of being the parent’s emotional caretaker.
If a parent has built their entire lives around their children, they may have a very hard time allowing them to spread their wings and find their own way. Some children may feel the need to cut off communication in an effort to create a life and an identity for themselves.
When parents go through a divorce, many times the child is the one who gets dropped through the cracks. This is never intentional. It is collateral damage that no one meant to cause.
We have to understand that our children experience us as parents differently than we see ourselves as parents.
One of the things most of us didn’t learn when we began our parenting journey was how to check in with our child and ask them about their experience. Many of us learned to interpret our children’s experiences for them. Most likely, we are still doing that.
If our child has estranged themselves, it is more helpful for us to ask them about their experience, and be willing to accept it as their truth. Only then can we start a productive dialog that can lead to reconciliation.
It may well be our fault, even if we always did our best and never intended to do them any harm. Admitting that is the first step to healing the relationship.
The Dichotomy of Parent-Child Estrangements
If you were to ask one hundred adult children who are estranged from their parents if it is the parent’s fault they chose to walk away from them, one hundred of them would answer yes.
If you were to ask one hundred parents if they feel that they did something bad enough to warrant their adult child estranging themselves from them, most of them would say, “No.”
It is easy to see the dichotomy that exists in this broken relationship. It is also important to acknowledge the pain on both sides.
If you are a parent, you need to ask yourself if you are willing to hear your child interpret their experience without telling them they are wrong. We all have a right to our own experiences. The story you have been telling yourself may not match their experience. We all see things from our own unique point of view. The goal is to find a way to meet in the middle, so you can find healing for your relationship.
If you are a child who was abused and traumatized, you must do what you have to do to keep yourself safe and to heal. Walking away from your parent may be the only choice you have. While it is heartbreaking to be a child without a parent, no matter what age, you can find ways to lovingly re-parent yourself and eventually heal.
The question of who’s to blame is not always straightforward. If we are experiencing estrangement, we need to be cautious about judging others’ experiences based on our own. There is always a bigger story than the one you can see. There is always a different answer to the question “Who’s fault is it?”
The real answer is we need to tend to our own healing, no matter whose fault it is. It is the only hope any of us have to be reunited in a healthy parent-child relationship.