Prodigal children? How many estranged adult children return?

prodigal childrenby Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Prodigal children—it’s a term I sometimes hear used by parents for their estranged adult children.  They’re hopeful that as happens in the Bible account of the prodigal son, their adult children will come to their senses, realize their errors, and return to the family changed for the better.

They may be right. Their estranged sons and daughters may turn out to be prodigal children. Adults who disconnect from their families may, in fact, at some point realize they want their family back.  It’s natural for parents to maintain hope.

How many estranged adults are truly “prodigal” children?

Recently, a mother asked if I had statistics. How many estranged adult children, she wondered, end up successfully reconnecting?

For me to come up with an accurate statistic like that would require taking the same people whose info I used in the book (9,000 parents) and reconnecting with each and every one of them. And then you’d have to reconnect again to find out if more reconciled in a later year. Or some left the family again. It would go on and on. Longitudinal studies like that are difficult to do. That’s one reason why, no matter the subject, few such studies are completed.

A study of a quantity of “average” families might also yield results, though perhaps less accurate. Families might be asked if they had ever had a son or daughter become estranged. And if they had, did they reconcile?

I am working on research right now about the families who do reconcile with their prodigal children (or estranged adult children, if that sounds better to you). Although I am more focused on the circumstances and experiences than the numbers.

If you have reconciled, please take the survey, Reconciling with Estranged Adult Children, and share the experience so that other parents might benefit from what you have learned.

Prodigal children? Or a gap that widens?

As of this writing, the survey has not shed much helpful light. It’s like a client said to me the other day: “The more time goes on, the wider the gap becomes.”

This mother of an estranged daughter—who she hopes will one day return to her—echoes the troubling feelings expressed by many other parents: The more years go by the less a return might feel like reuniting with a precious son or daughter as it would be about meeting a stranger.prodigal children

For some it may be even worse.  After all, this is a person they used to know. They may start to regard prodigal children more like a neighbor known since babyhood. A neighbor that grew up and put them on total ignore. Or maybe did and said hurtful things. Maybe even shocking things that sullied reputations, emptied bank accounts, and created additional rifts. The neighbor might have returned a few times for short stays and been welcomed with open arms and hearts . . . and then wreaked havoc and caused further damage.

After so many dashed hopes when contact is made for the wrong reasons, recognizing sincere intentions might be difficult. There are consequences to continued hurtful behavior, even when there’s forgiveness (as is explained in a prior article: Why forgive?). Trust can be a vulnerable thing.

Prodigal children: not necessarily a religious connotation

Obviously, the story of the prodigal has deeper meanings than how the term is being used  here. This is not intended as a religious commentary or lesson.

If you’re estranged adult child did return to you, please take the survey and share your experience. I hope to share some happy reconciliation stories in the future.

An unknown future: What can you do now?

Many parents pray for their estranged adult or “prodigal” children. Many wish for their happiness, that they live fulfilling lives, and also maintain hope that they will someday reconcile. Of course, maintaining hope doesn’t mean staying stalled, forever sad, and unable to enjoy life. Don’t fall into the trap of limiting your life until or unless your son or daughter returns to you.

Life is fleeting. Live it fully. Now.

Parents of estranged adults really can have happy, productive lives, and still hold out hope for a son or daughter’s return. Along with information to help parents move peacefully forward, that’s one of the messages conveyed in my book, Done With The Crying, To find out more, go to the Amazon store and put these words into the search box:

prodigal child

Hit enter, and you’ll find Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children on the first page of results. If you click the title, you’ll be taken to its main listing where you can read more about the book as well as reader reviews. It’s now available in either paperback or E-book (Get your Kindle). Watch for the upcoming audio version next.

More reading:

Shape your new normal

Emotional scars after an adult child’s estrangement

The Boat








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12 thoughts on “Prodigal children? How many estranged adult children return?

  1. April MC

    Sheri McGregor has written the most fantastic book for us mothers whose child(ren) have decided life without us is better than life with us. However, I is there a book that explains the adult child's position? I would like to read about these children of estrangement because I cannot wrap my brain around the WHY? WHY? WHY? I am a computer scientist, so perhaps it's the 1 and 0 part of me that wants to reconcile this incongruity of a mother who loved the best she could only to have her life's work walk out the door. This is illogical to me, yet it DID happen to me. So, as much as I LOVE Sheri McGregor's book, is there a Sheri McGregor-type of book written "by the other side"? Would a book like this help us?

  2. Valerie

    After 2.5 years, my son came back. Yes, it can happen.

    Divorce is an ugly thing. I am a Mom. My son needed his Dad. And he needed to feel like Dad was right.

    Now Dad has married his student… things get a little more obvious. It is easier to figure out the truth.

    So we are hopefully on the path to healing.

    Be true to yourself. It will reward you eventually.


  3. Becky

    After 8 years of estrangement I received word that my daughter had passed away. Guilt, anger, resentment, pain all fight for their place in my mind. Now I will have to wait until I die to see her again.

    1. Callalilly

      I am so sorry for the loss of your daughter. I have always assumed that I would be the one to go first and my ED would be left (maybe) with the doubts, guilt etc. Your reply gives me pause and reflection.


  4. Victoria Z

    I found the writings and research on adult children estrangement to be very helpful, however, disagree with resolution or reconcile responsibility to be placed on the shoulders of the Parents. I have buried 2nd Son of four, and survived a husband. My eldest “chose” estrangement 17 yrs ago. He has disillusioned memories post alcohol abuse many years. Now clean, in admisdt divorce, calls me with threats that I not have contact with his Ex. One child age Ten. The “pain” has surfaced for me and I thought I buried him 17 yrs ago. Now what!!?? I refuse to allow anyone to abuse me. This does not mean that I ever stopped loving him. I wish he believed this.

    1. rparents Post author

      Hi Victoria,

      I know the feeling of finding experts who believe the burden is on the parents. One of the reasons I researched and wrote my book is because of the lack of solid research and expert advice that makes sense. I think you will find my book sensible, practical, and well-researched–not the same old blame the parents routine. It’s not unusual for new contact to stir things up. Parents in situations of aftershock such as yours, or those undergoing the initial shock are finding it helpful. I hope you will, too.

      Sheri McGregor, site owner and author of Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children

  5. Carter B.

    I got this web site from a friend, and then bought the book, Done With The Crying by Sheri McGregor, M.A.. It has been life-changing for me, the father of two estranged adult sons. I tried for years, and was always unhappy and in a kind of limbo situation, waiting, hoping, trying. Now they know, I told them, that my door is open if they want to get in touch. BUT I have moved on in my life. Gotta do it people, before its too late. And thanks to Sheri McGregor who can help every step of the way. The book is the best $ ever spent. Signed, Carter B. aka Happy Again

  6. Lynne

    I always need to say…hello to all like myself. Always such a good thought to know we have each other here to support and receive support. Recently a prodigal son has come back into my life. I am happy about this but also very cautious. He recently had a brush with the law and was possibly looking at 30 days in jail. I know this scared him. During this time he came to see me. Looking back on his life I always held out hope that he would just plain grow up. He is 43 years old. I am taking this prodigal son just one day at a time. I know not to set myself up in the idea he has changed. My thought is just to love him the best I can. Not to expect anything. I have had my hopes dashed many, many times. So I do not do that anymore. I just wanted to post today and say yes the prodigal is back at the present moment. Don’t know how long it will be but I just show him kindness and love when he is around. Maybe someday my ED will return too. But life is good regardless what my children do. I found joy and happiness in my life and this Does Not depend on whether they are in my life or not. To all who are new at this pain of rejection I want to say to you it will get better. The horrible pain will ease. It will just take time. Loving thoughts to you all. Lynne

  7. ProdigalsMom

    I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the biblical story of the prodigal son Luke 15:11-32 and a few things I’ve noticed: 1. The prodigal son does not have a change of heart as much as a hungry belly. He never really seems sorry for the pain he’s caused his father and brother. 2. “While he was still a long way off” The father watched the horizon for his lost son hoping for his return. 3. When the prodigal son returned, the father asked no questions. 4. The faithful son resented the father’s unconditional welcome of his brother. 5. The story is unresolved, we don’t know if the relationship lasted past the banquet.

    It seems that this story many of us are living is a condition of selfish human behavior and has been around a long time! Thoughts to ponder…

  8. BeeHere4Me

    The parable is an illustration to teach parents how to handle a Prodigal child. The son took his inheritance and left. This was equal to wishing your parents dead then abandoning them. The father did not beg, compromise his values or go out to rescue him. Instead, the son became humble and remorseful and had to find his own way back home. Under those conditions, he respected his father.

    Although the Bible symbolical writing, I understand the elements of this parable, and I found that Sheri’s book, Done With the Crying, is the best “how to” for parents in this situation. There is no promise of reconciliation, and for some, the answer is “No”. If the child without remorse and disrespectful, it seems best for all to remain estranged. Meanwhile, enjoy living life while you are alive.


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