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60 and Estranged from an Adult Child? How Not to Deal with It

By Marie Morin November 14, 2022 Family

Estrangement is a widespread and stigmatized condition when an individual cuts ties with one or more family members. Over one-quarter of the population deals with either an adult child or another family member’s decision to disconnect. Cut-off family members and parents experience grief marking the loss of the relationship status.

Sadly, anxiety concerning whether an adult child will resume communication can linger. Through uncertainty and discomfort parents search for how to cope with the onslaught of thoughts and the loss of their adult child. Estranged parents feel bewildered and wonder what to do.

Estranged Parents

Recently, awareness has increased with stories of celebrity estrangements. People are more familiar with adult children cutting ties with their parents. But with all the uncertainty surrounding the condition, what should parents do?

Each story is unique, but parents typically respond with many uncomfortable emotions. Losing the relationship status with an adult child can illicit anger, guilt, denial, bargaining, and shock.

Estrangement’s complex shape differs from the loss caused by death. There are no ceremonies with supportive family and friends. The shame often binds parents to secrecy. Well-meaning friends usually don’t know what to say, or they suggest unhelpful advice. The sad fact that an adult child has decided to intentionally separate is heartbreaking.

No parent is prepared for their kid to walk away from them. Usually, the unwanted break-off leaves parents in a heap of reactions that potentially harm their prospects of resolving the problem. Other family members take sides, and the estrangement with your adult child can evolve into a crisis of epic proportions. In addition, parents can be angry and react harshly by expunging their children in retaliation.

Parental Expectations Vs. Adult Kids Expectations

The more I speak with parents in my practice, the wider the divide appears. As we age, we recognize the temporary nature of our lives. Our time resources are diminishing. We are keenly aware of our priorities. If we have families, we likely want to strengthen our relationships.

We want to spend holidays and perhaps vacations together. We like being included in family functions. Exceptions to desiring more time were when the family was entrenched in dysfunction, toxicity, or abuse.

Generally, parents want closer ties than their kids. In their developmental life stage, adult children consider their careers, friendships, interests, and family units. They are less likely to prioritize communication with their parents since their priorities are elsewhere. Indeed, there are exceptions. However, studies of individuals over their lifespan defer to perceptions supporting polarized priorities.

Contributors to Cut-Offs

Parental expectations of wanting closer family ties and the gap with what adult children desire is just one facet of estrangement. Studies implicate personality, environment, parental attachment, intergenerational stressors, divorce, parental alienation, poverty, mental illness, and addictions in the likelihood of family estrangement.

Adult children can couple with a toxic partner or are unhinged over inheritance matters. Families can be brutal when there are different lifestyles and values. Parent-child relationships that are overly close-enmeshed and over-dependent can backfire into a cut-off. When it strikes, all parties are impacted.

Studies indicate that adult children experience grief but claim they do it to save themselves. Something went on that was too much for them to bear, so they needed space. Parents are shocked, angry, guilty, ashamed, bewildered, anxious, and afraid. The anxiety over resolving and understanding what on earth happened can be devastating.

Moving Towards a Newfound Acceptance

Parents grieve and process to find their way through. The stories they tell are filled with confusion and sometimes regret. What happened? Where did I go wrong? What is wrong with me? What happened to my child?

Parents process their feelings by moving towards them courageously. They talk to a safe person, resume activities they enjoy, and spend time with those that love and value them. They focus on caring for themselves and learning communication skills.

Coleman’s Five Mistakes

Joshua Coleman, psychologist and author of Rules of Estrangement, shares the estrangement with his daughter and clinical expertise. His experience working with parents of estranged adult children and research includes the “five mistakes” parents make.

Interestingly, the five mistakes are also common among non-estranged parents. Brave parents admit they are angry, upset, and hurt about the unfairness of the estrangement condition. Anxiety over resolving the cut-off can lead to thinking reconciliation will happen quickly.

This false expectation can lead to frustration and disappointment. I hear from parents overwhelmed by guilt and regret that they resorted to exploding on their adult child. Many also assume that their kid’s cut-off is all about them.

Joshua Colemans Five Mistakes Parents Make

  1. Motivate by Guilt
  2. Return Fire with Fire
  3. Believe the Relationship is Based on Fairness
  4. Thinking Reconciliation Will Happen Quickly
  5. Assuming That Your Kids Distant Behavior is All About You

What to Do When You Feel Guilty

Guilt is a self-accusation over something you feel you did wrong. If you are hypercritical and ruminating on your mistakes, ask yourself if beating yourself up has worked for you.

All parents make mistakes; we posture our amended thinking by reminding ourselves we did the best we could at the time. Most parents have regrets, but we can’t allow them to control us. If we find ourselves stuck in guilt and regret, we should get support to work it through. In essence, we need to forgive ourselves for being imperfect and move forward.

The positive side of recognizing our mistakes is committing to future improvements. Regarding our adult kids, there are wiser ways to deal with them than we are inclined to, especially when we are grieving. Joshua Coleman suggests parents identify what they did, take responsibility, and consider making amends.

Estrangement is extraordinarily stressful and heartbreaking. The cut-off harms all parties, but parents find themselves ill-prepared and grasping for solutions and answers. When we are estranged, being informed, engaging in self-care, and understanding adult children and the contributors to the cut-off prepare us for the possible length of our estrangement.

Being self-compassionate and processing your grief over the loss of the relationship status will strengthen you and help you to move forward. Your life will be different; however, you can find joy again if you choose.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Are you committed to a self-care routine that manages stress and its effects on your body and psychological state? What books have been most helpful to you?

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Shirley

I’m just having to accept that our grown up children no longer feel a need to include us in any of their activities ☹️I only know what they are up to by looking on the internet. Have voiced my feelings about it but to no avail so it’s got get on with our lives

Pattie

I have experienced the on-again/off-again treatment from two of my adult children. There has never been a distinct reason given, and it finally came to a point when I can no longer except the abusive and disrespectful Ness in my life. My health begin to show signs of my, depression and unhappiness, and it finally came to where I had to choose myself and my well-being over chasing them and the constant slap in the face. I found the book “But It’s Your Family…Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members and Loving Yourself in the Aftermath “ by Dr. Sherrie Campbell. This book helped me immensely, and I have learned to practice more self love, self care, and self-control I learned I cannot control anyone else for their decisions, or actions, and that I am only in charge of my words, my actions and my reactions. I am now learning to love the people more that love me and to appreciate myself daily. I am also practicing on how to become a responder, not a reactor. peace has definitely entered my life and although I wish things were different, I am happy with who I am.

Joann

Dr. Sherrie is wonderful!! I follow her on Facebook. Her daily messages helped me get through the roughest parts of letting go.

Bethany

I went through estrangement with both of my sons at different times and for different reasons. Both times were fairly short lived. Approximately 4 months. Eventually they both came back to me. When they did, nothing was said about the past. We just started over. It’s never happened again. The reason probably was two fold. They always knew my love for them is unconditional. The second being that I was a social worker fore decades and had a good handle on mental health issues.

Marie LoPresti Morin

Hi Bethany:
Thank you for sharing your story. I am very happy for you. You make an excellent point about not hashing up the past. Successful reconcilers know that leaving the past alone is what works when reconciling with an estranged family member. I’m glad you wrote. Warmly, Marie

Marsha

My estrangement with my son and his family has gone on for 6 years now..in the beginning I was angry that he would allow this to happen, however time does heal your heart..My wish for him was always total happiness with his family and himself. Their children are now adults with no intentions of connecting and that’s fine.

Marie

Marsha, it is so good to know that time will help heal the heart. You seem like very strong and confidant person.

Kathryn

The last line says it all: “you can find joy again if you choose.” A simple, but extremely loaded, statement. Coming to grips with the reality that our children have achieved some of what we tried to teach, such as independence and responsibility, also means seeing them less often b/c they have careers and their own interests. And they want to spend time with friends – without me. Isn’t this what we strived and hoped for? Well yes, but … There’s no “but” that makes any sense. I tell myself there are numerous places that need volunteers and it’s up to me to decide if I’m going to be sad and lonely or choose to do something about it. I do find joy in their success, but darn it, I would still love to see them more often.

MARIE L MORIN

Hi Kathyrn: Thank you for your honesty. Yes, I agree we hoped for their independence but it sure does sting when they have others they gather with and us less. I’m glad you wrote.
Warmly, Marie

Wendy Abboty

I have a adult son who recently had my 4th grandchild, his 1st, he hasn’t spoken to me in over 18mths. My daughters child was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma my son living in the same town refused to help his sister & spoke horrific words against her & her children. I no longer knew my son he was awful. He is working through childhood trauma (his words) suffered from myself.
I just try to put it all away

MARIE L MORIN

Hi Wendy:
I’m sorry to hear about your son. I hope that you can process this and find your way through it. Thank you for sharing. Warmly, Marie

Catherine Vance

My husband’s young adult children made the, “choose her of us” thing when I came into the picture as the second wife (no, not a homewrecker, but they thought if I hadn’t come along, Mom and Dad might reconcile.) Our approach was, “We cannot control others, only ourselves,” so the birthday cards and warm wishes from him or him & I both continued.
Send letters, cards, writings saying how much you love them and hope you re-connect someday. Do it until the mail comes back, “Return to Sender.” You will be able to put your head on your pillow at night knowing you did what you could. (One child reconciled, the other did not.) I am a family law attorney. Know that every family has a story like yours, either the generation before, or cousins or somewhere. It is everywhere to some degree.

The Author

Marie Morin is a therapist and wellness coach at Morin Holistic Therapy. She helps women develop a daily self-care routine, so they overcome perfectionism and limiting beliefs and be their most confident selves. Marie is a grateful blogger and YouTuber. Find out more at morinholistictherapy.com and contact her at morinholistictherapy@gmail.com.

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