The basic need for close family ties never leaves us, so what is behind the parent-child estrangement when the bond runs so deeply? And even more importantly, how can we heal these broken relationships, support those who are estranged, and proactively nourish a healthy parent-child relationship over the life span.
Some splits between parent and child come from something sudden or dramatic, but most broken ties develop gradually and stem from misunderstandings and less extreme, albeit hurtful, interactions. The grievances I hear most often from my clients who go “no contact” with their parent(s) sound something like:
- I feel criticized or disrespected ... about how I look, my lifestyle, my choices.
- My wife and mother cannot work things out. I feel caught in between and have no idea how to help them get along.
- They don’t listen. I’m not a child anymore. No matter how many times and ways I've tried, he/she keeps repeating the same old habits that make me feel rejected or bad about myself.
- My father doesn’t know how to connect, and I’ve grown used to being distant. Now we don’t even talk or see each other.
- My mother in law diminishes me and oversteps her boundaries time after time. I just can't have her around.
- I don’t understand how my parent(s) so blatantly gives special treatment to my sibling(s) and now their families.
- I feel taken advantage of by my kids. I feel like I give so much and I don't understand why they don't appreciate me more.
While sometimes it’s the parent who breaks ties, most typically it’s the adult child. I agree with Teri Apter, a psychologist and writer of family dynamics, who says: “While family estrangement is sometimes temporary, an adult child who instigates estrangement is likely to believe that a functional relationship with a parent—a relationship that does not involve pain and humiliation, or bring with it a sense of betrayal—will never be possible.”
So let’s now talk about what hope there might be if you are estranged from your parent or child. Here's what I recommend:
- Find Out Why. If your child (or sometimes parent) has disconnected from you, the most important step toward healing is to find out what has caused them to not let you in. It might be on the list above, but really listening without being defensive becomes the platform for creating a safe zone to try and reestablish a relationship. It can be a difficult transition to make for a parent when their child becomes an adult, and particularly when they now have their own family. And sometimes the problems in the bond began long before they became an adult.
- Seek Relationship Counseling. Yes, there are counselors who work with healing family break ups. Even if you've never felt comfortable with counseling, this is not the time to hold back— whether you’re the parent or the child. No matter how stuck you feel, or whatever stigma society imposes, this action step tells your loved one that your relationship is most important and that you are willing to take some ownership in the breakdown. An objective mediator can take the pressure off of right and wrong and help you take simple steps which can make a difference. Counseling can open healing doors by making sure each person is heard and help to identify healthy changes.
- Educate Yourself. As Albert Einstein said, “More the knowledge, lesser the ego.” We are often less informed than we can see. Read anything you can about family dynamics when children become adults, reasons for estrangement, getting along with in laws, how families work things out, personal growth. I like Teri Apter’s books for family dynamics and Michael Berg’s Becoming Like God for understanding our potential and our ego blockages. You can also check out some of my previous blogs: Dealing with difficult family dynamics or Best practices for getting along with in laws
- Be Prepared to Make Changes. Turn your learning toward yourself. Look for blind spots, get feedback from honest friends and professionals, be open to growing. Explore where you can listen better, show more support, stay out of it. Listen inside for expectations, desire to fix or control, wanting things your way, entitlement. Grieve what you thought it would be like and grow your capacity for letting go and accepting what is. Most adult children prefer their parents' advice only when they've asked for it. And many young adult children are not yet practiced in teaching others how they want to be talked to and treated, especially when it's our parents. Sometimes adult children, especially if they have received too much and didn't have the opportunity for earnership, they don't realize that they might be lacking appreciation. This can build resentment on both ends.
- Connect To Your Center Point
- For the parent. Ask yourself if you’ve made your children your center-point in life. Whenever we put anything or anyone as our center, instead of our own personal and spiritual growth, we need to be on watch for the E word— Expectations. Turning externally for fulfillment creates emotional dependency and doesn’t allow room for each person to find their own truth and path.
- For the adult child. Your wounds might run quite deeply and caring for yourself by healing these wounds (with help) can help you connect to your center point as well. No one else is responsible for your happiness. Counseling can strengthen your sense of self, your voice, and empower you to build skills and courage to kindly and firmly teach others how you want to be treated. The stronger you grow personally and spiritually, finding and living from your own center point, the less triggered you will likely be by your parent and the stronger footing you will secure in yourself to respond from an empowered place. Healthy people create healthy relationships and boundaries. This doesn’t guarantee that your parent will follow suit and that a reconciliation will flow easily, but your own growth will only enhance any outcome.
- Let Go and Accept. We have everything to gain when we let go and appreciate that each individual has the free will to live by rules of life they deem relevant. Acceptance is certainly not easy but vital for both parent and child to give each other the space to be themselves. Building from our acceptance, we can practice being in two places: finding common ground where we can and then reserving our innermost truth in private—sharing ourselves more fully with other like minded and hearted people. Accept and appreciate whatever common ground you can find.
- Do Everything You Can to Stay Connected. We don't need to be friends or follow their way in life, but our parents are our root, the cause of us being here. We benefit greatly, in heart and soul, to do our best to prevent a total cut off. This does not mean accepting abusive behavior or a toxic environment. Sometimes there is a healthy place for no contact. But for many, as they grow personally and spiritually, they gain a greater ability to detach, to go mind over matter, to make peace with what is and at least have some connection.
From the variety of research on family estrangement, all agree that those involved feel like they're not receiving the support they need, in fact they can feel judged and stigmatized. It's a type and level of grief that most don't understand, unless you've been there. If you know someone cut off from family, it's a good time to be more sensitive to their feelings and needs. Don't be afraid to show comfort or perhaps talk about it with them, even if there's no apparent solution.