Joshua Coleman, PhD, a psychologist based in San Francisco who specializes in families and relationships. He is author of When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along (William Morrow). DrJoshuaColeman.com
This holiday season won’t necessarily bring comfort and joy to everyone. Some parents are suffering from broken hearts that they could have never imagined or prepared for—because an adult child has cut them off. Phone calls and text messages go unanswered…they haven’t seen their grandkids in years.
These parents don’t understand how this could have happened or why their parenting mistakes were egregious enough to cause such an ugly rift. Their anguish often turns to intense resentment and shame. After all, no one who provided ample love and devotion deserves to be treated this way by their own child.
Joshua Coleman, PhD, who specializes in helping estranged families, says the situation is far more common than you would think. In one survey of the dynamics of 566 families by researchers at Purdue, Cornell and Iowa State Universities, 11% had a child estranged from a parent.
Coleman himself knows the pain of this situation—he was estranged from his own daughter for several years following his divorce and remarriage. But he was eventually able to find a way back into her life.
Bottom Line Personal spoke to Dr. Coleman about the strategies he has developed that have helped hundreds of his patients reconcile with their adult children…
Q: What causes a child to stop communicating with a parent?
A: As a child enters adulthood, longstanding resentments and conflicts over everything—from emotional abuse to clashes of personality or values to traumatic family events—can intensify. The child may be furious at the parent for being controlling, judgmental, untrustworthy and/or impeding his/her personal growth and development. I have found that healing this estrangement requires the parents to adopt a very different mindset than they may be used to.
Keep in mind that there are many other pathways to estrangement beyond parental mistakes or abuses. Example: The adult child may be mentally ill or have addictions and thus be unable to navigate the slings and arrows of parent/adult-child conflict. He may have been the victim of parental alienation when, after the parents’ divorce, one parent turned him against the now-estranged parent. The parent may have married someone who said, “Choose them or me—you can’t have both.” Finally, the child may know no other way to feel separate from the parent than to be estranged.
Two big misperceptions about reconciliation…
Misperception #1: The process will be based on fairness. Parents assume that they and the child can hash out each other’s shortcomings and what wrongs were committed and then both agree to make concessions in the future and move forward. But that’s not how it works.
Estranged children have all the power in the relationship because the parent is the one who wants back into their lives and must regain their trust. To reconcile, you will have to listen to all the child’s complaints without criticism or defensiveness…alter your behavior in ways he/she defines…and agree to his boundaries, regarding contact, visits, etc.
What’s more, this process can take years until you are on solid and secure enough ground with your child to request a more equitable relationship. I know this sounds one-sided. But if you cannot accept it, you just wind up reinforcing the reasons the child has cut off contact with you.
Misperception #2: Explaining or rationalizing your past behavior will help make things right. Trying to convince your child that her negative sentiments about you are wrong and you were justified in how you acted will never get her back. Reason: Her emotions constitute the absolute truth of the matter for her, regardless of how differently you may see things. Example: You say, “I was a single parent trying to raise you, and your father made life impossible for me after the divorce.” Focusing on your own experiences and blaming others just reinforces that you aren’t interested in acknowledging the child’s emotions and perspective or in really taking responsibility for your mistakes.
Q: How do I begin the process of reconciliation if my child isn’t even speaking to me?
A: E-mail him a letter of amends. The goal of the letter is to build credibility and trust by having the courage and self-awareness to apologize for any specific hurts/mistakes that your child has mentioned. You want to communicate your willingness and desire to learn more and see past events from his perspective…to show respect for his choices…and to let him know you are interested in reconnecting when he is ready.
Example of a letter of amends: “I’m so sorry for the ways that I let you down as a parent. I know that I was harsh in many ways, and that was hurtful to you. I could understand why that might make it harder to spend time with me. It is true that I was preoccupied in many ways when you were young and that it prevented me from being as involved with you as would have been good for you. I’m glad that you let me know how you feel about that, and I hope there are ways that I can make it up to you in the future.”
Wait at least six to eight weeks for a reply. If you hear nothing, send a follow-up e-mail that says, “Just following up to see if you’ve had a chance to read my letter. I’m sure I left out some details that would have been good to address, but I just wanted to try to get the conversation started. Let me know if you have any thoughts or reactions, positive or negative. “
Q: If a letter of amends works and my child seems willing to talk, what’s the next step?
A: Let the child take the lead on what contact with you looks like. Whether it’s e-mail, a Zoom call or a face-to-face meeting, focus on two strategies…
Empathize without retaliating. Your child needs the space and time to talk to you about why the estrangement was necessary. You will probably hear lots of negative sentiments about you, so you need to tolerate any pain, sorrow and guilt that evokes. Your job is to acknowledge what the child is feeling and show curiosity about understanding her perspective more deeply. Example: Your daughter says, “You were always gone when I was growing up.” You reply, “I was gone a lot, and that was really painful and unfair to you. I was focused on my career and making money instead of on spending time with you.”
Own up to your parenting mistakes without any hedging or excuses. It’s powerfully healing to an adult child when she sees that her parent actually gets it.
Q: What if my child raises issues that are highly exaggerated or just not true? Am I supposed to apologize and take responsibility for everything?
A: The short answer is…yes. Strive to find at least a kernel of truth in your child’s complaints that you can work with. Even if it’s just saying, “Clearly I have blind spots, and I don’t have a better understanding of why you are doing this. But I know you wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t the healthiest thing for you.” This allows your adult child to feel that you are really forming an alliance with him—even if the alliance is against you! It also establishes some credibility with the child that you are sincerely interested in understanding how he came to feel the way he does.
Q: What if nothing works, and my child just refuses to have any more contact?
A: You always have the option of taking a break from your efforts if it’s too painful or you feel the estrangement is compromising your life. Leave a message for your child that says, “I accept your decision. I’m sorry things are in the state they are right now, but I love you. I will continue to love you and will be available for contact, whatever that might mean, when you are ready.”
If you decide to take a break, I recommend waiting at least a year before trying again. This may feel like you are giving up. But an extended period of no-contact actually can be productive. It proves to the child that you can respect her boundaries and choices with no pressure. It also allows her to work on feeling less triggered and to develop a new perspective on her own. And it lets you focus on self-healing. Should your child seek contact in the future, you want to be able to greet her as a more peaceful, whole person, not someone who is embittered or a martyr.
After a year of no contact with your adult child, reach out again, perhaps on an occasion like a birthday or holiday. Write another letter of amends with the subject line, “It was clear you needed time. I wanted to check in.”