by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
I can’t count how many times parents have written to me saying that just when they’ve gotten past the wincing pain and began to regain their joy of living, their estranged adult child makes contact. Why does this happen? What is it that brings adult children who reject parents back?
Energetically connected, or something more tangible?
Maybe we’re connected energetically to the people who are important to us, and that’s why adult children who reject parents suddenly make contact when Mom or Dad’s attitude has changed. Or, maybe there’s a more tangible explanation.
In my book, Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children , I advise parents not to follow their estranged adult children over the Internet or through social media accounts—and I take my own advice. My estranged son’s life, the people he chooses to be with, and the things he chooses to do are not my business. But even if you keep your eyes on your own life, that doesn’t mean your estranged adult children won’t follow you.
Parents whose estranged adult children suddenly make contact sometimes relate that it started with a photo or a bit of news that their son or daughter saw about them online. In our modern world with its virtual connections, it’s difficult to keep your private life completely private. And seeing parents well and happy might indeed trigger an adult child’s contact—whether in anger, for other motives, or out of a genuine desire to reconcile.
“They’re ba-ack.” Most of us recognize the now famous line from the scary 1980s sequel movie, Poltergeist II. Now, the phrase is sometimes used in fun to indicate an undesirable’s return. Although it may seem harsh to say, some parents can start to feel that way. They may wonder if their estranged adult children just want money. Have they come back to inflict more pain? Or do they really want to reconcile? Parents who have been repeatedly hurt wonder if they’re wise to trust, or fear the contact will only open up old wounds.
I frequently hear from parents whose estranged adult children have popped up and then disappeared again so many times that they no longer let themselves even go there emotionally. They no longer hope. You may feel as James does, a father whose adult children have been estranged for more than a decade. He says that he knows, “They’re only back to twist the knife.”
Some parents of estranged adult children have simply had enough. Because of emotional or financial abuse, they change their phone numbers, move away, and keep their personal information private. Because they’ve been bullied or repeatedly hurt, they can’t see opening themselves up to the possibility again. For these parents, no contact becomes a relief.
It’s even possible that some adult children who reject parents are miffed that they’ve lost emotional control. For manipulative people, or those with certain personality disorders, control may be everything—so a sense of losing their power could spur them to make contact.
It’s true, though, that most parents would want to reconcile. And sometimes adult children who reject parents later make contact with good intentions. In the last few months, a handful of parents have told me they have reconciled. Those who shared some of the details are hopeful to one day feel secure in those connections. For now, they admit to a variety of issues—and there’s more about that later in this article. It’s at least safe to say that where there is honest effort and communication, there is a chance. If you have reconciled, I hope that you will consider sharing your circumstances by taking the short survey I’ve created to learn more about the subject. Your experience may help others.
Getting your hopes up?
With any contact, most parents become hopeful—and sometimes reconciliation happens. But be careful. Don’t assume contact will solve past problems. While some adult children may truly want to reconcile, others might make contact for other reasons.
Evaluating the contact made by adult children who reject parents
Consider the tone. If your son or daughter reaches out in a threatening, angry, or accusatory tone, your caution is wise. A brief reply can verify you’ve received the message or convey that your son or daughter is still loved. Not replying at all is also acceptable and maybe even wise. A parent needn’t feel obligated to respond. Refusing to allow yourself to get drawn into an argument or other pointless discourse could protect you from further hurt. Sometimes, protecting yourself is the only sound choice.
Consider the circumstances. Is a holiday or birthday triggering a text or card? While a special occasion greeting may be nice, try not to read too much into it.
A short reply, or depending on your situation a more direct or personal response could convey that you remain open to a healthy relationship. But don’t assume a holiday or birthday greeting is an open invitation or indicates a complete change of heart.
Many parents of estranged adults have told of receiving sudden wedding invites. Upon deliberation, they sometimes conclude the request for their presence at nuptials after months (or even years) of silence has selfish motives, such as a son or daughter’s desire to save face or put on a front. These parents often don’t attend—and perhaps they made a wise choice. I have heard many stories from parents who did attend and were humiliated by being seated in a far corner and ignored. That’s not to say there are no happy endings. One divorced mother’s estranged daughter remains close to her ex-husband (her daughter’s father). This mother always believed that his family took her daughter’s side. At the wedding, some of them approached her to correct that assumption. While her daughter didn’t speak much to her, and has made no overtures since the wedding, she did include her in photographs. So she feels somewhat hopeful, and no longer believes her ex-husband’s relatives are aiding her daughter’s estrangement.
It’s also possible that material factors are at the root of contact. I’ve heard many stories where adult children who reject parents reconnect when, as James says, “They get a whiff of money.”
Others tell me they’re contacted when facing illness. Often, they wonder if guilt might be the motivator. These parents are often torn though. They know they need their energy to care for themselves, yet wonder if it’s fair not to make an effort if their child has reached out. My advice is to trust your gut. Go back and read the section above, Consider the tone. The manner in which your son or daughter speaks to you can help you decide what’s best for you. Also read on, because your feelings are important. Again, trust your gut. You have the right to protect yourself.
Consider how the contact makes you feel. Estranged adult children who have a history of manipulative behavior may fall back on old patterns of laying blame, or playing the victim. An adult child, their spouse or significant other (called “influential adversaries” in my book), might make threats of some sort, accuse you of being a bad parent, say that a good mother wouldn’t give up on her own daughter, or accuse a father of leaving his son behind.
If contact from your estranged adult child triggers guilt, only you can decide whether that guilt is warranted (see my article on “innocent guilt“). It’s possible your reaction stems from past relationship patterns—ones you’ve broken away from but that are triggered by contact because they were so entrenched.
More about intentions
Does a two-sentence message represent a desire to reconnect? Or is it more that you’re hanging on each word, weighing the comments at different angles to find that meaning? I recently wrote about not feeling obligated to inform estranged adult children about a family member’s death (see Do they have a right to know?). I feel similarly about any obligation to respond to an adult who has stepped out of your life. Of course, most parents would like to reconcile. Sending a thank you reply to a birthday or other greeting might be a way to keep the door open.
Parents whose children express a desire to reconnect may be fearful of potential pain and uncertain about trusting their adult child. Considering the circumstances, those feelings are normal. Only you can decide whether you’re open to connect, and as discussed in my book, what boundaries this connection might involve. Its included questions and reflection points can help you define what successful reconciliation might actually look like and entail, as well as whether you and your son or daughter can agree on how reconciliation is defined. There might be work to do on both sides, and it’s important that everyone’s intentions match (or can be negotiated).
Is a good relationship possible?
Some will see this article as a dreary view of the potential to reconcile. But it does happen. Maybe with time and life experience, adult children who reject parents later realize how quickly the years slip by, and want a good relationship before it’s too late.
Some of those who have shared their recent successes didn’t share the details. Those who did admitted to feeling vulnerable. Despite treading gingerly forward, as one parent put it, “in a relationship with thorns,” they’re also hopeful and glad to have the chance. It is absolutely true that some adult children who reject parents do want to reconcile. They may be sorry and truly want to make amends.
Recently, an estranged adult child commented about reconciling at my blog. “R” said:
Allow me to apologize on behalf of all us adult children who rejected our parents. I was broken in ways I did not know and walked into an unhealthy relationship, where my partner introduced me to drugs, abused and isolated me. My parents are spiritual people who could never condone bad lifestyle choices. I was the apple of my father’s eye, but I rejected him for someone who would eventually ruin me. When my life came crashing down, I found my way home, even though I had chosen to share very little of my life with them in the previous two years. It was difficult at first. I’ve been home for three months, and the last few weeks have truly been amazing. God restored my family and we are happier than we’ve ever been. I’m still finding my feet, but I would not be able to if it weren’t for their forgiveness and patience. I pray your children may find their way back home to you. God bless.
Obviously, the words here are only a slice of this individual’s life, but some parents may recognize parts of their own estranged son or daughter in what is said—about an influential adversary, personal brokenness, or substance abuse. Or maybe they recognize elements of themselves, their relationship with their adult children, or the patience and forgiveness this adult child expresses thanks for.
Only you can decide what’s best for you in your situation. I hope this article, as well as this adult child’s comment will help you recognize the intent behind any contact your estranged adult son or daughter might make.
Help with my research—and help others
If you do reconcile, I hope that you will share the experience—its difficulties, as well as joy. If you have reconciled, please fill in the short survey. Please note, THIS survey is for those who have reconciled with previously estranged adult children (see below for one on estrangement). I hope to use any information gained from survey respondents’ answers to provide more information about the possibility of reconciling with estranged adult children.
If you’re NOT reconciled, consider taking my survey for parents of estranged adult children. More than 9,000 responses to the survey, plus personal interviews with many of the parents, were utilized in connection with my book. Since the book’s release, thousands more have responded.
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