I received this letter from a mother who had been cut off by her 28-year-old daughter several years ago:
“I know there is always a chance she could come back to me, but that is a hard way to live just waiting and hoping. I pray for that every night. There is not an hour in the day when I don’t think about her and miss her with my whole heart and soul and I will never, ever stop loving her. Now with the holidays, I am just doing what I have done every year since she left. Just praying for a Christmas miracle that she will come home.” — Kathleen, Massachusetts
I get a lot of letters like this from parents who are desperate, heartbroken, suicidal, enraged. Some are honest and open in their acknowledgment of the ways that they let their children down and contributed to the estrangement. Many are desperate for anything that will increase the chance of some reconciliation.
Other parents are so defensive and bitter and morally outraged that you feel protective of the child who had to grow up in the home where those feelings were played out. Many parents want their estranged child to see the situation from their perspective, but haven’t done the hard work of seeing it from the child’s. Some parents who did real damage to their children believe that if they just keep denying it, that their child may one day forget that it ever happened, much in the way that they have suppressed it themselves.
There is a silent epidemic of parents who are struggling with these issues. It’s silent because what parent wants to admit to others that their own child wants nothing to do with them? Who wants to say, “I don’t have a picture of my grandchildren because I’ve never met my grandchildren” or “I haven’t the faintest idea how my son is because he won’t return my calls and he sends back all of my presents unopened.”
There has been a radical change in parenting attitudes and our view of children in the past century. Prior to the 20th century, we saw them as robust and resilient. We believed that the stresses and rigors of life would strengthen them and build their character. Today, as a result of parenting advice, smaller families, fewer pathways to adulthood, increased household dangers, the ability of the Internet to instantly broadcast dangers, we view our offspring as fragile and requiring a kind of carefully tended childhood in order to become successful adults.
In the 1920s, parents wanted their children to respect them — if not fear them — and to be upstanding, church-going, conforming members of society. Today’s parents want their children to be independent — and they want their children to love them. In other words, where it was once the child’s job to earn the parent’s love and respect, it is now the parent’s job to earn that from the child.
Some of these role reversals stem from the prevalence of divorce. For many adults, their relationship with their children may be the one long-term relationship that they can count on. Or so they hope. Divorce may be one of the biggest causes of alienation between parents and their children. After a divorce, children sometimes blame one of the parents more than the other for causing the divorce, and withdraw from that parent as a result. In addition, some parents are quite intentional in poisoning the child’s feelings about the other parent. Kids don’t always like their parents’ new romantic partners or the idea of new romantic partners, and that can cause children of any age to reject a parent.
All in all, families have become more fragile and it’s a brand-new playing field between parents and their adult children. It requires new rules of engagement and new methods of conflict resolution. The following are suggested as some guidelines:
To the grown child: Here are some suggestions for talking with your parents about incidents that have hurt or angered you. Be aware that expressing your feelings, even in the most expert manner, is not a guarantee of a positive outcome and should only be attempted when you feel emotionally ready. Communicating in this manner, however, may help you discover whether a relationship is ready to move toward reconciliation.
1. Pick a time and place that feels comfortable to you where you can talk without interruption.
2. Tell your parent(s) what you would like from the conversation: “I would like to tell you some feelings I have” or “I just want you to try to listen and not respond.”
3. If possible, begin the conversation with something you like or admire about your parent to show that your goal isn’t to humiliate them: “I know that you really care about me ...” or “I know you worked hard to put a roof over our heads and food on the table. I really appreciate that ...”
4. Put your feelings into words that don’t place blame: “I still feel very hurt for all of those years when you were physical with me. It really made me feel like I was a bad person” or “When you talk to me in that tone of voice, it makes me feel terrible.”
5. Assume that your parents have positive intentions: “I know you wouldn’t want me to feel this bad and that you care about our relationship” or “I know you probably want to work as hard as I do to make our relationship better than it’s been” or “I understand that you might not have known how bad that felt to me.”
6. Say what you need in order to go forward: “I just need to hear you say that you’re sorry for those years” or “I want you to call me more” or “I just need you to hear how bad that made me feel.”
To the parent:
1. If your child complains about you or your parenting, try to see that he or she may be raising these issues as a way to be closer to you, even if they are being expressed in a way that’s difficult to hear.
2. Don’t sugarcoat it if you blew it as a parent. The more honest you are, the more credibility you will gain to repair the damage: “What you’re saying is true. I wasn’t there for you as a parent. I was too caught up in my work and my drinking, and you suffered because of it. I can’t ever give you back those years and I feel terrible about that. I am committed to doing everything I can to make it up to you, if you’ll let me.”
3. If you find yourself feeling too upset or defensive to listen, tell them that in a gentle way: “I know what you’re telling me is really important and I’m glad you came to me with it. It is hard for me to hear and I think I’ll be able to digest it better if I could first read it in a letter. I promise I’ll call you so we can talk about it. I hope that feels okay.”
4. Validate their reality as much as you can, even if there’s only a small part you agree with: “Yeah, I can be really impatient. I can see how that could have come across as uncaring.” If you’re unable to agree with anything that’s being said, empathize with their feelings without telling them they’re wrong: “I’m so sorry it came across that way. The last thing I wanted was for you to feel like I didn’t love you. That must have been awful for you.”
5. Take the initiative for talking again within a short period of time. “I wanted to check in to see how you felt about our talk last week. I really appreciate that you told me what you’d been feeling. Have you had other thoughts about it?” This may need to be an ongoing dialogue for a long time in order for change and healing to occur. Don’t avoid revisiting it because it’s painful territory. Show that you want to keep talking about it until there’s resolution. If there is no resolution, make it clear that you value your child’s attempt to bring the issues to the table and that you’re open to talking about them more in the future. Family rifts sometimes take years to heal, so don’t give up.