Parent-Child Estrangement Is Sometimes (But Not Always) About Abuse

Girl, upset, with mother in backgroundI received the following feedback last week about an excerpt from my Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children, and I wanted to respond.

Unfortunately, the feedback was anonymous.

Surely this person is not alone. So I thought I’d respond with a blog post…

S/he wrote:

I read through your entire page on Estrangement and I’ve got to say that it all felt a bit like you’re condoning the behaviour of abusive parents; telling them they need not feel any remorse for the suffering they’ve caused and they need to practice more self-compassion.

Parents who abused their children are typically in denial about the destruction they’ve caused and they are looking for any excuse to place blame for the estrangement and any upsetting emotions they may be dealing with on their adult children… Your website gives them plenty of fodder for sidestepping responsibility for their behaviour.

As a victim of childhood abuse and an adult child who bravely initiated estrangement, I found your “wisdom” offensive and horrifying.

Offended and horrified is the last response I ever want to evoke, both as a person and especially as a therapist.

I am sincerely and terribly sorry to hear that you were abused by your parents.

You were deprived of the basic right to be protected from harm and cherished by the adults closest to you. There are no words to express how wrong that was, and how much it shouldn’t have happened.

Your suggestion that I condone child abuse is as mistaken as it is understandable for someone in your shoes.

I support your right to detach yourself from anyone who abuses you.

I also grieve for you, that you didn’t get to experience parents who knew how to nurture and support you, and that you don’t have parents you can now enjoy as an adult.

Child abuse robs a person of so much good in life.

There’s a reason I didn’t call it “a guide for parents who abused their children.” The Guide doesn’t assume abuse on the parent’s part.

Of course, child abuse does happen and yes, it’s one of the reasons adult children decide to end their relationships with parents.

It’s not the only reason, though.

There are many ways in which kids can feel let down by their parents. Abuse is simply the most extreme.

What I hear from many of my estranged adult-child therapy clients is that there was no outright abuse.

I’m not saying this to deny that child abuse happens, or to defend abusive parents.

I just want you to know that there are other reasons for estrangement, and these can be harder to quantify.

Many estranged parents are genuinely confused when their kids stop talking to them. They think, “I was good to my kids. Where is this coming from?”

It was in an effort to clarify some of these more mysterious reasons for estrangement that I wrote the Guide.

But let’s say that an outright abusive parent did look for guidance on how to repair that relationship all these years later…

How might they respond to a guide that verbally brow-beat them for what they did?

How long would they keep reading?

Lastly, what kind of “guide” tells you what you did wrong, instead of what to do now?

Telling someone they’re horrible is not an effective way to make them behave better.

People learn compassion and empathy by receiving these from someone else. Only then do they have something to work with. They can pay it forward.

My Guide is an attempt to fill the “emotional buckets” of parents so that they themselves can both heal, and become vehicles of compassion and understanding to pass along to their adult children … who can then fill the buckets of their own children, and so on.

As long as it’s “us against them,” there can be no healing from this devastating problem.

Self-compassion is where it all starts. We’re ALL adult children of human parents.

Anonymous, there’s no requirement that you forgive your parents’ abuse of you. That may be a tall order, especially without a heartfelt apology.

I hope you’ve learned, somehow, somewhere, to have compassion for the child you once were, who is still healing from what happened. S/he needs you.

I wish you every good thing under the sun.

Parents, check out the Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children

Why Dogs (and SOME Cats) Make the Best Therapists

Girl with puppyWhen it comes right down to it, no matter how much you might love all animals, you’re either a dog person or a cat person.

(Of course, if you didn’t grow up with pets, it may be a mystery to you why anyone would want to share their home with animals of any kind. Isn’t it bad enough that spiders get in sometimes? Why bring in critters on purpose?)

Today I’m outing myself as a … drum roll, please … dog person.

No, I don’t hate cats. In fact I always stop and pet them when I’m out for a walk in the neighborhood.

And I once had the best cat EVER.

But you know what made him the best cat EVER? He was like a dog.

Sealy was Mike’s cat, but when we moved in together, it quickly became “Mike and Me, and Sealy Makes Three.” We were a happy family for many years.

Sealy was a calm, affectionate, cuddly ball of awesome. I could pick him up and hold him upside-down, cut his toenails any old time, rub his tummy and sleep with him tucked in the crook of my arm all night.

When we moved, he didn’t spend a single minute hiding under the furniture in our new home. He was checking everything out, confident and calm as can be. That was Sealy.

And loving? Don’t get me started.


It’s been many years since he passed and we still miss him. Probably always will.

That cat was definitely a dog in a previous life. He had all the canine qualities I describe in this week’s post:

10 Reasons Dogs Make the Best Therapists | Psychology Today

What about you? Dog person? Cat person? Or none of the above?

My mom likes pigs. Nobody knows why.

What’s your favorite therapy animal?

Photo courtesy of

Grow Your Child’s (or Your Own) Emotional Intelligence

baby with glasses, looking cleverEveryone pretty much agrees on the importance of emotional literacy, at least in theory.

As a society, we want children to learn how to deal with difficult feelings, both their own and others’.

But how exactly do we teach them that? Especially if we ourselves aren’t sure we’ve got a handle on our own emotions?

Emotional intelligence can easily be developed in children because most kids are naturally emotionally intelligent. At least, they’ve got the basics down; kids know an emotion when they feel one, and they’re not ashamed of their own humanity.

But giving kids what they need to become emotionally adept requires adults to dig deep.

If we can’t handle being angry with someone we love, how on earth can we provide guidance to a child who’s having that all-too-common experience?

If we habitually suppress feelings of frustration or regret, how can we teach kids how to work through those emotions?

As you read this week’s post by Kathy Hardie-Williams, whether you’re a parent of young children or not, think about what it might take to implement the steps she recommends in your own life.

Might you want to re-parent yourself using her advice?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: What’s good for kids is good for all of us.

Click the following link to read the article.

Why Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence Should Be a Priority

Introverts: 4 Survival Tips for Networking Events

Hello My Name is "Introvert" on a name tag.What do you think of when you hear the words, “networking event”?

For introverts, networking often calls to mind standing in a roomful of strangers, trying to balance a drink and a miniature paper plate with 3 grapes, a square of cheese and two crackers on it while pretending to enjoy yourself and secretly wondering how soon you can go home.

For some, it may even call to mind an early experience at the dentist.

Introverts, it doesn’t have to be that way. Honest!

Not an introvert? Forward this to your favorite introvert friend.

(Don’t have any friends who are introverts? You’re missing out. Introverts make the best friends, because they let me — I mean, one … they let one — do all the talking.)

Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you can’t go too far wrong with the following tips.

1. Use “feeling” language. That is, refer to emotional experiences when you speak.

For example: “I was intrigued by the premise of Breaking Bad,” “I’m curious to learn more about the candidates (e.g., in an upcoming election).” “It’s exciting that Tina Gilbertson is giving another talk at the library.”

The use of feeling words helps people connect. Everyone knows what it’s like to have emotions, so when you talk about them, you’re speaking a universal language.

If it’s a work setting, you can still use feeling words to connect.

For example, “I’m intrigued by these new developments in the field,” “I’m curious to learn more about your department,” “It’s exciting that a branch is opening in Springfield.”

2. Understand and use small talk.

If you pay attention to conversations between ANY two people who don’t know each other well, you’ll notice that nothing terribly interesting is put forth.

Maybe this is why you hate small talk so much: It can feel like a tragic misuse of time and energy. But something important is happening under the surface…

By offering banal observations anyone could agree with, both people are feeling their way toward each other in a safe, contained interaction.

Here’s a typical exchange between strangers:

“It’s cold out there.”

“Yes. It definitely is.”

“I thought it was supposed to warm up today.”

“Yeah, I heard that too. I guess we’re in for more of the same.”

“At least for today.”



“Hopefully it’ll warm up a bit tomorrow.”

“That would be good.”

“I think we’re all ready for that.”

“You can say that again.”

Small talk is not supposed to perform any function beyond providing a platform for social contact. Notice I didn’t say “meaningful social contact.”

This is why it’s so dull. The content is irrelevant as long as it’s non-controversial, and most topics that aren’t controversial fall somewhere between mind-numbing and just-shoot-me.

But small talk is necessary! How are you supposed to make new friends without it?
You just can’t go up to a stranger and say,

“Hi, I won the school spelling bee in the 5th grade. Have you ever lost a relative to gangrene?”

Instead, to initiate social contact, you start with something socially safer like, “It sure is cold.”

So just go with it. If it takes up too much energy, try putting less into it.

Smile and nod more than you talk. Smiling is king in networking situations. In fact, it’s so important, it should be a tip in itself.

3. Smile.

Whether you’re looking for job opportunities or new friends, a smile is the most hard-working tool in your toolkit.

It covers shyness, lack of confidence, insecurity or fear. Why? Because shy, unconfident, insecure, frightened people DON’T smile.

So if you’re smiling, you look like you’re not any of those things. Get it?

Don’t be afraid of pauses in the conversation. You’re not responsible for filling them. A smile, however, can smooth over much social awkwardness.

4. Let go of the idea that you have to talk to be interesting.

If you’re a good listener, every extrovert in the room (in the general population, that would be the majority) is going to seek you out as a conversation partner.

You can’t both talk at once, and your listening is the perfectly complement to their (or should I say “our”?) excessive prattling.

Introverts like to think before they speak. You might find yourself thinking of a response to something that was said earlier.

It’s perfectly okay for you to say, “You know, I’m having a thought about that thing you mentioned earlier…”

That actually counts as a contribution to the conversation. Yes, it does! Don’t argue with me on this.

Even though it feels to you as if it’s too late, an observation about something discussed earlier can revive a flagging conversation and also help people get to know you.

You’ll be judged (favorably) on your willingness to share what you’re thinking, not on the intellectual merits of what you share.

If you don’t have anyone to talk to in a roomful of people, it’s perfectly acceptable to stand by yourself and smile at everyone who looks at you. Remember: Smiling = confidence.

Your smile will be read as in invitation to speak to you. Someone who’s on his or her own will gravitate toward someone who smiles at them unabashedly.

If you stand in the middle of in a roomful of people with nothing in your hands, you might look like a sleepwalker, or someone who’s doing performance art (“Still Person, Frozen in the Act of Not Socializing”).


While you’re by yourself, it can be handy to have something like a plate or a cup in ONE of your hands. Leave the other one free to shake.

Networking can be fun, even for introverts, especially if you seek out an extrovert to talk — I mean listen — to.

If I see you standing there all by yourself, smiling a greeting at me, I’ll make a beeline for you and introduce myself.

You’ve been warned.

The Surprising Upside to Wallowing in Despair

Sad figure with happy silhouetteWho is there among us who hasn’t felt the chill of despair at one time or another?

With the cold, gray winter enveloping so many of us, I thought this might be a good time to review some emotional survival tips, and underline the happy truth that wallowing in despair can bring rich rewards.

There is such a thing as severe depression. That’s what medication is for, and it can literally be a life-saver.

But for the millions suffering from losses in the past or the present while still going about their business, working through those sad, bad feelings with constructive wallowing can lift the dark veil and bring new life, just in time for spring.

Despair isn’t something we do to ourselves; we don’t choose it. We come by it honestly, through living.

When we let something or someone be important to us, we become vulnerable to loss.

When we allow ourselves to know how much we hurt, we open ourselves to the truth that we’ve been wounded. Sometimes deeply.

We need to heal.

That’s the bottom line.

Despair is a signal that something inside us needs healing.

Click the link below to read this week’s post and, as always, let me know what you think:

3 Good Reasons to Wallow in Despair | Psychology Today

How Organized Are You?

Have a look in your closetAn organizationally talented friend was helping me organize the nightstand beside my bed.

“What’s this?” she asked, pulling a melon-sized object in a soft case from the drawer.

“It’s a blood pressure monitor,” I told her.

“How often do you use it?”

“Maybe once a year,” I guessed. I’d bought it a few years earlier at a steep discount even though I didn’t need one, thinking ‘Hey, great deal on a blood pressure monitor!’

“Why is it in your nightstand?” my friend asked me now.

“Um … because it fits?” I knew this was the wrong answer. But I didn’t have a clue what the right answer was.

Putting frequently used items in easy-to-reach places and rarely used items in storage may be a “Duh!” for someone who is naturally organized, but for the organizationally challenged, it’s more like a “Huh?”

Blame (Or Thank) Your Genes

I’m here to tell you that being an organized person is NOT:

  • Simply by choice
  • Common sense
  • The natural outcome of a conscientious attitude

Being organized is an aptitude. As in, it’s an inherited skill. What’s obvious to someone high in organizational thinking is by no means obvious to someone who’s low on that scale.

Thus, disorganization is NOT the same as:

  1. Sloth
  2. No interest in being organized
  3. Lack of a conscientious attitude
  4. Failure to try

I can personally vouch for #4. I’ve been making efforts to get organized for my entire adult life.

Why? Because I’m a conscientious person, and also a busy one. I want to be organized.

I LOVE The Container Store, and other stores like it (Hold Everything, Storables, etc.). They hold the promise that I, too, can acquire an organizing system that works, once and for all.

Unfortunately for me, I take after my rather ADD-ish, clutter-magnet dad instead of my focused, organizing-wonder mom.

I can take any organizational system and turn it into clutter almost overnight.

Over the years, I’ve made it a point to learn some rules of thumb for organizing.

These rules follow principles that naturally organized people just “get,” intuitively:

Assign everything a home, so you can put it back when you’re done with it.

Put similar things together. This is SO not intuitive for me. It totally depends on what you mean by “similar.”

(Having a similar function does not make things seem alike in my brain, but every organized person I know is a big fan of the grouping-by-function concept — rather than, say, by where something happens to fit, which is my personal go-to)

Place small things in front of larger things in the cupboard, so you can see them.

These insights are hard-won and precious to me. Even still, I cannot get my fridge to look the way it looks when my mom is visiting. When she’s here, it’s tidy and inviting. When she leaves, it quickly starts to resemble the deep discount bin at a flea market — a riot of sizes, shapes and colors with no discernible pattern.

Aptitudes Are Inborn Talents

I claim that organizational thinking is either a specific aptitude or an aptitude cluster. That means it’s high in some people, middling in others and quite low for some of us. It dictates NOT our interest in organizing, but our ability to organize.

Aptitudes are inborn talents that are never gained or lost.

A few examples of established aptitudes are three-dimensional thinking (e.g., parallel parking), number facility (arithmetic skills), word learning (for vocabulary building), pitch discrimination (used in music and learning other languages) and deductive reasoning (as in, “So it must be that the butler did it!”), among many others.

For more about the science of aptitudes, check out the oldest aptitude research outfit in the country, the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation.

Practice Makes … Better

For all of you highly organized folks out there: I envy and admire you. If you can add to the list of “organizing rules of thumb,” I’d like to hear from you in the Comments.

If you’re on the low end of the continuum like me, it’s not your fault. It’s possible to get better at being organized, even if it’s always felt like an uphill battle. Memorize the rules and practice them. You can reach the top of your natural range, whatever that may be, with consistent effort.

For example, after almost 50 years, I finally *might* be getting the hang of putting the cap back on the toothpaste … 99 times out of 100. A personal best!

No matter where you fall on the organizational spectrum, never think of disorganization as a moral weakness.

Now do me a favor and take this quiz so we can all find out where we are on the spectrum.

Thanks for participating! Remember to leave me your best getting-organized tips in the Comments section below.

Visualize Your Goals with a Vision Board

Do you have a vision for what you want your life to look like?

There are two sayings that mirror each other, both of which are true:

“You’ll believe it when you see it,”


“You’ll see it when you believe it.”

In other words, it’s easier to realize a goal that you truly believe in, and THAT’S easier when you can picture it in your mind’s eye.

But what if you’re mind’s eye needs prescription glasses? You might need a little help to see your way to your goals.

This week’s post will give you some great ideas about how to do that.

It’s an excerpt from Paula Rizzo’s new book, Listful Thinking: Using Lists to be More Productive, Highly Successful and Less Stressed.

Full disclosure: Paula and I share a publisher, which is how I came to learn about her book.

Take it away, Paula…

 Visualize Your Goals

I’m not arts-and-crafty, but at the beginning of every year, I make a vision board. It’s my one craft project for the year, and it’s so much fun.

Reading magazines is my guilty pleasure, and it comes in handy for this task. I rip out pages of pictures and words that speak to me, and then I glue my favorites onto a poster board.

What is a Vision Board?

A vision board is a place for all the things you’d like to accomplish, places you’d like to go, and things you enjoy. If you use this tool as a jumping off point for your goals, you are more likely to achieve them.

I use it as a reminder of my goals, like having a three-bedroom apartment or going to Venice. I also put photos of people I admire, things I enjoy such as drinking tea, and other ambitions, including writing this book.

It’s imperative to be able to visualize your goals, even if only on paper. This all goes back to the credo, “You become what you believe.”

There Are No Rules

Your vision board can include photos, drawings, or inspirational words. If you are super crafty, you can use fabric and other textures as well. There is no right way to do it.

The photos can be places you’ve been, places you want to go, outfits you like, things you’d like to buy, kitchens you want to model yours after, or anything else that makes you smile.

You can be literal or creative with your choices. I’ve included photos of champagne because it’s one of my favorite drinks, but also, it symbolizes celebrations. I’d like to have a lot of things to celebrate.

Along that line, my vision board includes a photo of someone filling out thank-you cards, not because I particularly like writing thank-you cards but because I’d like to have lots of reasons to say thank you.

I purposely leave some white space on my vision board so that it can evolve throughout the year. Whenever I see a photo that catches my eye or I think of something I want to achieve, I add it.

My vision board hangs inside my closet door. This way I’m sure to see it every morning when I get dressed.

You can make your board by hand, the way I do, or you can make one digitally on your computer.

Here are some places where you can keep your vision board:

  1. On your desk in a frame
  2. Pinned up on a cork board
  3. As your desktop wallpaper
  4. In a book that you carry with you
  5. On your phone in an app, such as  Vision Board Deluxe by Happy Tapper
  6. On
  7. On

I think this would be a fun activity to do with friends or even with kids. Kids can make their own vision boards with activities and places they want to go throughout the year. You’ll be surprised how much of an influence these vision boards can have on them.

You can even make it a tradition to check out last year’s vision board on New Year’s Eve to see how much they’ve done in the past year. Then make a new board on New Year’s Day.

But you don’t have to do this at the beginning of the year; you can make a vision board at any time!

Remember, though, that just having a vision board isn’t enough. We must actively work toward our goals.

Listful Thinking book cover imagePaula Rizzo is an Emmy award winning television news producer in New York City.  She’s also the founder of the productivity site and author of Listful Thinking: Using Lists to be More Productive, Highly Successful and Less Stressed.