- Written by Kathy McCoy, Ph.D. Kathy McCoy, Ph.D.
Estrangement hurts every day of the year. But the pain can be particularly intense during the holidays with empty places at the holiday table, a phone that doesn’t ring, and unanswered texts.
And afterward, you’re left wondering, “Why?”
Many parents contend that they’ve been blindsided by estrangement, that there’s no reason for it. But, in fact, there’s always a reason. Sometimes it’s hard to see and accept.
Numerous studies have examined common triggers for estrangement with some surprising findings:
• Fathers are more likely to become estranged from their grown children as the result of divorce, either when the children were young or due to a late-in-life divorce.
• Mothers are more likely to become estranged from their adult sons and daughters due to giving unsolicited advice or having a clash in core values—particularly regarding religious beliefs or lifestyle choices.
• Parents and adult children are less likely to become estranged as the result of verbal arguments than they are from a conflict of needs: This is often the need of the adult child to be independent and in control of his life and the need of the parent to remain closely connected and, ultimately, in control.
This desire to stay close may increase with the parents’ age, coming at a time when adult children have increasing responsibilities for their own families and careers.
• Helping an adult child financially can actually increase the likelihood of estrangement. This can happen because financial help may be an expression of power between the generations.
Also, an adult child’s financial neediness can spark conflict with and sometimes between parents.
A good relationship in the growing-up years doesn’t guarantee you’ll never be estranged: Marriage and new in-laws can lead to conflict and estrangement.
Also, some forms of mental illness that can make relationships difficult do not appear in young adults until their 20s.
Whatever the reasons for your estrangement from an adult child, what can you do to heal the rift?
Healing the Rift
1. Be the first to reach out and say, “I’m sorry.” Even if you feel your adult child is to blame, realize that you may want to heal the rift more than your child does and so need to make the first conciliatory move—as hard as that may be.
2. Accept responsibility for your part in the current conflict or estrangement. Remember that the only behavior over which you truly have control is your own. Think of new ways to make a positive difference.
3. Practice letting go. Let go of old roles, the need to be right, and the need to have the last word. Respect your child’s independence and adult choices.
4. Learn to live with differences. Just because we’re related, doesn’t mean we’ll always have the same opinions and beliefs. Part of growing in love is learning to tolerate differences.
You may have a long wait if you expect your child to agree with you. If you put your love for your adult child first, before your beliefs, you may find your way back to each other.
5. Accept boundaries and limits now that your child is grown. Such acceptance can increase closeness. Don’t drop by without calling. Don’t give advice unless asked. Respect their independence while celebrating what you can and do share.
Healing Yourself When Estrangement Persists
1. Forgive yourself and your adult child. This is very hard, but it is necessary to keep from getting stuck in pain and bitterness.
2. Break your isolation by reaching out to others. Letting shame and sadness keep you away from new experiences and other people you love perpetuates the pain.
3. Take care of yourself. Exercise. Eat healthy meals. Live as full a life as you possibly can. This gives you the strength to carry on and makes a good life, despite your underlying pain, possible.
4. Let love into your life. There’s a temptation to shut others out when your beloved child is estranged from you. Value all the love in your life — from your partner, from other children, from extended family, from friends, and from pets. This is all love to be treasured and can help your healing.
5. Let joy balance the pain in your life. Nonstop suffering will not bring reconciliation with your adult child, and it certainly impairs the quality of your life. Allow love, fun, and joy into your life — to soothe and strengthen you.
Dr. Kathy McCoy is the author of We Don’t Talk Anymore: Healing after Parents and Their Adult Children Become Estranged (Sourcebooks 2017). Visit her at www.drkathymccoy.com.