The Hardest Thing Of All

by Annie Kaszina on April 2, 2013

This week, I’ve spoken with several emotionally abused women about Parental Estrangement Syndrome (PES).    I believe it is an important enough topic to share because, unfortunately, it happens to a lot of women.  It may well be the hardest thing to deal with for any parent .

Let’s start with a working definition: Parental Estrangement Syndrome occurs when a (more or less) adult child severs contact with one or both parents, with a view to controlling when, how, and – above all, if – future contact will occur. 

In an effort to describe a complex topic as simply as possible, I’ll stick to the big picture, and some sweeping generalizations.  If you object, and say: “That’s not how it is for me”, you’re doubtless right.  Not everybody’s scenario is the same.  My point is to offer an overview of how PES happens, why it happens, and what we make it mean. 

If you are affected by this issue, you need to know that the leading expert on Parental Estrangement Syndrome is Dr Joshua Coleman, whose book, and excellent training on the subject has eased many, many parents’ agony.  What follows is my understanding of Dr Coleman’ work.  

PES is becoming a lot more common than it ever was because of societal shifts: once upon a time, the commandment “Honour thy father and they mother” held sway.  For decades now, the focus has changed to honoring our children.  

Those of us who were brought up by abusive parents have done everything we could to give our children a sense of being valuable that we didn’t have.  (In part, that was about making good our own hurt and giving our children the love we could wish we had received.) And we obsess about their rights. 

Society has elevated the status of the child, and the young, as never before – not least because they represent a fabulous hungry market for a vast array of consumer goods.  

Kids who are trained to believe, absolutely, in their rights and importance can easily develop a massive sense of ‘entitlement’ because, with the best possible intentions, we have fuelled it.  The flip side of entitlement, and this is very important, is grievance. If and when a sense of entitlement is not completely satisfied, the ‘entitled’ person will have a strong feeling of grievance. 

Now, add into the mix the horror of growing up in an emotionally abusive home.  Let’s face it, anyone who has ever done that has vowed to themselves:  “I don’t ever want….” 

For a lot of us, that sentence ended more or less like this: “… my child to feel as worthless as I did.”  So, we go to superhuman lengths to see that they never do.  We invest all our time, energy, and emotions in them. 

And, yes, being only human, we do hope and believe that our selflessness will earn their lasting love, respect, and loyalty. 

But suppose we’ve done the emotionally abused woman ‘thing’… Suppose we’ve put our own life on hold, so we can invest every last ounce of our energy in them; in building their happiness, their self-worth, their life. 

You’d think they’d be grateful – or appreciative, if you prefer – wouldn’t you? 

Here’s the thing, it doesn’t always work like that.  

Two things can get in the way: 

  1. They might start to see themselves as responsible for making you happy, and experience that responsibility as a mill-stone round their neck
  2. Entitlement can be a much more comfortable feeling to ‘sit with’ than indebtedness 

What happens when they want their own life, their way, and they see an obligation towards you as an emotional and energetic drain that gets in the way?  

They need to make themselves feel good about their choices. 

The simplest way to do that is to find someone to point the finger of blame at.  

Which means you become an easy target.  

There are bound to be things you’ve done wrong, over the years.  

They don’t have to be big things.  

Compared to what your emotionally abusive partner has done – or not done – for his own children, they could be trivial things.  No matter. They can serve to let your child off the emotional ‘hook’. 

The problem is when you take your child’s rejection as a valid, objective assessment of your worthlessness.  It’s nothing of the sort.  It’s their way of dealing with a situation they find uncomfortable and painful.    

The solution is not easy.  Your adult child expects to have the right to voice their grievance to you as strongly, and as frequently, as possible.  Your role is to LISTEN.  You may well be absolutely justified in saying: 

“Listen, kiddo, you don’t even know you’re alive.  Compared to mine, your childhood has been a picnic.  You have no idea of what a BAD childhood is.  There are plenty of people out there, including me, who would kill for the childhood you’ve had.” 

However, saying that would be an awfully bad idea.  Your aggrieved child is in venting mode, not listening mode.  Crazy as it may sound, if you want a relationship with your child, your role  – should you choose to accept it – is simply to acknowledge what they’re feeling by saying: “I’m so sorry you feel that way.” 

Over time, that is the most effective way to open up a dialogue.  Remember, the dialogue probably has to be on their terms, or it won’t happen. 

This is not a cheery picture, I know.  But this is, to the best of my ability, a faithful resume of Dr Coleman’s words.  

You may or may not ever find yourself in this mess.  I hope, for your sake, you do not.  It’s an agony you do not need.  Either way, there is a learning that is worth taking on board: fear is the most damaging way you can possibly live.  Fear kept you stuck in an abusive relationship.  Fear of not doing the very best for your child(ren), 110% of the time, can stop you taking important decisions about doing the best for yourself.  So what’s the biggest learning you can take from this: 

Start putting yourself, also, at the very centre of your own world.  When you do that you stop being needy.  You have more space to be fully you and, therefore, to attract good things into your life; and your adult child has the experience – rightly, or wrongly- of being freer to spread their wings, and fly, wherever and however they choose, without estranging themselves from you.

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