Estrangement from an adult child can happen for any number of reasons. Sometimes it is the child’s spouse who demands distancing from family. Other times it may be due to an adult child becoming abusive and the parent needs to cut off ties for safety reasons. And sometimes the reason can seem inexplicable. Whatever the cause, the loss can be heartbreaking. If it does not resolve, it can feel like a death. Compounding the problem, older couples may not agree on how the reality came to pass or on what to do and this may cause friction. And other family members may have strong opinions or judgments, adding to the distress. Not surprisingly, powerful feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety and depression may emerge. There may also be significant grief. Older adults living with estrangement deserve support and understanding from others. Healing is a process and takes time. Seeking professional counseling can help with the challenging practical and emotional problems surrounding the experience.
Experience has taught me that when it comes to family life, nothing is simple or formulaic. Children who remain close to their parents didn’t all grow up on Sunnybrook Farm. And those who distance themselves or choose to have zero contact haven’t all done so because their parents failed them in some significant way. (Though, of course, some have.) Many fine parents have children who pull away — sometimes for reasons the parents cannot figure out.
If your grown child has pulled away, ask yourself this: Is there an unresolved issue that needs to be addressed? Is there something I might do to make that resolution possible? Is there something I need to apologize for or forgive?
Difficult as it is, I’ve seen many parents remain openhearted to their estranged children, reaching out, inviting contact, expressing their love, with no expectation or insistence that it be reciprocated. Sometimes all we can do is leave the porch light on with a key under the mat.
About The Author
Professor of Human Development, Cornell University; Karl Pillemer’s 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice From the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. For more information on the Marriage Advice Project, please visit the website, like the project on Facebook, and follow on Twitter:@karlpillemer.
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When You Don’t Live Up to Your Parents Expectations by Karl A. Pillemer, Ph.D., Professor of Human Development, Cornell University
How do today’s parents cope when the dreams we had for our children clash with reality? What can we do for our twenty- and even thirty-somethings who can’t seem to grow up? How can we help our depressed, dependent, or addicted adult children?
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