Ten million Gen X and Baby Boomer parents have estranged adult children. Parents wonder: How did this happen? Where did I go wrong? While time, in and of itself, does not necessarily heal, actions do, and while every estrangement includes situation-specific variables, there are practical, effective, and universal techniques for understanding and healing these not-uncommon breaches. Tina Gilbertson, psychotherapist and author of Reconnecting with Your Estranged Adult Child: Practical Tips and Tools to Heal Your Relationship, has developed techniques and tools over years of face-to-face and online work with parents, who have found her strategies transformative and even life-changing.
We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt from the book.
# # #
Try not to let shame, hurt, or bitterness stop you from gaining a clear understanding of how this happened. Has it happened before in your family? Did your child learn to cut people off when she was young? How has the communication been, not just with her but in the family in general? The more you understand, the more avenues there are for change.
Get counseling. You don’t have to cope with this alone. In counseling you can attend to your own evolution as a human being with a heart, a mind, a soul, and a purpose on this earth. Which of your own inner Child’s needs have yet to be met? What might you be capable of, given enough support? Your personal growth is not a consolation prize. It’s the prize. And when you’re winning, your child can win, too.
Dare to hope. The majority of adult children are not happy about being estranged from parents. They wish like crazy for even one small reason to thaw. They may be afraid to hope that things could be different, but you don’t have to be. You have the power to set the tone for the relationship for the rest of your life. Can you believe in yourself enough to try?
Make a plan for reestablishing contact. First, decide whether you feel strong enough to make an attempt — or several attempts — at contact that may be rejected. If this is the way it’s been, it’s not likely to change right away. If you’re not sure you’re ready, find ways to fill your bucket until you’re stronger.
Reestablishing contact is a delicate process: technically, you’re violating your child’s request for no contact. But as the Parent you don’t have to give the Child everything she demands. Sometimes what the Child wants is less than what she deserves. Everyone is worthy of parents who will love and cherish them in ways they can appreciate. You might need to make a few changes in the dynamics to help your child feel that way about you, but I’m betting you’re up for the effort.
Your child didn’t desire any more contact with the old you, but he hasn’t yet met the new you — the parent who has spent time grieving, healing, and growing, and has come out the other side a more whole person. The new you is calmer, more mature, and committed to taking responsibility for the relationship you share with your child. Let that image of a new you inspire you to move forward with confidence, and become the finest Parent you can be.
When reestablishing contact, your best chance for success is with a message that comes from a place of calm, caring, and humility — the opposite of self-centeredness. Remember that humility is the prerogative of the powerful. Those with no clout have nothing to be humble about.
Your reconnection message should do the following and little else:
- Acknowledge the no-contact request.
- Apologize for not being able to fulfill the request anymore.
- Validate the child’s desire for no contact with the old you.
- Assert your own responsibility to create a better relationship.
- Communicate your openness to criticism.
- Avoid laying claims to grandchildren.
- Let the child know when they can expect further communication.
The more you respect your child’s boundaries, the sooner you’re likely to be invited in.
Even if the initial contact goes well, be prepared to give it time. The most common response to positive contact is more silence. Chalk it up to ambivalence and a need to see consistency; don’t be confused or discouraged by continued silence. Reconciliation is a process, not an event.
If it’s clear your child wants space, the best thing you can do for your future relationship is to tolerate missing them right now. The fact that time’s a-ticking is a cruel fact of life, but it doesn’t change what works. The most respectful response to a request for silence is silence.
Estranged adult children don’t want to be lulled into a false sense of security only to be disappointed when positive changes fail to stick. They may fear that if they respond right away, they’ll get hooked into an interaction that feels disappointingly familiar. They might feel safer taking a wait-and-see approach to new developments.
No matter what changes you make in the way you relate to them, trust requires consistency, and consistency always takes time. Silence is just another interval in the necessary passage of time. Try not to think of it as a waste. It’s not. Maintain your course and remember that the only constant is change.
# # #
Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist and the author of Reconnecting with Your Estranged Adult Child. Her work has been featured in Forbes, Fast Company, Glamour, Real Simple, and Redbook. In 2019, Tina cofounded www.ReconnectionClub.com, offering education, community, and support to help estranged parents repair their relationships with their adult children. Originally from Vancouver, BC, Canada, she now lives in Denver, CO. Find out more about her work at www.TinaGilbertson.com.
Excerpted from the book Reconnecting with Your Estranged Adult Child. Copyright © 2020 by Tina Gilbertson.