The bond between a parent and their child can be one of the most powerful connections there is.
Unfortunately, it can be weakened.
Whether it’s due to a misunderstanding, a major disagreement, or something else entirely, it’s never easy to have an estranged child.
But the good news is that it’s never too late to mend that relationship.
In this guide, we’ll explore strategies for communicating with an estranged child, provide tips on navigating a strained parent-child dynamic, and discuss ways of finding support during this trying time.
But before we get to that, let’s explore what it is, why it happens, and how common it is…
What is Child Estrangement?
Child estrangement refers to the deliberate and often long-term distancing of a child from one or both of their parents.
And according to research, it’s more of a process than an event. A study examined the stories of 52 estranged US adult children and found two backstory types:
- Continuous estrangement — adult children stay distant from their parents despite outside pressures to reconcile
- Chaotic (dis)association — adult children try to reconnect, but the relationship becomes unstable before ultimately breaking down completely
When it comes to family estrangement, it’s not always a black-and-white situation…
Reasons for Estrangement
The reasons for estrangement can be complex and varied, and research divided them into three overarching categories:
- Intrafamily — arise from negative behavior from or among family members, such as neglect, abuse, conflicts, or toxic behavior
- Interfamily — stem from issues outside the family, such as physical distance, a third party, or societal pressures from family, friends, or the community
- Intrapersonal — caused by the personality characteristics of the estranged person, mental illness, immaturity, entitlement, disrespect, or feelings of being judged and unsupported
But parents and children tend to have different views on the reasons for the estrangement.
Parents’ reasons usually stem from their children’s objectionable relationships or sense of entitlement, while adult children frequently attribute it to their parents’ toxic behavior or feeling unsupported and unaccepted.
It’s worth noting that parents were often unsure of the reasons for their estrangement. And this indicates that children are the ones who are more likely to initiate estrangement.
No matter the cause, child estrangement can be a deeply painful experience for everyone involved. On top of it being difficult to cope with, it affects more families than you’d think.
How Common is Estrangement?
Child estrangement is a common experience — research found that 29% of Americans are estranged from a family member.
While most, 14%, are estranged from siblings, 11% reported estrangement from their parents and 9% from a child.
And according to the same research, older adults are just as likely to experience estrangement as younger adults.
Now that you understand the estrangement environment a bit better, let’s look at how you can start healing the relationship with your estranged child.
How to Reconnect with Your Adult Estranged Child & Fix Family Estrangement?
#1 Reflect on the Reasons Behind Estrangement
Every family dynamic is unique, and there may be valid reasons why your child is estranged. While it may be difficult to see through the intense emotional pain, try to understand the situation from your child’s perspective and contemplate the reasons behind their feelings.
As we’ve already mentioned, your perspective could be the complete opposite of your child’s. But, like most relationship conflicts, it’s best to not fight for the sake of winning — aka “right-fighting,” where you continue fighting just to be right.
As Dr. Hal Shorey PhD put it, to let go of being right, it’s worth focusing on what works rather than being right:
“In order to change your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in relationships, it will serve you to focus less on being right and more on what works. Consider being a pragmatist.”
After all, it may be futile to convince your adult child to admit fault first. A study found that only 18% of older adult mothers said they were at fault for the estrangement.
Instead of dwelling on anger, hurt, or feelings of worry, try to put yourself in your child’s shoes to understand the deep-rooted causes that may have stemmed from way back (quite possibly, generations ago).
For instance, reasons why adult children may be disrespectful land in four main categories:
- Lack of boundaries
- Unresolved anger or resentment
- Feeling criticized or judged
- Feeling overwhelmed
The gist is — by taking a step back and reflecting on the reasons behind the conflict, while also taking responsibility for your own role, you can better understand your child’s perspective and start the reconciling process.
To validate someone else’s experience, though, it’s vital to validate your own experience (ultimately, by self-validating), which brings us to our next tip.
#2 Focus on Your Own Healing & Growth
While focusing on growth may be the last thing you may want to do when you’re feeling the immense pain from an estranged relationship with your child, self-care and your own healing are hugely important.
And your own growth and personal development take the cake for being one of the most empowering ways to heal and focus on self-care. Put another way, grow into the best most authentic version of yourself who can only have healthier and healthier relationships.
When you do things like adopt a growth mindset, overcome challenges, and seek out the golden lessons that come with every hardship, you simply become a better version of you.
We see this happen all the time – when you work on yourself from the inside out and become your best autonomous self, someone who’s independently fulfilled, health, and happy – your kids (and others around you) are drawn to you. And they can even look up to you as a role model.
It’s also worth mentioning that seeking professional help and guidance during any stressful time is only going to benefit you. Just be sure to find the type of support that resonates the most with you – and find someone who you have a good feeling about, who understands you.
Whether it’s hiring an expert in estranged relationships, counselor, therapist, or life coach, taking care of your own mental health, well-being, and growth will only help improve the future dynamic between you and your child.
(By the way, becoming your best authentic self is exactly what we focus on in Rewire My Retirement in case you want to shortcut your journey with total support and a clear process.)
Either way, don’t forget to double-down on best self-care and wellness practices, like:
- Practicing mindfulness daily
- Staying social and connected to supportive people
- Exercising regularly
- Keeping to a solid retirement structure
With a stronger sense of being grounded, you’ll be more open to our next tip, also key to repairing your relationship.
#3 Be Open to Apologies & Forgiveness
It’s never easy to mend a broken relationship, but it’s important to remember that everyone makes mistakes and deserves a chance to make things right.
(Of course, there may be exceptions for extreme cases, like if the relationship involved abuse, manipulation, or other more severe traumatic experiences. If that’s the case, it’s best to seek professional help before initiating contact.)
Apologizing and forgiving takes so much courage, but it can go a long way in repairing a broken relationship – for both you and your adult child. And mostly you.
As a popular saying goes:
“Unforgiveness is like drinking poison yourself and waiting for the other person to die.”
And a recent forgiveness study revealed that forgiveness intervention programs reduce depression and anxiety symptoms. The study used a free forgiveness intervention tool called The REACH Workbook, which walks you through steps:
- Recall the hurt
- Empathize with the other person
- Altruistic gift
- Hold onto your forgiveness
Plenty of other professional resources are also available if you find it difficult to forgive or apologize. And therapy has proven to be very effective, either when done alone or with your child.
Regardless of how you go about it, letting go of the resentment and anger will better prepare you for the big step of reaching out.
#5 Try to Initiate Contact
Reconnecting with an estranged child is never easy, but taking the nerve-racking step of initiating contact can be a major turning point.
But before reaching out, proactively think about your child’s boundaries and consider the important steps we mentioned before this – where you focus on reflecting, repairing, understanding, and healing solo first.
This inner work is bound to shift the dynamic so you don’t simply fall back into the old heated unhealthy dynamic.
Even if you’re eager to rebuild your relationship, at a minimum, take the time to consider what your child might be ready for and what their limits might be.
The best way to reach out is through a written letter, according to Joshua Coleman, a co-chair of the Council of Contemporary Families and author of The Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict.
This allows you to express your feelings and thoughts clearly without feeling overwhelmed.
And it also gives your children the time and space to process their emotions and reply at their own pace.
When your child is ready to have contact with you, it’s critical to focus on being healed and open enough to validating their experience by acutely listening, which brings us to our final tip.
#6 Listen With Empathy
Listening with empathy is one of the most important skills in any relationship, particularly those that involve estrangement. It helps you better understand what they’re experiencing and the reasons behind their feelings – a major step toward connecting vs. disconnecting.
And both pieces are equally important.
First is the obvious listening part, where you physically do less talking. It seems simple, yet people are generally poor listeners — 96% claim to be good listeners, yet only half of what is said is retained.
Then, there’s the emotional part of empathy – which means understanding where your child is coming from, even if you disagree with them. It means being able to put yourself in their shoes and feeling the world from their experience.
The single most important ingredient for empathy is vulnerability.
As Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute put it:
“Vulnerability is closely tied to empathy. Without vulnerability we can’t access our own experiences that allow us to be empathic, and we also can’t share important personal moments so that others can relate to us.”
Remember we said the primary reason most children cited for estrangement was feeling unsupported and unaccepted? Listening with empathy can go a long way in repairing that trust and rebuilding the love between you.
Which makes sense when you consider what it means to put yourself out there unshielded and openly willing to feel the vulnerable feelings that your child is feeling, as a way to connect.
Check out Brené Brown’s RSA Shorts: The Power of Empathy video if you haven’t seen it already. As Brené put it:
It might be difficult to do at first, but it’s important to actively listen to your child without judgment or interruption. Acknowledge their feelings, ask questions when appropriate, and provide reassurance.
By doing so, you can show your child that you deeply care and want to build a stronger foundation for the future.
#6 Focus on the Present & the Future
The past can’t be changed, but focusing on the present and future can help repair and strengthen your relationship with your estranged child over time.
To that end, once you’ve established contact, make sure to share your intentions, come from a place of wholeness and love, and talk about potential plans for reconnecting and rebuilding trust.
This could include a simple phone call or video chat once a month. Or even something more meaningful such as visiting in person.
Whatever it is, make sure to discuss the boundaries and expectations of each activity. If you can agree on what you’re comfortable with, these positive steps will go a long way in mending your relationship.
With consistent dedication, understanding, and your own personal growth, you can rebuild the trust you once had.
From Estranged to Reunited
Parental estrangement is a challenging and painful experience. But there’s hope – with patience, understanding, and focused effort, it’s possible to start rebuilding your relationship.
To reconnect with your estranged adult child:
- #1 Reflect on the reasons behind the estrangement — understand the deeper issues and take responsibility for your actions
- #2 Focus on your own healing & growth — when you work on yourself and learn to self-validate, your healing and growth will shift the entire dyamic
- #3 Be open to apologies & forgiveness — it takes courage to let go but it can go a long way in mending the relationship
- #4 Try to initiate contact — but respect their boundaries and take the time to consider what they might be ready for
- #5 Listen with empathy — demonstrate to your child that you understand where your child is coming from by being vulnerable
- #6 Focus on the present & future — establish plans for reconnecting and rebuilding trust in the new healthier dynamic moving forward
With dedication and understanding, you can start the journey from estranged to reunited.
The main takeaway is to be patient and not to force anything. As hard as it may be, sometimes you just have to let them go on their journey and be there, ready and available with full healthy love, when they return.
If you’re struggling with your own grown and personal development, we’re here for you. Reach out for a free Breakthrough Session call, and we can help you get back on track.