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How to cope with estrangement

 how to cope with estrangement

If you've lost contact with family, it can feel incredibly isolating - but estrangement is more common than you might think. Research by Gransnet revealed that one in seven grandparents are estranged from their grandchildren, with many more also estranged from their adult children. If you are affected, you may be wondering how to cope and where to turn for help, so we've compiled advice from gransnetters on how they dealt with the loss and asked the experts at Relate to answer your questions on estrangement.

Why does estrangement happen? | How do I cope with estrangement? 

 Can I still see my grandchildren? | How do I reconcile? | If you are reunited

What should I do if they refuse to speak to me?
  | Where can I find support?


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Why does estrangement happen?

When parent-child relationships break down it can often feel like a bolt out of the blue and you might find yourself wondering why your child has no contact with you. However, in most cases, it is the result of long-simmering family tensions or unresolved feelings of hurt.  

Research by the charity Stand Alone revealed that the most common reasons for estrangement are:

  • emotional abuse
  • unmet expectations in the relationship
  • clash of personalities or values
  • neglect
  • mental health
  • family occasion where something went wrong

Many gransnetters report that estrangement often occurs when there is a change in family dynamics, often through divorce or a marriage, either that of the adult child or the second marriage of a parent. In our estrangement survey, 64% of estranged gransnetters blamed their child's spouse or partner for the breakdown of the relationship. 

"I genuinely have no idea what I did to prompt the estrangement. I think that it must be my fault somehow."

"You don’t ever think it could happen to you, but it happened to me and I know only too well how much it hurts."

"The problem is that one-sided stories are all that anyone gets because of the breakdown in communication."


How do I cope with estrangement?

Whatever the reasons behind your estrangement and no matter who is to blame, it can be difficult to know how to cope. You may find yourself feeling overwhelmed, shocked or even angry at being cut off - particularly if it's sudden. In such difficult circumstances, it can be hard to know what to do next. 

coping with estrangement

Ammanda Major, head of service quality and clinical practice at Relate, offers the following advice on how to cope with being estranged from family members:

  • "Be clear that whatever has caused the estrangement, it doesn’t mean you don’t love them or that they don’t love you. It’s simply that you feel strongly about this issue and this in turn is making it difficult for you to be around each other."
  • "Try not to be overly reactive. Stand back and try to look at the situation objectively. Take a few deep breaths and think things through before saying anything in the heat of the moment which you may later regret."
  • "Remember that while relationships are important, they don’t have to be perfect. We can’t change who we are or what has happened in the past but we can change our behaviours to create more peaceful relationships and communication."

Gransnetters who are living with estrangement have said: 

"I can only describe the way I feel as a living bereavement; at times the pain is unbearable. I have now reached a place where I consider the best way forward for me is to channel my energy in a positive direction."

"I'm afraid you can only hope for a reconciliation, keeping quiet and not saying anything against them. I know this is an almost impossible thing to do, but it's the only way."

"I found I just had to play the waiting game and unfortunately, they needed me before I needed them and they got in touch."

"I would love to have contact with my daughter and when I spent time thinking about it, it saddens me greatly. But I won't allow it to rule my life. I just have to get on with my life in the same way she has chosen to get on with hers."

"Keep in touch but don't expect a response. I did this once when my daughter was not communicating in her late teens. Just sent her a postcard on a regular basis - with a brief message and sending love. For a long time I had no response, but now we have a great relationship."


Can I still see my grandchildren?

The harsh reality of being an estranged grandparent is that legally you have no automatic right to contact with your grandchildren. Where relationships are strained, it might be useful to consider mediation. A mediator is an independent professional who could help broker an informal agreement which would allow you contact with your grandchildren. For this to work, you'll need both parents to attend.

Coming to an informal agreement is not always possible especially if the relationship with your child has broken down beyond repair. If you have explored all other alternatives, and the legal route remains your only option, then you can apply for the right to see your grandchildren under the 1989 Children's Act, if a court grants you leave to do so. This is not as straightforward as it might seem and can be very costly. Even if a court grants you some degree of contact with your grandchildren, it can be difficult to enforce.

estrangement contact with grandchildren

"I can deal with being estranged from her and her husband, but I grieve for the relationship I don't have with my little grandson. I haven't seen him since his first birthday and there are so many milestones missed that can never be recovered or seen again. I continue to send presents and have a memory box for him at home, so that someday, I hope, he will know that he had another family who loved him."

"Personally as much as we are hurting, our grandkids are our main concern and we do not want them to be used as rope in a tug of war. Our eldest grandchild is 13 and we are hoping he will be able to make up his own mind about matters soon."

"After looking after my grandson four days a week and my granddaughter two days a week, I was allowed no contact. This went on for several months and then with the help of negotiations through my partner and a voice of reason from my son, things improved and I was allowed to see them once a fortnight. It's not the same but better than being completely cut off."


Putting the children first

If you are able to agree some form of contact with your grandchildren, then it's important for all parties to remember that children can often become pawns in family conflicts. Ammanda advises grandparents to:

  • Focus entirely on the grandchildren and not on your differences with your adult children
  • Don't be rude about other adults in front of children. They may feel forced to pick a side
  • Part of being a positive influence in a child's life is helping them to understand that different people have different approaches to things

If you are unable to reach an agreement on contact with your grandchildren and remain estranged then there are things you can do that will help you to deal with the loss of them in your life.

"I think the best option is to just carry on, buy a card and a gift and keep it in a keepsake box. It's such a shame. I know it's hurt me very deeply but I tend to now just think about how it's all going to pan out for my granddaughter and what she'll think when she's older."

"I've started a family footprint of photos, notes and other things so maybe one day, she can trace back her roots."

"A keepsake box is a good idea, when your granddaughter does get in touch you can show her all the cards and little gifts you got for her over the years. Saving money for her future also is a good idea and helps both of you, she will know you always thought of her."


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How do I reconcile?

reconciliation mediation estrangement

Reconciling can be easy in theory but in practice, it requires both parties to want to make things work. The longer that you allow a breakdown to fester, the harder it can be to repair. If you've been hurt by the estrangement, you may not want to reconcile. You may also find that your efforts to build bridges are continuously rebuffed and it can feel futile to keep trying. 

If you are considering trying to reconcile with your estranged family, these tips from Relate might help:

  • Bear in mind that we usually all play a part in healing family rifts. It’s rarely the responsibility of one person.
  • Remember there will be things that, with hindsight, were never the best nor the fairest thing to say so a bit of common sense and forgiveness can go a long way to healing rifts.
  • If something happened a long time ago that has caused the estrangement, take a step back and think hard about what was wrong and if it really matters now.
  • None of us can change the past even though sometimes that’s effectively what’s being asked. If you bear this in mind it’s amazing how previously unseen opportunities sometimes come into focus.
  • Be very aware of who else is influencing conversations. People can take sides so talking to somebody objective such as a counsellor may be useful.
  • Another option, if your child is willing, is to suggest family counselling which may help you all to find a way forward. You could also go with your partner, particularly if the estrangement is placing a strain on your relationship.
  • Where things cannot be recovered it’s important that the people who are rejecting you always knew that you tried to reconcile.

What to do if you are reunited


Jane Jackson, the founder of the Bristol Grandparents Support Group (BGSG), an organisation which focuses on the rights of grandchildren to see their grandparents, was reunited with her granddaughter in 2018. She's shared her story of reconciliation with Gransnet:

“I will never forget the first time I held this little bundle of gorgeousness in my arms, this tiny little girl looking up at me with such expectation, it was magical. We were in her life for seven years. Those years were so special, her laughter was the most wonderful thing I have ever heard.

All too soon it all went badly wrong. My son's relationship with his wife deteriorated and they eventually split. For a while our granddaughter still came to stay with us. During a visit at Easter in 2007, she suddenly said that she had been told to dump her family in Bristol. That was the last time we saw her or heard from her. Equally it was the last time our son had any contact with her as well.

Not only were my husband and myself going through this ‘living bereavement’, but we had to witness our son become a broken man. 
Only those who are going through or have gone through this heartbreak ever understand the hurt and pain caused.

I decided that I had to somehow turn a negative into a positive, and so I set up BGSG. It became my own therapy. Supporting others stopped me thinking about myself all the time. When we go through these terrible life changing events we must always hold onto hope. I know that when you are in the darkest of places, it is not easy to have hope.

In 2018, totally out of the blue, our granddaughter got in contact with her dad and ourselves. We are now building a brand new relationship, and building trust. It is, of course, not the same relationship, she was only seven years old when we last saw her, she is now 19, and a beautiful, young woman.

All grandparents fear that their grandchildren will forget them, they don’t. One of my first messages to her was to tell her that we never stopped loving her, and her response was:”I never stopped loving you either.”


After her experience, Jane has shared these tips on what to do when you reconcile with your grandchildren: 

  • "The little person you last saw is older now, and so you have to start the long journey of reconciliation. You must always be led by your grandchild, however much you want to wade in telling them what had gone wrong, or you want to question them. Don’t. They will talk about it when they are ready."
  • "Be patient, you are embarking on the development of a brand new relationship. In our case, the little girl of seven-years-old suddenly appeared and was a woman of 18."
  • "These children have lost trust in the adults in their lives, they have been told lies about their grandparents, and it is up to us to rebuild their trust. Just be there, be the loving grandparent you always were, you showing that love and care is all they need to know."


What should I do if they refuse to speak to me?

If you've exhausted all attempts at repairing the broken relationship with your child, it may be time to accept that they have chosen to remain estranged. This is easier said than done where your own children and grandchildren are concerned. 

Many gransnetters have found themselves in this unfortunate situation and have these words of advice:

"I can't stress enough how it's important to refocus your thoughts on your own lives. It's hard but if you can kickstart your life in a new direction, it will really help you make that vital leap towards sanity. Join groups, get new hobbies, do new things. You have to start your life over but it's worth it. Above all, try not to allow your emotions to keep you a slave to what you see as a loss. It's an insult to every decent parent to be simply cut off because we've failed at some imagined hurdle."

"I find getting out of the house helps. Walking in a busy place and staying connected to friendly people makes a difference."

"I don't have an answer. I only have coping mechanisms. I have found that being a part of something going on in my own back yard helps kill off the melancholy and that's where I'll be today."

"When we've done all we can to make amends, how do we recover? It's very hard and the challenge is not to become bitter or depressed. I know these are the main symptoms but it's these we have to overcome."

"It has taken a very long time to realise there was nothing I could have done, there was a desire to exclude me for whatever reason. I have come through it, although that loss will always be a part of me, it doesn't define me."


Estrangement Q&A with Relate

Estrangement can often leave so many questions unanswered, and it can be difficult to know the right steps to take. We asked gransnetters to share their questions on the subject with Dee Holmes, a Senior Practice Consultant from Relate:

How can you re-establish contact with estranged children when you are rebuffed every time you contact them? There must be a time when you have to say enough is enough and cut the cord.

"Every situation is unique and will depend on the circumstances, the age of the children, what has gone before. It's always difficult to know what is the best way to move forward, contacting someone who does not want contact may lead to them feeling harassed or stalked but it can also be important to keep the lines of communication open. This may be minimal contact, like a birthday card. It can be helpful to seek counselling to help one reflect on what is best for all involved so the situation can be discussed and explored."

I am grieving the loss of my oldest son and now my youngest son and his wife have decided to cut off our relationship to our two granddaughters. They up and moved six hours away and we've barely had any contact with them except for a couple of phone calls for over a year. I know my son's wife has never liked us. She just used us for babysitting and I guess now we are no longer needed.
"It seems as though there has been a lot of loss that you have experienced and you may want to seek some counselling to help with that. When a family experiences the huge changes that loss brings it can change the dynamics of the whole family and so I wonder if you have been able to discuss with your youngest son the effect on him and his family and whether that is in part what has led to the situation now. When families relocate and distance is involved there is always a lot of adjustments to be made."

My 36-year-old son has recently moved back in with me. He was bailed to my address.
 He has a wife and three children. He can see his children as long as they are supervised visits. His wife will only let herself be the supervisor, so visits are not easy. There is no structure to the visits, it's just when the wife has a spare couple of hours. My son has been diagnosed with mental health issues so isn't strong enough to fight for proper access. It breaks my heart not being able to do anything and seeing my son so broken.

"This is obviously a complex situation with the legal system involved and your son’s mental health issues. You need to ensure that you seek the support you can to help you help your son in the best way possible. This may be by initially ensuring his mental health needs are being addressed.

"Keeping the situation calm and making sure the access visits are a pleasant experience for the children is obviously a priority. A useful tip is to try and think ‘what do we want the children to be saying about this situation in 10 years’ time?’ It can help the adults involved to ensure the best needs of the children are being met in a difficult situation."

I would like to know what to do if it's your daughter-in-law that is calling all the shots and you're not really sure your adult child knows what's really going on. The last text message I received from my son said that he would get in touch to sort things out when he got back from being away with work. That was 10 months ago. I haven't heard a word from him since, it's all been from my daughter-in-law. 
"This is difficult to advise on with no specifics. Have you contacted your adult child directly or seen him? Is this a situation where he is just letting their partner do the contact and arranging or, as you say, something your adult child is not aware of? Couples all have their own ways of negotiating contact with wider family when they become a unit and it is important to explain calmly and rationally that you feel hurt by a lack of direct contact."

I haven’t seen or spoken to my son for over 10 years. He doesn’t want anything to do with me or his sister. It still hurts but I’ve had to move on in life. I have tried contacting him and I send his two children, who I have never met, money for birthdays and Christmas. I sent him a long letter asking for contact and apologising for anything I have done that hurt him but I had no reply.
"As with some of the replies above, it is difficult to know in each case what is the best way forward. Balancing ‘keeping the door open’ and not forcing contact with someone who, for whatever reason, does not want it. What you are doing by sending gifts to your grandchildren feels like all you can do at this stage. Loss of contact is a bereavement so do seek some counselling if that would be helpful."

My husband and his only sister fell out over the will and its execution seven years ago when my father-in-law died. They haven't spoken since. I tried to mediate when it happened and was in email contact with my sister-in-law, whom I'd always got on with. Seemingly, I said something wrong and she stopped answering me too.

It means my sons have had no contact with their uncle, aunt and three cousins either. Any ideas what I can do? Each is as stubborn as the other and would consider it admitting fault if they were the first to break the stalemate. There is one cousin of theirs who is still in touch with both. She's at her wits' end over it too. 
"Death and wills often cause family rifts as they can be a time when tensions over ‘who was the favourite, etc.’ can surface. Also adult children often ‘keep the peace’ while a parent is alive and that breaks down when the common link is lost and, of course, they can just come out of the blue over the will and its content.

"It is a shame that the fall out has spread out amongst the whole family and affected the next generation. Is there any possibility of the next generation forging their own relationships? This would depend on their ages really. It seems that ‘breaking stalemate’ is what each is unable to do, is there likely to be a family event or a reason that brings them all together that can happen without anyone losing face? Maybe appealing to all that it is unfair for the next generation to be affected is another angle? It is, however, difficult to mend bridges, especially when, for the two people at the heart of it all, they have lost their father. You have done your best, and probably all you can do is support everyone involved and encourage and model healthy relationships which it seems you are trying your best to do."


Where can I find support?

You may find support from a partner, spouse or other children but it can often be difficult to talk openly about estrangement with family members that are still in touch with the estranged relative.

The Gransnet forums offer plenty of support for estranged grandparents. Posting on the forums can often be a cathartic way to share your story with a community that has gone through the same thing. 

"Just want to say that I am overwhelmed with the support and love that you wonderful women have so generously given to me and others on this forum. Even though I know that family estrangement is rife I never expected such an outpouring of such warm feelings when I originally posted a message. You have given me the strength to go ahead."

"I have been lucky enough to find support on Gransnet from others going through this. It has meant such a lot, because at times...you think the unthinkable and you need to get through those feelings."

"Estrangement issues within families have been going on for generations. It's nothing new. Being able to use forums such as this and social media has brought it out into the open, that's all." 


You might also benefit from discussing your feelings with a professional. Relate offer individual and group counselling.

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