by 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.
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:
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.
Emotional scars after an adult child’s estrangement