“I have no idea what I’ve done wrong!”
This is the way it always starts. Then it’s often followed by assertions they did everything for their children. As they try desperately to convince me they are the victim, I can’t help but feel that the person they are really trying to convince is themselves.
As an estranged child, it’s hard for me to have these conversations. These parents say many of the things my parents say. I’m sure my mother and father are out there somewhere, insisting they have no idea what they’ve done wrong.
But the truth is, many of these parents do know what they did wrong. Firstly, because they were there. They know very well what they have done because they were the ones doing it. And secondly, we tell them as adults in a desperate bid to make them see the error of their ways so we can save the relationship.
I told my mother many times how she affected me. Each time, I naively hoped she would listen to me and say sorry. All I wanted was for her to acknowledge the years of psychological abuse and admit it was her fault so I could stop blaming myself. But she refused to take responsibility. So one day I cut ties, and she had the audacity to act as if it came out of nowhere.
I begged my father many times to believe me over my mother. He didn’t. After what felt like the one-hundredth time, I cut ties for the sake of my mental health. He insists he has no idea why I don’t talk to him.
My parents know the truth, but they don’t want to face it. Telling stories to other people where they paint themselves as the victims is more comforting. And those people lap it up and feel sorry for them.
I understand parents and children fall out sometimes. And I know not all situations are like mine. I’ve also had conversations with parents who were victims of abusive children. But I can’t help but feel skeptical of parents who complain about their children cutting them out as if they are ungrateful brats, rather than trying to understand their children’s pain. With this particular sort of parent, there is never any evidence they are taking responsibility for how they may have contributed to their children’s estrangement. And this makes me uncomfortable.
It’s very difficult to separate from your parents. Although my mother was abusive and my father an enabler, this didn’t make it any easier to leave. It took over twenty years for me to finally cut them out, because we had a trauma bond.
Although it has been over four years since I cut my parents out of my life, the trauma bond remains. Every day I have to resist the urge to reconcile with them. So when parents of estranged children insist their kids “cut me out for no reason just like that!” in a way that makes it clear they are making sure people believe they are the victim in case their children tell their side of the story, it makes my skin crawl.
Abusers are manipulative. They manipulate their victims and they manipulate the people around them. I see these uninvited conversations as manipulation. Why have you brought this up out of nowhere? Why are you trying to convince me? Why do you need me to agree? Why aren’t you putting this energy into working on yourself and your relationship with your children?
Children don’t want to break off their relationship with their parents, whether that child is twenty-five or sixty-five. The Still Face Experiment by Dr Edward Tronick in 1975 showed babies will attempt to fix a bond with their caregiver: “[A]n infant, after three minutes of ‘interaction’ with a non-responsive expressionless mother, rapidly sobers and grows wary. He makes repeated attempts to get the interaction into its usual reciprocal pattern. When these attempts fail, the infant withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression,” writes Edward Tronick.
When the mother goes back to being attentive and expressive, the infant is overjoyed. This experiment shows our need for connection with our parents starts very early in life. Much like the infants in this experiment, as a grown-up child I would feel overjoyed if my parents apologized and proved they had changed.
Maybe these children leave their parents because they are brave, not because they are ungrateful brats. Maybe they gave their parents plenty of chances to repair their bond.
In any other abusive relationship, we would admire the victim for leaving and becoming a survivor. Yet when the perpetrator is a parent, these actions aren’t met with admiration — often, people feel sympathy for the parents who have lost their children.
The last time I had one of these conversations with a parent, I gently probed: “Have you asked your daughter why she isn’t talking to you?” They replied they hadn’t. Obviously, I asked why, and they hastily responded, “She won’t tell me why.” They thought I was on their side and felt sorry for them. Poor thing, they don’t know why their child cut them out. But due to their response, I felt like I knew why, and they knew why too.
“I have no idea what I’ve done wrong!”
Pretending you don’t know is what you have done wrong. Pushing your children to break a really strong bond is what you have done wrong. Not learning from this and taking accountability for what you have done wrong. And the most hurtful part is that you haven’t learned a thing. You continue to put your ego first by spreading your version of events rather than listening to the pain of your children. That is what you’ve done wrong.