Parent-adult child estrangement stories that hit the headlines usually involve the rich and famous and are treated as curiosities. However, family estrangements are all too common among people in all sectors of society. Some parents may respond to the rejection with anger and accuse the child of being ungrateful or selfish. While this attitude might soothe the hurt feelings of the parent, it does nothing to heal the rift. Adult children do not cut off contact with their parents on a whim, and if you want to reconnect with your kids, it is important that you accept this. Offer a sincere apology for hurt you might have caused.
Give up the idea of convincing your children that you did nothing wrong. If you are locked into the attitude that they must listen to you and accept your version of the truth, you will likely remain estranged. If you are honest with yourself, you probably already know -- at least in part -- how you hurt your children, however unintentionally, suggests psychotherapist Beverly Engel in her book, “The Power of Apology.”
Pursue your adult children with a sincere desire to hear what caused the cut-off. Estranged adult children may be open to renewed contact with their parents if the parents are willing to truly listen to the children’s experiences, notes licensed professional counselor Tina Gilbertson. Your curiosity about their side of the story is a sign of caring.
Get support for yourself from someone who does not abide by placing all the blame with your children. Opening yourself up to hearing how your children experienced you over the years is very painful, especially since during this apology process you are just listening and acknowledging their versions of your conjoint history. You need someone who will support you emotionally without taking sides, thereby helping you remain open to your children.
Acknowledge your children’s versions of your history together. While it may sometimes feel like they are describing a childhood other than the one you thought they had, it is important to accept their experience as true when working at overcoming the estrangement.
Express sorrow for how you hurt your children. This is not the time to explain your side of the story or to justify yourself. You are still walking on thin ice at this point. Perhaps in the future, when your relationship will be stronger, they might express an interest in knowing how things were for you. Today, however, the proper response is a simple, "I am so sorry that I hurt you in this way."
Ask your children what they need from you now. For example, perhaps a child needs a more public apology, one that will help the child reconcile the relationships with other family members who took your side. As long as the request does not go against any of your own personal values or ethics, try to comply, or at least engage in a serious discussion about the matter.
Offer to pay for therapy, if you can afford it. Perhaps your children are having personal or relationship problems, and therapy could help them overcome the issues that are holding them back from satisfying lives. On the other hand, family therapy for you and your children may be the best way to mend the relationship and their difficulties.
- Even if you have attempted to reach out to your child many times in the past, it is worthwhile to keep trying, says Engel. Your child might not have been ready until now to consider your overtures, or you might not have been trying it in the right way.
- As part of the apology, you might have made promises about changing your behavior. Ask your children to remind you gently if you fall back into old habits and promise yourself to respond positively and graciously when they do this.
With an Master of Science in marital and family therapy, Sheri Oz ran a private clinical practice for almost 30 years. Based on her clinical work, she has published a book and many professional articles and book chapters. She has also traveled extensively around the world and has volunteered in her field in China and South Sudan.
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