How to Deepen Empathy and Reconnect with Your Estranged Child

If your adult child has stopped communicating, and their love seems to be long gone, don’t lose hope. Tina Gilbertson writes that a key step in healing estrangement occurs when parents bring empathy and compassion to the forefront of this fractured relationship.


Both in my capacity as a therapist and as a regular citizen, I’ve talked with adults who are struggling with the decision to cut ties with their parents, have already done so, or have recently reconciled with a formerly rejected parent. I’ve also followed the research that studies the feelings and motivations of these adult children. By all accounts, these folks take parental estrangement seriously. They feel weighed down by it. It hurts them profoundly to lose connection with a parent, even by their own choice.

Here’s what one estranged child wrote in response to one of my posts:

It is awful when you choose to end a relationship…especially when your parent doesn’t (maybe even can’t) understand what they did wrong. To turn away from them in order to move forward as a healthier person feels absolutely selfish and goes against my instincts to maintain that connection with my mother.

I’ve heard similar expressions of dismay from my clients, friends, and colleagues who reluctantly avoid their parents. Everyone wants to have parents they love, and who love them back, without chronic trouble or pain between them.

It Cuts Both Ways

Most parents don’t get to see the vulnerability and unhappiness in their distancing child. Instead, they’re presented only with heated rejection or chilly indifference. No wonder they’re sometimes ready to believe they created a monster.

We humans are at our most hurtful to others—our most “monstrous”—when we’re in pain ourselves. As the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. It makes sense that your child’s rejection, coming as it does from a place of pain, will also be hurtful to you.

You and your estranged child also share the task of explaining to friends why you won’t be getting together with the family for the holidays this year. Believe it or not, it’s the same awkward conversation for him that it is for you. Estranged adult children, for the most part, feel unsupported when they share the sensitive information that they’re estranged from you. Friends, relatives, and society all pressure them to reconcile.

It makes sense that your child’s rejection, coming as it does from a place of pain, will also be hurtful to you.

It’s clear that the vast majority of estrangers do not cut ties with their parents on a whim, for purely materialistic reasons, or just because someone else tells them to. So—please don’t let me lose you here—contact with Mom or Dad has to be pretty darn painful to be worse than no contact. Don’t worry: it’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds, and the situation can potentially be mended if you keep an open mind. Let me share some encouraging words from a mom who’s now reconnected with her formerly estranged daughter:

I didn’t know what to do, and couldn’t work out why my daughter was so angry and hostile towards me, and didn’t initiate any contact. I can now appreciate how complex the situation was, and feel able to look at our estrangement more from her perspective.

You and your estranged child are both in uncharted waters; he may not have the words to tell you what went wrong or what he’d like you to do about it. Even if he does, he might use language or examples that only confuse you and leave you feeling helpless.

The Healing Power of Awareness

Whether or not the estrangement is acrimonious, many parents become defensive when their adult children don’t want to maintain contact. Shame and defensiveness are the enemies of awareness. And unfortunately, there can be no movement, no change, and no healing without awareness.

Shame says, “I don’t want to know if I did anything to deserve this; it’s too painful to feel that bad about myself.” Awareness says, “I want to understand my part in this, even if it’s painful.”

In order to recover a relationship with your child, you must find a way to put shame aside and invite compassion into your heart. You need to tolerate looking at whatever your child may want to show you if healing is to occur. If there is something important for you to learn about the way your child experiences you, you won’t be able to see it through a cloud of shame.

In order to recover a relationship with your child, you must find a way to put shame aside and invite compassion into your heart.

You have no option for a considered response as long as shame and defensiveness have you in their grip. Breaking free of these can pave the way for a closer, calmer, and more honest relationship with your child.

This is from a reader of one of my blog posts:

I had many years of a very painful relationship with my mother. When I was thirty-five there was a breakthrough…she admitted in a letter that she had loved me, but with “white-knuckled love.” That moment transformed my life, as I was finally able to know that this deep truth I knew about her love, but could not admit, was true. I became much more able to feel sane!!

Your will toward self-awareness can not only thaw your relationship with your estranged child but can also help her understand herself better. Thus it can be a gift to both of you.

Excerpts are from the book Reconnecting with Your Estranged Adult Child. Copyright ©2020 by Tina Gilbertson. Printed with permission from New World Library.

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