As the most family-oriented time of year approaches, it’s a time of heartache for parents whose adult children have cut them off – and the growing phenomenon is much more common than our idealized notions about family would have us believe.
Elizabeth Vagnoni runs an online forum where parents can talk to others about something they may feel too ashamed to tell anyone about – that their children are no longer speaking to them. An ongoing survey on her website reveals that nearly one in three parents estranged from their children has contemplated suicide. The way Vagnoni puts it, “There’s a primal bond between a parent and a child. When that’s broken, parents feel as if they’ve failed as human beings.”
Holidays present special challenges for parents who have been cut off by their grown children. “What should I say to my friends or co-workers when they ask about my children or grandchildren?” “How do I deal with memories of the past when we were still close?” “How do I forgive myself for whatever ways I blame myself, rightly or wrongly, for the estrangement?” “How do I cope with my intense feelings of guilt and remorse, shame, anger, and grief?”
When San Francisco psychologist Joshua Coleman received numerous requests for help from estranged parents, he offered a six-session internet seminar. He expected about 50 parents to sign up – instead, he got 400. When Coleman published his ground-breaking book in 2008, When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Adult Child Don’t Get Along, it was the only book of its kind to offer – instead of parenting advice – support and guidance for parents rejected by their children.
“You can do everything right and your child can still grow up and not want the kind of relationship that you always hoped you’d have.”
As Coleman says, “Every parent makes mistakes. Some parents are responsible for serious harm to their children. However, it is possible to be a devoted and conscientious parent and still have it go badly. You can do everything right and your child can still grow up and not want the kind of relationship that you always hoped you’d have. Some of today’s parents are completely confused by their children’s accusations and rejection.”
According to Dr. Coleman, whether your parenting mistakes were small or serious, we currently live in a culture where parents feel almost total responsibility for how their children’s lives turn out. In turn, children nowadays feel entitled to blame their parents entirely. Coleman presents a reality that is a far more complex picture, with many factors that can cause the parent/child relationship to go wrong – and what can be done to make amends.
Here are the five most common reasons Dr. Coleman identified for parent-child estrangement:
Divorce often creates loyalty conflicts. Ex-spouses and stepfamily may contribute to the alienation of divorced parents from their children, so that children blame or refuse contact with one of the parents.
2. ADDICTION OR MENTAL ILLNESS
You can do everything right and your child may still end up with a drug problem that costs you thousands of dollars and endless heartache – or a mental illness that means he or she will never launch into a successful adulthood.
3. ESTRANGEMENT DUE TO A SON-IN-LAW OR DAUGHTER-IN-LAW
Many estrangements stem from a son- or daughter-in-law who is either controlling, troubled, or simply more powerful and manipulative than the adult child. In those scenarios the adult child may feel forced to choose between his/her spouse and his/her parent. On the other hand, sometimes well-meaning parents are critical of their son-in-law or daughter-in-law. This can either create a difficult dynamic for the adult child or provide ammunition to the son-in-law or daughter-in-law to fuel the estrangement.
4. TEMPERAMENTAL MISMATCHES
Parents can be mismatched in some important way with their child that creates long-term conflict: for example, a driven, high-achieving parent raising a low-achieving child; a sensitive, insecure parent raising a defiant, aggressive child; a depressed parent raising a highly active child.
5. NEED FOR AUTONOMY
For some adult children, the only way they know how to become independent or set boundaries with an overly involved or dependent parent is to totally separate from him or her.
Dr. Coleman found that guilt is the experience most common to estranged parents –and nothing generates more parental guilt and self-recrimination than the criticism, blame, or rejection of an adult child. “Where did I go wrong? What should I have done differently? Why did I make the decisions that I did?”
“Of all the feelings, guilt is your biggest enemy.”
Coleman advises, “Of all the feelings, guilt is your biggest enemy, for the following reasons:
- It creates defensiveness in your communication with your child, which may cause your child to want to distance herself or himself from you
- It creates anger in you as a way to prove to yourself and others that you’re not a bad parent or person
- It creates depression and anxiety because of the self-criticism and self-hatred it can induce.”
Dr. Coleman’s approach helps the estranged parent understand how you got where you are with your adult child and where you need to go. Guidelines are given about when to reach out, when to back off, how to make amends, how to handle your adult child’s abusive or disrespectful behavior, and when to talk or not talk to others about your estrangement. Exercises are provided to help you manage your anger, forgive yourself and move on and have a happy life despite having an estranged child.
Here are some of Joshua Coleman’s specific tips for healing a serious rift with a grown child:
- OWN UP
Take responsibility for mistakes you’ve made. If there’s a kernel of truth in your child’s complaint, acknowledge that.
- ACCEPT A CONTRARY VIEW
Even if you think you acted in your child’s best interest, your child might not have experienced your actions that way. Don’t try to prove your child wrong.
- AVOID GUILT TRIPS
Making a child feel guilty may work in the short run, but you’ll pay a high price for the resentment you’ll generate.
- HEAR THEM OUT
Don’t be defensive. Ask questions and then really listen.
“Don’t give up too soon. If there has been an estrangement, you may need to reach out for a long time before the relationship improves.”
- BUTTON IT
Don’t give advice that isn’t requested. Don’t criticize your child’s significant other or sexual orientation. Don’t tell your children how to parent their kids.
- DON’T ACCEPT ABUSE.
Learn to distinguish between appropriate anger versus abuse and disrespect.
- WAIT…THEN WAIT SOME MORE
Don’t give up too soon. If there has been an estrangement, you may need to reach out for a long time before the relationship improves.