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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One thought on “Prodigal children? How many estranged adult children return?

  1. Susanna F.


    I have three adult children: two daughters and a son. All of them are estranged from me. My older daughter has been estranged for 18 years and she has three children of her own I have never met, and never will. I have reached the stage where I no longer wish for reconciliation with her. She is now a total stranger and I fear that if by dint of some miracle, reconciliation were to occur, she may well estrange again, leaving new wounds, especially if I form a relationship with my grandchildren by her.

    However, my other two adult children have now rejected me. This happened over the last three weeks. My son sent an insulting letter to his father (my husband) and referred to both him and me by our first names in a disparaging way, accusing us of being “shit” parents. I have to admit that there were things we could have done much better in bringing up our children. However, the situation was complicated by grinding poverty and a dysfunctional relaltionship with their grandparents (my parents) who looked after them whilst I worked or sought work. Because of the amount of time my children spent with their grandparents, they grew up with their values rather than ours and openly stated that they preferred their home to ours. I was often unemployed and my husband earned a poor salary. Our home lacked carpets and good furniture. It was often quite cold in winter as we could not afford adequate fuel. Their grandparents home, by contrast, was warm and comfortable, with soft, comfortable armchairs and sofa. Differences in political values were a source of conflict: my husband and I were and are socialists, whereas my parents, who were formerly Labour, became Tory voters (we live in the UK). My parents also disrespected our decision to become vegetarian, and to bring our children up as such. I can remember my late father calling our diet “rubbish food”. We were the type of people who were and are intellectually curious, basically questioning everything, whereas my parents were the kind of working-class people who accepted the status quo and lived their lives according to it.

    My younger children (daughter and son) are now 39 and 35 respectively (my firstborn is 41). My younger daughter has married into the middle class. Her husband is a senior lecturer in a university who has obtained a professorship. After some struggle with infertility, they now have a lovely little boy who will soon celebrate his third birthday. After a previous estrangement I established what I thought was a good relationship with my younger daughter over many years. I have been there for her when she despaired of becoming pregnant, I was there to congratulate her when she announced she was at last pregnant with my grandson. I supported her through that pregnancy, through a difficult childbirth and the first stages of motherhood. I visited her regularly, although she lives some 70 miles away. During the time I was there I helped her with housework and spent time with my grandson. I have supported her with money, and have purchased items of clothing for her and for my grandson. I have also purchased toys and books for him. Everything seemed to be going well, despite some hypersensitivity on her part about certain issues, which I did everything possible to avoid talking about, until Covid 19 appeared.

    This led to a marked change in her attitude to me. I was no longer welcome at her home as I was suspected of carrying the virus. Her father and I tend to be sceptical about the value of lockdowns, mask wearing and, when it arrived, the coronavirus vaccine. We are ‘left lockdown sceptics’. When I made my views known to my daughter, she responded by suddenly cutting me off, stating. “I do not want my son to grow up in the company of someone as selfish as you”. This was totally unexpected and devastatingly hurtful. About three weeks later she phoned me as if nothing had happened. I accepted the reconciliation, although we did not meet. I purchased a videocamera around Christmas time, so that I could share some small part of Christmas day with her and my grandson. As the months went by and restrictions lifted I hoped that I could again visit, and although my daughter stated that she did not want me in her home, I hoped that with the warmer summer weather, we could meet in the open space. My daughter and her husband decided to accept the vaccine, and with this, the pressure on me to follow suit increased. I made it clear that I felt (and still do feel) that at present the vaccine is experimental. I was concerned that it had never at any time been tested on people in my age cohort.

    At the beginning of this month (August), after a somewhat frosty phone call from my daughter, who, again made clear that there was no prospect of meeting in person until I had the vaccine, I was sent a rude and nasty e-mail in which she stated that her son needed real contact with me and that as I could not provide it she was no longer able to maintain contact with me . She stated that he was at a stage in his development where he was not interested in brief phone calls or videocalls. She also stated that she was pregnant with her second child, and that she could not risk being around me owing to the health risk to her, her son and her unborn child that I presented. I was absolutely devastated and asked her to reconsider. She replied shortly afterwards stating that the decision had caused her tearful and sleepless nights but she felt she had no alternative but to cut me off. She then stated that she would always love me and wished me a good life. I then replied again, stating that a break with her and my grandson would make me “sad beyond words”. Her next, and last reply stated that she was at that moment losing her baby after she had been told at an antenatal examination that there was no heartbeat. I stated that I was shocked to hear that bad news and that my thoughts were with her. I said that I was there for her if she wanted to talk and gave her my mobile number (she already had this, but I thought that she may have forgotten it under the dreadful circumstances of losing her expected child). I also stated that although it cannot take away the pain, it sometimes helps to talk to someone who has had experience of that kind of loss. I said that I could do some research into organisations that might help that were local to her. I have heard nothing since, as she stated “do not contact me in any way, I want to grieve in private with my husband and son”. I feel really devastated by this. In three weeks I have lost my daughter, my grandson, and his uncle, my own son. None of them now want any contact with either me or my husband. My daughter had always compared her sister-in-law (husband’s sister), who is a hospital doctor, to me in a way that was grossly detrimental to me. Unfortunately, the sister-in-law works in a hospital in which there are people with severe coronavirus disease. To make matters even worse, around the time my daughter and son were ditching me, I had a mild case of coronavirus infection myself. It was like a bad cold and I am now fully recovered. Having had this ‘brush’ with the disease. I am now more fully convinced than ever that social policies that treat it as if it is the 21st century equivalent of the Black Death are very wrong. Conversely my daughter, her husband and my son are pro-vaccine, pro-lockdown zealots.

    At the age of 73, I am still working part time. Things are not good at work as the job has changed beyond recognition over the 12 years I have been doing it. I experience my workplace as exploitative, hostile and abusive but know that at my age I will never get another job if I leave, particularly as I will need a reference from my manager, who is a bully. Due to my grief over my multiple estrangements and the loss of my unborn grandchild, as well as the fact that I felt obligated to continue to work (at home) through Covid, I have made mistakes at work. My manager has now booked me in for additional ‘supervision’ and I fear that she is launching another attack against me. I fear that she is trying to gather evidence for a disciplinary hearing or capability procedure, although I did inform her last week, giving as little actual information as possible that I am suffering from, and grieving, multiple losses.

    I have purchased both of Sheri’s books and I am now awaiting their delivery. I have two questions: how do I cope with multiple loss, and have others in my situation who are working found coping with estrangement(s) having a negative effect on work performance. If so, how can someone in this situation cope with attacks by management whilst grieving the loss of contact with family members?

    Sorry that this letter is so long.


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