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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767 Comments

  1. Gigi
    Posted June 6, 2015 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    I divorced when my boys were 7 and 2, they are now 35 and 30. As they were growing up, I worked 2-3 jobs when they were younger to provide vacations, ski trips, etc. As they grew older, I have been close to both until the oldest went off to college and after graduation married a young lady that grew up 6 hours from here. They ended up living in our city, but she is understandably closely connected to her home. My son spends many, many weekends with his Dad hunting or fishing and when I have him on the phone, I feel like he can’t get off fast enough. He usually doesn’t call me and we go weeks without talking. When he is with me he seems to be glad to see me, but doesn’t stay long. He makes me feel like I am only necessary for babysitting. I have called and asked him for lunch dates, and he is always busy. I have a fantastic relationship with my younger son and DIL. But funny part to this, his Dad ignored him and still does. Never asks him to go fishing or hunting like the older son. And the oldest son does things with his step brothers all the time and they don’t even include my younger son. He sometimes finds out about events afterwards or the day of, getting no or a last minute invite. I struggle with my pain for my younger son and for myself. It’s as if we are on the outside looking in. They even say they are doing something with “friends” and it is actually the stepbrother’s and their wives. Really?

  2. Helen
    Posted May 28, 2015 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Y borderline mother recently sic veneered in yet another suicide attempt. I was ingrained to love and put her first. She feared abandonment, but being hugely successful as (ironically) a psych prof, I only saw her during extended visits where we were much envied as the perfect mother & daughter (partly “narcissistic by proxy” and some other overlapping Dxs). Her three children, two grandchildren either were afraid of her chaos, physically ill (& she lacked maternal instinct -I was the mom), or downright abusive/dangerous. I’m reading a lot of lack of empathy, remorse, conscience & responsibility. If u want ur kids to love u, respect, behave, be responsible role models, and stop treating them like they have no rights or boundaries. If you taught them to use you or you lied to them, u have to look at yourselves first and get some perspective. If u haven’t done it yet, I bet ur kid stills wishes for real parents to idealize, but why am I wasting my time with you? You don’t want to change and your past behavior is the best predictor of the unfortunate lonely, disappointing contributed, stubborn life for which you only have yourselves to blame. Yes, some children grow up hateful and continue ur cycle & some just miss the parents they loved and finally realized weren’t who they thought and you blamed us for ur mistakes and faults even when we could please u to no end. So the day we woke up because you really stuck the knife in the last time, u alienated the person u feared would abandon u and u just got more controlling and critical and the person u both loved and hated the most was yourself all along. U wasted my time. Still, I’ll always love and be heartbroken by you. U all sound just like my mom and dad who passively went along with her. Go read Alice Miller & grow up. All children deserve loving parents but not all parents are all that loving (as they’d like to pretend) or even behave as parents, not all parents deserved to have children. Pls excuse any typos. It is hard for me to type and to see.

    • Helen
      Posted May 28, 2015 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

      That was my borderline personality disordered mother recently succeeded in her sixth suicide attempt. And you all say a lot of the same stuff she used to. I’m not at all diagnosing u. I’m just giving an extreme perspective from a grown daughter who actually loved her mom very much & couldn’t understand how kids could speak so
      Badly of their parents & still don’t, but I’m sensing it is because you taught them. Stop controlling them & get ahold of yourselves! I think u will be a lot happier when u are less interested in ur needs and finally hear theirs. They will be happier and like u more. Back off a bit & be the adult when they are ready and take it like a sport for the team. U aren’t always right just because you are older & it doesn’t give u a license to be unfair.

    • Never looked back
      Posted June 9, 2015 at 6:59 am | Permalink

      Try finding a common interest. Take up fly fishing, take some classes at the local Fish and Game Department. Plan a fly fishing excursion and include him in the planning. Maybe a hunting trip, you don’t even have to shoot anything, just go and play along. I’m sure he’d love to ‘teach’ his mom to hunt and fish. When you finally meet him on common ground, you will likely be amazed at how the communication will grow and so will some fond memories. At a minimum he will most certainly appreciate your effort to reach out to him.

      • Never looked back
        Posted June 9, 2015 at 7:00 am | Permalink

        Meant for Gigi

  3. Never looked back
    Posted May 27, 2015 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    My mother (her) had a fling in her youth and I was the by product. She married and had kids with her new husband. I was oblivious of the fact that I was not his son until a cousin told me. Shortly after my mother told me I had broken her heart because I sought to find out the truth…like I said, a cousin told me and come to find out everyone knew but me. Turns out that he had kids from another marriage and then brought them into the family. I was no longer the oldest son and the only one not really his kid. I acted like any other teenager and rebelled. My mother tried to guilt me with a continuous theme of ‘her’ suffering from child birth to going hungry so that I could eat, I was to be thankful for him putting a roof over my head. It backfired when I told her that if ‘I’ had a choice, I wouldn’t have been born and wished I was dead. The relationship with my step father was only that of fear of getting the belt. When I finally got bigger, the ‘fear’ relationship didn’t have it’s affect on me. He doted on his ‘real’ children quite generously. I left home at 16 and lived in the back of an car parked deep on a mountain road. I worked at a gas station and bought day old bread and peanut butter to eat. I put myself back in school and graduated, I refused to give my real name and where I came from so they just allowed me to attend under an assumed name. Luckily for me they weren’t overly interested in finding identities of runaway kids. I graduated and went into the army to get the GI bill and eventually went to college and have both a BS and MS in science. I’ve provided for myself since the age of 16 and have never depended on anyone else. About 15 years ago ‘they’ somehow found my address and showed up at my door acting like nothing had happened. I told them to go away and don’t come back. She was crying when they left and I didn’t care. They have their nuclear family and I was the odd one out, such is life. I’ve learned over the years that ‘they’ set all ‘their’ kids up with businesses and property. Good for ‘them’, I guess that’s what families do…take care of their own. It’s been 36 years since I set out on my own with a one way Amtrak ticket that was as far as $50 would take me and I’ve never looked back.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.

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