A mother calling her adult son to say hello. A daughter texting pictures of her newborn to her mom. Typical things that families do. But if you’re an estranged parent or estranged child, separated by years of silence, these simple acts are fraught with emotion. And a welcoming, loving response is nothing short of extraordinary, and, frankly, a wish and a dream.
“But does it in reality ever happen?” asked a mom who goes by the name “thankful” on an online support group called rejectedparents.net. She writes that she can’t bear going to church on Christmas Eve anymore because it reminds her of what she used to do with her estranged daughter and grandkids.
Relationships are hard. But the absence of one can be even harder, especially during the holidays, for estranged parents and children.
How do parents and children become estranged?
While family bonds hold strong for most people, they’re also more fragile than we think. About one in 10 families had an estranged child, reports a 2015 Journal of Marriage and Family paper.
Different circumstances cause family members to drift apart—illness, incarceration, a job transfer to a faraway place. But experts see estrangement as a very specific phenomenon. “It’s when one family member voluntarily and intentionally distances himself or herself from another family member because of an often ongoing perceived negative relationship,” says Kristina M. Scharp, PhD., assistant professor at the University of Washington and director of its Family Communication and Relationships Lab. Sometimes only the estranged parents or the estranged children demand the distance; sometimes both do.
People report that their estranged parents were egregiously meddlesome, betrayed them, or were just plain indifferent, unsupportive, or unreceptive. As a result, parents are often at once hurt and stunned, but they could also feel indignant. They may see their estranged children as thankless and self-entitled.
A rift between a parent and child can result from differing values, such as on divorce or religious beliefs. On rejectedparents.net, a parent with an estranged child explained how she needed to distance herself from her son’s “narcissistic” wife—only to end up having her son pull away, too.
Reconnecting with family: Steps to consider
Tracking down estranged parents or estranged children is relatively easy in this day and age. The best way, perhaps, is to reach out to mutual friends or a relative that both you and your child or parent are already close to. This gives you the advantage of being able to gauge whether the family member is willing to reconcile. But short of that, you have plenty of tools. Searching for relatives on Facebook or LinkedIn can provide clues. BeenVerifed’s people search tool can offer possibly useful information that can help you reach them.
The hard part, of course, is the approach. When should it happen and how? What should you say? Here are a few expert recommendations.
Let enough time pass. The situation may be too inflamed otherwise. By waiting, say, a year, it lets the matter cool off a bit. “It shows that you respect their limits,” said Joshua Coleman Ph.D., author of When Parents Hurt. Also, he noted, “it might cause your family member to miss you more, and it shows that you’re not acting like the victim.”
Reach out for the right reasons. Reconciling with estranged parents or estranged children shouldn’t be about your guilt or what other people think. You should have done enough self-reflection to take responsibility for your mistakes (a break-up is rarely one party’s fault or the result of one incident). And you should genuinely want to rebuild your connection and make things right.
Try a low-key approach. Text or email is probably best. Calling may not work given that simply seeing your name on caller ID could elicit negative feelings. Definitely do not show up at their doorstep uninvited. “A surprise visit always backfires,” said Coleman, a San Francisco Bay-area psychologist, who has seen cases where the police end up being called and restraining orders issued.
Be respectful. This is key. Say something like “I’m wondering if you’re open to talking,” said Coleman. This is not the time to unleash the reasons you’re upset with them.
Listen and try to understand the other person’s perspective. If you must refer to incidents in the past, don’t point out traits, which can’t be changed, but behavior, which can. Don’t use the opportunity to defend yourself. It helps to express the idea of ‘I realize you wouldn’t ask for the distance unless you think it’s healthier for you’.”
Understand if they refuse to reconnect. Accept it. Let them know, “I’m committed to having a relationship that feels good and healthy to you.” Then let it go for the time being. Grieve and find support. “There are many people in the same situation,” said Coleman. Remember too, estrangement isn’t necessarily static. Explains Scharp, “What’s important to know is that estrangement is often marked by an on-again/off-again relationship. In other words, continuous estrangement appears to be much less likely.”
Related: How to find your birth parents