Tag Archives: help for parents of estranged adult children

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








Father’s Day for fathers of estranged adult children

What about Father’s day for fathers of estranged adult children?

by Sheri McGregor

fathers of estranged adult childrenI’ve asked dads and the people who care about them how they feel. Most of the fathers told me, “It’s just another day.” They blow off the holiday as if it doesn’t bother them at all. But there may be more to the story.

One father of an estranged adult son told me the holiday itself is no issue. “It’s going back to work on Monday that makes me sad,” he said. “Invariably, co-workers tell stories of what their children did for them. And there I am with nothing to say.”

So, what helps?

For fathers of estranged adult children on Father’s Day:

Recognize that feelings of sadness, anger, or frustration may lurk beneath the surface. The glad tales of other fathers can bring them up.

Before Father’s Day, figure out what you need. Then honor those feelings – – even if that means telling other children or your spouse what you really want for Father’s Day.

Plan ahead for the days after the holiday too. If you’re bothered by other dads’ happy Father’s Day tales, have a ready reply. A variation of the following is one way to excuse yourself: “That’s great. I wish I could talk but I’ve got a deadline right now.” An exit plan can help you feel prepared. Sure, this is avoidance, but sometimes removing yourself is the easiest, most self-supportive plan of action – – and it honors you and your feelings.

If you do want to talk, figure out who you’ll confide in. A supportive spouse, a friend who won’t judge you, a trained professional. . . .  Sometimes pets, with their unconditional love, make the best listeners. You could share your thoughts and feelings with God, talk it out to yourself while driving in the car, or speak into a smart phone’s memo app. Consider writing a letter to your estranged child if it helps (you don’t have to send it).

If your spouse asks you how you feel, realize they mean well – – even if you don’t want to talk. A simple thank you, and an assurance that you’re fine can go a long way.  

If you’re a person who isn’t into most any holiday, be aware of any generalized negative feelings about the day tugging at you. Those feelings could mix with negative thoughts about your situation as a the father of an estranged adult and bring you down.

For the people who love fathers of estranged adult children:

Again, recognize that unsettling feelings may lurk beneath the surface. And be cognizant of the days after the holiday, too. Father’s Day for the fathers of estranged adult children in our lives may be easy to get through happily. Then they come home in a foul mood on Monday (connect the dots).

Honor his feelings, let him share if he wants, but perhaps don’t press. If he wants to talk, he will. If he doesn’t, providing support and demonstrating love in quieter ways may help. One wife put it this way: “For the two years our son has been estranged, I’ve always asked my husband if he’s okay. And he always says he’s fine. Maybe it hurts me more than him, or maybe he just doesn’t want to burden me. So, this year again, I’ll pick up ribs from his favorite barbecue place. Then I’ll watch his favorite Westerns on Netflix with him.” Favorite foods, ample space to do as he wishes, and a few kind words about what a great man he is may be best.

A positive attitude.

Really, in all of the responses I received from fathers of estranged adult children about the day, the consensus is right: Father’s Day comes and goes. You get through it. Life goes on.

Related articles:

Holidays: How to manage them

Mother’s Day when your adult child is estranged

History of Father’s Day (outbound link)

The Boat

think about yourself instead of grown childrenA Grown Child’s Rejection: The Boat

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

Parents of estranged children may suffer insults, be called names, and be told they never did enough. They have fond memories of their sweet children, and recall themselves as always giving. To the best of their ability, these parents were generous, kind, and supportive. But their estranged adult children tell a different story. Maybe they say these moms and dads who did their best should never have had children. They’re told they weren’t rich enough to provide graduate school, didn’t let their sons or daughters do enough when they were kids, didn’t give them music lessons . . . You fill in the blanks.

We can’t control their perception any more than we can control their adult behavior. At some point, adults are responsible for their own lives. They can blame, inflict pain and abandon us. They may leave us struggling in their wake—-but we don’t have to stay there.

We cannot go back and change the past. If we feel we have done something wrong, we can apologize, ask for forgiveness and to try again, but we can’t force our children to participate in our future.

We can make the best possible decisions now though. We can think of ourselves rather than our grown children. We can make choices to benefit ourselves, and act on them. Right or wrong, our estranged adult children have decided what they’ve decided.

Will you remain the wake of your grown child’s rejection?

Imagine your child is on a boat, and that you are in the water below. See your son or daughter dropping all sorts of poison off the back of the boat. Imagine the angry, stinking words they have flung at you. See those poisonous words hitting the water with a splash. Acrid smoke rises from them. It stings your eyes, fills your lungs so you can barely breathe. You feel as if you’ll choke.

You cough and gag. But your child isn’t done yet. A net rises from the murky depths, stretching across the open water. You can’t swim toward the boat without getting caught, tangled in a hurting web you don’t understand. Your child throws out hooks, spills out chum that attracts vicious sharks.

Dazed and confused, you call out. “Wait. Help. Can’t we talk?”  But your child takes the helm. The boat speeds away.

See the wake of the boat, feel the choppy waves, smell the acrid fumes rising from their spiteful words, and see those sharks. . . . Now, what do you do?

Do you stay in that spot, paralyzed, barely able to hold your head above water as the sharks lunge and bite at the net?

Do you wait there, expending precious energy as you tread water, determined you can fix this no matter what? The horrible toxic clouds fill your lungs. . . .

Do you swim toward the net, determined to cut through, and put yourself in shark-infested waters to follow despite your grown child’s rejection of you?

Or … do you turn, and look for a way to save yourself?

You see a shore in the distance. The beach looks lonely, and uncertain. It’s a brand new world there. Not what you expected to be facing at this point in your life. You don’t know what a future there holds.

Swim to shore.

It’s like this when our lives take a sudden unexpected turn. We can view potential shores as scary and uncertain, and decide to stay in the wake of a boat that’s left us. We might even convince ourselves that staying still, waiting for our child to come back, despite the horrible poison and threats to our survival is what a good mother or father would do. Our child will come back . . . won’t she?

The boat gets smaller on the horizon. The sharks are lunging and biting at the net. The angry words are spilling out an ugly, contaminating slick.

Despite what’s happening, we might feel compelled to swim after the boat. Isn’t following our child, despite the horrors, what a truly good parent would do?  After all, isn’t a parents’ love unconditional?

We look back toward the shore, but . . . what will others think if we turn away from our own child, and swim to safety?

Imagine yourself in the water.

Do you see the sharks? Feel the poison burning your lungs? Can you see your estranged adult child, getting smaller and smaller as the boat speeds away—-yet somehow he looms so very large?

Maybe the boat whips around, and roars close. Your child tosses out a life ring. Relieved and grateful, you reach for it—-this nightmare is finally over!

Then your child snatches back the rope.

abandoned parentsMaybe your child doesn’t yell at you from the boat. Maybe she never flung out ugly accusations. Maybe your child only sped away, and left you in open water. You’re still in their wake, growing more weary as the water closes in on you.

What do you do?

I know this is melodramatic, but when we’re faced with the utter shock of a child we have loved and supported turning on us, we can feel just as threatened. The choice we face is similar. The shore where we can get out of the water, escape the sharks and the poison may look lonely and uncertain, but what is the alternative?

Get out of the water.

Turn and swim to the shore. You may find sunny beaches, creative sandcastles, and refreshing waterfalls. Perhaps there will be a storm, cliffs to climb, or you’ll have to bushwhack to find a rewarding path. If you try though, you’re sure to find banana and coconut trees, perhaps even pineapples athink of yourself instead of grown childrennd friends.

Get out of the water. When you do, you’ll find there are people who parents of estranged adult childrencare and are willing to help. You may find yourself walking along a shore of pretty shells. And as was posted on the Help & Healing for Parents of Estranged Adult Children Facebook page recently, a passerby may ask, Shell we have a good day? How will you respond?  Get the book–and get out of the boat for good.


Related articles:

Emotional scars after an adult child’s estrangement

Taking Care of Yourself

Reinvent yourself

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Anger: A Positive Energizer? Or An Easy Fix?

by Sheri McGregor

anger of adult child's rejectionLet’s start with the positive. Anger floods us with adrenaline (also known as epinephrine), so it can push a person to take action. Some of the biggest advances in history may have started with anger, or a form of anger such as frustration. Women’s right to vote, say. Or the need to find some way to read at night besides by candlelight.

Anger can be a motivator.

In the case of an adult child’s betrayal, anger can motivate parents to take positive action to help themselves. That can mean deciding not to allow your estranged adult child to further manipulate you. Maybe you decide to get counseling or take down some photographs that remind you of the pain. Or perhaps you will no longer allow an estranged child to define you. Instead, you give yourself credit for doing your best—and assign your child responsibility for his or her own life and choices.

Anger in the form of self-preservation might also spill over to acts to protect other family members. Maybe that means changing the locks, or making express statements in your Will. Your situation is unique.

 Anger as a crutch.

However, anger can also become a crutch–an easy “fix” that feels better than recognizing, admitting, and experiencing what’s at its core: realities such as vulnerability and the sting of rejection. Along with the adrenaline, our bodies react with the calming norepenephrine. So feeling anger can actually have a soothing effect (that feels better than emotional pain).

What’s wrong with that? Anger can have a dark side.

In the case of being wrongfully accused or unjustly rejected, anger might be expressed as indignant disbelief. That sometimes leads to an attempt to elevate yourself above those who hurt you.

Most of us have heard the expression, “I’ll show you.” The words are often accompanied by an attitude that sets a person toward accomplishment. But when it comes to anger over someone’s hurt, the attitude could morph into something more like, “I’ll get even,” or “You haven’t seen anything yet.” While that might feel satisfying in the moment, the win is probably temporary. Many of us believe that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Wouldn’t it feel better to have stepped back, thought about the situation, and responded to anger in a way that helps you feel good about yourself now—and later?

While people in the same situation might rally around anger because it represents their own feelings, or helps them feel better, anger can also become a wall. It can be off-putting to others (when we may need them the most).

It can be a scary thing to witness a person’s anger. So, while anger may act as a motivator, if we lean on it to the point of hurting other people, expecting them to also be angry, or get caught up in its expression and the chemical responses it elicits inside us, anger can end up hurting us.

Anger as a mask.

Anger can make us feel powerful, and also keep us from examining the emotions that lie beneath. In the case of an estranged parent, anger may protect us from admitting the horrible pain we feel over the rejection, and cover up the devastating way a child’s rejection threatens our identity.

Expressing anger may be a way to save face with others as well as ease our pain. It can be a sort of false bravado, because it’s less humiliating to pretend we’re strong, or that we don’t care, than allow other people to see how hurt we really are. Just because someone looks strong doesn’t mean they are. And even the strongest among us are at times vulnerable to feelings such as sadness, inadequacy, fear, or shame.

Don’t get stuck in anger.

If you’re having trouble with anger—whether it makes you uncomfortable, distresses those around you, or has become your go-to—be kind and forgiving to yourself. It is, after all, a natural reaction. But don’t get stuck in anger.

Rather, cultivate what might be more genuine strengths that will help you over time. Things like self-control in your thinking, speech, and actions. Patience that you can’t fix everything you’d like to right now (or maybe not ever), and patience with yourself as you move forward on this journey to reclaiming your life, happiness, and self-worth.

Watch for more articles in the future. For now, here is some related reading:

When your child rejects you: First steps to getting past anger

Books to help with anger

How to cope when an adult child cuts you out of their life



Why do I feel guilt?

rejected by an adult childEmotional well-being series.
Innocent Guilt: normal after conflict

by Sheri McGregor

One mother rejected by an adult child recently wrote that she felt “guilty.” She also said she had wondered what she did wrong but couldn’t identify much. So, was her “guilt” valid? Let’s take a look at guilt, a common feeling associated with the loss of an important relationship – – and when there’s conflict.

Guilt when rejected by an adult child: Should I have…?

Many of us are familiar with the guilt that can accompany the loss of someone we love in death. It’s common to wonder if we spent enough time, wish we’d have said how important they were to us, or even feel responsible in some way. When rejected by an adult child, we feel a similar loss, with many of the same questions.

Did I spend enough time with my son? Did I give my daughter too much freedom? Did I show him enough affection? Provide her enough structure? Cook the right foods? Tell him I loved him enough? For moms whose children have rejected them, the list of questions can go on and on.

Rejected by an adult child and left to puzzle

In interviewing mothers rejected by an adult child, it has become clear that very often there is no open conflict over a tangible act, omission or offense. Many mothers rejected by an adult child tell me they don’t get it. They did their best. They nurtured their child’s interests, cared for their physical needs, read the bedtime stories, sponsored the sports teams and memberships, helped them learn to drive, apply for a first job. . . .

These parents of estranged adults thought all was well. Everything seemed fine, and then one day, something changed. They received a note or phone call requesting no further contact, or were given a cursory explanation such as, “I need my space.” And then silence.

Some mothers say they first noticed a sort of cooling off. But busy caring for younger children and/or working full-time, they didn’t immediately react. After all, their adult children had lives of their own, and were often busy with their own work and even with their own growing families.

In some cases, the cutting off itself is what leads to conflict. When moms question what’s wrong, the adult child lashes out with accusations, or says things like, “You were never there for me!” When pressed for specifics, the adult child refuses to talk, strings together curse words, or simply walks away.

Situations are unique, but often parents are left to puzzle. Despite repeated attempts, there’s no explanation given. Without a chance to hash things out, there’s no chance to make amends if necessary, and move forward with a clear understanding what went wrong for a better future relationship.

In trying to no avail, parents get tired. We look back on our parenting, many times with other adult children who tell us we did fine, and conclude the problem doesn’t lie with us.

Why guilt?

Most parents rejected by an adult child initially react with a feeling of guilt because we’re so floored at our adult child’s cold behavior that we believe we must have done something wrong. Then, even when we critically self-examine and see that we did our best, other people accuse or dismiss us.

An uncle raises his brow. “What happened to make her so mad at you?” The questions carries judgment.

A co-worker avoids eye contact. “I can’t imagine that happening,” she says. The statement seems to carry accusatory conclusions.

A friend says, “It’s just a phase.” His words show that he lacks an understanding about the tenacity of the problem.

We can feel all alone. We may continue to question our parenting skills. And a vague sense of undefined guilt may edge our thoughts.

Unresolved conflict and guilt

Part of the problem may be the conflict we don’t understand. Left without solid answers, the conflict is unresolved.

A recent article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Philosophy examines the concept of “innocent guilt,” which occurs after conflicts. This guilt without cause is experienced by people who are not responsible for wrongdoing. The article explores philosophers’ writings that connect feelings of guilt to people who aren’t guilty. When they’re still suffering, victims of wrongdoing experience guilt as part of the aftermath of the conflict. Ethical persons suffer “innocent guilt.”

Parents of estranged adults know all too well the ongoing nature of their suffering. The grief, sadness, anger and other emotions common to the situation can persist. Part of what we experience as “guilt,” may be an ethical response, a completely natural emotional reaction to the conflict itself.

Our values and the outcome

Another reason why a sense of guilt may be common to parents rejected by an adult child is because, for many of us, a twinge of guilt serves as a reminder of our core values. Many say that twinge spurs them to do the right thing in any number of situations.

Loving parents, like the mom who said she felt “guilty,” have values that made them conscientious parents who did the right things. But if they did the right things, then what went wrong? It’s a paradox.

One mom spoke with a sense of pride when she recounted the way she raised her children (now estranged). The outcome dismays her. “You don’t expect to fail at motherhood.”

Relieving the suffering

The Journal of Applied Philosophy article highlights a need to work at relieving suffering that’s related to innocent guilt. For me, helping others via life coaching, creating this website, hearing other moms’ stories, and writing about the subject to help other parents rejected by an adult child has been a big part of my own healing process.

In a future article, we’ll explore more about feelings of guilt that aren’t justified, and ways to overcome those feelings. For now, know that by seeking information, you’ve taken a positive step. Youre moving toward recovery from loss, and moving past the pain of this isolating experience. You don’t have to endure this all by yourself. Leave a comment below – – I’d like to hear from you.Or reach out by taking the survey to help parents of estranged adults. You can also share your story, or join the community forum. Be sure to sign up for the email updates so you’ll never miss an article (scroll up to find the sign up form, at the top of the right-hand column).

An abstract of the article about innocent guilt can be found here.

 Copyright Notice: All content of any post or page found on any page at this site is protected by U.S. and international copyright laws. To share with others, provide a link to the page on this website where the content is found. Reposting of any content is not permitted without express permission. Please see Copyright Notice/Restrictions in the right-hand sidebar for complete copyright notice. You can always contact me with any quesions.


Estrangement between parents and adult children: Feeling stuck

estrangement between parents and adult childrenParents of estranged adults wonder: Is the relationship over for good? Will our son or daughter ever return to us? Or even (whether you want it or not): Will my estranged adult son show up on my death bed?

The painful ambiguity that goes with estrangement between parents and adult children can cause parents to remain in a holding pattern, with their lives in limbo.

Physical estrangement, psychological presence

Your adult child is estranged but present in your thoughts. So much time, energy and love goes into raising a child that we’re bound to think of them. That’s why family gatherings, holidays, and other special times can hold an odd tension between present and past.

My husband and I still live in the home where we raised all of our children, so reminders of our estranged adult child abound. When my family is together, the psychological presence of our estranged adult son looms, kind of like the proverbial 400-pound gorilla. Much of the time, we pretend it’s not there, but it sits in the corner nonetheless, beating its chest.

Estrangement between parents and adult children: common feelings

In a 2011 article in the journal, Families in Society, University of Newcastle research discusses estrangement between parents and adult children. Parents can feel stuck, not knowing whether their adult son or daughter will return or not. The ambiguous nature of estrangement can complicate the experience. But the questions and feelings shared by many parents of estranged adult children are normal.

You are not alone. Still, knowing that other parents have a similar experience doesn’t automatically make the feelings any easier to deal with. So, in light of the ambiguous nature of estrangement between parents and adult children, how do you manage the uncertainty? You can find help with this article: Dealing with Uncertainty.

Dealing with uncertainty

dealing with life's uncertaintyUncertainty: Help for parents estranged from adult children

Because parents of estranged adult children experience uncertainty about the relationship’s future, they can feel as if their lives are on hold. They find themselves in a sort of limbo between the past they shared and their uncertain future.

Help for parents of estranged adult children: Take control of now

While experiencing a sense of waiting, parents can begin to feel proactive and empowered if they take control in the present. Depending on each unique situation, taking control might include working toward reconciliation by reaching out to the estranged adult child. But don’t put your life on hold for an uncertain outcome. Embrace the present. Get involved. Take a class. Learn a new hobby.

Mr. Rogers used to sing a catchy tune telling kids to think of something to do while waiting. Mr. Rogers’ wise advice gets at taking control and driving your own happiness now.

Follows are three tips for handling life’s uncertainties.

Handling life’s uncertainties: Lose control

As parents, protecting our kids from pain comes naturally. That’s why parents of estranged adult children may ponder what-if scenarios. What if our estranged daughter doesn’t meet her new nephew until he’s ten? She’ll regret not knowing him sooner. And then there’s the other extreme. What if a death occurs? What if our estranged son waits until it’s too late? He’ll suffer guilt.

The more we speculate on what-ifs, the more we can get caught up in feelings – – for scenarios that haven’t occurred, and ones we can’t control anyway. Adults steer their own lives. Make a decision to let the thoughts and feelings go.

In my work as a life coach, clients devise short statements that help. Out loud or in your head, try something like this: Bottom line, I can’t control my adult child’s actions. Regret, guilt, or any other emotion will be his to live with.

Handling life’s uncertainties: Think better

Work through negative thoughts. Think more constructively. First, start listening to your inner monologue. When you hear a defeating thought, turn it around. Instead of thinking, “I can’t handle not knowing how all this will turn out,” switch to something more positive. Try, “I don’t like not knowing, but I can accept it for now.” Or, “This isn’t what I expected to happen, but it’s tolerable.”

Notice these aren’t giant leaps at joy and positivity. You wouldn’t jump to the top of a 50-foot ladder. Take realistic steps in the right direction. Over time, you can train your thoughts toward constructive and empowering ones.

Accepting uncertainty

In a 2009 article in the publication, Journal of Women & Aging, research focused on the reflections of older women. Stressful events in their histories included The Great Depression, and World Wars I and II. These events caused disruption of family life, economic hardship, significant loss, fears and uncertainties. The women’s resilience was demonstrated by frugality, reliance on social supports, and acceptance of their situation. These attitudes and actions can also be help for parents of estranged adult children.

None of us have had smooth life roads without a single bump or detour. For many of us, losing a child by estrangement is the most significant obstacle we have faced. Strength gained through past difficulties has helped prepare us. With support, encouragement, and the passage of time – – along with a little mental gymnastics, taking control, and acceptance – – we can get through this too.

As is explored in the article on resilient people listed in “Related articles,” below, one thing that is known to help people facing obstacles is to make purpose of the experience. What we do with our adversity, how we lead our lives despite our obstacles, can be powerful.

Consider getting involved to help parents of estranged adults. This might mean joining the forum where you can give and receive support. And you can take the survey to help parents of estranged adult children.

Related articles:

Estrangement between parents and adult children: Feeling Stuck

The Paradoxical traits of resilient people