How to Communicate with an Estranged Son or Daughter
This bridge appears distorted and out of reach.
How to Rebuild a Broken Bridge
This may be a painful subject for you. If you found this page as a result of a Google search, you have already taken a step in the right direction.
You might be an estranged parent of an adult child. Or perhaps you are an adult child who simply has had enough, and can't take it anymore. You could be a family member, such as a sibling, trying to knit together the family ties that you yearn for.
This content of this article is not directed at people who have grown apart from their kids due to circumstances beyond their control. Sometimes extremely stressful and desperate conditions can separate a parent and a child, at any age. They include war, poverty, extremes of age the time of childbirth, adoption, disabling illness, accidents, immigration and emigration, migration, kidnapping etc.
I am also not discussing "parental alienation syndrome" which can happen when one parent and perhaps co-abusers plays mind games with the kids and turns them against the other parent, like in the event of a divorce. These issues are quite real, but the source of the problem is different, and so are the solutions.
Am I angry?
Well ... yeah. I have been for many years. I have learned to live with a constant state of anger and frustration at a situation that my parents have no desire or motivation to change, that they have, for the most part, caused.
I also go back and forth with my husband on this question:
"Do my parents see how much pain they cause? Do they care?"
- He leans toward the theory that they can't see their own mistakes, or that they are blind to them somehow. He says that some people do not perceive how obnoxious, off-putting and toxic their behavior is to others.
- I lean toward the theory that they see them but just don't care, or that they are not motivated enough to change. In other words, they actually don't love me enough to swallow their pride and right wrongs, respect my boundaries and listen for once, instead of "telling."
- It is also possible that they know that they cause their kids stress, frustration and pain, but they feel entitled to behave that way because of their station in life. In other words, they don't HAVE to answer to anybody but themselves. It could be that they see themselves as authorized to act as they choose because "I am your father, that's why." Perhaps they view their kids as duty-bound to meet their needs through thick and thin, which in my opinion is an abuse of scripture.
- And yes, bullet points two and three are indeed horrendous.
As we mature it is important to channel anger productively and file it away in appropriate drawers and not allow it to infect other aspects of our lives. I have several analogies I have developed over the years, one of which is to not allow the angry vinegar to spill into the mellow milk. In other words, keep your milk and vinegar separate, otherwise you get fouled up milk, and useless vinegar.
Anger has its place though. When we have it under control, it protects us from re-immersing ourselves in situations that run counter to our instinct for self-preservation.
But I am not writing this in order to share my rage with strangers on the Internet. I am writing this, in hopes that my parents, and people like them see it, and do what it takes to stop causing themselves and their adult children, endless amounts of suffering.
By the way, the sequel to this article discusses the steps that adult offspring of estranged parents can take, to repair strained family ties.
Even if in the end, there is no way that my parents will ever own up to their mistakes, I am also hoping that any parents who have kids who just can't deal with them anymore will read what I have to say, and maybe think things through a bit more, and rebuild a bridge that has been disabled with the emotional equivalent of dynamite.
First: Form an honest theory about why your kid wants you out of his or her life
Why did your kid say "I want you out of my life" and slam the door on you?
Could these be the reasons?
- You have drug and alcohol habits that make your behavior unpredictable, abusive or overly flamboyant.
- You are a narcissist, meaning that you think that your needs are more important than anybody else's, and that you are special.
- You are codependent and your codependency is a real headache for everybody, including yourself.
- Your kids are spoiled and selfish products of the "me generation" and they don't respect their elders.
- Your kids have a recognizable, verifiable and diagnosed/diagnosable personality disorders, mental illness, substance abuse problems, etc.
- You guys just don't get along. Your "chemistry" is awful.
- There is a history of abuse there, that you either have or have not owned up to.
- You grew apart and you don't like who your kids are, so you try to shape them and mold them to your liking.
- Your behavior is controlling, meddlesome, disrespectful and/or just plain obnoxious, without the substance abuse issues, or mental health problems, etc.
- Your kids' behavior is obnoxious and loathsome, and you and your spouse are not the only ones who think so.
- You are overly critical, controlling, judgmental, intolerant and/or unaccepting of either your kids or their significant others.
- You view your privileges as entitlements, and take people's kindness for granted.
- You haven't mastered controlling your impulses to do finishing touches on parenting.
- You dole out "advice" that makes your kids cringe and stresses out their significant others.
- You don't listen, but you insist that your kids listen to you.
- You always have to have the upper hand. Even if you are absolutely totally and positively wrong.
- You have stolen from your kids.
- You remarried and your kids never accepted your spouse.
- You divorced and they never accepted the custodial arrangements.
- You look down on their lifestyle, achievements, choice of partner, etc.
- etc, etc, etc.
If you have an adult child who thrives in the role of "drama queen" in his or her life outside of your circle, the problem might not be you. The common denominator might be him or her, and that is a different kettle of fish.
Truth be told, dismissing a parent is painful from the standpoint of the adult child. S/he stands to lose material support and friendship with her parents, AND the extended family. S/he either loses spending holidays with the relatives who think her mom and dad are "great" and have no reservations about expressing it, or loses his or her dignity and decorum expressing all the ways that her parents aren't as "great" as they let on.
Normal, sane and rational people do not like to upset the applecart, especially and even more so, if they have family and work responsibilities of their own. It is a real pain in the padoodie to explain to small children why they aren't seeing Grandma anymore, and why Aunt Tilly isn't coming to their birthday party. The anxiety that they will lose your financial help is also there. And the guilt is overwhelming.
"Is having an obnoxious grandma in their life better or worse than having no grandma at all?" "Do we keep ties with Dad for the sake of their financial future? Are we actually robbing THEM of a more stable financial future?"
Why would they choose a very uncomfortable path, which is booting their one and only mother or father, with all of the accessories and adornments that you have to offer, out of their life?
Ask yourself why s/he would make that sacrifice. What are you doing to make his or her life worse, when you are in it? If your son or daughter is sane and rational, s/he did a cost-benefit analysis and continues to do so.
Second: If you truly do not know, ask him or her
Chances are, your son or daughter have given you ample warning.
Perhaps s/he has verbalized his or her frustration: "I don't like it when you say/do that."
Perhaps s/he has dropped some serious hints, by not returning your phone calls, or telling you in plain English that s/he finds you rude and frustrating and disrespectful.
Were you listening? Did you change your behavior to meet your son or daughter at his or her level? I can promise you, that even if it doesn't seem like it, your son or daughter has all but bent over backwards to please you.
Did you express your appreciation for the gesture?
Or did you criticize?
If you truly have absolutely no idea as to why and how this door-slamming happened, you should ask your son or daughter about what precipitated it.
But here is my advice:
Be prepared to accept the answer.
I know that it is hard. Pride and vanity are deadly sins for a reason. They are deadly because they lead to failed human relationships and ultimately, a deadened and dull relationship with God. I am not saying that to be a jerk or be preachy or whatever bad thing you may think. It is hard for people to own up their faults, especially if they perceive that they lose the upper-hand, power, or at least the illusion of it. It is hard to relinquish control that one thinks they have, and admit to a state of powerlessness, fault and loss.
It is frankly easier to think that your kids are rude, disrespectful, entitled brats, even if nobody else perceives them as such.
If you truly do not know why your son or daughter has estranged you, I suggest that you look for answers, but be prepared to listen without judgment or correction or "parenting" the estranger, or his or her messenger. (Try not to use an intermediary, it is not fair to your other kids, or your own siblings, etc.)
If you do attempt to "guide" your adult child's thinking or perception, or suggest that s/he has a mental health problem and s/he needs therapy, or that this boils down to HIS OR HER arrogance and/or disrespect for you, you can count on missing more Christmases, grand-children's birthdays, graduations, Mother's Days, etc.
As painful as it is, listen to the answer and if you want this person in your life, be prepared to make some changes in your attitude.
Younger people often admire older generations.
Third: Eliminate any and all prejudices about how "the younger generation" is spoiled, ungrateful, uncaring, selfish, etc.
Just do ...
I have met 10 year olds who are kind, altruistic, thoughtful, respectful, generous and God-fearing. You could leave them in your home for a weekend house-sitting. A child like this might spontaneously spend his allowance money on an ice-cream for grandpa.
I have also interacted with some people in their '70's, '80's and '90's who are rude, obnoxious, entitled jerks who play mind-games, utter abusive jabs at a captive and helpless audience and whine about the consequences like overgrown 4 year olds. In fact, I have done more than simply interact with them. Like many others, I have had to wait on them hand and foot, listen to their gossip and slander, and reassure them that they have boundless wisdom and insight, all out of duty, of course.
So attributing your kids' lack of desire to be around you on the fact that they are Generation X, Y or Z just isn't going to work. It is a theory with absolutely 0 supporting evidence.
If you do choose to analyze this problem from a generational angle, it is more productive to understand that every generation has different boundaries and different expectations of others. Times change and people evolve, for better or for worse.
Please don't take this issue of generations as an accusation or an assumption about you. In fact if this entire Modus Operandi doesn't not apply to you, just skip it. Not even worth another glance. But I have noticed this human tendency:
When people don't get the respect, attention or treatment to which they feel entitled (subjective by the way) they tend to attribute it to the "youthfulness" or to the "generation" of the perceived offender. Sometimes they are genuine victims of foul behavior, sometimes it is reciprocal, rarely is it due to a general problem with kids these days.
The decade in which we came of age can indeed inform Ideas of what our "duties" and "obligations" are, and what they aren't.
If you just let your kids have it, counting on them coming around because of their sense of duty to you, you miscalculated if you are an estranged parent.
I certainly can not speak for all of Gen X.
And I also can't project into the collective conscience of the Baby Boomer generation.
But I can tell you this: Even if you took abuse from your own parents, and came around every weekend for more, like a loyal Irish Setter, why would you count on being able to take the same liberties with the next generation?
I would like to ask my own parents this question:
Does this particular social contract have a dotted line, where your kids signed their name? Was there a clause in our birth certificates stating that you our parents can just simply unload on us, and that we will be dutiful daughters and sons and take it no matter what?
If this does not apply to you in the least, please accept my apologies. I am simply an observer, or what you could call a "participant observer" and I am just throwing ideas out there that might help you in your journey.
And yes I am well aware of the 10 Commandments, and unless you and your kids are some kind of militant atheists you are probably familiar with them. But some atheist and agnostic parents (like my own) will conveniently hold their kids to the Fifth Commandment.
You could argue that different generations read the Bible differently. There is a strong possibility that a person like me, born in the 1970s has a less 'authoritarian' and obligation-driven reading of the Bible than somebody born in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. But that claim is flimsy at best.
There are many ways to honor your mother and father that don't involve coming around for more tense, abusive, miserable or downright obnoxious interaction. In my case honoring my mother and father involves not allowing them to behave dishonorably. If they have no contact with me, they can't sin by saying things that grind me into the ground psychologically and wear out every fiber of my being.
So yes perhaps I am a product of these times in my unwillingness to bend over and take it, but to attribute your son or daughter's fear of your behavior to his or her age, station in life or generation is a false explanation that conveniently overshadows the type of soul searching necessary to come to a respectful understanding with him or her.
Fourth: jog your memory and recover some of the memories lost due to selective amnesia
Many parents are estranged, because they simply do not own up to their mistakes. In fact, they push the blame on their kids saying that somehow they deserved it or they made them do it. Much of it actually goes down the abusive parent's memory hole.
Many of you might be "good" parents who are somehow victims. I won't deny that.
Most people are probably what you could call "good enough" parents. In fact, "good enough" seems to describe the vast majority of the parents I have ever known, at least from a casual glance.
Perhaps you made a mistake or two down the road, but if your kids are like anybody else they can forgive the small stuff and move on with their lives. A reasonable adult, related to you or not, realizes that everybody makes mistakes and their parents are also human.
Normal people don't enjoy spending their lives tangled up in senseless drama over some isolated past incident, because truth be told, negativity and hostility diminishes their own quality of life and productivity.
Although you could argue that we all have our "moments" when our behavior slips into the zone of being "abusive," the majority of parents are not perennial abusers. Normal and sane people realize when they have crossed that line, and make changes in their own lives and routines, such as getting more sleep, putting the kids down for a nap, drinking less boozahol, avoiding triggers that lead to reprimands and spankings, etc. Normal people want to avoid inflicting trauma on their family members, and do just about anything to prevent it from developing in the first place. Although most people are NOT like this, some people are sadistic and thrive only when they cause pain to those they perceive as weaker than they are.
When the topic of toxic parenting comes up, it does not refer to bumps in the road that characterize human relationships. These are patterns of unhealthy behavior, and the abuser's blatant denial of them has been referred to as "selective amnesia."
When the same garbage perpetuates itself year in, year out, decade to decade, it gets a bit tiring for the recipient who would like to break away from it but can not, because his or her aging parents continue to be the source of these unhealthy family dynamics. Frankly, the idea that people should come around and continue to appease their abusers, is sickening. Family members might make excuses for the abusers, and the victims of abuse are supposed to accept it, out of "honoring their parents" and "forgiveness" and "keeping the peace."
When called out on abuse ... past or present, the abuser will be horrified!:
"What? That never happened. How dare you accuse me? I never did that, you are delusional and you have some serious issues."
If you jog your memory, can you recover some instances like these?:
Recall any promises you made that you did not keep?
How about the times when your kids really wanted something like . . . the car or a ride for a brief errand, and you just stared at him or her and said "no" and the car sat in the driveway all afternoon while your teenager fidgeted and squirmed in helpless frustration?
How about all those times where you used "discipline" as an excuse to unload your anger and frustration on your four year old child's bare buttocks ...Yeah, you know. I am sure s/he was a very bad boy or girl, especially when you were in a bad mood. Then somehow s/he became worse. Does this sound familiar?
You know ... the time when you yelled at your kid when s/he called you out on your hypocrisy, and you said "because I am your mother/father that's why" and you KNEW damn well that that is not an adequate reason but chose a show of power and might, instead.
Or the instances when you threw out your son's or daughter's stuff, either accidentally or on purpose, and didn't apologize for it or even acknowledge your guilt?
Or the times when as a demonstration of your power and control, imposed a tighter curfew, narrower clothing allowance, etc.
How about not taking him or her to the doctor when s/he needed to go? Or denying nutrition and/or hydration?
Or the verbal denigration of family members that your kids held dear ... Did that happen?
How about yelling and screaming at a terrified and helpless small child, simply because it was cathartic for you.
Perhaps your daughter looked you in the eye and told you how unhappy she was, only to be stared at blankly, or corrected or experience denied.
Do you respect your adult child's identity and choices? Any comments about your kid's partner? S/he is a loser, a jerk, not good enough, s/he is wasting your time? How about your kid's choice of location, lifestyle, hobbies, careers? S/he is not living his or her life in a way that pleases you, right?
- etc. etc.
Although not all estranged parents are abusive, incidents like these have conveniently slipped the minds of many of them who are. They forgot, or it never happened, or their kids are delusional.
If you want to rebuild a bridge with your son or daughter, get over the amnesia and own up to your mistakes and quit blaming others for them ... especially those upon whom your mistakes were inflicted. You might be surprised at how much a heart-felt apology will change your relationship with your son or daughter, for the better.
In fact, if you are an abuser, and your child is a victim, perhaps an apology and a changing of your ways is all it takes.
Some so-called "victims" might indeed be delusional.
Aaahhh but delusions can not be independently verified, such as by a third party, such as the victim's siblings, partners, and friends who watched the entire show.
Can delusions be collectively experienced?
And by the way, these general behavior patterns don't describe you in the least, you really SHOULD ask why on earth your daughter or son does not want you in her or his life.
Like I said earlier, most people have, at one point or another "gone too far" ... I am not talking about that.
Sometimes people have misunderstandings or they are over-sensitive or whatever. Find out what went wrong.
But my advice: if you don't agree with his or her point of view, just agree to disagree acknowledging that two people can see the same thing, in two radically different ways. There is no need to "gaslight" your kid and act like s/he has a mental problem, unless you are indeed abusive.
See where I am going?
Fifth: What do you expect from him or her? Why do you expect this?
Seriously ... what exactly do you want?
Make a cold hard calculation about your chances of getting it.
What do you expect from your son or daughter and why do you expect it?
What are you willing to give in return? How are you planning on communicating your intention to reciprocate?
Sixth: Take a hard look in the mirror. And by that, I mean a very hard look. And by all means, remove your makeup and designer clothing
Look at yourself the way God sees you. You can't fool God. He sees through the distinguished ascot, the $80 hairdo, the botox, tooth whitener, etc. He also sees through the "approachable-casual" look, and the "successful nice guy" demeanor. Park your $40,000 car down the street. It might make you look sexy and powerful, but the real issue is if this will improve your relationship with your son or daughter.
Your kids certainly aren't God, but they can see through your artifice because they know you quite well indeed. Certainly God knows you even better, and when it comes time to fold your tent, this will either work to your advantage or disadvantage.
You aren't being singled out: every human being on this planet has a facade they project.
When you do your thorough self-examination, go ahead and remove your higher-education diplomas and the "something of the year" and the "top this or that" awards from the wall. While you are at it put the resume or CV in the drawer because it will not be of any use to you in reestablishing your relationship with your son or daughter because it is not what caused the rupture in the first place and it will not be what repairs it. Save all of that stuff for a job interview or for somebody who cares about those things.
But by all means, put on your glasses when you look at yourself in the mirror. The clearer you see yourself and your situation, the better it will be for your relationship with your kids.
And don't get distracted. Nobody ever slammed the door on their parents, because they couldn't stand their wrinkles or double chin. That is NOT where I am going.
Do an examination of conscience: Why do you want to rekindle this relationship?
Well ... why?
I am putting an "X" after the reasons that will only further alienate your son or daughter. That "X" is symbolic of the impact of a hammer, banging the last few nails in the coffin.
Yes, what I am writing seems very harsh. But if you want to reconcile yourself with your son or daughter who has shut the door on you, it is important to examine your motivations for reconnecting. If your motivations favor you, at your child's expense, s/he will sense that one from a mile away because trust me, his or her senses are probably on high alert for that kind of thing.
I realize that many of these seem reasonable and perfectly benign from the standpoint of a person who has been in the parent role for the past 30, 40 or 50 years, but they aren't. What they all have in common is the aging parent imposing his or her will on his or her adult offspring. Every single one of these motivations thrusts a grown-up into the role of your dependent child, against his or her will, despite the fact that s/he is fully immersed in the world of adult responsibility. It is especially obnoxious if at the same time, s/he is detangling emotionally and even medically from what was the toxic relationship in the first place. It is an insidious position to be in, really.
- Is it because you want to be "right?" X
- Is it because you are her father and you are important, or have the "right" to his or her attention/adoration/respect? X
- Is it because she is cruel for denying you access to your grandchildren? X
Is it because you helped create him and he is a part of you and you are a part of him? X
- Is it because it is the right thing to do? X
Is it because you want to do finishing touches on parenting? X
- Is it because you feel that your son or daughter "needs you?" X
- Is it because you want him or her bright face, beaming on you around the Holidays? XXX
- Is it because you are worried about him or her? X
- Is it because you are sad and need a friend? X
Is it because your family feels "incomplete?" XXX
- Is it because your kid has a lot of problems and needs your "help?" XX ... make it XXXXX
- Is it because you are invested in his or her life? XXX
- Is it because her life is part of your life? XXXXX
My advice: think through your reasons very carefully. I wouldn't go into it with some sort of vague urge, or impulse or "instinct" because chances are your son or daughter will see your intention even if you don't. OR s/he might read ill-intent into it, especially if s/he has a hair trigger and frankly some of us do.
I am not going to tell you what I would consider to noble reasons for my own parents wanting to rekindle this relationship. That would deny them the opportunity to find it in their own hearts. Also if I tell you what *I* would want to see and hear, that would give you a script that could be a cover for selfish intent.
Do another examination of conscience: How would your relationship look, if you stood in her shoes?
Just something to think about. Be honest ... would you appreciate the kind of "advice" that you dole out to your son or daughter?
How would you feel, if s/he expressed his or her "concerns" about you, in the way you express them about him or her?
Just food for thought.
What do you have to offer your son or daughter in return?
If you say "money" I say tomah-to.
Actually, money might be a factor. I won't lie to you. But clearly your son or daughter's soul is not for sale.
Is there anything else?
You have a lot of competition out there. Your kids have a lot of demands on their time. Most likely work and their own family commitments.
Do you have love to offer?
How about showing it, expressing it, and acting like you love him or her?
That might be a step in the right direction. Maybe a bit of acceptance, tenderness, forgiveness ... that kind of stuff.
From the standpoint of an estranger, I will tell you that no friend or spouse or child can take the place of your own parent. You have a role in your adult child's life and if your kid is normal, s/he wants it filled by an empathetic, humble and loving parent.
What are you willing to give up in order to reunite with him or her?
This is something to think about.
What sacrifices are you willing to quietly make?
But better yet ... what are you NOT willing to give up?
I would conclude by saying that perhaps the person, place or thing in your life that you are NOT willing to give up, is the reason for the estrangement.
All of this is rampant speculation and I am just throwing ideas out there, hopefully they help somebody.
The sequel to this article is a piece offering advice to adult sons and daughters who wish to rekindle relationships with their estranged parents or at least might be thinking of it.
Although I might seem hard-headed as a hammer-head shark and as airtight as a zip-lock bag (and I admit, I actually am those things) I also recognize that human relationships are about compromise. Compromise though does not mean one person dumping his or her baggage into the lap of another and telling him or her to deal with it or "suck it up" all the while treating them like a chump.
Basically my entire point here, is that estranged parents should own up to the facts on why their kids want them out of their lives, take responsibility for it, and make the necessary changes if they wish to have a relationship with their offspring.
But the other side of it is that the son and/or daughter need to understand that their parents have human limitations and once the parents have atoned for whatever they could atone for, they need to let their parents be themselves too and not be so damn sensitive about every little thing. Also, it is possible to change but I will suggest to the estrangers that they curb their expectations a bit and set goals that they and their parents can reasonably accomplish.
Every family is different: in my own case I can't change the internal wiring of my parents. I can not change the fact that they don't love me enough to change their behavior or their fundamental disdain for me. If somebody can write an inspiring and convincing article on how and why alienated daughters and sons should desensitize themselves to pain and accept the status quo, please, by all means, link it in the comments section.
In the meantime, I wish everybody luck and blessings and I do believe that if people want that change enough, they can make it happen.