Communicating with Estranged Adult Child: Why Do I Have to Hold Back?

Dear Dr. Coleman,

Re: your book, When Parents Hurt: “Would love to hear more about why we have to not argue, not demand of our kids, not tell them our feelings. I am willing to do it, and it does help, but I would love to hear more about that whole way of thinking. Thanks again for writing the book.

Dear Reader,

I get asked this question a lot and it’s an important one. I recommend this to parents who have been estranged from their adult children because I think it’s critical that they keep the door open long enough so that one day they can have a more mutual relationship. But, if things have gotten so bad that there’s been an estrangement (or it’s on the verge of one), it means that you don’t have the luxury of a mutual relationship in the way that you might with a non-estranged adult child. With the non-estranged, there would be plenty of room for both of you to talk about your feelings and even have more open conflict because the whole basis for the relationship is not on the chopping block. With an estranged child, you have to create the conditions where some time, maybe years later down the line, there’s enough goodwill for your child to either see you more clearly or accept your perspective. If they’re estranged, they’re probably not yet ready to hear your perspective. It may make them turn away because it makes them feel too guilty; they may think that you’re defending yourself for something that they just want you (wrongly or rightly) to take responsibility for. They may feel (wrongly or rightly) like you’re blaming them for their feelings.

This isn’t fair, of course. I know that. But I’m a pragmatist when it comes to families. We have to start with where the 2 of you are right now, not from where it should be.

You can’t be demanding because you don’t have that much power. It’s a little like a marriage where one person has a foot out the door and is willing to divorce. The person who doesn’t want the marriage to end doesn’t have the same power to make demands as the one who is okay with it ending. I know this is very hard to do, but it’s a good thing to do, nonetheless.

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  1. Susan
    Posted May 11, 2015 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    I read a transcript of a webinar re: the 6 mistakes parents of estranged adult children make. We aren’t allowed to express our feelings, ask them why, or anything else that may “make” them feel guilty. Apparently, when we “make” them feel guilty it pushes them away further. Why don’t counselors, therapists, or the myriad of other mental health professionals tell them that the reason they feel guilt or shame is because they are doing something wrong and if they don’t want to feel those feelings maybe they should stop doing what they are doing!

  2. Bubbles
    Posted May 7, 2015 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Dear Waterofmaple,

    I just came to this sits to gain some insight and support as I have an estranged son myself. I find your tirades toward the Mariam and Mel completely out of line. Your comments are cruel and accusatory. I am unfamiliar with the protocol of blogs, however it was my understanding that the purpose of this one was to help parents heal themselves and their relationships with their adult children. Your comments are far from supportive or healing. I think you owe these ladies an apology. Of course, I am sure that there is not one forthcoming. Perhaps you should join a “parent’s hater” blog. Your insights might be better suited there.

  3. waterofmaple
    Posted April 17, 2015 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Apologize? What, actually admit and show remorse for hurting another person?
    Too much work, right?

    Banish them!

  4. waterofmaple
    Posted April 17, 2015 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mel,

    Did your son literally say he wants you to “beg for his forgiveness?” Is that really the issue or do you just FEEL that way. Do you wish that’s what he wanted (to have you kneel and beg forgiveness like he’s a King) because that would be laughably weird, and it lets you off the hook and makes him look ridiculous, doesn’t it?

    Could it be that you are uncomfortable admitting fault and are twisting your son’s concerns into something they’re not in order to avoid facing the actual legitimate concern and hurt?

    Don’t be afraid of admitting fault to your child. They will respect you for it. They see you being honorable enough to own up to missteps. It takes courage. It makes them feel safe.

    Deliberately misinterpreting what they want from you, rejecting their hurt/concerns is a mistake. It only frustrates and baffles them (because as your children they believe you are good, responsible, love them, etc) and it shows cowardice and selfishness. You’re reaction doesn’t jibe with their perception of you. They expected you to be a big person and own it. Saying “sorry” without acknowledging what you’re sorry for is no apology. It is a shucking of responsibility and pain right back onto your child.

    That’s why your child pushes back against your resistance to own how you’ve affected them. They actually believe you care about them, about the truth, about integrity. And it doesn’t make sense with their perception of you that you would prefer to continue to hurt them by denying, refusing responsibility for how you’ve affected them.

    They think too highly of you to let you get away with it.

    When they’ve stopped expecting you to apologize is when they’ve truly stopping thinking so highly of you.

    By that time they know you are someone who isn’t honest, with them or themselves, isn’t honorable enough to do whats right. Doesn’t care. They know you are happy to hurt them in order to be happy with yourselves. Some people aren’t capable of looking beyond themselves with empathy toward others. For some people it truly is all about ME, ME, ME. Some people are more concerned about how their perceived, even at the cost of their child’s well being. It’s rare, but it does happen. It will take a long time for a child to realize that about a parent though. Children idealize their parents, even when there’s no reason to.

    • Susan
      Posted May 7, 2015 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

      My 28 yr. old son sent me a lot of cryptic messages, and left me to try to sort it out. In one of his comments he says an apology won’t fix things, but complains I haven’t apologized. I told him I was sorry for any harm I caused him growing up. I didn’t guilt him, justify or excuse my behavior. It didn’t matter. What I don’t understand is why he thinks that treating me this way will help. It is so damaging, to both of us. If he was not my son I would not accept his behavior. He is hurting me on purpose for mistakes I made accidentally.

  5. Mel
    Posted April 2, 2015 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    My estranged 21 year old son wants me to beg forgiveness and take entire responsibility for ruining his life. I’ve told him I accept responsibility for a lot, and that I’m sorry, but he wants more. I’m afraid that if I apologise for everything to do with the divorce, it’s like pleading guilty. He may then always believe it was all my fault.

    • mariam
      Posted April 6, 2015 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

      I am going through the same thing, except that I am 68 and my son is 47, and I just found out in November that he has not forgiven me for – whatever it is he thinks I did. I have apologized many times for the mistakes I know I made, but it’s never enough. I believe in his case he wants someone to blame. He will not blame my abusive and addicted ex-husband, maybe because they are both men? I definitely got that feeling when he was shouting at me and accusing me of things that did not happen. Maybe his father told him lies about me, because that’s how he is. He taught my son to shoplift when he was 8. I did not know about this until 3 years ago. I always thought my son and I had a good relationship, but last November I found he has been harboring hatred and resentment toward me all these years, while pretending to love me. This scene was precipitated by his father having a stroke and my son drinking. My son calls me almost every week to say hello, and yet a tone often creeps into his voice that is very dismissive and disrespectful. There is nothing I can do. I have completely changed my life around, and my present husband and I have been happily married for 27 years, but his father has not changed. A couple of years ago, he went to a store with my son and shoplifted a pair of earrings for my son to give to his wife. And my son did! Nevertheless, he seems to love his father more. He will not accept that ALL the problems in our marriage started with his father’s behavior. My responses were not good either. But my son sees everything as my fault. He in a way is a coward as he strings me along with pretend love. If he ever confronts me again though, I am ready to tell him that I know he has been hurt, but he’s 47 now and it’s time for him to let go of the things that hurt him. I can’t do it for him. If he continues to blame me and can’t “forgive” me, so be it. It’s like a death. I’ve lost my son, if I ever had him. I feel for you. My advice is to stop apologizing at this point and if he starts to verbally abuse you, create a pregnant silence and change the subject. What else can you do.

      • waterofmaple
        Posted April 17, 2015 at 4:40 pm | Permalink


        What you can do is take responsibility for your actions. That is all your son needs to forgive you. And for the estrangement to end. It is also what any healthy adult is expected to do.

        You have wrote at great length and detail about your son’s failings; and pinned all of the blame for that on your ex-husband and your son.

        You have attacked the character of your ex-husband, clearly a long standing pattern of yours. Fine. Maybe he was a lousy parent and a poor influence on your son.

        However, what’s really telling is how you were fine with your son up until he asked you to acknowledge your dysfunctional behaviors. Suddenly you turn on him and start casting around for evidence in the past to make him look like a poor character (I guess making him out to be a bad character invalidates what he said about your bad behavior).

        I hope you see the twisted immaturity in that. It is a pathetic move to tell yourself a story that maligns your son simply because he had the integrity to broach a sensitive topic with you. Clearly, he knew communicating about a difficult issue with you would get a toxic reaction, as he waited all of his life to do so.

        By the way, his confronting you about hurtful behaviors you have done meant that he WANTED to have a relationship with you. This was your opportunity to communicate and make it better. For him to have bothered to try to communicate this with you showed he respected you enough to believe you had the integrity to be responsible for your own actions. Or at the very least, the maturity to acknowledge what he had to say. Yet you don’t seem capable of even affording him the respect to listen.

        Instead, you are so averse to perceiving any flaw in yourself you refuse to even HEAR what he wishes to communicate.

        The very first sentence in your post right away pops out that you have problems listening. You go to pathological lengths in order not to hear your son.

        “I just found out in November that he has not forgiven me for – whatever it is he thinks I did. ”

        LOL! Don’t you think you should KNOW what he thinks you did? Why not put some of that energy into LISTENING to his issue with you before you spout off into a frenzy of energy attacking his character, blaming and maligning him.

        By the way, it is YOU who is desperately casting about BLAME. That was what your whole post was about. No, I don’t think it is your son “just looking for someone to blame.” That clearly, is YOU. You are projecting your own motives onto your son. You are blaming. He merely wanted to talk about specific behaviors. Big difference. You are blaming everyone but yourself. Maligning everyone in a frenzy to avoid responsibility for what YOU have done. Your part in influencing your son I assure you was equally as dysfunctional as this ex husband you love to point the finger at. The proof is in your post. Your reaction to his attempt to communicate with you is twisted and immature. If you actually believe the things you’ve said, your thinking is twisted and immature as well.

        Please stop being so busy tarnishing everyone else. Pause. Listen (to your son). Then ONCE YOU’VE ACTUALLY LISTENED TO WHAT YOUR SON HAS TO SAY, maybe then you can deal with the reality before you. Everything you went on and on about was pure drivel from your ego. How can you go on and on like that about what he said when you haven’t even listened to the content of his words?

        Take your hands off your eyes and ears. Stop wailing like a little bratty toddler because someone MIGHT say something you don’t want to hear.

        Are you older than 2? Can you listen to what someone has to say about your behavior without bashing them and covering your ears?

        You have a very pathological reaction to your son’s attempt to communicate with you. Obviously this is a long standing pattern. Hence, the reason he held it in all these years for fear of your immature reaction.

        How sick that you prefer to bash his character, belittle him, bad mouth and blame him (and his father) rather than listen.
        You won’t even ALLOW him to communicate his issue (as evidenced by your total cluelessness as to what his issues with you are). You sensed something he had to say did not reflect well on you and WHAM time to close up the ears, start projecting all kinds of toxic talk to discredit him.

        Please seek therapy so that you are strong enough to be able to listen to your son. He clearly wanted to have a relationship with you. Just not a toxic one. A healthy one. You don’t even realize how toxic your behavior was to him as exhibited by your post alone. So I can only imagine how toxic your behavior was toward him during his lifetime.

        The good news is he wants a healthy relationship with you. He wouldn’t have tried to talk to you otherwise. But communication requires that you also LISTEN. That you not get so offended by what he might have to say that you preempt him, cut him off, and supply a dialogue with yourself that is twisted in truth. You son tried in vain to communicate with you. You just want to communicate with yourself.

        You are not psychic. Don’t label him as a pretender and faker of love. You’d rather believe he faked his devotion and love for you all these years because he dared to bring up your behaviors one time in November. Please. Talk about black white thinking. Very immature. Only toxic cluster B personality disorders do this. Please don’t blacken your son just because he had something to say you didn’t want to hear.

        It is sick that you would prefer estrangement rather than afford your son respect. Or the right to speak about something that has deeply and profoundly affected him.

        Sick, in the truest sense. I don’t wish to insult you. I am probably wasting my time trying to get you to understand the corner you’ve painted yourself into. But you did ask “What else can I do.”

        For starters Step 1–LISTENING to your son. Try it. Get therapy so that you are capable of doing step 1. Heal your fragile ego so that you are capable of truly listening without flailing into a tailspin of attack, attack, blame, blame. You may not realise this, but your son experiences this as frustrating and abusive. To force your son to deny reality so that your ego isn’t bruised is very, very toxic for your son. It drains his energy. It f#cks with his mind. Forgive the strong language but there is no other way to put it. And you seem like someone who needs a strong talking to in order for anything to get past that ego of yours and into your ears, mind, heart.

        Be proud of your son. He is on his way to recovering. He is moving toward healthy boundaries, and healthy relationships. No doubt he has had therapy to help him do this. Hence, his going no contact with you until you change your ways. Question is: will you follow his path to health?

        If he is truly healthy, he will permanently estrange from you if you do not change.

        The choice is simple. IF you want a healthy, normal relationship with your son–>seek therapy.

        IF it just feels better to malign his character and blame everyone else–>go ahead and let this relationship slip away.

        But don’t blame him for that. It was your choice.
        It was your actions that put this in motion.

        Don’t do like you’ve always done and blame somebody else for YOUR ACTIONS and YOUR CHOICES.

        Don’t tell yourself another story to make yourself feel better. What is it, power? validation? victory? self-pity? you feel when you bash him and others. Its all about how you feel, isn’t it? You may feel triumphant momentarily, but you twist the truth in order to achieve this. You also sacrifice your son.

        Don’t kid yourself. That is what you are doing. All because you can’t bear to hear the truth about yourself: you’re not perfect! SHOCKING! Outrageous, isn’t it? How dare the suggestion be implied! Off with your son’s head! What a Bad person he must be, to dare imply such a thing!

        Do you realize how immature that kind of attitude is? And to have it toward your own child??!!?

        Have you EVER cared about you child’s feelings? Has his welfare ever been of primary importance to you? Or is it just when he’s reflecting back to you the image you want of yourself? Are you capable of putting his well being above your ego at this late date? He was willing to believe you had the capacity. Why he would ever trust in communicating with you again, I don’t know. Maybe because you’re his parent and he has that blind faith that one day you’ll realize that too. A parent’s capacity to put their child’s needs ahead of their own ego. Definition of a parent. With a parent’s capacity to be mature. To be able to handle things without going OFF. You, be responsible. To have their best interests at heart.

        • Susan
          Posted May 7, 2015 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

          Dear Waterofmaple
          Maybe the son did not tell his mother what his issues were! I asked my son to tell me what was wrong, and he blocked our home and cell phone. I have tried to call from other phones, but he just hangs up. The messages we did get on facebook were very much about name-calling and insults, but not a lot of real substance. I think this happens a lot. People can only know what they know, they can’t know what they don’t know until someone tells them. Leave it up to the parents and we are lost and confused, as well as devastated.

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