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Estranged Adult Children

Parents get angry at adult children; adult children get angry at parents.  Sometimes parents and children don’t talk for days or weeks or even months.  Usually the ice breaks and the two sides reconcile.  But what happens when the anger festers into a full-fledged estrangement and the adult children completely cut off communication with their parents? That was the focus of  “When the Ties that Bind Unravel,”  a recent New York Times “Well” column by Tara Parker-Pope.  The traditional focus–in the therapist’s office, novels, films, blogs and online forums—has been on adult children complaining about the perceived misdeeds of parents. 

Now the spotlight has shifted somewhat to the angst of parents who have lost contact with their adult children.  Sometimes parents know what damage they have allegedly done, having been told quite explicitly by their children.  Other times parents are clueless, left with vague or no explanations. The result, Ms Parker-Pope writes:

Some parents seek grief counseling, while others fall into depression and even contemplate suicide.

Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco psychologist who is an expert on parental estrangement, says it appears to be growing more and more common, even in families who haven’t experienced obvious cruelty or traumas like abuse and addiction. Instead, parents often report that a once-close relationship has deteriorated after a conflict over money, a boyfriend or built-up resentments about a parent’s divorce or remarriage.

We all know families—maybe even our own–where estrangement has occurred so the topic was familiar.  What is surprising are the more than 1,100 comments the piece elicited, ranging from “sometimes the kids are evil” to parents blamed for mental and physical abuse. The rage is almost palatable, especially in comments from adult children, many self-assured in their decision to banish parents from their lives.

There’s a lot of anger and blame to go around, and there are no easy answers.  However, several posts struck a chord as possible approaches to reconciliation. One adult child wrote:

And I agree with the unspoken implication here, which is that our culture unfairly weighs the child’s injuries over the parents’ efforts. There are some truly damaging parents out there. But for those of us whose parents don’t fall in that category . . . Maybe it’s time we all sat down and [had] a good think about the things our parents did right.

And then called them and told them about it.

Dr. Coleman recommends that parents take the high road and never give up, continuing to call, email and to send cards and birthday and holiday presents even if they are refused. A post from one mother showed the wisdom of that approach.  The mother continued to try to communicate with a daughter who had stopped all contact from age 17 to two years post college, the fallout from a divorce and other unspecified issues. Then fate intervened, as the mother writes:

 One day on an afternoon walk around the running track at the Central Park Reservoir the wildest, weirdest thing ever happened… we ran into each other. What are the odds? Happy is too pale a word to describe the relief, ecstatic joy and endearing words we exchanged. I have an inkling how Lazarus felt.
We’re now in regular contact. Lots of words have passed. Explanations. Recriminations. Reasons. Stories. A little miracle. ..

 The mother’s advice:

 Parents: Do what you can to understand the situation and make things right. Let respect guide your path. Let go of whatever anger you may feel. [Difficult, but not impossible.] Never EVER give up.
Children: Cut your padres some slack. They won’t be around forever.

 Wise words: everyone has to give in, sometimes a little, often a lot but usually the parents more so than the kids.



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