En español | Your daughter, now in her 30s, stopped talking to you after you and she had words over finances, a good 10 years ago. You've reached out to her several times since the dispute, eager to mend fences and get your relationship back on track. But your voice mails have not been returned. You feel heartbroken, angry and helpless.
Sheri McGregor can relate to the feeling of sadness and desperation.
"I never imagined that my own child could reject me,” says the author of Done With the Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children. “Yet, one of my five children cut ties with me and his entire family. It's emotionally devastating and something no loving parent expects or is prepared for."
Experts agree that there seems to be an increase in separations between adult children and one or both of their parents. One survey of more than 800 British adults who self-identify as partly or fully estranged from one or both parents found that it's more often the adult child who initiates the separation. The study reported that more daughters than sons initiate breakups. Further, more mothers than fathers are estranged from their adult kids. Estrangement from fathers, however, lasts longer: an average of 7.9 years, compared with 5.5 years from mothers.
While the survey found that a sizable majority of adult kids don't expect reconciliation, some parents see glimmers of hope and believe that, with the right approach, they can find a way back into the relationship. But there are right ways and wrong ways to handle a possible reconciliation.
You are not alone
McGregor took an assertive approach in her own situation. After the break with her son, she became tired of “being sad all the time” and looking for support but finding none. A certified life coach with a master's in human behavior, she launched a website for parents estranged from their adult children, RejectedParents.net. It now attracts 60,000 to 70,000 visitors per month, spiking at the holidays, she says. When McGregor observed how many parents were struggling with estrangement, she opened a moderated peer-support forum, which currently boasts more than 8,100 members.
8 Dos and Don'ts of Reconciliation
- Do handwrite a note or leave a brief voice mail.
- Do approach the situation lightly.
- Do reach out infrequently but authentically.
- Do apologize.
- Don't text or email.
- Don't get into a big explanation.
- Don't allow silence to take over.
- Don't plead your case.
There are as many reasons as there are stories for these breakups. The website We Have Kids lists a few common ones: conflict with the child's partner, resentment over parents’ divorce, an adult child's difficulties with how her parents are grandparenting, longtime parental lack of nurturing, or boundary-breaking behavior. Sometimes there's been an episode that causes a break; other times, and more likely, long-simmering issues are triggered by a smaller concern.
Don't rehash the past
Experts in family dynamics recommend specific ways to reach out as well as what to avoid doing. Bonnie Cushing, a clinical social worker in Montclair, New Jersey, who counsels families as part of her practice, advises parents not to text or email their estranged child, but “a hand-written note is a beautiful way to initiate reconciliation.” If a note is not your style, then leave a brief message on your child's voice mail. Stay simple: Don't get into the whys and wherefores of the situation. Just say that you're interested in reconnecting and ask if he is ready.
Cushing observes that sometimes when parents try to bridge the gap, they come on too strong, explain too much or assert their own version of the breakup story. Often the adult child gets the sense that the attempts at reaching out are all about healing the parent, Cushing says. Bringing the grandchildren into the conversation is another nonstarter that muddies the waters. “Again, it makes it seem like it's all about the parent and their needs,” she says. “It's better to switch the focus, where the parent [takes some responsibility]."
Keep the door open
But if you're not sure when or if you'll get an opening for an apology, at the very least you can bridge the gap, with no strings attached. Rather than “allow the silence to seep in, you can maintain a respectful connection with infrequent but authentic reach-outs,” Cushing says. This tells your child that “as long as I'm alive, we're connected.” While you may not reconnect in the way you'd like, you've demonstrated that you care.
Estranged siblings and friends should heed the same advice. Unless there has been serious abuse, physical or otherwise, an effort toward reconnection of some sort is often advised. Petty grievances should not be allowed to prevent reconciliation once there has been a cooling-off period.
Set realistic expectations
All parents make mistakes, McGregor says. “Most adults, including parents of estranged adult children, can identify things we thought our own parents didn't handle well or things we planned to do differently with our own children.” At the same time, keep your own needs in mind. “Sometimes I hear from parents who say they'd do anything to have their son or daughter back,” she says. “That attitude isn't healthy because it sets up an inequitable relationship."
In reaching out, you'd do well to lower your expectations. McGregor warns not to assume there will be a positive change. “Too often, parents receive a text, reply to it and then hear nothing more. If they try to arrange a meeting, it may be ignored.” In fact, the British study reported the crushing statistic that more than 70 percent of adult kids say they don't expect or plan on a reconciliation. Sometimes “giving in to an adult child's decision is the only sensible choice,” McGregor says.
The fact is, any reconciliation will take effort, patience and strength. Instead of pinning all your hopes on a potential text, “don't let the estrangement define you or your life,” she advises. “Help yourself now and you'll be better prepared if or when a reconciliation comes about.” McGregor recommends refocusing your attention on yourself and your family outside of the estranged child, reaching out to others and taking an active hand in shaping your future.
“One golden rule,” says Cushing, “is based on the principle that a cutoff is not really a cutoff unless both parties co-sign on it.”