Fresh Living: When Ties Don’t Bind

June 4th, 2010 by Valerie Reiss

Considering when grown children abandon their parents.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project


I just stumbled on this moving article in the New York Times, When the Ties that Bind Unravel, on a surprisingly untrod subject: The pain of parents cut off by adult kids. In our blame-the-parent culture we mostly just hear from the "kids'" perspective. Generating more than 800 comments, the story clearly touched a nerve--many are from parents bewildered and deeply grieved and many are from those less than sympathetic to parents who may deserve to be cut off.

A psychologist quoted in the article, Joshua Coleman, author of "When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along," who was on the parental end of this issue, offers this advice to parents whose adult children have cut them out of their lives:

"Often, [Coleman] said, parents in these situations give up too soon. He advises them to continue weekly letters, e-mail messages or phone calls even when they are rejected, and to be generous in taking responsibility for their mistakes -- even if they did not seem like mistakes at the time.

"After all, he went on, parents and children have very different perspectives. 'It's possible for a parent to feel like they were doing something out of love,' he said, "but it didn't feel like love to that child.'

"Friends, other family members and therapists can often help a parent cope with the loss of an estranged child. So can patience: reconciliation usually takes many conversations, not just one.

'When I was going through this, it was a gray cloud, a nightmare,' Dr. Coleman said. 'Don't just assume if your child is rejecting you that that's the end of the conversation. Parents have to be on a campaign to let the child know that they're in it for the long haul.'"

Powerful stuff.

And here's one deeply moving, hopeful reader comment from a father that gave me chills:

"I felt exceptionally close to a daughter who decided at 17 that I was too "intrusive" [nosy] and stopped all contact. [Divorce happened when she was 9.] She never gave me a specific "reason" for cutting me off. First came the soul-searching over what I'd done wrong. Like any parent even good ones I came up with a long list of mistakes. Regrets. I WAS too nosy. I should have... I could have...I'm sorry I... Sadly I reconfigured my ideas of proper parental boundaries. Thanksgiving...Christmas... High school graduation.. birthday...family funerals. Weddings. Nada.

I waited. I was heartbroken and felt despairing guilt, but also remained patient and committed to trying to keep some remnant of communication open. I sent her letters on special occasions and thoughtful personal gifts for holidays. I waited.

She went away to college in California. Almost two years passed and the ice did not melt. No contact.

Then one day on an afternoon walk around the running track at the Central Park Reservoir the wildest, weirdest thing ever happened... we ran into each other. What are the odds? Happy is too pale a word to describe the relief, ecstatic joy and endearing words we exchanged. I have an inkling how Lazarus felt.

We're now in regular contact. Lots of words have passed. Explanations. Recriminations. Reasons. Stories. A little miracle. And strangely enough, the City has decided to situate the new fountain at Jackie Onassis Reservoir at the exact spot where we met. Go figure.

Parents: Do what you can to understand the situation and make things right. Let respect guide your path. Let go of whatever anger you may feel. [Difficult, but not impossible.] Never EVER give up.

Children: Cut your padres some slack. They won't be around forever."

Have you been through this--as the child or the parent? What advice would you give for either side?

Here's the whole article: When the Ties That Bind Unravel by Tara Parker-Pope