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

Dear estranged parents,

Your son or daughter cut you off from their lives because you don’t know why. I keep hearing you tell me how wonderful your mother and father are. They did all they could to make their lives better growing up.

You don’t understand why your son or daughter won’t call you to talk or has asked you repeatedly not to show up at their door unannounced. You feel hurt that your estranged son or daughter won’t let you have a relationship with your grandkids.

When you describe your adult child, you might use the words “ungrateful, self-centered, spoiled brat.” Maybe you even talk about their flaws or the mistakes they made as children, teens, or young adults and explain to me how hard they were to parent or love. Then you circle back to your original question—why they have cut you out of their life.

I need to stop you and remind you that, contrary to what you might believe, no one wakes up one morning and decides they don’t want to have a family. It’s often a painful decision that takes the course of years to make. It was one of the most difficult decisions I made in my entire life.

Why did you cut off your life with your child or son?

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.

Be aware that different people experience the same events and memories. One example: While you may remember the great family trip to Disneyland, where everyone enjoyed themselves, it is possible that your children or your spouse will remember being bullied or getting into a fight.

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.

For many years, I attempted to maintain a close relationship with my parents before making the difficult decision to end my relationship. 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. I felt hurt by each rejection. My self-worth was questioned and I became depressed. However, I maintained a good relationship with them, even though it caused me to lose 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 constantly criticize my actions, often in front of family members and friends. It left me feeling demeaning. I was judged for my actions.

My father used to list the reasons I failed at something I attempted, and my mother took a sadistic delight in my successes. They never saw the best in me, nor allowed me to see my potential or good qualities. I was always a failure in their eyes—a common theme among estranged adults.

My parents were also inconsistent in respecting my boundaries. They would often list reasons I was unable to follow the ones they had established. I was often blamed by my parents for setting boundaries and meeting basic needs.

They never acknowledged the pain they did to me. The years of neglect and abuse they suffered were not acknowledged by them. They always blamed me. I was also not allowed to talk to them about my feelings. Again, I’m not saying I’m 100 percent 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.

I was harmed by each interaction, and became depressed.

My father stated all of the reasons he believed my relationship would end, while my mother was furious at having to assist me in planning a wedding. I couldn’t force them to care, and the tremendous emotional effort I was making was taking a toll on me. It was clear that I could not accept the loss of my dream relationship and had to let it go.

This decision was right for me. I felt freed from any hope of being good enough, and I could live a fulfilled and happy existence.

Reiterating that the reason why your son or daughter cut you off from their lives is not an easy decision, I think it’s important.

These are steps to take if you want to rebuild a loving relationship with your ex-child.

Be open to the possibility that different people will remember things differently.

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.

Try to listen and understand what they have to say. Allowing them to tell their stories can make them feel valued and heard.

It is a good idea to communicate in writing if you can.

Oftentimes, it’s hard to really hear what someone is saying when you feel attacked, accused, and emotional. Talking to someone via e-mail can be a good way to communicate with them if they are upset. 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. Be supportive of them and offer validation when 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. Validation can be a powerful way to repair old wounds.

Take the time to reflect on yourself.

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. It can be difficult to look at yourself objectively and see the best in you. It is sometimes necessary, even though it can be painful.

This doesn’t mean that you are inherently bad. People tend to follow the patterns of their upbringing and perpetuate harmful habits without even realizing.

You must be able to look at yourself honestly and acknowledge that you are responsible for your own pain. Remember you don’t need to do this alone. Talking to a psychologist or counselor can help you better understand yourself.

Accept responsibility for your choices.

Many adult estranged spouses, including myself, have never received the kind of apology they deserved. You can apologize if you’ve wronged an adult child. It will help you rebuild your relationship.

Respect boundaries.

Sometimes it can feel difficult to stick to a boundary, especially when there is a need to communicate. 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. You will make them feel disrespected and intimidated.

Accept the challenge to improve your behaviors.

Your son/daughter may have described some of the things that make them unhappy. Make an effort for change. You can show them you’re capable of listening to their criticisms and applying it. Listing off ways that you think you have changed isn’t enough. It is up to your actions to speak for you.

Of course, this is a two-way street. Even adult children can do things to 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.

It is not always easy to get away from loved ones or friends to help heal from childhood traumas and focus on one’s own well-being and health. It is an essential part of healing. Honor the request of your sons or daughters to be allowed space.

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 one 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. The gifts may seem like a way of repairing the relationship. However, it is not. Gifts can be seen by estranged children as a way to exert power over and control, making it difficult to choose a partner with whom we are comfortable. It is impossible to buy a relationship.

Accept to be a therapist.

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. It can often be more comfortable to discuss sensitive topics in the presence of someone neutral who can assist us with our emotions. You can also see a therapist if your child refuses to attend therapy.

Encourage growth and innovation.

The best relationships and most healthy are those that grow with each other as they change. Don’t expect your child to like the same things or act the same way as they did before; this is simply not realistic. Accept that your relationship will change and you must learn to adapt.

If everything else fails, accept the situation.

Every story is not a Hollywood success. Sometimes, we need to learn from our mistakes and accept them. Respect your child’s decision to not have a relationship. Don’t contact them repeatedly. Keep in mind that you cannot force anyone or anything, even your 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.

It might have been possible for me to forgive my parents and to work with them to heal.

Jen Hinkkala

Jen Hinkkala, a PhD student and researcher, is a teacher in arts education in Canada. It is her goal to find out what circumstances and events lead to higher levels in wellness, resilience and self-care, both for students and arts educators. Jen also works as a coach in the areas of self-care and well-being. She specializes in anxiety and career path and abuse overcoming, anxiety and time management. Jen runs a support group for estranged adults and a group to support personal development. Follow Jen on Twitter or her blog.

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