When Your Adult Child Doesn’t Want You
“Alison won’t see me. She tells me that she hates me.” says Sally, a 67 year old divorced woman. Sally says that Alison has always been high-strung and emotional, but Sally is still sad that Alison chooses not to have a relationship with her as she gets older.
Alison always felt that Sally favored her sister Mary, who is two years younger. Sally’s marriage to her husband was strained for many years and she coped by attending school and nurturing her two girls. She believes that she was an excellent mother to them. When she met “the love of my life”, she left her husband and moved in with Ralph, telling herself that the girls were in college and launched into adulthood, that she was leaving her husband, not her daughters. However, both girls were furious with her, accusing her of abandoning the three of them, a belief the husband perpetuated. Sally and Ralph moved out of state while the girls comforted and cared for their father.
Twenty years later, both girls are in their forties. Mary and Sally have long since reconciled. In fact, Sally and Ralph visit Mary and her family regularly, enjoying the grandchildren and helping with childcare. She has made many attempts to repair her relationship with Alison. In the early years of her divorce, she wrote letters, sent gifts and called. When she came back to Massachusetts, she would invite Alison to dinner, loan her money and try to listen as Alison catalogued Sally’s many faults as a mother and wife. Sally visits Facebook and follows Alison’s social life in pictures, which she finds hurtful and humiliating as she is never mentioned.
Sally’s painful situation is no longer uncommon. Several recent articles suggest there are more parent-adult child estrangements today than in the past. Why should be the case?
First, there has been an increase in self-focused behaviors and thinking in our culture. Young people often feel that their individual needs are more important than the needs of others. People prioritize personal happiness in a relationship rather than duty or tradition. When a parent-child or husband-wife relationship experiences an ebb in passion, people say “I’m not happy” and simply move on.
Second, in today’s world, parents outsource many of their functions to paid helpers, reducing the amount of time they spend with each other and the resulting interdependence. Child care, meal preparation, housework and entertainment are provided by others, allowing the parents to work.
In addition, technology and media reduce face time and may amplify misunderstandings. Television shows like Friends and movies such as The Squid and the Whale and Mrs. Doubtfire, Revolutionary Road, Little Children portray divorce accompanied by the reliance on friends rather than family for support and companionship.
Many adult children have personal experience of living through the divorces of their parents, exposing them to a fractured family. Their emotional, physical, social and financial needs may have been trumped by parental needs. They therefore came to feel that they were a low priority in their divorcing family.
Estrangements often occur when the parent is critical or disapproving of their adult child, the child’s spouse or children. Well-intentioned parents can be perceived as controlling or intrusive if they are not respectful of their adult child’s autonomy and choices.
Meredith Maran wrote an article in AARP The Magazine reviewing recent findings of a survey of alienated children, finding that 50% felt they bore no responsibility for the estrangement, but 61% would like to resume a relationship. Joshua Coleman, PhD has written a book, When Parents Hurt to help parents who are struggling with an angry or alienated adult child. He argues for self-compassion “the ability to believe that, no matter how terrible your mistakes, love and forgiveness are part of your birthright and humanity.”
What can you do to heal the break?
An alienated adult child has a story about you that they sincerely believe. Listen to the story, see if there is an element of truth in his or her complaint, and acknowledge that you were at fault. Don’t get defensive and argue about who’s right. Accept that he or she sees a different story. Avoid criticism and advice. Accept your child’s choices of partners, lifestyle and sexual orientation. Don’t tell your children how to take care of theirs. Don’t talk about yourself and how you may have parented. Keep trying. It may take some time to reach the estranged adult.
In some cases, reconciliation may not work when the child is resistant, troubled by mental illness, substance abuse, immaturity or a difficult primary relationship. You may need to stop trying if you have reached out repeatedly and been rejected, abused or shamed. Acknowledge reality and focus on taking care of yourself. Compartmentalize by visualizing a box in which you can store painful memories. Some children may believe your efforts at reconciliation offer them an opportunity to retaliate for your failing them with anger, criticism and humiliation rather than trying to negotiate a mature, respectful adult relationship. If you stop trying, your adult child may have a chance to reflect on their behavior or see what life is like without you. If your adult child has made it clear that they are closed to reconciliation, it may not be in your best interest to continue trying. Your child may experience your efforts as further evidence of your disrespect for them.
Many parents misread their child’s signs and don’t see the evidence of hopefulness or ways that they could successfully begin to build a reconciliation when they are clearly there. They may also not recognize the very subtle ways that they perpetuate the estrangement with the ways that they reach out. However, deciding whether to give up is one of the most important decisions you have to make regarding your estrangement.
Today Sally is sad, but accepts that Alison is not in her life. However, she finds joy and satisfaction in her relationship with her husband, daughter Mary and Mary’s family.
By Bonnie Teitleman, LICSW