5 TIPS If you are estranged from your adult children.

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We ask ourselves what did I do?  What could I have done differently?  Is there something wrong with me? her?   Sometimes we do know the reason because of serious past problems.  It is hard on everyone: you, your partner, the rest of the family, and of course the estranged adult child themselves.  They still want a relationship with their parent, no matter what.  But often, as parents, we are in the dark about what really happened.  Sometimes we have an idea but are not sure.  What we want to do of course is to blame it on everything else – not us … money issues, personality conflicts, divorce or difficult family dynamics.  At the end of the day, we usually do blame it on ourselves and try to fix it.

Shutting a person out is a response to anxiety.  Cutting off is a way people manage anxiety when they don’t know a better way. The love and caring is there; the ability to solve differences is not.

Sarah came home from college with no job, no plans and a bad relationship breakup.  She sleeps late, grudgingly helps around the house,  doesn’t seem concerned about getting a job, and is generally rude and disrespectful.    Her parents were worried about what they thought was Sarah’s lack of a plan.   Nagging, yelling and questioning never seems to get an answer.   She would be vague or get nasty, which  made it all worse.  Sarah moved out and cut ties to her parents to a bare minimum.  And they guiltily felt relieved .

When some people feel anxious, tired of conflict or pressure, or too much family “togetherness” their response is to distance themselves, emotionally, physically or both. The distance from others helps them feel a sense of relief because it seems to bring the conflict to an end. Of course, nothing is actually resolved; instead, more stress is generated.  This is often a mixed message.

On the outside it looks as though  they are all disconnected. On the inside they are thinking about each other all the time.  They are still extremely involved with one another. Neither is free from the original problem; nor are they free from each other.

Extreme distancing turns to cutting off. It may happen after a long period of conflict or suddenly as a reaction to a difficult event.  The person doing the cutting off just cannot deal with confronting and resolving the problem directly. So, they stop communicating because continuing the relationship seems unmanageable for them.

Parents and an adult child who are over involved in each other’s lives,  enmeshed,  are more susceptible to cutting off.   Sarah was not taking responsibility for herself, and the parents did not calmly make clear what they would and wouldn’t accept.   So they nagged, begged and hoped she would change. They were living in reaction to one another, rather than each taking responsibility for their part of the family “dance.”

Your pain is real. Be mindful and compassionate of it, but don’t allow it to define or overwhelm you. Put the focus on what you have control of:  your own life.


  1. Don’t go at this alone. Get support. Being cut off by your child, with no ability to understand, communicate and resolve things, is difficult enough. That’s why being connected to others who love and understand you is particularly important. In addition to reaching out to friends and family, consider joining a support group. If you are not able to function at your best, get some professional help.
  2. Don’t cut off in response. You are not the one cutting ties; your child is. Don’t cut off your child in response. Continue to reach out to him, letting him know that you love him and that you want to mend whatever has broken. Send birthday and holiday messages as well as occasional brief notes or emails. Simply say that you are thinking about him and hope to have the opportunity to reconnect. Send your warmth, love and compassion—as you get on with your life.
  3. Step back, look, and don’t feed the anger. It’s understandable to feel angry. And in their attempt to be supportive, friends and family may fuel your feelings of betrayal, increasing your anger. Anger is natural, but not helpful. Step back and try to understand what led to this estrangement. What patterns were operating in your family dance? If you can look at your family from a more factual vantage point, it may feel less personal. No one is to blame. Now if the door opens, you will be in a much better position to reconcile.
  4. If the door opens, listen to your child without defending yourself. Listen with an open heart. Listen to her perceptions of what wrongs took place. Even if you disagree with her, look for the grains of truth. Be willing to look at yourself. It’s hard to hear these criticisms, especially if your intentions were misunderstood. So prepare yourself to handle this. Your adult child may need to hold on to blame as a way to manage her own anxiety. Just letting her know that you hear her will go a long way. Keep in mind that she, too, had to be in tremendous pain to reach the point of shutting you out. Try to empathize with her pain rather than get caught up in the hurt and anger.
  5. Focus on yourself, not your child. If you do begin communicating again, you will be in a position to learn from the mistakes of the past and work toward an improved relationship. Put your efforts into changing yourself, not your child. Let go of your resentments regarding the estrangement. Understand his need to flee…and forgive him. Get to know the adult child you have, not the child you think he should have been. Allow him to get to know you.If your child still has made no contact, grieve the loss and know there is still hope. Try to manage your anxiety, and do the right thing by staying in touch with him in a non-intrusive way: occasionally and lovingly. Things may change. Rather than blame yourself or your child for this pain, use your energy to learn about yourself, your own family history and patterns in your other relationships. Look for other patterns of cutting off in your family tree.


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