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How to cope with estrangement

 coping with estrangement

While the country celebrates the arrival of a new royal baby, looking on from afar will be Thomas Markle, the estranged father of the Duchess of Sussex. His fractious relationship with his daughter Meghan, has brought the subject of family estrangement back under the spotlight. Unfortunately, his situation is more common than many might think.

Recent 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 living through estrangement, you may be wondering how to cope with it and where to turn for help.


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

 Can I still see my grandchildren? | How do I reconcile? 

 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 gransnetters blamed their child's spouse or partner for the breakdown in 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 any one 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 my feelings 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.

READ MORE: David Vavrecka, a barrister specialising in family law, answers gransnetters questions about grandparent rights.

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. Its 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 grandaughter 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. On the hand, you may 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 thing to say 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 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 into 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."


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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