Estranged Parents and Adult Children: A Silent Epidemic

When 'I'm sorry' isn't enough, take these steps to encourage healing and reconciliation

By Linda Bernstein
Originally Posted On August 12, 2013

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Linda Bernstein has written hundreds of articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers, writes the blog GenerationBsquared and teaches social media at the Columbia University School of Journalism.

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Kay Rizzo’s daughter, Jamie, has barely spoken to her in 10 years. And Kay knows why. A decade ago, as the fissures grew deeper in her marriage, she found herself desperately craving some affection. Stupidly — in hindsight — Kay had an affair with the father of Jamie’s boyfriend. (The stories are true, but the names have been changed.)
 
To make matters worse, one afternoon, Jamie, who was 16 at the time, walked into the master bedroom at her boyfriend’s house and saw her mother having sex. Jamie called her dad, who immediately called a divorce lawyer. The couple wound up sharing custody of their two younger children (both boys), but Jamie told the judge she hated her mother and wanted to live with her dad. The request was granted.
 
Over the years Kay has seen Jamie only on rare occasions and manages a strained, bimonthly phone call. The relationship shows no sign of healing.
 
Now Jamie is getting married and has informed Kay that she can attend the wedding, but she may not walk down the aisle. Nor will she be seated with the family or be included in any family portraits.
 
“I know getting involved with that guy was a mistake, embarrassing and traumatizing for my daughter,” Kay acknowledges. “I’ve said ‘I’m sorry’ so many times. I don’t know how to get her to accept my apology.”
 
Estrangement: The Silent Epidemic
 
Many families endure fights, says Susan Kuczmarski, an expert on family relationships who teaches at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, but some of the feuds linger, and the chasms that separate parents and their adult children are among the most painful. “Because these stories are so tragic,” Kuczmarski says, “a lot of people don’t share them.”
 
Joshua Coleman, is co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families who runs a webinar for parents who want to improve relations with their adult children. He sees so much of this problem that he calls parent/adult child estrangement a silent epidemic. “Nobody wants to talk about this,” he says.
 
And yet people are more than willing to share their stories online. Coleman’s web forums are teeming with questions from parents seeking answers about how to heal. The Experience Project hosts a support group for parents of disaffected children. The stories are heart-wrenching — no matter how old the children, the parents want them back in their lives.
 
Ties That Do Not Bind
 
Unfortunately, when the hurt has been going on for a long time, simply saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. “First you have to recognize what caused the rupture,” Kuczmarksi says, “and you might not like what you find.” Perhaps you, like Kay, crossed a line. Or maybe you said or did something that your child experienced as deeply wounding even if you never intended to hurt her.  
 
The other possibility is that you might discover — or be forced to finally acknowledge — that something is “not quite right” with your child. Rick Casey, who refused to underwrite his son Evan’s fantasy of a post-college “year of spirituality,” cannot make peace with him a decade later.
 
“I could have afforded to pay for the trip. But I thought it would build his character if he worked for a bit and saved money to help finance it,” Casey says. “Instead he got furious at me. Every six months I suggest we have dinner. He’ll pick a really expensive restaurant and I go along with it because I think, Maybe he’s past his anger and wants a relationship. At the end of the meal, though, he’ll push his chair back, tell me how I ruined his life, call me a tightwad — even though I’m paying for dinner — and walk out in a huff.”
 
Sometimes an adult child’s behavior is so bizarre that there might be a personality disorder or mental illness at play. Rick speculated, reluctantly, that his son may be clinically depressed since he hasn’t been able to stick with a job for more than a few months.
 
Sometimes you never know what’s really going on. Martha Reilly had a pretty good relationship with her son, Adam — until he got married. “Emma’s family is quite rich — we thought they looked down on my second husband and me because we’re schoolteachers who live modestly,” Martha explains. “At first Emma would invite us over for holidays, yet none of her family would speak to us. When we asked Adam what was going on, he just shrugged. Then he said he was annoyed with us for being so petty.
 
“The invites stopped coming. Eventually Adam stopped visiting us too,” she continues. “We see him rarely anymore, and when we do, he’s a different person — nervous, agitated.” Martha expressed concern that Emma seemed to be controlling her son.
 
“I called him to say we were sorry that we had spoken negatively about his in-laws,” she said. “He shouted at me, ‘You just don’t get it.’ He’s right; I don’t. But I am worried about his mental health.”
 
When Divorce Fosters Disunion
 
Coleman says divorce may be the single most common cause of family alienation. Resentments can run deep, and some kids never get over it, however amicable it seemed to you. Sometimes they don't like, or actually resent, the people you date (or marrry) afterward. “My ex-wife continually told our daughters what an awful man I was,” Ted Bernard says. “This is in spite of the fact that I was awarded primary custody by the judge, who thought she was overbearing.”
 
Apparently his ex-wife had a vendetta against him. “She even accused me of having an affair with their college-age babysitter,” he says. “I suspect she told our daughters this, too. Now that both girls have kids of their own, they are reluctant to leave me alone with my grandchildren. I’ve told them I’m sorry for anything I did that hurt them, but that doesn’t make any difference.”
 
Steps Toward Forgiveness
 
No matter how severe the alienation, family experts believe that adult children can come around to forgiving their parents (unless, of course, the parent was abusive or complicit in abuse). “You just have to lower your expectations and take it slowly,” Kuczmarski advises. When “I’m sorry” isn’t enough, think about your own behavior and try different forms of rapprochement that go beyond words.
  • Try to understand. Even if you’re convinced you’ve done “nothing,” you have done “something.” After all, you are the parent. You were (and continue to be) a powerful figure in your child’s emotional life. Sometimes there’s a nugget of truth in an adult child’s complaints. For example, your behavior may have inadvertently suggested to one child that you favored the other — regardless of whether you felt that way. So the first step to making amends is to listen carefully to what your child is trying to tell you.
  • Don’t be defensive. “Nothing can dilute an apology more than self righteousness,” Kuczmarski says. How can you expect your child to believe you mean you are sincerely sorry if you follow the apology with words that indicate you believe you’re right while your child is wrong?
  • Put it in writing. Sometimes a letter works better than a conversation. “Words on paper can be read over and over so your child can absorb your apology,” Kuczmarski says.
  • Be humble. It takes a lot of gumption to admit you’ve made a mistake. Plus, you’re modeling positive family behavior. Kuczmarski believes families should talk out problems and be honest about their feelings.
  • Avoid engaging. Should your adult child feel the need to continue the fight, let her know that, for you, the argument is over. That might irk her because she’s still angry, but in the long run it can have positive consequences. You are less likely to say hurtful things in response to the child's anger. Also, retreating from the battleground reinforces that you want to make peace.
  • Find an intermediary. Perhaps you can persuade a friend or family member to approach your child with your olive branch. She may be more receptive if she hears from someone else that you would like to mend the break, Kuczmarski says. Be aware, however, that you are asking a lot here, since your surrogate could become a lightning rod for your child’s rage.
  • Persevere. It may take many talks or letters to bring around an alienated child. But years may eventually wear away their defenses or soften their anger. You might also want to suggest counseling sessions (which you will pay for). If you don't live in the same city, perhaps you can find a therapist who works with Skype. 
 
In the meantime, if your child continues to rebuff your overtures, keep in mind this is an opportunity for you to focus on yourself. “Even people who have healthy relationships with their adult children enter a stage when they don’t need to focus so much on parenting. So give yourself permission to put the estranged child heartache on the back burner while you enjoy new experiences,” Kuczmarski suggests.
 
Even as you’re doing that, though, never give up on your child. “The next communication may be the one that sparks a reconnection.”