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Differentiation, Part 2

In last week’s post I talked about how differentiation can contribute to estrangement between parents and their young adult children.

This continuation of that post talks about the married adult child, and offers some tips to help you trust the process.

Remember, differentiation is a normal and healthy part of human development. It’s not due to a lack of gratitude or character.

Everyone goes through differentiation, and if you pay very close attention to your own relationship to your parents, you’ll see it in action!

The Married Adult Child

If your adult child is in his/her 20s, it’s likely that differentiation is at least partly, if not entirely, to blame for his or her reluctance to stay in touch.

But pulling away from parents can happen at any time throughout the lifespan. So don’t assume your 39-year-old is immune. He’s not.

Sometimes marriage seems to create a catalyst for estrangement. The adult child chooses a mate, and soon after starts cutting ties with Mom and Dad.

Although this can be spurred on by a jealous new spouse, statistically it’s probably just as likely that the new partner is the final piece that needed to fall into place for the adult child to make that big push toward individuation.

Often once the adult child has the security of a loving partner, he can take the steps he’s been needing to take toward being his own person.

The process might be partially or entirely unconscious, of course.

So what is an estranged parent to do when it feels like you’ve lost your adult child forever?

Support his developmental process by being interested, rather than threatened, by activities and interests that diverge from your own.

Once the main thrust of individuation is under way, your adult child may be more able to tolerate family-of-origin contact — particularly if his parents understand their new role in his life as fans rather than guardians or guides.

Making Amends

Are you worried that you might have done your child wrong, and that’s why she’s estranged? If you are, join the millions of other parents who prove their qualifications by questioning them.

By all means apologize if you feel you let your child down. See my post on how to apologize and seek the help of a counselor to sort through it all.

But if your estranged adult child hasn’t indicated that you did anything wrong, try not to take the estrangement personally.

Especially if she’s under 30, assume it’s differentiation in action. Trust the process.

Every once in a while you can let her know you’re there. But take a giant step back.

Love your adult child, don’t need her.

It’s very important to realize that your child might not understand her own actions. She may feel terribly guilty and not know why she doesn’t want to be close right now.

Most people don’t realize that differentiation is a normal and necessary part of life.

If it seems appropriate, share this post with your adult child. It will help keep the lines of communication open, even when they’re silent.

Photo courtesy of www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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0 Responses to "Differentiation, Part 2"

  • Julie
    March 29, 2014 - 12:14 pm

    So helpful. I read all your articles on estrangement. It took me a long time to not be angry about the estrangement with my adult son. I’m glad I didn’t act on any of that anger. I started meditation and that helped a lot. He is unable or unwilling to tell me what I did wrong. I did apologize for anything I may have done and I have sent a birthday card. I get no cards. So strange he use to send me a father’s day card and a mothers day card because I was a single parent when he was young. I am processing acceptance. This differentiation sounds so true in my case. I would like to send your articles to him but he is a counselor and I’m afraid he would take it as my telling him it is all his fault. This will however be the catalyst to my seeking help to sort through this a little better. Thank You.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      March 30, 2014 - 6:40 pm

      I’m very glad you found it helpful, Julie. Thanks for leaving a note and best of luck with your son.

  • Alina
    April 5, 2014 - 7:09 pm

    Thank you Tina for your advice and wisdom always. Every few months I send some message or gifts to my estranged daughter. I am not going to give her up as easily as she thinks. She was my wanted baby & my first born. No monsters in her head can rob my love for her. Yes, she is angry with me. She feels I failed her. I did not love her, I loved her sibling over her. Non of it is true but to her all her actuation is real. I don’t know how to convince my love for her. Yes, she is an adult but she is my child always, she is my extended flesh & i love her so very much. I am at my wits end. How do I reach out to her if she keeps refusing me ?

  • jenny
    April 6, 2014 - 2:22 am

    Julie I think what you say is really interesting and it strikes me that your approach is in itself a process of differentiation for parents too??? Its helpful for me to think of it that way for my own process,,, that my daughters differentiation is also an opportunity for me to reclaim parts of myself that were put away when I was a young parent. You also point out how you had to play the role of two parents… as did I ..my husband walked away and didn’t want any responsibility… in my case I am being blamed for pushing him away by him and her… I was so angry for so long about it as it was such an unjust accusation. I know the truth and that is the important thing… I can walk with my head high and know I did as good a job as I could given the circumstances. I do think in time my daughter will get a more balanced view, and it is awful for her to be on such an emotional see-saw but now I feel its her responsibility to work things through for herself, and I think letting her go will help her to do that and become her own person . I think you have a very good approach and I really hope things work out for you !!