Talking to kids about family estrangement

One of the things I get asked about the most on instagram when I talk about my decision to cut my mum out of my life last year is “how do you talk to your kids about the fact that they don’t have contact with their Grandma?” or “how do the kids cope?’ I think it’s one of the hardest parts of an already difficult decision, but I can say hand on heart that it’s a necessary decision for my children’s wellbeing as well as mine.

Here are a few of things I’ve found useful when talking to my children about parental estrangement and, if you have chosen to have no contact with Grandparent/s, I hope this is useful for you too.

Be Honest.

It’s probably the most difficult but also the most important thing that I have found with my children in every aspect. Lie to them, they won’t forget it – and I’m not talking little white lies like “yep, of course I didn’t forget to do that” or things like Santa/toothfairy, but the big stuff.

I found it really hard being honest with my kids about the reasons I had decided to cut ties – after all, my mum had lived with us all of their lives, and whilst kids can see the arguments and the fractious relationship, it’s still really hard to understand. It was hard for me to make sense of in my own mind, and as much as it’s been really liberating and a huge improvement for me as a person, it still comes with a lot of stigma and guilt. As is really common with a lot of relationship breakdowns, there was a lot of self blame from all three of them to begin with, something that I found really hard to swallow and did my best to reassure them wasn’t the case. I used examples of when we had argued and how my mum had spoken to me (and in turn how that caused me to react because I feel I could be very toxic around my mum too – she very much brought a side out of me that I am not proud of), spoke to them about our different values and behaviours (inappropriate comments at the dinner table/political differences) and explained to them that it was better for my mental wellbeing to have that separation from my mum. I think keeping it age appropriate is extremely important but also really challenging, I tend to give them basic, minimal detail.

When you have made the decision to remove yourself from a parent, it becomes doubly complicated with the Grandparent element – “why can’t I see them?” is a question you might well come up against and it’s really uncomfortable. Explaining I don’t think that person is safe to be around you because of their actions, or perhaps, I don’t want you to be manipulated the way I was as a child is a tough one. For us the children overheard certain things in between my Mum moving out and me asking her to leave that were said that were hurtful to them, as well as to us, and done deliberately. Reuben in particular (oldest and 9 at the time) remembered a lot of times when he’d been told to keep secrets, we were bad mouthed etc so quite often they understand a lot more than you think they will. We chose to go with the simple “As your parents we have to protect you and there have been a number of occasions when XYZ has happened, so we don’t feel that it’s right for you to have contact with X. I know that might seem sad at this moment in time, but think about how ‘X incident’ made you feel, I don’t want you to be in a position where you’re made to feel like that, or you’re unsafe.”

I also think it’s important to note here “I’ll explain it when you’re older” or “You won’t understand at your age” are entirely unhelpful, in my experience it’s just frustrating.

If you’re at the beginning stage of this process, it might be helpful to know that our children have adjusted really well and will often talk to us about things now. Reuben especially has spoken to teachers, other family members and us about incidents/things said we had no clue about. It’s been an eye opener and we have 100% made the right decision. I hope that can give you some peace, you’re not alone if you’re finding it really hard.

Don’t make the person taboo or off topic

Initially, when we first stopped seeing my mum or having any contact with her, the kids would either not mention her at all or would look sideways at me to see if it was ok to mention her. It would be things like “Oh do you remember when we were on holiday and I did this with…” and then a trail off. It’s a really tough one because in those initial months after you’ve perhaps had a big bust up that has made the estrangement happen or you’re consciously choosing to not see that person for the first time, you don’t really want to think of the good times – it stings. I have lots of good memories with my mum. I do view them in a different light now I’ve had therapy and I’ve opened up to friends/family about the context surrounding a lot of those memories, and I’m coming to terms with the emotional abuse growing up BUT there are still good times, and good times for my kids.

My best advice is to lean in. Don’t make the person taboo or an out of bounds topic that everyone feels they have to tip toe around. Create an environment of positive reflection. During those trail offs I would say “with Maw Maw? Yes I do remember! Didn’t we have a good time that day? Don’t worry darling, you can remember the good times as well as being aware of the bad ones, that’s normal and how we love people we need to step away from for our mental wellbeing.” Sometimes that would open up the floor to questions, other times they would nod and wander off or go on to another memory of something else. What we’ve reach now 9 months on is a place where they feel comfortable to mention my mum most of the time, we get the odd side glance or pause, but gone are the days of all three of them stopping what they were doing like something huge has happened. It’s a very normal part of grief or loss from what I understand, and it IS a form of loss, even if by choice.

Don’t fall into the trap of toxic bad mouthing

Look, I get it, you have your reasons for wanting to cut ties with a family member, especially when it’s your parent or close relative, and with those reasons will likely come a whole host of anger, hurt and resentment. It does for me anyway. What I want to say to you is to remember “hurt people hurt people”. Do NOT let that be your children, break your generational cycle and do better. I am VERY careful to never bad mouth my mum to my kids the way her and my dad (who has passed away, but who I had next to no contact with before he died when I was a teen) did about each other to me. I explain my point of view in a calm and concise manner. When they ask if they will ever see her again, I tell them that will be up to them, I won’t hold it against them if they want to build a relationship with her themselves when they are old enough to make those decisions and see certain behaviours for what they are so they can protect their own mental wellbeing.

The last thing any child wants to hear is bitter angry words about family members, especially those that they have a broken bond with. I can tell you as a child who grew up with them relentlessly, it will not benefit any of you.

Dealing with Letters/Birthday cards

Again this goes back to honesty. In the midst/aftermath of cutting contact with my mum we had Toby and Edith’s birthdays that were ignored and Reuben was sent a birthday card. It was really hurtful for the other two and confusing/hurtful for Reuben, and we cocked up by taking the decision to throw the card in the bin and not tell him. Unfortunately following that, mum asked a friend who was also a Grandparent to one of the kids at school to speak to Reuben and tell him that she had sent a card. At this point I feel like it’s appropriate to note that you will be AMAZED by what people do when you’re estranged from a parent, and who will randomly sprout up with opinions or side taking even if you don’t really know them. Dirty looks from random older ladies, friends I haven’t seen for years telling me that they have bumped into mum and it was really awkward are not things I’m a stranger to.

Anyway, fortunately Reuben is pretty good at talking to us about this kind of thing and asked us. We explained that we had thrown it away and why. He was cross we didn’t tell him, he was sad that he had been sent a card but Toby and Edith hadn’t and he was sad in general for the whole situation.

What I learnt there and then is that I should have followed my gut instinct and told him about the card, instead of trying to protect him because it had the opposite effect. As I said, it goes back to honesty being the best policy. The last two birthdays (Toby and Edith) we’ve had birthday cards and the kids have received them. Sometimes it’s opened up questions, other times it hasn’t. Reactions have ranged from Reuben, who felt very protective of his siblings, feeling angry because he is the most aware of my mum’s behaviour, Edith who was delighted for a card to add to the pile and thought it was pretty and Toby who was inquisitive and had questions but eventually put it up.

Don’t fear therapy/involving school if you think it’s appropriate.

I grew up in an environment where I was told therapists don’t help, they try to turn you against me, they are in cahoots with your dad, it’s something Americans do etc – in reality, they were pointing out emotional abuse. In our experience, we haven’t actively sought therapy for the kids (though I don’t hide from them that I see a therapist once a week, I want them to understand that caring for your mental health is just as important as your physical) but we did speak to school. We made them aware of what was going on and how it might effect the kids. We told the kids that we had and that their teachers were other trusted adults they could discuss their feelings with and – if they asked, their teachers wouldn’t necessarily need to share that with us. I think it’s important to see teachers as supportive for your kids and not to allow the shame of the situation to take over – you have taken steps to protect yourself and your child, and that isn’t anything to be ashamed of. This also goes for other adults in your child’s close circle – Reuben spoke to his Grandparents a lot and we encouraged it. Sometimes your kids don’t necessarily want to talk to you about it because they don’t want to upset you, but everyone needs an outlet.

Ultimately, I’m not a therapist or trained in anything, but this is what has worked for us and how I’ve handled our own situation. I can only hope that I’m doing the right things and supporting my kids as best I can.

Sending you the biggest hugs if you’re going through this situation yourself, it’s incredibly tough, but you have got this.

22 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Em
    June 12, 2022 / 11:32 pm

    This is a really important subject to write about.
    The general comments of ” you only get one mum” are not helpful. Some people thank the lord they only have one mum because they couldn’t deal with having two. Lol.

    I have a toxic /unhealthy relationship with my mum, I have three of my own children, run my own business and have been married for 18 years yet I still try to prove myself to her, still Try to impress her and everytime I call she answers with ” oh its you” or ” yeh I’m busy at the moment”.

    This is still on my list of things to stop. I have recognised this isn’t a good relationship and although I’m not quite tough enough to leave it be I am using each hurtful experience to make sure I never treat my children this way.

    Silver lining and all that lol.

  2. Avatar
    Sam
    May 19, 2022 / 1:45 pm

    Not spoke to my mum for 2 months as she did something that really upset me which she knew had and she rang today out of the blue pretending like nothing happened never even mentioned it and basically felt she only rang for me to get in touch with my sister for her! She did something pretty bad that I’m not sure I can forgive her for and my sisters are like that’s just how she is she’s old she doesn’t understand mental health ?! What about respect she understands that ! She crossed a line for which she’s not apologised not sure where I go from here feel very alone

  3. Avatar
    Elsie Wood
    February 19, 2022 / 5:54 am

    Thank you so much for this. I am currently right in the middle of going through something similar. My mum lived with us and I’ve asked her to leave. The emotional blackmail and abuse has stepped up a gear, the ‘poor me’, the how could you do this to me. The worse part is she’s using her relationship with my four year old to
    what I feel is manipulate the guilt I feel for making the decision to go our separate ways. I’m like you, I hate who I am and how I change when I am around her. Add to the fact I’m 34 weeks pregnant, it’s an awful time at the moment: This blog has given me a hope that there’s light at the end of this tunnel. Thank you so much for talking about it

  4. Avatar February 18, 2022 / 8:17 am

    Thanks for this. Brilliant blog. Honest and raw. Having grown up with trauma I can relate to some of this. You handled it amazingly well.

    • Harriet February 18, 2022 / 10:17 am

      Thank you lovely x

  5. Avatar
    Ellen
    February 17, 2022 / 10:04 pm

    I feel my mom can be toxic and can be very nasty at times. But I wouldn’t want her out my life but I would like to be more open to way she makes me feel but if I did that it would cause a issue. She treats my edest like a Saint but youngest yes can be a handful but it seems she can do no right in her eyes. She talks down to me but theb next instead we the best of friends

    • Harriet February 18, 2022 / 10:17 am

      Oh that sounds so familiar. So familiar. Sending you love and support, whatever you choose.

  6. Avatar
    Dayna
    February 17, 2022 / 8:13 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story and advice. I’m about 3 years in with my dad and I agree with everything you’ve said. My oldest asks questions and we are honest about it. Great job at breaking that generational cycle! Congrats friend!

  7. Avatar
    Anonymous
    February 17, 2022 / 9:42 am

    Thank you so much ! My parents are so ridiculously toxic and it has never done my head any good at all , it’s only getting worse as I get older , and I have recently realised that if it was anyone else I would not let them treat me or my children this way , so why am I putting up with it ,but I’ve really struggled to take that first step for fear of the effects on my children primarily my eldest son who they’ve always favoured over the other two .
    This has been great to show there’s light at the end of the tunnel !

    • Harriet February 18, 2022 / 10:16 am

      There certainly is, sending you love x

  8. Avatar
    Jennifer
    February 16, 2022 / 9:35 pm

    Really interesting blog thank you. My husband had a situation similar for many years and my eldest daughter was very inquisitive to why Nana visited her cousins and not her or her sister. Good ideas for discussion in future.

    • Harriet February 18, 2022 / 10:16 am

      Sending you lots of love and support, it’s a tough one to broach with them but so important I feel. x

  9. Avatar
    Guacyra
    February 16, 2022 / 7:46 pm

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I am also estranged with my mother to preserve my mental health and my 4 years old haven’t even met her yet. She asked about my mother and I tell her name and that she lives in another country but found difficult to explain why the other grandparents call her and talk to her while my mother doesn’t. But I agree being age appropriate honest is the way to go.

    • Harriet February 18, 2022 / 10:15 am

      Sending you love and support. x

  10. Avatar
    Emily
    February 16, 2022 / 4:48 pm

    This is so brave and openly honest. Well done to you for sharing. It’s hard and we can only learn and move through what happens but you are going that extra step to share and advise.

  11. Avatar
    Kirsty
    February 16, 2022 / 3:49 pm

    Really interesting. My husband hasn’t spoken to his parents since we got married. They have never met our children and hopefully never will. Now our eldest is nearly 4 she has started to ask about where his Mum and Dad are etc. It’s a hard concept for her grasp and a difficult conversation to navigate. Thanks for being so open and honest.

    • Harriet February 18, 2022 / 10:14 am

      Sending you love, it really is tough one, but it’s worth talking to them about when they ask. <3

  12. Avatar
    Rach
    February 16, 2022 / 2:05 pm

    Thank you for your openess & honesty, it’s definitely something that needs to be talked about more and normalised.

    My mum gave up years of her live being manipulated by her mother in her “old age” & “unwell” years and has no relationship with her sister because of the actions of mother.

    My mum has recently said that she expects me & my sister to look after her in the same way. I have said no, it’s not healthy and I won’t be doing it & that there are qualified carers in the world for a reason. I haven’t discussed it with my sister because I expect she will have a very different view (she’s currently running around after her MIL who is unwell rather than putting professional support in place), but thankfully my husband is exceedingly supportive of my view.

    We aren’t estranged at the moment but I can see it happening if she purses the same line of manipulation my Grandma did, but my Dad is working hard to realign her expectations so perhaps it won’t happen.

    • Harriet February 18, 2022 / 10:14 am

      Hey lovely, that sounds like such a tough situation – but you’re very right. I was raised with the “you owe me everything, I looked after you, now it’s your turn” mentality and it took me having my own children to see how weird and damaging that is. I want nothing from my children when they are older but their happiness!

  13. Avatar February 16, 2022 / 12:52 pm

    This is great. Thank you. My mum is very toxic but she treats my eldest like a princess and I’ve worried and worried about how estrangement would affect her.

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