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10 Common Mistakes Therapists Make With Estranged Parents

Psychology Today, May 30, 2020

Therapists can make matters worse when counseling estranged parents.

  1. Blaming the parent. While it’s potentially forgivable that the general populace doesn’t yet know that a decent and dedicated parent can become estranged, there’s no excuse for a therapist failing to know that. Many therapists, without evidence, assume that the parent is the primary cause of an estrangement and as a result, perpetuate feelings of shame and guilt.

  2. Not helping the parent acknowledge the legitimate complaints of the adult child. On the other hand, some therapists believe that it’s their job to support the parent no matter how problematic their behavior. In doing so, they fail to challenge the parent’s behavior that either led to the estrangement or continues to perpetuate it.

  3. Giving bad advice. It’s not uncommon for therapists to encourage estranged parents to be overly assertive or confrontive with their estranged adult children. This advice imagines that the parent has more power and influence than they commonly do once an estrangement is in place. Therapists with this orientation fail to recognize that being more assertive and confrontive with an estranged adult child typically worsens, rather than betters the parent’s situation. It causes the adult child to feel hurt or misunderstood and to further their resolve to keep their distance.

  4. Failing to understand the power of a letter of amends to the estranged adult child. The road to a potential reconciliation almost always starts with the parent’s acknowledgment of their past mistakes, however small. Therapists who don’t help their clients find the kernel of truth in the estranged child’s complaints miss a critical and often necessary opportunity for repair.

  5. Being too reassuring. It’s common that not only friends but therapists are overly reassuring about the chance for a future reconciliation: “They’ll be back;” “They’ll remember all that you’ve done for them;” “It’s just a phase.” While sometimes those predictions are accurate, no one knows for sure if or when an estrangement will end. False reassurance is no assurance at all. Better to help the client practice radical acceptance and self-compassion.

  6. Failing to take an adequate history of the parent and their estranged child. It’s inappropriate to give advice to an estranged parent without first getting a detailed developmental history of the parent and of the now-grown child. Otherwise, a therapist wouldn’t be able to determine the influence of parental mistakes or the influence of long-standing issues in the child such as learning disabilities, mental illness, addiction, or other challenges.

  7. Failing to understand the power of a motivated son-in-law or daughter-in-law. The troubled spouse of an adult child can create an estrangement where one wouldn’t ordinarily exist by saying, “Choose them or me."

  8. Failing to understand the long-term impact and damage of parental alienation. Parental alienation often begins when children are young, though alienation can occur at any age. Either way, research shows that the damage may be lifelong to both the targeted parent and the alienated child. Therapists who are unfamiliar with these realities may damage the self-esteem of their clients and fail to provide them with an accurate understanding of the etiology of the problems. In addition, they may provide strategies and interventions that are counter to what is likely to increase the chance of a reconciliation. 

  9. Being unwilling to interview people related to the estrangement.Sometimes a 360-degree view is required before the right intervention is discovered. This may mean interviewing aunts, uncles, grandparents, or even ex-spouses to determine what steps need to be put in place to maximize the chance of a potential reconciliation.

  10. Not being willing to reach out to the estranged adult child. While the estranged child may be unwilling to talk to the parent, they are often willing to provide the parent’s therapist with information about their perspective that can prove critical to a potential reconciliation.

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