Ask Sheri McGregor: Letters to estranged adult children
I routinely hear from parents asking if I have sample letters to adult children, showing them what to say. They hope their words will motivate a reconciliation. With so many “experts” out there recommending amends letters to estranged adult children and telling parents what to do or say to get results, it’s no wonder so many parents believe that if they can say just the right thing, their children will respond as desired. I have written extensively about this subject in my books to help parents of estranged adults. Here, I’ll share one email from parents whose situation may be useful for others. We cover their question about what to say—and more.
Ask Sheri McGregor–Letters to estranged adult children:
What words will motivate reconciliation?
Q: Hi Sheri. Our 29-year-old son who does not live with my husband and I anymore, has mental issues including depression, anxiety and a mood disorder. He is currently in therapy and is taking medication. He also smokes marijuana and has been doing this for at least 10 years.
Six months ago, shortly after he moved out, he blocked us on his phone, and he did not reply to our text messages. He stopped speaking to us and would not reply to our emails. He only speaks through my parents, and only if absolutely necessary. He gets mad if we reach out or try to reconcile directly or through someone else. We hear from my parents that he wants to reconcile but he is not ready nor is he ready to apologize.
Is there anything we can do to get him to contact us sooner rather than later or do we have to wait for him to contact us when he is ready? We are sending an e-card to him on his birthday soon. Is there a good message to write in it to encourage him to call us?
As background, we were not getting along before the estrangement, and he was verbally abusive to us. During this estrangement, we have spoken only a couple of times, but it was not positive. He has been verbally abusive, talked behind our back and lied or exaggerated regarding our relationship and the facts. For six months, we have been hurt, angry and frustrated, but we understand it may be part of his mental illness or he is just taking it out on us that his life is bad right now. It is also hard to wait, but we will if we need to.
Is there anything we can do or do we wait? We are in therapy to learn how to better get along with him when he does come back.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and we appreciate your response.
Bernice and Hal
Answer from Sheri McGregor
A: You know what, Bernice and Hal? You can just love him. You can say Happy Birthday and you can say you hope he’s doing well. You can even say you’d love to see or him, and if it’s true and fits, you could tell him that, in looking back, you regret your words or actions. (I add this because you said you weren’t getting along earlier.) However, to be absolutely honest, my guess is that he will do what he wants to do when he’s ready. If he is ever ready.
You asked if you “have” to just wait, etc. My feelings are that you don’t “have” to do anything. Having said that, though, trying to force him to speak to you isn’t likely to get a different result than you have already seen. Also, when sending letters to estranged adult children there are no magic, “just right” words to motivate your desired outcome (no matter who might say so). That’s his call. There are, however, things you can say that will perhaps push him away—and you likely know what they are. You mentioned your folks saying he’s not ready to apologize, for example. If you’re demanding an apology, mentioning that (again) might further enrage him.
You mentioned your son’s mental health issues. Anyone who has dealt with mental illness knows that those terms and diagnoses can’t begin to convey the actual situation, so I can’t fully know what all you have been through. Let me just say that, when given agency in their own lives, and the responsibility for their lives, relationships, and behavior, even people with mental illness often make better choices. Is it possible that your son doesn’t need to do that? It may be true, if everyone tiptoes around him. I talk about this more in Beyond Done With The Crying: More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children. Only you know how far you have bent toward enabling him or excusing his behavior, but you did mention his verbal abuse. My feeling is that abuse is not acceptable under any circumstances, and if it happens again, you might calmly say so and disengage from the conversation.
You also mentioned his long-term marijuana use. This will not enhance and may even interfere with any medication he’s taking. Nor will it help him think clearly toward his own progress. Unfortunately, in today’s cannabis friendly society, not all mental health clinicians are well informed.
Regarding the fact that you two are in therapy to learn how to better communicate with your son, that’s a wise move. Adult children with mental illness are sometimes manipulative or nonsensical, and patterns may have developed between you. Years of drain-circling conversations that make no sense can foster unhealthy communication habits. You are wise to educate yourselves in ways to break free from unhealthy patterns, learn to better recognize and manage your emotional responses in conversations with him, and avoid falling into argumentative traps that go nowhere and can escalate.
Finally, and I hope this doesn’t sound harsh, your note sounds a bit like your lives are all about your son—and perhaps have been for a very long time (even your therapy). While I understand the love and concern for his well-being, I hope that you will consider … just consider … living for yourselves more.
Rather than waiting around, consulting with your parents about him and worrying over your every word or action, how about forgetting about him a bit? How about enjoying a vacation together, or even just a weekend where you purposely avoid making him part of your conversation? How about trying something new—for the holidays and even beyond? How about letting him be an adult who will need to learn to navigate his challenges (even if he is mentally ill)? Small steps … letting go emotionally … might be helpful to all involved.
I know that this has all been heartbreaking and I fully understand your worry and hope for positive change. Believe me, I know. That’s your precious son! The thing is, you can let an adult child consume you—your time, your energy, your very life—or you can create boundaries for your own well-being and integrity (even interior boundaries in your thinking).
If, as your parents have said, your son does want to reconcile, taking care of yourselves now will prepare you. That’s every bit as important as learning to better communicate with your son. In any reconciliation, you will need to be strong and know how to take care of yourselves—because no one else will.
Sometimes, mental illnesses include elements of manipulative behavior as well as illogical thinking. So does addiction. While it is wise to learn how to better communicate and prepare for future contact, I hope you are working at your own wellness and future, too. You count. Parents can be supportive but cannot force adults to recognize that our support is needed by or right for them. Learn to care well for yourselves now, during this break.
As an aside, when other family members act as the go-between as you indicate your parents do, my alarm bells begin to ring. Sometimes, ulterior motives exist, or the situation is part of a bigger dysfunctional dynamic. I don’t know your details, so these thoughts may not be relevant for you, but grandparents may be eager to appease grandchildren. Their affection and love may follow a long history in their non-disciplinary roles with grandchildren. The old cliché of spoiling the grandchildren—and then giving them back to their parents—is at least rooted in truth sometimes.
Consider also whether the grandparents, in their advancing age, fully comprehend the situation. They may have found themselves in the middle, wanting to please everyone and trying to help. Too often, the peace of vulnerable older folks’ is highjacked by angry adults who are embroiled in family disputes and self-serving pursuits. This is true for grandparents and parents—who are getting older too. In Beyond Done, I cover more about the complexities of extended family as well as stress as we age and how we don’t recover so easily.
You may want to discuss your parents’ involvement in the situation with your therapist. With more complete details and your existing therapeutic relationship, he or she is can better assess your situation, and perhaps guide you and your folks to mitigate stress and attend to your own well-being,
I hope this helps a little.
Hugs to you, Bernice and Hal.
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