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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.



{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Dianne November 26, 2010, 11:45 pm

    This article gave me a lot of hope that eventually my 25 year old daughter may one day talk to me after my divorce from her dad last year. He had an affair with a woman in our church 12 years ago and I stayed to finish raising her and her 20 year old brother. She ended up developing epilepsy her first year in college and I went with her seven times to The Mayo Clinic for tests and even lived with her her senior year of college. She finally had brain surgery to relieve the seizures and after her three month check-up and release from the doctor I filed for divorce. Even though she knew about the affair she chose to live with her dad after the divorce and won’t have any contact with me. My son rarely contacts me as well and neither of them spend Mother’s Day or any other holiday with me. I don’t try to get them to chose between me and their father even though I’m accused of it. I just want to spent time with them as well. Perhaps one day they will see that they can have a relationship with both their parents equally. Wonderful article!

  • Nan December 29, 2012, 12:49 pm

    I am one of those mothers that thought she had done everything to the best of her ability. I am sure I made mistakes, but love was always the center of my relationships with my children. I do not push or demand anything of my adult children. I did suffer from an abusive relationship with their father, but was told by psycharists that my children would respect me for leaving the marriage and they did for years until they were married for a few years. That’s when I remarried. Both children seemed to like my new husband who is just wonderful to me. When I started asking my son to bring my grandchildren over more often, I was told that it wasn’t going to happen. He gave no other explanation other than a few times a year on holidays was good enough. I was bumfuzzled because we had been so close and was hurt because of his disrepectful reply that it was just not going to happen. I had never talked to my mother that way so I asked for an apology. He then estranged himself from me and all family, including his grandmother (my mother) who he had always loved so much. I have not seen him, my daughter-in-law or my 3 grandchildren in over 5 years…all because I wanted to see them more often. I think that is a little overkill to keep me from my grandchildren just because I asked for an apology for his disrepectfulness. It hurts and the pain is too much to bear for me to be the one to take the high road and apologize to him for asking him to be more respectable to me. That is ridiculous advice from Joshua Coleman!!! There has to be another way that both parent and child can reconcile without any further harm done.

  • Carolyn Rose January 29, 2013, 4:36 pm

    Children just come through us. They come to us as individuals
    from birth. As human beings, as other people they may use us,
    assume we owe them and ultimately still turn their backs. My
    kids are people to me and I treat them as such. They are not
    my kids anymore but I have great friendships with them. Life
    does not end with children leaving, look forward to freedom
    to rebuild…..life goes on, live it.

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