Parental estrangement is a term used to describe the loss of a previously existing relationship between a parent and a child through physical or emotional distancing, often to the extent that there is negligible or no communication between the individuals involved for a prolonged period. In my experience working with parents of young adults, it is the most heartbreaking experience a parent can have, especially if there was once a very close relationship between the parent and the child. One of my parent clients described this “cutoff” that she had experienced from her daughter as worse than a death. I have asked a friend and colleague of mine who has become the leading expert on parental estrangement to be a guest writer for the two blogs that follow. The first blog relates to the practice of apologizing, and the second blog describes the complicated situation of experiencing a cutoff from a married adult child where there may be issues with your adult child’s spouse. In having Dr. Coleman share his thinking about estrangement, I want to introduce you to his work as an essential resource if you feel cut off at some level from an adult child. Read more about his new book – Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict.
Why Should I Apologize?
by Josh Coleman.
One of the most common complaints or criticisms I hear about my work is that I’m either too hard on parents, or that my methods will just reinforce the bad behavior of estranged children—that in encouraging parents to make amends, be empathic, and not respond defensively, I’m doing nothing to force the child to see the parent’s perspective or to grow up. In addition, I get accused of reinforcing the distortions in the child’s orientation to the parent.
There are times when that criticism is exactly right: Sometimes a parent’s continuing to reach out, to be empathic, or to not push back does lead the adult child (or their spouse) to conclude that they have a bigger claim against you than they really do. It’s also true that they might respect you less if they’re abusive and you continue to try to reach out to them without any limit against the abuse. This is especially true with adult children (or their spouses) who have personality disorders, addictions, or other forms of mental illness.
It may also be better, as I’ve written elsewhere, to simply stop trying rather than to pursue an adult child who is out of contact.
However, while I don’t assume that a child’s version of the parent is correct, I also don’t assume that the parent’s version of the child is correct. Therefore, you’re better off assuming that you have some blind spots as you begin this work.
Making amends, showing empathy, and taking responsibility are acts of humility, not humiliation. It’s a position of strength, not weakness. It’s the ability to say, “Well, maybe you’re right. Maybe I missed something really important about you either in how I raised you or how I communicate with you. Let’s look at that together and figure it out.”
You may never learn what your adult child’s real complaints are about you if you don’t start with where they are and accept that there be some validity to their observations. In addition, your humility communicates a willingness to communicate with your child as an equal, which is a requirement in today’s parent-adult child relations.
All of this may mean that your child will want to grade you with an F for your parenting and that you or any other parent might grade you with an A or a B. You still get to believe that you did a good job. You’re not obligated to feel bad about your parenting. You just need to spend some honest time considering their views.
Finally, allowing some time for your child to blame you may clarify for them what their real issues are. Sometimes blaming a parent is a first step toward figuring out who they are. It doesn’t mean that they’ll always do it or that it’s their ultimate truth. It also doesn’t mean that you’re signing on to that style of communication forever. But your child may need to be in some kind of dialogue in which you show that you can take a long, hard look at yourself, if for no other reason than to model that such a thing is useful in life.
That’s not being an enabler. That’s being a good parent.
Dr. Joshua Coleman is a psychologist in private practice and Senior Fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families.A frequent guest on NPR and Today, his advice has also appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Chicago Tribune and other publications. A popular conference speaker, he has given talks to the faculties at Harvard, the Weill Cornell Department of Psychiatry and other academic institutions.
He is the author of numerous articles and chapters and has written four books: The Marriage Makeover: Finding Happiness in Imperfect Harmony (St. Martin’s Press); The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework (St. Martin’s Press); When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along (HarperCollins); and Married with Twins: Life, Love and the Pursuit of Marital Harmony. His books have been translated into Chinese, Croatian, and Korean, and are also available in the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia.