I’ve been perusing the magical world of estranged parents’ forums, and grandparents’ rights forums. They’re pretty interesting and scary places, mainly because of the “it’s not your fault” message that these people keep spreading.
If there’s one message I want to get out to the world, it’s that people don’t just up and walk out of your life for no reason. There’s always a reason.
People who have good, healthy relationships with their parents won’t just cut them off for no reason. But the frightening thing about estranged parent forums is that they encourage exactly that sort of thinking – that you, as the parent, did nothing wrong and are not to blame. Your adult child is 100% at fault. All that attitude does is enforce estrangement.
The reason for this? A lot of these estranged parent/grandparent forums aren’t run by accredited professionals, but rather by someone who wrote a book or published an article or started an organization based solely on their experience. That person wants to soothe themselves and others experiencing the same things by telling them exactly what they want to hear: It’s never you. It’s always them. This creates a very divisive environment, and also discourages any sort of self-reflection. After all, if it’s not my fault, I have nothing to reflect on. I did nothing wrong. I’m the victim here, and my adult child is the perpetrator.
But it doesn’t just stop with these echo chambers – sometimes, these spaces encourage actions which are highly questionable. The ones that really scare the holy hell out of me are the ones that encourage estranged parents to not only ignore boundaries, but engage in downright stalkerish behavior, from ignoring no contact pleas by continuing to send letters and gifts, to showing up at events, to hiring a private detective to get information when an adult child does something like move without leaving a forwarding address or get a new phone number. And it’s not just one forum or site that does this – there are multiple sites that tell these people to not allow an adult child to cut off contact – to keep attempting contact. To keep attempting to find out information. To refuse to take no contact for an answer.
All of this advice shows a remarkable sense of entitlement on the part of the estranged parents, and an inability to recognize that their adult children are just that – adults. Adults who have the right to make decisions for themselves. Decisions that their parents don’t have to like or agree with, but do need to respect.
But it gets even more creepy than that on these estranged parents’ forums, especially where grandchildren are concerned. One I read recently advocated intentionally upsetting one’s adult children, hoping to elicit a strongly-worded email or text message, that could then be printed out, laminated – yes, they actually said to laminate everything – and put into a binder to be presented to the grandchild(ren) upon their coming of age. They even take it one step further, and make elaborate wills stating that the parents of the now-adult grandchild cannot be present when the grandchild receives this binder full of negativity meant to turn them against their parents.
It’s not about making it fair, or making sure the grandchild gets to know you somehow. It’s 100% all about revenge.
What sucks is that I totally fell for that tactic when I was younger. My mother in particular loved triggering my anger, and would print out and keep my emails in binders, which she would periodically reread. (I know this because my father is a disloyal narc who liked to fan the flames; took me a while to see through him.) Meanwhile, her emails would be merely catalogs of all the things she ever bought me – trips, toys, clothes, etc. – and all the things she “let” me do. Anyone who would ever read such a correspondence would likely be easily swayed into thinking I was a horrible monster, and my poor, sainted mother was wronged by me in every possible way.
Which is exactly what she wants.
But I refuse to be ashamed of my anger. I refuse to be ashamed that I was tricked into putting my anger into writing at the hands of an older person who knew better than I did at the time. Now that I’m a bit older, I see how easily a young adult can be influenced, how easy it is to manipulate someone who lacks the life experience to understand that they’re being manipulated.
Even if you tell a young adult directly, they don’t always listen. I didn’t. A therapist tried to tell me to disengage years before I actually did, and I didn’t listen. I had a lot of rage, and I wanted to get it out somehow. What I didn’t understand at the time was that my rage was *exactly* what my parents wanted. It allowed them to continue to play the victims.
What irritates me the most about these estranged parent spaces is the consistent message that it’s not your fault. It’s never your fault. It’s them, not us. They attack the character of the estranged adult children – there’s a lot about how they’re ungrateful and selfish and sadistic. Rarely is there any admission of true wrongdoing – more the passive-aggressive “this is my fault for being too permissive” sort of stuff. The sort of two-faced “faults” designed to make you look better, not worse. It feeds into the martyrdom narrative I see running through a lot of these spaces.
The truth is that people don’t estrange for no reason, and it’s rarely a one-way street. Your lack of understanding (or accepting) the reason for the estrangement doesn’t mean there isn’t one. In fact, a lot of times, the reasons are pretty much clear – the estranged parent will talk about issues that the adult children had with them prior to the estrangement, then three sentences later, express their utter cluelessness as to why the adult child is estranged. It’s fascinating.
It’s not that they don’t see the reasons. I think – and this is my bias, I admit – that a lot of times, these parents do hear the concerns, but don’t take their adult children’s concerns as valid concerns, or downplay how upset the adult child is by it. They say things like, “My son told me not to give my grandkids any candy, but I only gave them a little! I don’t understand why he’s so upset at me! It was just a few small pieces of candy! Don’t they deserve a little treat?” There’s a…perhaps willful?…misunderstanding of the reasons for the adult children’s anger. It gets twisted around in the estranged parent’s mind to be a very minor, very understandable infraction for which they are now being punished in the most horrible way possible. Time and again, they refuse to hear or look at the actual issues.
In this case, her son was likely not as upset that his kids were given candy as that his mother refused to follow a rule that he, as the father and primary guardian of the children, had made. His issue, I would guess (judging from what I read in estranged adult children forums) was that he felt his mother was not supporting him and had undermined him as a father. But her take was that he was overreacting and punishing her for something that wasn’t a big deal simply because he enjoyed having control over her.
I’ve dealt with this a lot in my life – that attitude that “if I wouldn’t be upset by it, or I think you shouldn’t be upset by it, then it’s not a problem,” coupled with, “and if you ask me to change/amend my behavior, you’re being unreasonable and controlling.” There’s a failure to recognize that a problem exists not when you agree on the problem, but at the very moment someone tells you that there’s a problem. Your opinion, at that point, is of no consequence – it doesn’t matter if you think it’s real or imaginary, valid or invalid. If the other person feels that there is an issue, then the issue is real to them and needs to be addressed properly.
Maybe there is mental illness at play and the other person is truly delusional. It happens. But maybe, just maybe, you simply need to stop doing the thing that upsets them. Maybe, just maybe, they are entitled to have their own feelings, set their own boundaries, and make their own decisions. Maybe it’s not control, per se, but that they want to feel heard and want to feel that their boundaries will be respected.
I think there are some generational issues at play as far as how people are socialized that contribute to this sense of entitlement I see in my own life, and in estranged parent forums. Major changes happened over the course of the 20th century, and that’s when most of the people now alive were born. I was raised in a generation told to be independent and think for ourselves. We were raised by people who truly believed in those things – except when it comes to them. My mother always felt she should be the exemption to everything – I should think for myself, but her word should be the last. I should have my own opinions, but her opinions should factor heavily into mine. I should make my own decisions, but not before talking to her about it first.
A lot of times when she’d spend a long period of time monologuing some opinion she had, then tell me “but it’s up to you…” – it was pretty clear to me that it wasn’t, in fact, up to me. I was supposed to “make my own decision” by agreeing with what she wanted. It was coercion. She wasn’t saying “You will do this!” – she was being manipulative. Making a strong case for something, mounting the pressure, letting me know that she’d disapprove and not support anything other than the decision she wanted me to make, then “allowing” me to make a decision. Then she could turn around and say, “I never told you what to do!” Not directly, no. But in reality, yes. Because you see yourself as the exception – I shouldn’t let anyone else’s opinions influence me except yours.
The concept of the estranged parent/grandparent as the exception to the rule is, I think, at the heart of a lot of estrangement stories that involve grandchildren. I read them over and over and over – we told our parents what the rules were for our kids. They immediately (and sometimes gleefully) broke the rules. When we revoked their access to our children, they accused us of overreacting. When we attempted to talk to them about it, they played the victim and refused to acknowledge our rights, as parents, to set rules and boundaries for our children, and refused to support us in upholding those rules and boundaries. As a result, we estranged, because we can’t have other family members undermining us as parents.
I don’t see this issue improving much in the short-term, because more and more, conversations about boundaries and the right to have them are becoming part of the public discourse in a variety of ways. That means that people raised in “respect your elders” generations, who now, as elders, are demanding the respect they think they’re owed and finding themselves shut down. Unfortunately, a lot of people, both old and young, sometimes mistake “respect” for “I should be allowed to do whatever the hell I want without consequences.” Fortunately, younger generations are starting to embrace the idea that it’s okay to set and enforce personal boundaries.
When that sense of “I can and will enforce boundaries for myself/my kids” meets an entitled person with a hierarchical mindset, bad things happen. Here’s what I mean by that…
Grandparents who estrange don’t see themselves as allies and supporters of their children – they see themselves as an entity that is above and can overrule their children. They want to be that cool adult who will let the kids have things the mom and dad won’t, that “fun” grandparent who lets them stay up late and indulges childish whims. As I hear repeatedly in estranged adult children forums, these grandparents seem to want to have all the fun experiences without having to do the not so fun stuff like enforcing rules and disciplining and worrying about long-term impact. Plus, because of that hierarchical mindset, they don’t feel that the rules apply to them, anyway. So they repeatedly ignore rules or violate boundaries, interpret any attempt on the part of their adult child to enforce rules and boundaries as a personal attack or sign of disrespect from a subordinate, then act baffled when estrangement occurs.
There’s also a lot of rage that I see on the part of estranged parents in the form of “they have no right to tell us what to do!” Again, there’s that sense of entitlement to deference and a conception of themselves as authority figures that even an adult child must respect. Even if they violate rules, the adult child is expected to say nothing and just tolerate it. Estranged parents are often very angry that their blatant boundary violations weren’t simply accepted, and try to minimize as much as possible, while harping on their “rights” as grandparents. (“It was only a few pieces of candy! I’m their grandmother! I have a right to spoil my grandkids!”)
Except that it wasn’t the candy. It’s never the candy. It’s the refusal to relate to an adult child as another adult rather than as someone you continue to have lifelong authority over. Their feelings of anger and betrayal stem from the feeling that their adult children are forever subordinate to them; having a subordinate trying to relate to you as an equal will always be affronting to someone with a hierarchical mindset.
And therein lies the problem for people like me: My parents will always see me as a subordinate, whereas I see myself – a 37 year old adult – as an equal. My parents find the concept that they have to show me, an adult woman, any sort of respect, as a shocking and inappropriate inversion of roles. In a hierarchical worldview, respect goes one way – up. Therefore, anything they do that is less than respectful is expected to be quietly endured. If I call them out on anything, I’m the one who has stepped out of line by refusing to tolerate their bad behavior. But woe is me, and woe is any adult child with parents like this, if we do anything to upset them.
It’s a fascinating topic, and one that, while disturbing, has actually helped me get to a very grounded place when it comes to my own parents and the decision to remain estranged. I don’t think reconciliation is impossible in all cases, but in mine, I’ve ruled it out entirely.
The irony to all of this, for me, is that my parental estrangement happened because I became *exactly* who they wanted me to be – an informed, critical thinking, independent adult who sets and enforces boundaries, makes her own decisions, and isn’t easily influenced by others.