The following guidebook is designed for estranged adult children. The concepts can apply to younger children, but every case, no matter what age, must be considered when using these steps:
Step 1: Understanding Estrangement
Experiencing estrangement from an adult child can be a devastating and isolating experience for any parent. However, to reconcile and rebuild the relationship, it’s crucial to take a step back and understand the reasons behind the estrangement. As Susan Forward, author of “Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life,” states:
“Understanding the reasons behind our adult child’s estrangement is essential. We must take responsibility for our part in the situation, whether it’s a failure to listen or prioritize our child’s feelings or engaging in toxic behaviors that have caused pain and harm.”
Taking responsibility for one’s actions and being open to understanding the perspective of the estranged adult child is a crucial step toward healing the relationship. Seeking professional help from a therapist can also be beneficial in processing emotions and improving communication skills. As noted by Forward:
“Therapy can provide a safe space for parents to explore their own behaviors and patterns that may have contributed to the estrangement and learn new communication skills to rebuild the relationship.”
For example, a mother may realize through therapy that her behavior of prioritizing her own needs over her daughter’s feelings caused the rift between them. Through therapy, she can learn to listen better and validate her daughter’s emotions, leading to a healthier and more positive relationship.
It’s important to note that estrangement can sometimes result from trauma, such as childhood abuse or neglect. In such cases, a trauma-informed approach is necessary to heal the relationship. As Dr. Támara Hill, a licensed therapist and trauma specialist, states:
“Estrangement can be a protective mechanism for adult children who have experienced trauma at the hands of their parents. Trauma-informed care is essential to help the parent and adult child work through the pain and trauma and rebuild their relationship with trust and safety.”
Step 2: Self-Care for Parents
Taking care of yourself is an important part of maintaining healthy relationships, especially when dealing with estrangement from an adult child. It is crucial to prioritize your emotional, physical, and mental health. As Melody Beattie wrote in “Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself,” “Caring for yourself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation.”
Setting healthy boundaries is crucial to self-care, mainly when dealing with an estranged adult child. According to researcher and psychologist Brene Brown, “Boundaries are the most loving things we can do for ourselves and the people in our lives.” Boundaries can help you maintain a healthy relationship with your adult child while protecting your emotional well-being.
Finding support is another important component of self-care. This can include seeking help from a therapist, joining a support group, or leaning on friends and family for support. As author Anne Lamott wrote, “Almost everything will work if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” You can step back and focus on your needs by reaching out for support.
For example, a father struggling with depression and anxiety may prioritize self-care by practicing meditation and seeking therapy. He sets boundaries with his estranged daughter by telling her he won’t tolerate abusive language. This approach allows the father to care for himself and may also improve the relationship with his daughter.
Step 3: Communication Skills
When it comes to reconnecting with estranged adult children, communication is key. Developing active listening and assertive communication skills is crucial to building a healthy relationship. In “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life,” author Marshall B. Rosenberg emphasizes the importance of compassionate communication. He suggests expressing feelings and needs rather than criticizing or blaming others.
It’s essential to approach communication with your adult child without placing blame or being critical. Sincerely apologizing when necessary can also help to rebuild trust and show that you are taking responsibility for your actions. As Rosenberg notes, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”
Here’s a clinical example of effective communication in action: A mother practices active listening by empathetically repeating her son’s concerns to show she understands. She refrains from criticizing his life choices and takes responsibility for any mistakes made in the past.
Other helpful resources on effective communication include “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, and “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen.
By developing active listening and assertive communication skills, you can begin to rebuild a healthy relationship with your adult child. Remember to approach communication with compassion, empathy, and a willingness to take responsibility for your actions.
Step 4: Reaching Out to Your Adult Child
Reconnecting with an estranged adult child can be challenging and emotional, but taking the initiative and expressing your desire to reconnect is essential. As noted by Beverly Engel in “The Power of Apology: Healing Steps to Transform All Your Relationships,” “a sincere apology can be one of the most powerful tools we have for healing a broken relationship.” However, respecting your child’s boundaries and giving them the required space is crucial.
Sending a letter or email can be an effective way to initiate a reconnection. As noted by Tina Gilbertson in “Reconnecting with Your Estranged Adult Child: Practical Tips and Tools to Heal Your Relationship,” “Writing a letter can allow the person to express themselves more thoroughly and thoughtfully than in a conversation.” In the letter, acknowledge your past mistakes and express your desire to reconnect. It’s essential to avoid blame or criticism and focus on your feelings and emotions.
After sending the letter, you must respect your child’s boundaries and give them the required space. As noted by Susan Forward in “Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life,” “Children who feel trapped, controlled, or suffocated will distance themselves from the parent who is responsible.” Refrain from pressuring your child to reconcile and allow them to reach out to you in their own time.
Initiating a reconnection with your estranged adult child requires taking the initiative and expressing your desire to reconnect, respecting their boundaries, and giving them the space they require. As noted by Engel, “It is never too late to apologize, no matter how long it has been or how great the offense.”
Step 5: Repairing the Relationship
Mending a damaged relationship with your adult child requires patience, persistence, and a focus on building trust through positive experiences. Dr. Gary Chapman, author of “The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts,” emphasizes the importance of building a strong emotional connection through positive experiences. He suggests that people “focus on what the other person needs, rather than what they think they should give.”
The same concept applies when attempting to reconnect with an estranged adult child. Rather than dwelling on past issues, create new positive experiences together. This can involve participating in shared interests, such as hiking, cooking, or other activities that foster a sense of togetherness.
If necessary, seeking the guidance of a therapist or mediator can also be helpful. According to Dr. John Gottman, a leading relationship expert, “Therapy can provide a safe space for you and your partner to work through conflicts, learn new skills, and build a stronger relationship.” This applies to parent-child relationships as well.
It’s also important to be patient and persistent in rebuilding the relationship. Dr. Sue Johnson, author of “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love,” emphasizes that “rebuilding trust takes time.” It’s important to acknowledge that healing takes time and effort and to stay committed to the process.
When attempting to mend a damaged relationship with your adult child, focus on building trust through positive experiences, seek the guidance of a therapist or mediator if necessary, and be patient and persistent in your efforts. As Dr. Chapman states, “Love is a choice you make every day.”
Step 6: Coping with Disappointment and Loss
Healing from estrangement with an adult child is not always possible, and it is essential to come to terms with this reality. Accepting this outcome can be incredibly difficult, but it can also bring about closure and pave the way for healing. Instead of fixating on the lost relationship, focusing on finding meaning in other areas of life is crucial.
Finding support from a therapist or support group can help process the grief and emotions that come with this kind of loss. As John W. James and Russell Friedman state in “The Grief Recovery Handbook,”: “Grief is the normal and natural emotional response to loss. It is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of, or change in, a familiar pattern of behavior.” Processing these feelings is vital in moving beyond grief and finding a new purpose.
In some cases, accepting the reality of estrangement can lead to finding meaning in new relationships and activities. As stated in “Meaning in Life and Why It Matters” by Susan Wolf, “Meaning arises from loving and caring connections to others, from work that has some purpose beyond the self, from belonging to and serving something bigger than the self.” Volunteering, building new friendships, and pursuing new hobbies can all contribute to finding meaning and purpose outside of the lost relationship.
Accepting the possibility of irreparable estrangement is a complex but necessary step in the healing process. Seeking support, processing grief, and finding new meaning in life can all contribute to moving beyond the pain and finding a new purpose.
Get help with your estranged relationship by scheduling an appointment today with Ron Huxley, LMFT.