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“You can live with a broken heart, and you can die with one, but it’s terrible to have to do both.”

–Quote from an estranged parent

I’ve witnessed and have been affected by a parent-child relationship dissolving within my own family.  There have also been many stories shared on the Parental Support Line by parents going through either complete estrangement from a child or dealing with a child who is distancing themselves from the family.  If you’re in this situation now, whether or not you were aware of or suspected problems in the relationship, when cut off you were probably faced with a tremendous amount of pain, shame, and guilt.  Unfortunately, like many other parenting scenarios, parents are often under fierce scrutiny and are the target of judgment by the general public when this happens.  Let’s be honest,some people might assume that parental estrangement has happened as a result of neglect or abuse by the parent.  There is no denying that this accounts for some of these situations, but I know from my own experiences that it doesn’t cover all of them.

Why would an adult child sever ties with his or her parents? There are different events and situations that can create conflict in families, some subtle and some more obvious, that serve as a strong undercurrent in the family dynamic—reasons like  substance abuse, divorce, disagreements about boyfriends/girlfriends/spouses, and personality differences are all common struggles in the parent-child relationship. There are many different events and situations that can trigger this devastating decision.  Even though it may seem unfathomable, an adult child has clear reasons in their mind why they may choose to discontinue communication with a parent.  Whatever the cause may be, it’s normal to feel a deep sense of loss and to evaluate all the possible reasons where you could have gone wrong.  The excruciating part for many parents is the not knowing; they are often left completely in the dark as to why their child has chosen to end the relationship.  Ultimately, the child may feel that the relationship carries more hardship than benefit.

It’s important to recognize that each member of the family will have a very different perspective on what’s it’s like to be part of that family.  James Lehman talks a lot about how certain parenting styles work with some kids and not others; what makes parenting so tricky is that you may have the perspective that you acted out of love and respect, but the way your child experienced it may be a very different reality. Simply said, even though you can do something with good intentions, it may not be seen that way by the person on the receiving end of the action.

Parents are left to their own devices to figure out how to cope with and accept a child’s decision to break off the relationship, because it’s not easy to openly discuss the fact that you have no contact with your child.  One of the most significant issues you may be confronted with is the powerlessness and feeling of permanency concerning your child’s decision.  Parents in this position struggle with whether or not to keep trying to reach out, and if so, what to say – or how long to try.

Here are three steps I would recommend you take:

1. Be consistent in your message. There are many questions that surface for parents who are trying to figure out what comes next.  It takes courage to keep trying to reach out to a child when there doesn’t seem to be any opening to mend the relationship.  Pain and anger are powerful emotions and it takes a lot of persistence and hard work to repair and rebuild relationships that are steeped in these emotions.  Sending a consistent message that you wish to heal the relationship can convey a strong sense of commitment to moving forward. Depending on the situation, you might email or leave a voice mail message every so often and say, “I love you and I’m always here for you. I want to talk when you’re ready.” Another option that may feel less invasive for the adult child is to receive an “amends letter” from the parent—this is something that you can ask for help with from a therapist or support group.

2. Be prepared to own your mistakes. On your end, I think it’s important to be prepared to listen and make an effort to not only understand what your child has experienced, but to own instances where you may have been in the wrong.  You may not be able to identify with everything your child decides to share, but try to find something that you can agree with that does reflect something that you see in yourself.  There are two sides involved in the relationship bringing their own resistance to change. You may struggle with hearing how you have disappointed or hurt your grown child, while your child may get overly invested in hanging onto the anger they have because it feels good to keep blaming someone when you feel wronged by them.

3. Get support for you.  I want to urge any parent who may be going through this right now to get support for themselves—seeking out counseling or a grief therapy group can be a great avenue for a parent to work through the devastation of being cut off. The first step toward healing is recognizing how troubling and painful it is when a child walks out of your life.  Through talking with others, you’ll find people who are in the same shoes, find ways to cope and even enjoy your life — and you might even arrive at a point of genuine hope that there’s a possibility of reconnection with your adult child.


Tina Wakefield is a stepmom to a 14-year-old  son and the mother of a four-year-old daughter. She has been a Parental Support Line Advisor for 8 years. Tina and her family live in Standish, Maine.


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  • DEPCR Says:

    What about when the parents of the adult child have decided to estrange themselves from the child and their family? Dealing with this with my husband and his family. As adults we can cope, it’s our kids that ask why their grandparents won’t spend tome with them that makes it difficult. If my own parents weren’t both deceased it would be different also. They openly favor their other grand kids. My 6yo has begun to notice which is one of the main reasons we moved our family 4 hours away. I could give countless examples how they’ve chosen to estrange themselves and how asking them about it changes nothing.

  • Jane51909 Says:

    I have been estranged from my adult son for the past 10 mos. It has been on and off since before he married 3 yrs ago…The estrangement has come about when the the final straw of his rage and name calling.I have taken responsibility for my mistakes and more blame and verbal abuse than I can stand! Also I believe he got advice from an attorney regarding an email he sent to me around our grandson’s birthday..Of course we were not invited…so I am wondering if I should at this point to attemept any further communication with them or let it go until they decide to come around? Thank you, Jane

  • Joshua's Mom Says:

    I have only spoken to my adult son 2 or 3 times in the last 9 months. I was openly hostile regarding his fiance and her family (whom I truly believe were and are manipulative individuals.)I apologized almost immediately and there has been no contact of any kind except for a very awkward Mother’s Day visit this year and a couple of texts. I tried to get him to sit and talk with me, alone, several times before his recent wedding to no avail. It breaks my heart and I don’t really know what to do anymore. The longer it goes on, the more anger and resentment I feel toward him and the original factor, her and her family. I have gotten some closure since the wedding ( that I did not attend) but it has caused a severe divide in my family as a whole. Lost.

  • Tina Wakefield Says:

    Jane51909: I can only imagine how incredibly difficult it has been to be estranged from your son and to not have seen your grandson on his birthday. Any parent in your position would get to a point where they no longer wanted to be blamed or verbally abused. It is so important to set limits with your son so that he knows you won’t tolerate being treated that way—nobody deserves to be treated that way. It sounds like there was a pretty significant conflict that left everyone feeling like they had had enough. It is so difficult to know what kind of impact reaching out will have but it really comes down to if you feel up to reaching out or not. Remember that you can take time to decide what you think is best for you right now. I wish you well and I appreciate you sharing your story.

  • Tina Wakefield Says:

    Joshua’s Mom:
    What you are describing here is a very common struggle in many families. When an adult child chooses a partner in marriage the task of integrating both families can be excruciating. It can be difficult to try and figure out what to do with the strong emotions that arise for all members involved. First, I want to give you a lot of credit for recognizing that you may have overstepped a line and apologized for that–this is not an easy thing to do! Secondly, even though the relationship is far from what you want it to be, it sounds like your son is still willing to have some communication which means there is room to keep in touch. The great divide that you sense is there and I’m sure that feels overwhelming and scary; it will take time to build a bridge over the divide and to work through this. I agree with you that being in a situation like this is heartbreaking and it carries a lot of sadness and confusion. Do your best right now to take care of yourself and get some support from friends, family, or a counselor to deal with all the emotions that this will bring up for you. I hope that your son will afford you an opportunity to continue the conversation in the near future; I can hear how much you want to make the situation right and how important it is to you to be closer to your son.

  • very sad Says:

    I really do not know where to start. I am a mother of two. My son is now 26. He and I have always had a magnificent relationship. In fact, many of his friends admired our relationship. My son could always come to me with any thing. I was there to offer advise. My children’s father walked out on them when hes was three and my daughter 8 months, I struggled as a single mom, but always had food and clothes and plenty of love for them both. Up until four years ago when my son met a girl, he has distanced himself from his side of the family. Although, they are always visiting her side and they are included in everything. As a single mom, my life long dream was watching my son graduate from college. I never in my wildest dreams would have thought, when the day came he would not invite me or his sister. Well it did. I found out on face book that he graduated. My heart is in shreds. I do not know his girlfriend as she has never taken the time to know us. I am lost for words and have a hard time just making it through the day…….My world has always revolved my children. I simply do not understand. He has only come over once in one year. He just keeps getting further and further away. I tell him all the time I love him and only want the best for him. I am told he has distance himself from many of his friends. He is a very bright man, just completely his bachelors. I am absolutely speechless….

  • Tina Wakefield, Parental Support Advisor Says:

    To “Very sad”:I’m sorry to hear that you’re dealing with such deep disappoint and sadness at being excluded from such an important milestone in your son’s life. You’re right that it can be unimaginable to envision having a distant relationship with a child, especially when you experienced a special connection to that child for a long time. The hardest part can be not knowing what your son’s motivation is for distancing himself in the relationship. It sounds like there are many significant events happening for your son as he ventures into adulthood, a serious relationship and graduation–I can hear how much you want to be part of that experience. It’s takes a lot of courage to extend well wishes and love when you are hurt and you’ve managed to do that. Even though you weren’t there, it sounds like you’ve done a lot in your life to help him reach that point. In addition, don’t hesitate to seek out support by spending time with friends or family, or perhaps even seeing a therapist. I trust that you’ll find ways to cope with this and take care of yourself. Thank you for sharing your experience here on Empowering Parents.