The societal belief is that children and parents should accept each other for who they are “no matter what”, should forgive each other “no matter what”, and should learn to get along “no matter what.” For some children this is impossible because they find themselves mistreated, disrespected, and continually triggered.
The thinking is rooted in it not “being natural” for parents and children to be disengaged. It counters the standard belief that the parent-child relationship “should be” connected, committed, and based on enduring unconditional love. According to Hallmark cards, it is doubtful that any other parent-child relationship exists.
For children who don’t have the emotional support of parents readably and feasibly available to them, the thinking can be, “If my own parents, who are supposed to love me and be there for me more than anyone else in the world do not love me and aren’t there for me, then who will be?” It’s a double whammy when there’s a lack of emotional support from both parents.
Reasons for the detachment may be due to intergenerational and personal trauma, an absence of emotional intelligence, mental health issues, substance use and abuse issues, fragmented problem solving and conflict resolution skills, and a variety of other challenges. When these instances occur, it can lead to cutting off, distancing, and disengaged family relationships.
Children are often left with feelings of loneliness, feeling awkward or different, and not being intrinsically understood. These intensify during general holidays, Mother’s and Father’s Day, and special occasions. When the “average” American families are getting together to celebrate and connect, these individuals are worrying about how they’ll emotionally get through these events, and who, if anyone, they’ll choose to spend their time with.
Clients that I see speak about their personal struggles. One woman recalled feeling activated when her father was smoking marijuana in his bedroom and the smoke was seeping through the vents where her children were sleeping. She stated, “If it weren’t bad enough that I had to be put in the position of asking him to stop smoking. It triggered my memories and feelings related to when my father abused cocaine during my adolescence. I once again found myself feeling lonely, confused, and unsafe.”
A male client recalled showing his father a magazine article he authored and where his photo appeared. He recollected, “I approached my father excited to share my accomplishments. The first thing he said was, “That picture of you is awful, couldn’t they have published a better one?” I couldn’t believe that was what was most important to him. He didn’t even bother to ask what the subject of the article was and congratulate me for it. That’s what I typically get from him – criticism and disappointment in me.” I have other clients whom are ignored for weeks and months at a time because of something they said or potentially did, and for some of them, an explanation is withheld and the ability to talk things through or reconcile is thwarted.
Some individuals experience being disconnected from their parents in childhood, and the relationship improved once they matured into adulthood, others were relatively connected during their childhood, and the relationship disintegrated as they matured, while others recall having difficulty in the relationship throughout their developmental stages.
As a result, some individuals decide to cut off their relationship with their parents. In some instances, communities and people outside of the family become a surrogate family for them. Others choose to maintain a relationship with strict boundaries in place. While others, continually engage in the relationship, and tend to find themselves in a recurrent pattern of hopefulness and disappointment because of neglecting to get their emotional needs met.
What’s reported to me as being the most distressing is the perpetual thoughts of “not being good enough,” contemplating whether or not to engage and re-engage in the relationship, perseverating over whether others are judging them over the demise of the relationship, and constantly analyzing whether or not they are the one at fault for certain circumstances and in general regarding the state of the relationship.
One client expressed to me, “I’m basically a good person with a nice family, and a stable career. You would think I’m a convicted criminal, the way I’m treated by my parents. Even criminals are supported by their families.”
Individuals talk to me about feeling as if they are banging their head against the wall because it’s “crazy making.” They desperately want to be approved of, therefore they re-engage and often come out the experience being shamed, ridiculed, and the incident being distorted to fit the script and preconceived notions of their parents.
Many speak of feeling a sense of validation, normalization, and relief when they have someone to witness the event. A client expressed, “When I was younger I was stuck between confusion and feeling like I was going crazy. I found myself frequently questioning whether it was me or them that was misconstruing things. It was the two of them against me, and sometimes they pulled my siblings into it too. I found myself naturally assuming they must all be right and I’m wrong.”
As a child the thinking may have been, “If only I were good enough, smart enough, likeable enough, loveable enough, then my parents would love and accept me.” In adulthood, it could be daunting to discover that there’s nothing that they can do that will make the cut.
Contributing to the confusion is when parent’s behavior toward their child is erratic and include moments of connection, balanced out with moments of toxicity. A child is left wondering when the next shoe will drop and often feel that they must walk on eggshells to avoid eliciting a hurtful reaction or behavior by their parent(s).
Tips on how to cope better with feeling orphaned:
- Whenever possible, do your due diligence and test your assumptions and preconceived notions about your parents and other family members if they are involved too. Before choosing to cut off, give them opportunities to be supportive and provide you with the support you need. You may need to accomplish this with some assistance from a therapist, friend, or other family member.
- Recognize that experiencing loss and feeling bereft is part of the process for acceptance. You may periodically hold onto disappointment and sadness when you are triggered but the intense pain and struggle can decrease and dissipate.
- Guide family, friends and loved ones regarding how you need to be directly supported, especially during challenging moments when you’re triggered (e.g., that they shouldn’t make light of your feelings, that they should ask how you’re coping during Mother’s and Father’s Day, that all you need is to be actively listened to, not be given advice, etc.).
- Expect that your feelings may ebb and flow during different events and developmental stages. Give yourself the compassion to allow yourself to be where you are without judgment. For example, even though you “should” keenly focus and feel immense gratitude for your immediate family during Thanksgiving, show yourself self-compassion by allowing yourself to feel sad and disappointed because you are mournful about your family of origin relationships.
- Recognize that you may experience regression (e.g., it feels as if you’re an adolescent again) when you interact with your parents and family members. Realize that feelings don’t just disappear with time. Even more so, if you continue to be treated similarly, it’s more likely to evoke primitive thoughts and feelings. If your functioning is negatively impacted or it causes distress, make it a point to seek out help to process it all.
- Become an observer and notice distinct dynamics and patterns of behavior. When those dynamics and patterns arise, recognize, observe, and proactively learn more about them. In the end, make it a point to defuse from them, rather than getting sucked into them.
- Setting appropriate boundaries doesn’t define you as being “selfish”, “mean” and “non-caring.” Even if you’re socialized to believe that this is something you shouldn’t be doing, the circumstance necessitates it, because you have the fundamental right to be respected, valued, and treated well.
- Because of the inherent need to be love and accepted, you may have placated others at your own expense. Seek to understand your needs and cultivate them from viable healthful relationships.
- Reality test your negative self-beliefs and the continual negative messages you may be receiving from your parents or other family members. For example, ask yourself, do other people see you the way they do?
- React and act from your core values (e.g., self-preservation, thoughtfulness, etc.). They will always lead you in the direction of the actions that you want to be taking.
- Be aware that you are likely to gravitate toward emotionally unavailable friends and partners, even if rationally, you want emotional connection and intimacy. Habitually we move toward what’s familiar and comfortable even if it evokes negative emotions and doesn’t serve us well. Be cognizant and conscious of this “repetition compulsion” and even if it evokes discomfort, be sure to move toward what is best for you and what is in line with what it is that you truly want.
- Understand that you are not your family or your family dynamics. Create a new script and narrative for yourself that facilitates improved relationships now and into the future.
What’s incredibly rewarding is to witness when individuals evolve into a place of self-love and self-compassion. Instantaneously they recognize they are deserving of love and respect and their relationships follow suit. They seek out and secure healthier and more functional relationships which make them feel more satisfied and joyful.
You are innately lovable and likable. Seek to define what being “good enough” means to you personally. Cultivate the kind of life you want to be living. Take but a moment, close your eyes, and consider this your new theme song. You are enough.