Living with a Broken Heart: Are You Estranged from Your Child?
“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 with our parent coaching team 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.