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A white dove symbolizing healing and soothing Psychology to mend family rifts.

Psychology Sunday Rewind: Healing Family Rifts

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Estrangement, And How To Heal It

The following article was first published a little under six months ago, and it proved to be our most popular “Psychology Sunday” article of the year.

We republish it today, in case it might also be of value to readers who have joined us since

Having written before about how deleterious to the health loneliness and isolation can be, and what things can be done about it, we had a request to write about…

❝Reconciliation of relationships in particular estrangement mother adult daughter❞

And, this is not only an interesting topic, but a very specific one that affects more people than is commonly realized!

In fact, a recent 800-person study found that more than 43% of people experienced family estrangement of one sort or another, and a more specific study of more than 2,000 mother-child pairs found that more than 11% of mothers were estranged from at least one adult child.

So, if you think of the ten or so houses nearest to you, probably at least one of them contains a parent estranged from at least one adult child. Maybe it’s yours. Either way, we hope this article will give you some pause for thought.

Which way around?

It makes a difference to the usefulness of this article whether any given reader experiencing estrangement is the parent or the adult child. We’re going to assume the reader is the parent. It also makes a difference who did the estranging. That’s usually the adult child.

So, we’re broadly going to write with that expectation.

Why does it happen?

When our kids are small, we as parents hold all the cards. It may not always feel that way, but we do. We control our kids’ environment, we influence their learning, we buy the food they eat and the clothes they wear. If they want to go somewhere, we probably have to take them. We can even set and enforce rules on a whim.

As they grow, so too does their independence, and it can be difficult for us as parents to relinquish control, but we’re going to have to at some point. Assuming we are good parents, we just hope we’ve prepared them well enough for the world.

Once they’ve flown the nest and are living their own adult lives, there’s an element of inversion. They used to be dependent on us; now, not only do they not need us (this is a feature not a bug! If we have been good parents, they will be strong without us, and in all likelihood one day, they’re going to have to be), but also…

We’re more likely to need them, now. Not just in the “oh if we have kids they can look after us when we’re old” sense, but in that their social lives are growing as ours are often shrinking, their family growing, while ours, well, it’s the same family but they’re the gatekeepers to that now.

If we have a good relationship, this goes fine. However, it might only take one big argument, one big transgression, or one “final straw”, when the adult child decides the parent is more trouble than they’re worth.

And, obviously, that’s going to hurt. But it’s pretty much how it pans out, according to studies:

Here be science: Tensions in the Parent and Adult Child Relationship: Links to Solidarity and Ambivalence

How to fix it, step one

First, figure out what went wrong.

Resist any urge to protect your own feelings with a defensive knee-jerk “I don’t know; I was a good, loving parent”. That’s a very natural and reasonable urge and you’re quite possibly correct, but it won’t help you here.

Something pushed them away. And, it will almost certainly have been a push factor from you, not a pull factor from whoever is in their life now. It’s easy to put the blame externally, but that won’t fix anything.

And, be honest with yourself; this isn’t a job interview where we have to present a strength dressed up as a “greatest weakness” for show.

You can start there, though! If you think “I was too loving”, then ok, how did you show that love? Could it have felt stifling to them? Controlling? Were you critical of their decisions?

It doesn’t matter who was right or wrong, or even whether or not their response was reasonable. It matters that you know what pushed them away.

How to fix it, step two

Take responsibility, and apologize. We’re going to assume that your estrangement is such that you can, at least, still get a letter to them, for example. Resist the urge to argue your case.

Here’s a very good format for an apology; please consider using this template:

The 10-step (!) apology that’s so good, you’ll want to make a note of it

You may have to do some soul-searching to find how you will avoid making the same mistake in the future, that you did in the past.

If you feel it’s something you “can’t change”, then you must decide what is more important to you. Only you can make that choice, but you cannot expect them to meet you halfway. They already made their choice. In the category of negotiation, they hold all the cards now.

How to fix it, step three

Now, just wait.

Maybe they will reply, forgiving you. If they do, celebrate!

Just be aware that once you reconnect is not the time to now get around to arguing your case from before. It will never be the time to get around to arguing your case from before. Let it go.

Nor should you try to exact any sort of apology from them for estranging you, or they will at best feel resentful, wonder if they made a mistake in reconnecting, and withdraw.

Instead, just enjoy what you have. Many people don’t get that.

If they reply with anger, maybe it will be a chance to reopen a dialogue. If so, family therapy could be an approach useful for all concerned, if they are willing. Chances are, you all have things that you’d all benefit from talking about in a calm, professional, moderated, neutral environment.

You might also benefit from a book we reviewed previously, “Parent Effectiveness Training”. This may seem like “shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted”, but in fact it’s a very good guide to relationship dynamics in general, and extensively covers relations between parents and adult children.

If they don’t reply, then, you did your part. Take solace in knowing that much.

Some final thoughts:

At the end of the day, as parents, our kids living well is (hopefully) testament to that we prepared them well for life, and sometimes, being a parent is a thankless task.

But, we (hopefully) didn’t become parents for the plaudits, after all.

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