For Parents Who Are Estranged From Adult Children

What Does It Take to Rebuild a Relationship?

estranged grandparents can reconcile with adult children
Grandparents may have to swallow their pride to reconcile with adult children. Photo © Oliver Rossi | Getty Images

Hard statistics are hard to come by, but many of those working with families say that they've seen an uptick: More young adults than ever are cutting ties with their parents. For grandparents, that often means a loss of contact with their grandchildren as well.

The good news is that many adult children say that they would like to have their parents back in their lives. About 60% of those who filled out a survey on the Estranged Stories website said they would like to have a relationship with the person from whom they are estranged "now or sometime in the future."

Effecting Reconciliation

When asked what it would take to bring about a reconciliation, the most popular answer was that the parents need to take responsibility. Presumably, this means responsibility for whatever the parents did that led to the estrangement. The problem is that many parents say that they are in the dark about what went wrong. Among the parents participating in an Estranged Stories survey, 60% said that their children had never "concretely shared" their reasons for cutting off contact.

Generational Differences

The causes of conflict with adult children can vary widely. Sometimes adult children find fault with the way they were reared. They may not realize that they probably grew up when authoritarian parenting was still an acceptable approach to child-rearing. Although parenting began to become more permissive following World War II, it took many years for this change to occur, especially in America's heartland.

Through almost all of the twentieth century, good parents used corporal punishment. In fact, they were told that if they did not use corporal punishment, they were bad parents. Even religious leaders encouraged physical punishment. What some people would consider abusive today passed for good old-fashioned parenting not that long ago.

Similarly, adult children sometimes feel that they were not nurtured as they should have been. In many families of the past, however, affection was seldom expressed verbally or physically. The underlying assumption was that parents demonstrated their love for their children by taking care of them. No one worried much about a child's psyche or self-esteem.

Other Issues

Adult children sometimes hold on to resentments over their parents' broken marriage, often blaming one partner or another. Another common problem is that the adult children feel that their parents don't recognize them as adults with the ability to make their own decisions. In other cases, a child's partner is the divisive factor. The parents may not like or approve of the partner. Their disapproval forces the child to choose between parents and partner.

Don't Be Defensive

It might be possible for parents to justify some of their past actions; however, becoming defensive is counterproductive. If parents prove that what they did was right or acceptable, then it follows that the other parties were wrong in their reactions, and proving someone wrong is not likely to mend any fences.

What adult children say that they crave is for their parents to take responsibility and, in some cases, apologize.

Here are some phrases that should work:

  • I'm sorry.
  • I understand your feelings.
  • I know I made mistakes.
  • I could have been more supportive (helpful, understanding, loving, etc.).

Don't Make an Emotional Appeal

Parents often want to talk about how much pain the estrangement has caused them. Adult children who have taken the admittedly extreme measure of cutting off contact are not going to be touched by their parents' pain. They are likely to be particularly unmoved by grandparents' grief over not seeing grandchildren.

Do Continue the Conversation

It may take more than one overture from a parent before a child agrees to work toward a reconciliation, but the overtures shouldn't feel like harassment. All that is required is a simple proposal to get together for a low-stress occasion such as a dinner out or an outing.

If the overture is rejected, the parents should wait a while and try again.

If Reconciliation Fails

If attempts to restore the relationship fail, grandparents are in a real bind. Do they give up any hope of seeing their grandchildren?

Sometimes mediation is an effective next step. If mediation fails, or if the other parties are not willing, some grandparents will consider legal action, but there is a lot that grandparents should know before suing for visitation rights. In addition, if the grandchildren live in an intact family, grandparents are unlikely to win visitation in court.

You can also learn about when adult children 'divorce' their parents.