Guidelines for Reconciliation with Estranged Adult Children

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.

Growing Pains: Parenting Adult Children

Psychologist and author Joshua Coleman is an internationally recognized expert on parenting and marriage, among other topics. Today we are pleased to present the first installment of his Greater Good blog, in which he explores the roots of conflicts between parents and their adult children.

Stay tuned for Dr. Coleman’s subsequent posts, which will explore strategies for overcoming parent-child conflict.

According to a recent Pew survey, a high percentage of today’s parents report fewer serious arguments with their children in their late teens and early 20s than they had with their own parents at a similar age.

However, not all parents experience this kind of closeness. Some parents complain of ongoing tension and conflict with their adult children or, worse, complain that they are completely estranged from them.

In my work as a psychologist, I’ve witnessed many families experiencing these kinds of conflicts. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about why these conflicts arise, and how parents can best handle them. (I share many of my observations in my recent book, When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along.)

New grounds for conflict

Part of the problem stems from the fact that parents today invest far more in their children than did prior generations of parents. According to sociologist Scott Coltrane, fathers do three times as much parenting as fathers in the 1960s; sociologists Suzanne Bianchi, John Robinson, and Melissa Milke report that mothers spend far more time parenting than did mothers in the 1960s.

© Steve Debenport

Among other reasons, this increased investment by both mothers and fathers comes as a result of parental anxiety about their children’s future, guilt about spending less time with their children than they believe they should, education about children’s developmental needs, and a desire to be a better parent than their own parents were.

We have also radically altered our views about what we expect from children. Surveys in the 1920s showed that parents valued conformity, loyalty, and obedience; they wanted their kids to respect them, if not fear them. Today’s parents value individuality, tolerance, and the ability to think for themselves. They want their children’s love and are worried that they can easily jeopardize that love by not being a good enough parent.

How have these changes affected parents’ relationships with their children as those kids get older and progress through adulthood themselves? On the one hand, better education about children and parent-child communication has increased the potential for positive long-term relationships between parents and children, as the recent Pew survey details. Children, overall, appear to be doing better as judged by test scores and declines in youth crime, teen pregnancies, and suicide.

On the other hand, the onset of clinical depression occurs much earlier than in prior generations of children, and college health centers complain about not being able to handle the volume of students who are struggling with psychological issues.

The environment for parenting has also changed. In comparison to the past, parents have far fewer support systems of kin and neighbors to help them strike the right balance in their child-rearing. With people spending less time with their friends and communities, many parents turn to their offspring for fulfillment, intimacy, and long-term security—and those children are far more likely to be at home with their parents than they were in prior generations: Historian Steven Mintz has observed that between the early 1980s and late 1990s, unstructured play and outdoor activities for children declined nearly 40 percent for children ages three to 11.

While more time with children creates more opportunities for bonding, a more intense relationship increases the potential for conflict, resentment, and disappointment on the part of both parent and child. As sociologist Annette Lareau observes in her book Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, middle class children are encouraged to develop a perspective of mutuality or equality in their relationships with adults. In a study, she found that these children frequently and comfortably passed judgment on the adults around them.

“In general the children of middle class parents have a sense that they are special, that their opinions matter, and that adults should as a matter of routine adjust situations to meet their children’s wishes,” writes Lareau.

A greater degree of entitlement and comfort with adults can be highly adaptive in a world that requires autonomy, assertiveness, and comfort with authority. And in most cases, these children grow up to be highly respectful of their parents and other adults.

However, this entitlement is problematic when it’s combined with a prevailing cultural notion that children’s outcomes in life depend largely on how their parents raise them. Because while parenting is important, it isn’t the only experience that shapes children. Current studies show that class, genetics, peer group, and sibling relationships are also powerful determinants of how kids turn out. A culture that over-attributes parenting behavior to children’s outcomes may confuse adult children about the formative influences on their life, and may make them more likely to blame their parents when things don’t turn out the way they’d hoped.

Overstating the relationship between parenting behavior and child outcome may also cause politicians to wrongly attribute blame to the family for conditions that are better understood as having an economic basis. As historian Stephanie Coontz observes in her book The Way We Never Were, blaming parents for how children turn out is especially unfair when applied to the poor and working class, since research shows that the social dynamics of poverty and low status give them less influence over their children in relation to peer groups than parents in other classes.

And as sociologist Frank Furstenberg has noted, the financial and emotional costs for American parents are much greater here than in many European countries where the government takes a more active role in health care, education, and job training for young adults.

While parents in the U.S. are expected to provide an even greater investment in childcare, entertainment, protection, college, and after-college care than prior generations of parents here and elsewhere, there are fewer guidelines for what they might expect in return. Parents may feel hurt or betrayed if they do not get the love and gratitude they look forward to and believe that they deserve, and this may cause them to strain the relationship with their children even further by complaining or criticizing about their lack of availability or attentiveness.

Improving parents’ relationships with their adult children

Fortunately, in working with the parents of adult children, I’ve found that there are effective ways for them to overcome these conflicts. While every family is different, I believe that the following principles are the most important.

  • Take responsibility for whatever mistakes you have made as a parent. If there’s a kernel of truth in your child’s complaint, speak to the kernel of truth.
  • Honor the “separate realities” nature of family life. Just because you made decisions with your child’s best interest in mind, doesn’t mean that they were experienced in the way that you intended. Don’t try to prove them wrong.
  • Avoid guilt trips: a) They don’t work and b) When they do, you’ll pay a high price for the resentment you’ll generate in your adult child.
  • Try to hear your child out. Don’t be defensive. Ask questions.
  • Don’t give up too soon. If there’s been an estrangement, you may need to reach out for a long time before you see an improvement in the relationship.
  • In general, avoid giving advice that isn’t asked for.
  • If you don’t want to give money or help, say so in a loving way, not as a complaint or criticism.
  • Don’t criticize their spouse, their significant other, or their sexuality.
  • Don’t tell them how to parent. You had your turn. Let them have theirs.

Each of these recommendations has its challenges. Therefore, my next several posts will go into more detail on them, exploring precisely how parents can strengthen their relationship with their adult children.

Are you estranged from your adult children? How have your tried to bridge the distance and rebuild the relationship? What advice would you give parents who are just attempting this journey?