Dear Parent of an Estranged Adult: What Might Repair Your Relationship

Dear estranged parent,

I know it’s not easy to feel cut off from your child when you still feel love and maybe even remorse. I know you might feel confused about why your adult child is so upset, and you might even feel angry and wrongly accused.
Perhaps there’s some truth to that. I don’t know why your child cut ties with you, but I can share a little of my own experience and then offer some tips that might help, regardless of your unique situation.

So why did your son or daughter cut you out of their life?

I can’t speak to the specifics of your situation, but I can offer you some insights from my own experience and I can talk about common themes expressed by my community of estranged adults.

Before I go any further, I need to remind you that everyone remembers and experiences the same events differently. For example, you might remember the fun family trip to Disneyland where everyone was together and had a good time, but your son or daughter might remember getting yelled at or you and your spouse fighting.

I’m not trying to invalidate your feelings but simply to remind you to be open to the possibility that your child may remember or may have experienced events differently.

I tried to have a relationship with my parents for many years before I made the hard decision to cut them out of my life. I would seek validation for my academic accomplishments, but all they would notice were the mistakes I’d made, and they would repeatedly highlight them.

I’m not saying I was perfect, but a little love and affirmation would have gone a long way. Each rejection left me feeling hurt. I questioned my self-worth and became depressed. Still, I tried to maintain a relationship with them, despite the fact that it took a toll on my health.

I showed an interest in my mother’s life, and every time I came back to visit, I did my best to be helpful around the house and attend to their needs in any way I could.

My parents would criticize me repeatedly, even in front of friends and family members, and I was left feeling smeared and demeaned. All of my actions were met with judgmental negativity.

If I tried something new, my father would list all the reasons why he thought I was going to fail, while my mother would take sadistic joy in my failures. My parents never wanted anyone to see the good in me or even to allow me to see the good or the potential within myself. I was always a failure in their eyes—a common theme among estranged adults.

My parents also repeatedly failed to respect my boundaries and at times would list off reasons why I could not have the ones I had set. They often guilted me for having boundaries or even basic needs.

My parents never admitted the hurt they caused me. They never admitted the years of abuse and neglect. It was always somehow my fault. They were also unwilling to listen or allow me to have a productive conversation about my feelings. Again, I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I didn’t deserve to be treated in the manner I was during my formative years.

Each time I would invite them to come visit me or take an interest in my life they gave me a list of reasons why they couldn’t come or why I was not good enough for them to bother caring.

Each interaction cut me deeper, causing me to get depressed and shut down.

When I got engaged, my father listed all the reasons why he thought my relationship would fail, and my mother expressed frustration at the thought of having to help me plan a wedding. I couldn’t force them to care, and the tremendous emotional effort I was making was taking a toll on me. I felt I had no choice but to accept that the relationship I so desperately wanted would never be and let go.

For me, this was the right decision because it freed me from the bondage of hope that one day I might be good enough and it allowed me to live a meaningful and happy life.

I must reiterate that there is a reason your son and daughter has cut you out of their life because no one would make this decision lightly.

If you care about rebuilding a healthy relationship with your estranged child, these are some steps that you can take.

Realize that people remember events differently and be open to seeing their perspective.

Sometimes we remember things so differently that we’re inclined to deny the other person’s reality. Please don’t do this, as it will only create walls and cause them to recoil and pull away.

If your child says they did not like it that you pushed them into doing sports and only cared about them winning games, don’t shut the conversation down by saying “You were good at sports.” If your child says that you always criticized them about their weight, don’t tell them that you were trying to help them lead a healthier lifestyle.

Listen and try to understand their point of view. Simply allowing them space to share how they experienced their childhood can help them feel heard and respected.

If it helps, keep communications in writing to start.

Oftentimes, it’s hard to really hear what someone is saying when you feel attacked, accused, and emotional. If conversations are upsetting both parties, try communicating by e-mail so that you can read and reread what they have to say in order to digest the message being communicated. Try your best to understand their experiences and empathize with them whenever you can, and odds are they’ll be more willing to do the same for you.

Avoid being critical.

You may not agree with your child’s lifestyle or their actions, but repeatedly criticizing and voicing your disapproval will only cause them to pull away. Don’t call them names or make reference to their past failures. Work on being supportive and providing them with validation whenever possible.

This might be hard to do if you feel they’re being critical of you. Criticism tends to shut people down—on both sides. But replacing criticism with validation can help heal old wounds.

Be self-reflective.

It can be hard for anyone to take a critical look at themselves and examine their actions in order to admit that they’ve harmed someone. This can be a painful process that forces you to see yourself in a new light. Sometimes, as painful as it is, it has to be done.

This doesn’t mean that you are inherently bad. Most people parent as they were parented and repeat harmful patterns without realizing it.

It takes tremendous courage to examine yourself and admit that you caused pain. Remember you don’t need to do this alone. Seeing a trained counselor or psychologist can help you understand yourself better.

Take responsibility for your actions.

Many estranged adults, myself included, never felt we got the apology we longed for. If you have wronged your adult child, even if you feel you were a good parent on the whole, own up to your mistakes and apologize. This simple act will go a long way toward rebuilding the relationship.

Respect boundaries.

It can be tough to honor a firm boundary when you feel an urget need to talk things out. But you can’t force someone to hear you until they’re ready. If your son or daughter has said that they don’t want to see you for the next month, don’t show up at their door. This will only leave them feeling intimidated and disrespected and cause them to pull away.

Be willing to change your behavior.

If your son or daughter has described behaviors of yours that bother them, make a conscious effort to change. Show them that you are capable of taking their constructive criticism and applying it. Listing off ways that you think you have changed isn’t enough. Your actions need to speak for themselves.

This is, of course, a two-way street. Adult children are also capable of doing things that upset their parents. And in a perfect world, they’d hear you and make changes too, if necessary. But you can’t control their behavior—only your own.

Understand that distance isn’t always permanent.

Sometimes we need to take a break from family and friends in order to heal from childhood trauma and focus on our own health and well-being. This is a natural part of the healing process. If you have been asked to give your son or daughter space, honor their request.

Never use guilt.

As harsh as this might sound, your adult child doesn’t owe you anything. By inflicting guilt on them—telling them they should have a relationship with you because you’ve done and sacrificed so much—you invalidate their feelings and exert power and control that could cause them to pull away even further. It’s far better to create a new relationship from a foundation of mutual understanding than try to force one on a foundation of guilt and shame.

Don’t try to buy them back.

If your child asks you not to send gifts or give them money, don’t. You might think the gifts are a way to repair the relationship, but this never works and only breeds resentment. Estranged children can also see gifts as a means of exerting power and controlling, forcing us to feel obligated to have a relationship we do not feel comfortable having. Relationships can never be bought.

Offer to go to therapy.

This can feel intimidating at times, but your willingness to go will send a strong message that you’re open to rebuilding a healthy relationship. Many times it can be easier to talk about sensitive subjects in front of a trained neutral third party that can help us work through our emotions and misunderstandings. If your child declines your invitation to go to therapy, see a therapist on your own.

Allow for growth and change.

Some of the healthiest relationships we will ever have grow and change as we do. Don’t expect your child to like the same things or act the same way as they did before; this is simply not realistic. You must adapt and grow as they do and be open to the fact that the relationship may change.

If all else fails, work on accepting the situation.

Not every story has a happy Hollywood ending. Sometimes all we can do is accept the choices other people have made, let go, learn from the experience, and move on with our lives. If your child insists that they cannot have a relationship with you, respect their choices, as painful as this may be. Don’t contact them repeatedly. Remember that nothing in life can be forced, not even relationships.

I’m not saying that parents are solely responsible for healing broken relationships with their children. We have to do our part too, but often we’ve tried for years only to feel invalidated, disrespected, and rejected.

Had my own parents done any of these things it might have been possible to reconcile with them and work together to heal.

About Jen Hinkkala

Jen Hinkkala is PhD student, researcher, and teacher of arts education in Canada. She strives to understand what factors and experiences lead to higher levels of wellness, resiliency, and self-care among arts educators and students. Jen is also a life coach and specializes in self-care, well-being, time management, performance anxiety, estrangement, overcoming abuse, career paths, and anxiety. Jen runs a support group for estranged adults and a group to support personal development. Follow her here: Twitter / Blog.

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