Common Myths of Parental Estrangement

Today, two friends of mine shared a blog post from a woman dealing with parental estrangement; at least one of her children had ceased communicating with her. She complains in the blog post that her friends telling her to apologize is hurtful, because she’s done so, and her kid rejected it.

That, however, is not the full story, as you’ll see when I pick it apart.

… I was … battling my own self-flagellation where I blamed myself for being inadequate.  I examined every word every action under the microscope of hindsight seeking for the mistakes that I made. ([Y]es I made my list of things [for which] I needed to apologize … and wrote the letters as advised.)

Her initial response to her kid cutting her off is a pity party.  Is there a chance it went something like this, “I’m so sorry for anything I did to upset you! I tried my best as a parent, but we all make mistakes, and I just tried to do what was best for you! I love you! Please talk to me! We were so close; what changed? Why don’t you love me any more?”

This is not an effective analysis or response. It’s not a genuine apology. We’ll come back to the part about her writing a letter of things for which she needed to apologize in a moment, but first:

What is a genuine apology?

A genuine apology consists of an acknowledgement that a specific action, reaction, and/or pattern of behavior was wrong and hurt the person to whom the apology is directed. It does not include any justification or defense of the individual apologizing. It is given without conditions or expectations. A genuine apology indicates the offender has given thought to the offense(s) committed, recognized them as wrong, and thus will be less likely to repeat the offense(s) in the future.

She continues to say:

First of all[,] most parents that have been estranged do “do the apology thing” first and think about it later.  In the early stages of estrangement[,] most parents … will blanket apologize for everything and anything they did wrong in hopes of begging their way back into good standing.

A “blanket apology” is not a real apology. If you haven’t thought about your apology, it’s probably not a genuine apology. A genuine apology isn’t about the victim hearing the words, “I’m sorry,” it’s about the victim knowing the offender is remorseful and will work to not repeat the offense(s).

If the offenses you committed against your children were so heinous that they cut you off, begging won’t help you get back in their good graces. Begging pleads, “Please come back and let me keep abusing you! I don’t know what to do without my punching bag!” It whines, “I shouldn’t have to change my actions, because guilt tripping you is easy and worked in the past!”

She follows up with:

I confess; I too did several apologies.  All of them were met with silence!

but unfortunately, reaches for the following conclusion:

Declining an apology is about control.  As long as they control the situation they are powerful.  Rejecting an apology [maintains their] control.

So close to taking responsibility for her own actions, and yet so far.

Her response also begs a question: Since we’re talking about adult offspring, don’t they have a right to associate or disassociate with whomever they please? Isn’t being an adult about gaining control over your own life? Why shouldn’t they exercise control over the relationships in which they engage?

Then she talks “demands.”

Then there are those [that] reply to an apology … with a list of “demands”.  They … say, “I am in control, do as I demand or I withhold myself from interacting with you.” Any attempt to reconcile without acquiescing to the demands is turned down flat.  This is not an act of communication and compromise, it clearly is about control.


What are the demands her children made of her? We’ll never know, because she didn’t share them. Often, the demands look like this:

  1. When you cried because I didn’t allow you to co-sign the loan for my car or my apartment, I felt manipulated. I needed to take responsibility for my own life as an adult living on my own, but you were still trying to assert control over me. Please recognize that being an independent adult does not mean I hate you. Please do not interfere with my decisions as an adult. You may voice disapproval if asked for your opinion, but you may not use your emotions to manipulate me.
  2. When you sent e-mails to someone that offered me a job, her boss, and many of her coworkers, then used information a third party shared with you to e-mail the company’s clients urging them to sever their contracts with the company, knowing that would hurt my earnings, you decided that you knew me better than I knew myself. You sabotaged a job that would have given me a higher earning potential. You used your social power to exert control over your adult daughter’s life. I asked you for your opinion, and instead of giving your honest opinion, you expected me to read your thoughts and when I didn’t, resorted to sabotage.
    You will never do that again or threaten to do that again, or I will immediately cease communication. Forever.
  3. When you refused me birth control to mitigate menstrual cramps that left me unable to leave my bed for 48 hours, because you decided I wanted to be promiscuous, you treated me as an extension of you instead of an autonomous individual with my own set of ideals and morals.
    You will not ever give or receive input on my healthcare decisions.
  4. When I moved out on my own, and you told many people in our shared professional network that I moved out because I didn’t want to do laundry, and that all you wanted from me was “a little help around the house” you damaged the character our professional network believed I had through deception. That is an abuse of your power.
  5. When Dad suggested cutting my pay in a position where he had the power to influence that, mentioning that I could always “move back in” with you guys to the Executive Director, he destroyed my faith in his willingness to protect me, and demonstrated that he would damage my professional future to return me to your control.
  6. When you told my horse trainer that my ex-boyfriend hated horses, because he was allergic, and she believed you; when Dad declared that obedience to his rules was more important than being respectful of my wishes, when you insisted that emotional intimacy with a long term romantic partner was unhealthy, when you cried that the “devil invaded your family” when your kids asked you for specific, consistent relationship rules, when you meddled in arguments with my significant others, when you told me that my ex had “subverted your authority” and disrespected my wishes by asking to go hiking, because you wanted to go to the zoo, and many other awful experiences, you taught me that you would never respect my romantic partners.
    If you ever denigrate my romantic partner or my friends (all of whom are people above reproach), if you are in my house, you will be asked to leave. If we are in a public place, I will leave.
  7. When you told me at 16 that I would need to pay for gas, insurance, and a car if I got my drivers’ license, and I opted not to because you also wouldn’t let me ride to the mall with you for work, then later, told friends that I was too afraid of driving to get my license, you proved to me that you cared more about keeping up appearances than honesty.
  8. When you prohibited my brothers and I from talking with Dad independently while he was deployed, so that you could continue lying about my brothers, you told me that you really only cared about yourself, and that you would turn your kids’ father against them if it meant you would continue to look good and get the lion’s share of his attention.

Do not reply to this letter immediately. I don’t want to hear from you unless you can demonstrate that you read all the way through this and have thought about why the actions listed were wrong. This is far from an exhaustive list of grievances, and apologizing for these will not immediately jump-start our relationship. You need to attend actual therapy, with a license psychologist, for at least six months, to discuss your codependency and maladaptive ideas about love.

Again, she reaches the wrong conclusion. This sort of a demand letter is not about control. It’s about protection. I love my parents, but I’ve erected boundaries for my own protection. Her kids have probably done the same, based on her own descriptions of her actions.

So close, and yet so far.

In conclusion:
Apologies ARE accepted, but only if they’re heartfelt.
Demand letters CAN be healthy, if the demands made are simply demands for standard respect, and for emotional abuse to cease.
Co-dependency is BAD and will do terrible things to your relationships.

Go fix it!



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