When your children reject you, your values
By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald
(Last names withheld for privacy purposes.)
It’s a living hell, a combination of grief, rage and obsession. It shares the horrors of divorce and bereavement. It is veiled in the same musty closet as suicide and mental illness, and is often kept silent – a well-guarded secret no one is to ever know. Yet, family estrangement can wreck lives.
The roots of estrangement can be trivial or monumental, layered in anything from a minor argument to sexual abuse, but the impasse that results affects all as they take on roles alternating from lost soul to furious ogre.
Regardless, whether the estrangement is complete or partial, the effects are deep and painful. For parents who have lovingly raised children in the Catholic faith, a sudden departure from them or their system of values can be painful and depressing.
Loss is unlike any other
When Gale and her husband Bruce, both 61, saw changes in their 44-year-old son six years ago, they were concerned.
“My son was sexually abused as a child and we took him for counseling and thought it had made a difference,” she confessed. “I thought as a family that we had dealt with all this tragic happening, but apparently it is still haunting him and he may think in his mind that I didn’t do enough to prevent it. But I swear, I didn’t know until my younger son came and told me it was happening.”
Last year, their son cut off all ties with his parents, leaving them feeling judged by their peers, depressed and as failures as parents.
Gale and Bruce met with their priest and joined support groups for help. However, their son has shown no interest in reconciling.
“This was the most horrible shame and the deepest pain that we have ever felt,” said Gale. “I know it is all part of the process of grieving, but living this loss is unlike any other loss.”
Gesture of kindness turns to disaster
When Elizabeth, 54, and her husband Scott, 55, allowed their oldest son and wife to live in their home temporarily while the younger couple were waiting to close the deal on a new home, neither expected their gesture of kindness to turn into disaster.
“I was overwhelmed with them here; it was very difficult,” Elizabeth confessed. “One day, after they were particularly nasty to me, I wrote a note to my childhood friend that said, ‘I hate my kids, I am not proud, but they have hurt my feelings so much.'”
Her son and his wife hacked into their mother’s e-mail account and read her heart wrenching and clandestine confession to a friend. The sole blame and anger fell upon Elizabeth’s shoulders.
Her son and daughter-in-law moved out of the home, and Elizabeth’s apologies and requests for reconciliation were ignored.
“I tried reaching out to them, but they choose not to respond,” she said. “So, although I think of them every single day, I have learned to get on with my life.”
Daughter’s departure leads to depression
The day 15-year-old Jade left home, Naomi and her husband John were rocked to the core. The family of four lived together where God was the center of everything. Both were heavily involved in parish activities; Naomi chaired the prayer and worship committee and their children were involved in outreach programs.
One evening, they were poring over Jade’s upcoming extracurricular activities, discussing new classes and looking forward to a new year in high school. The next day she vanished.
“She had no part-time job when she left, no financial means to support herself, no driver’s license, no education, nothing,” said a tearful Naomi. “We had no idea what was going on.”
To their horror, they learned that Jade had reported John and Naomi to child and family services for neglect. While the charges were unfounded and later proven false, the couple’s relationship with friends, family and neighbors fell apart.
“Everyone seemed to turn against us,” she said. “But our one constant and rock of faith and friendship in all of this was our interim pastor at our church. Jade took to the streets at one point, and I will never forget (our pastor) telling us some of the unreal places that he took himself to – for what? To look for our daughter. Our dear shepherd was looking with love for one of his lost sheep. There were no words; he was a strong presence for us back then.”
For three years, Naomi suffered extreme depression over her daughter’s departure. Withdrawn, she would spend days in bed, clutching the phone – holding on to the thread of hope that Jade would call.
“We didn’t vacation at all for the first five years because we were afraid that she might call if we left,” she confessed. “We tried counseling and involving her in the counseling, but she refused to show up.”
After months of spending large amounts of money for a family therapist who was unable to help them without their daughter, they ended the sessions.
Estrangement is slow torture
Estrangement is a dramatic act, often initiated in a surge of fury, but its ramifications amount to slow torture. As Gale, Elizabeth and Naomi have testified, the anger and guilt haunts, nags and simply won’t disappear.
“I felt completely like I had failed as a parent,” Naomi said. “I blamed myself continually. I searched my heart and raked hot coals over my brain and memory bank to find something, anything!”
Many years later Naomi and John learned their daughter had a drug problem and two sets of friends – the Christian friends and the drug friends. The Christian friends were the only ones the couple ever saw.
“How could we have not seen the drug problem?” Naomi berated herself. “We have also learned she suffers with some mental health issues, and met a guy who lived without parents; she moved in with him and later had a son of her own.”
While estrangement is generally the most devastating, parents also suffer with children who turn away from Catholicism, reject their parents’ values, become sexually deviant or involved in drugs and alcohol abuse.
Kids are often a reflection on their parents, similar to a report card given to the child for his/her effort in school. If adult children take a vastly different path than their parents, parents are viewed from the outside, with disdain.
Need for accountability, forgiveness
When Jim Pankratz, marriage and family therapist for Catholic Charities and Catholic Herald Parenting columnist, counsels parents, he emphasizes the need for accountability and forgiveness. While it might be tempting to simply console the parents for their loss, it is important to bring them to a point where they can determine if they played a role in the problem or estrangement.
“I would ask them what it is that their adult children are doing and why do you think it is happening,” said Pankratz. “I take a look at the family history and ask them to take a realistic look at what contributions they might have added to it. I don’t do this to be mean, but the idea is that the only way we can resolve our doubts and things that plague us is if we are willing to do an accounting.”
When parents do a self-analysis, they often admit they weren’t perfect parents, and are willing to discuss their mistakes, which often leads to redemption and opens the doors for forgiveness.
Sometimes parents will equate love with agreement and will threaten disownment with disagreement.
“If a child comes home and makes opposite decisions, parents will sometimes say, ‘We will disown you if this happens,'” Pankratz said. “This sets up a cutoff and the parent is saying that to belong to our family, you have to agree. The child learns this and uses it to cut his parents off later if they disagree.”
Parents shouldn’t take full responsibility
On the other spectrum, some parents want to place the entire burden on themselves, as Naomi and John found themselves doing.
“I would never tell an adult parent that they have to take full responsibility for what happened,” said Pankratz. “I tell them to wait a minute; their children have free will. You can impart good values and come up with a belief system, but other variables are that their own personalities are already set before they are born. We don’t decide that; they have genetically encoded free will and kids are exploring the world like we did and make choices due to societal influences. Unfortunately, those sometimes take priority.”
When estrangement is complete, Pankratz advises parents to send a letter, e-mail or make a phone call to let their children know they harbor no resentments and are willing to meet halfway.
“It takes two people to cooperate for reconciliation,” he said. “All you can do is to extend the invitation and if they answer yes, you can meet halfway and walk through to the other side.”
Parents struggle with guilt, blame
If the child remains estranged from the parents, most times parents feel a strong sense of guilt. Those feelings are often confused with blame, but Pankratz noted that parents are attached to their kids because they have brought them into the world. They love them, and want only the best things for them.
“When they do crazy things or wrong things, we have the tendency to take on responsibility for this,” he said. “Or even take on too little. I remind people that the feelings of guilt can be the feelings of the attachment to children. You took great care to protect them and make everything good for them, so why might you feel so bad? It is because of the attachment and deep down in your psyche you want to protect your kids from bad stuff. We can’t do that, we don’t have the power. We wish we did, but we don’t.”
No parent is perfect and every parent and every child makes bad decisions. The only difference is how those issues are tackled.
“Healthy families talk about their problems and are able to accept their own flaws and validate the other’s concerns,” said Pankratz. “Perfection is not obtainable, but our goal should be to deal the best we can with that imperfection.”
Support groups, professional advice helpful
When Debby Pizur, director of the St. Stephen Family Life Center, counsels families dealing with drug, alcohol or mental health issues with their children, she recommends support groups and professional advice.
“People can contact 211 to find resources of the Mental Health Association, (414) 276-3122,” she said.
She occasionally works with estranged families and, like Pankratz, advises a parent to keep the lines of communication open.
“Try not to judge your child,” she said. “If possible, send cards, e-mails or phone messages marking holidays and birthdays, even if the child doesn’t respond. At some point a child may reconnect with a parent and it will be easier if the parent has demonstrated that (he or she is) open to connecting with the child.”
Pride often perpetuates the deadlock between parents and children, said Laura Davis, author of “I Thought We’d Never Speak Again.”
“Being right is the loneliest place in the world,” she writes.
Happy ending is possible
Estrangement is ultimately a sorry tale of pride and prejudice, but there is hope, and 14 years after Jade walked out, Naomi and John have their happy ending.
“She recently sent me an e-mail and wants to meet and wants us in her son’s life,” said Naomi. “She said she missed all of us.”
After she stopped blaming herself, Naomi began rediscovering through support groups and prayer who she was and what God thought of her. She encourages any parent going through estrangement to find ways to heal.
“I began walking and praying the labyrinth, meditating, painting water color and acrylics,” she said. “I also began journaling my feelings, playing classical and Celtic guitar, helping anyone I can, and cherish those who have stood by us.”
Although the judgments along the way were harsh and painful, Naomi experienced freedom when she learned to let go of the gossip, cruelty and staring eyes of family and friends.
“The day I became free of the judging was the day I decided that the only judgment I would acknowledge was that of my God, my creator,” she said. “Truly, he was the only entity that could ever really know to whom judgment should be served and that is who I serve.”