When Adult Children Won’t Talk to Their Parents

Photo of estrangement by T. GilbertsonThere’s an article about estrangement on my website that gets more feedback than any article I’ve written before or since. In that article, I offer strategies for the person who’s been cut off by someone and wants to get back together.

The gist of it is this: Like it or not, whether you agree with them or not, the “cutter-offer” perceives a reason for cutting you off.  If you want to reunite, it’s up to you to make amends rather than expecting them to see the error of their ways. In short, I recommend openness and humility.

By far the people I hear from most about that article are parents of adult children who want nothing more to do with them. Some rejected parents don’t approve of the advice provided in the article, feeling that it puts too much responsibility on them. Their feedback sounds like this:

“My child is cruel / has rejected me unfairly.”

“My child is lying about having been abused.”

“My child is selfish, unreasonable, or ungrateful.”

“My child is under the influence of someone who doesn’t want him/her to contact me.”

The problem with all of these points, of course, is the boomerang effect that occurs whenever a parent blames her own child for poor behavior. Children who learn kindness, fairness, honesty, consideration for others, reason and gratitude don’t typically reject those values as adults, nor do they choose partners who encourage them to be cruel, unfair, dishonest, selfish, unreasonable or ungrateful towards their loved ones.

One reader whose adult child had ceased all contact offered this perhaps unwittingly honest feedback: “I don’t agree we have to do something wrong.  Sometimes we just raise self centered kids.”

Not being able to withstand the criticism inherent in being rejected is at the heart of the problem.

The Tragedy of Estrangement

Let’s say you’re my child, and that you’re the best thing that ever happened to me. When you were little, I did my best to give you what you needed. In truth, I did far better by you than my parents did by me. Your well-being was never far from my thoughts, though you may not have realized it.

I really did the best I could do, and like so many other parents who love their children, deep down I was always insecure about the job I was doing in raising you. If you now tell me I hurt you despite my efforts not to, I might feel so broken by that “criticism” that I need you to be wrong.

If I tried my best and still didn’t do as well as I wanted to, what does that say about me? And what have I done to my child? And here’s a taboo thought: What did my parents do to me?

It’s all too much; you must be mistaken.

My trying to make you wrong will hurt you further. My trying to make you wrong will make it impossible for us to have a quality relationship.

Until I can stand to hear your story, I can’t understand your experience. Until I understand your experience, I can’t connect with the compassion that would compel me to apologize with all my heart. Until I offer you a heart-felt apology, you won’t be able to hear me say that I didn’t mean to hurt you.

Since I can’t stand to hear your truth and you won’t hear mine, we can’t have a relationship anymore. And all because I love you so much that I literally cannot stand to know that I hurt you.

This is the tragedy of estrangement.


Read more thoughts on estrangement by Tina:

Differentiation: “Normal” Estrangement from Parents?

Differentiation, Part 2

Estrangement Takes Two

Estrangement Takes Two, Part 2

What to Do When Someone Won’t Talk to You