© 2011 Dr. Joshua Coleman Page 1 of 1 www.DrJoshuaColeman.com

© 2011 Dr. Joshua Coleman
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Dr. Coleman:
John, thanks for the introduction. As I mentioned in my
emails for those of you who got them, we had about
300 people sign up for this. It shows the level of
seriousness of this problem.
It’s an international problem, as I mentioned earlier.
There are people calling in, and I get emails from
people not only in the US but in Canada, South
America, Europe and all over. It’s an enormous
I have just a bit about my host, John Curtis. John Curtis
is a noted psychologist. I’m very honored to have him
at my event. He writes a lot about marriage and
The title of tonight’s topic is “The 5 Most Common
Mistakes of Estranged Parents.” As I did it, I realized
there was a bonus mistake in there for those of us who
actually need more mistakes to think about. There are
actually going to be six that we’re going to cover.
One of the things I want to say about parental
estrangement that I think is so important is that once an
estrangement gets started, it’s really like quicksand. It’s
impossible not to make a mistake as a parent because of
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the amount of fear, anxiety, worry and feelings of
rejection, devaluation and anger that it evokes in
It really brings out the most primitive, primal terrified
feelings in us that the child we have raised and invested
so much time, love and energy into is acting like we’ve
ruined their life and they may well never want to see us
When I say mistakes, I want to let people know that
estrangement starts to get triggered. They’re important
to think about for your ability to work toward a
reconciliation with your adult child and to develop your
own feelings of serenity and resolution and restore your
own self-esteem. For so many of us our sense of selfesteem is so damaged after an estrangement.
There’s an orientation that’s critically important both
for reconciling with our adult children or increasing the
probability of that and for restoring our own sense of
personal sanity. The first one that I want to talk about is
assuming a reconciliation with your child should be
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based on principles of fairness rather than strategy
(or what’s practical)
What I want all estranged parents to be oriented toward
is that we have to think about what works, not what’s
fair. With most of the families that I work with, it’s
really unfair.
If it were really fair, the model would be the same
model it would be with a best friend, spouse or
somebody else where you talk about your perspective
and he or she talks about theirs. You talk about how
you felt hurt or misunderstood. Your kid talks about
how she or he feels hurt or misunderstood. You put
your heads together and make sense of it, and you move
on and get closer as a result.
That is not the case once there’s an estrangement in
place. It’s not that kind of a dynamic. A lot of adult
children say they want a relationship of equality, but it
probably isn’t going to be a relationship that feels very
equal to you.
One of the reasons that parents make so-called mistakes
with estrangement is that most of us have never
encountered anything like this in our lives. The rules
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and guidelines that are required to deal with an
estrangement are also ones that you’ve probably never
encountered in any other relationship in your life.
If it were fair, you’d get to make demands about how
much time you could visit with your children or
grandchildren. You could ask for more.
You could demand more empathy and forgiveness for
whatever ways you made mistakes with your child
growing up or have over this period of time. You could
demand more commitment. You actually don’t get to
do that during this period of time while you’re working
on healing the estrangement.
If it were fair, you would get credit for all the money
you spent on your child and the time for being the more
dedicated parent than maybe the other parent was if this
was a divorce. I work with a lot of parents where there
was a divorce and maybe the parent who’s now
estranged was the one who spent all the time and
money raising that child. If it were fair, you’d get credit
for that.
If it were fair, you’d get credit for being as good of a
parent as yours, or an even better parent than yours, and
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for giving your child opportunities and experiences as a
child and young adult that nobody ever gave you. If it
were fair, you’d get credit for that.
If it were fair, your child would understand that when
you say you did the best you could, you really mean
you did the best you could and that people can only
parent as well as they were given good role models, coparents, or the financial and emotional resources to
Finally, if it were fair you’d be able to talk about all the
ways that your child themselves might have made
parenting difficult; that our children bring their own
issues into the world or they marry partners that are
really difficult for us to be close to or that pull our
children away from us. If it were fair, we’d be able to
speak to those issues.
What I want you to be oriented to is that you don’t
have those options while you’re in the period of
working on estrangement. When you’re in a period of
working on estrangement, you can’t be oriented toward
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If you are, it’s going to affect how you communicate.
It’s going to make you more demanding than you can
be and more resentful. You’re going to talk about a lot
of the hurt, sad and rejected feelings in ways that
probably aren’t going to be that useful.
Here’s what’s confusing for most parents. What’s
required of you is to still be a parent to your adult
children during the period of estrangement, but the
model isn’t the way you would parent an adult child.
Some of you have adult children who maybe you’re
still close to who say, “I don’t know what my sibling’s
problem is. “ Parenting them is easy.
The confusing part is that you actually need to have a
model that’s more like your child was when they were 2
or 3. I don’t mean that in any disrespectful way to the
adult children.
One of the ways that I think I can be helpful to parents
around this is that probably at any time in my practice I
have as many adult children who have cut their parents
off as I do parents who’ve been cut off by their adult
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In addition to having gone through an estrangement
myself, I feel like I have a very strong, clear sense of
what it feels like from the adult child’s perspective.
What I mean is that your model shouldn’t be one of
thinking that it’s going to be a relationship between
equals where you get to make demands and talk about
your feelings, how unfair it is, and how mistreated,
rejected, neglected and furious you feel.
I’ll bet you feel all those things. I did when I was going
through it. Every estranged parent I’ve ever worked
with has all of those feelings of anger and hurt and a
sense of injustice. They don’t buy you anything. They
actually drive your child away.
What do I mean when I say that you need to have an
orientation of being a parent to a younger child? It
requires a certain kind of selflessness of you. By that I
don’t mean tolerating abuse, which is something that
I’ll talk about in future upcoming seminars. It requires
that you have to give without really expecting very
much in return.
You’re going to have to reconcile yourself to the fact
that it’s a one-way street. In this sense it doesn’t really
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work with the younger child model because at least
your toddler will smile at you or crawl into your lap.
Your adult child is not going to do that.
It also requires patience, because nothing is more
infuriating, humiliating and devastating than the
rejection from an adult child. It requires patience
because it’s going to take time.
For those of you who are in the midst of an
estrangement, you may have already been dealing with
this for years. You may well have more years to go still.
You have to see this as a marathon and have acceptance
of that.
Finally, you need to have a position of unconditional
love for your child. I know it’s a lot to ask when you
feel so mistreated, maligned, hurt, devalued and
disrespected, but it’s not only going to orient you more
toward having a better relationship with your child or
maximizing the probability of resolving the distance
between the two of you. It’ll actually feel better to you.
Last but not least, and most importantly, is that you
need to have unconditional love for yourself. This of all
the things is the most important. You have to work
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toward having unconditional self-love. This is the
trickiest part for estranged parents, but it’s the most
crucial because nothing creates more feelings of shame,
self-hatred and suicidality than an estrangement.
I get letters from parents saying they’ve thought about
killing themselves, they’re thinking about it, or they’ve
tried to kill themselves. They’re so heartbroken.
Nothing makes parents feel more unloved, but more
importantly more unlovable, because we’re so wired to
care how we think about our children and how our
children think about us. If our children are rejecting us
and making us feel like we’re terrible people, we were
terrible parents, and we’re not worth being close to, it’s
a very hard thing to contain and compartmentalize.
It’s critically important that you do work and have as
your goal the feeling that you deserve unconditional
self-love. You should really work toward a deep feeling
of self-acceptance. It’s a tall order. How do you do
that? It’s a complicated one, so I’ll summarize the
steps. Then we’ll talk about it in later workshops.
One of the most important things is the ability to be in
ongoing dialogue with yourself with the ways that
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you either were or are a good parent. If you read my
book, When Parents Hurt, I have a list in there. It’s
something like “What I Did as a Good Parent.”
I want you to write out 10 ways that you were a good
parent in the past and the ways that you continue to be a
good parent. If this is something you struggle with,
carry it around with you on a 3-by-5 card and read it
once in the morning and afternoon as a way to really
orient yourself toward that.
If you do all these hard steps that I’m going to tell you
that I think you need to do, you get a lot of credit for
that. It’s being a very loving, dedicated parent if you do
the things that I’m going to ask you to do. They’re
super-hard things to do, and I’m asking a lot of you.
You also have to be in ongoing dialogue with yourself
on the ways that you were and are a good person. A
lot of estranged parents isolate themselves because they
feel so depressed and unloved. They engage in selfdestructive activities and don’t do things that are good
for them. They feel like they don’t deserve to do things
that are good for them. If my own child abandons me
what can I ask from life?
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That’s a big mistake. You really need to do things that
are stimulating to you and remind you of your value
and self-worth.
Finally, and this is a challenge, is the ability to try to
compartmentalize your feelings about your child so
that it doesn’t infect your whole life. It’s the ability to
say, “I’m going to think about this for five minutes
today. Then I’m going to do everything in my power to
put it away.”
That’s contrary to what we feel is being a good parent.
For most of us, being a good parent means we think
about our kid all the time. We are probably wired to
think about, “What does my kid need? Am I doing the
right job? I should I be doing more?”
I’m going to counsel you to do five minutes a day, if
you need to think about them, then put them away.
Dr. Curtis:
Here’s one quick question I have. I know you’re going
to go in greater detail in the coming weeks, but is there
a difference that you typically see about how men
handle this when the father is estranged from the adult
child versus the mother? I don’t know if there’s a
pattern there that’s gender related. I was just curious.
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Dr. Coleman:
It’s a good question. In couples what I often see is that
dads get mad and moms get sad. With dads it’s much
earlier than moms overall, at least in married couples.
They feel like, “I’m tired of this. I’m tired of putting up
with this. This is crap. I don’t deserve this. We don’t
deserve this.”
They feel very protective toward their spouses. That
makes them feel angrier. Overall I see that dads are
probably better at compartmentalizing and less likely to
want to keep reaching out. With single fathers it can be
a little different if they don’t have a wife’s support.
Dr. Curtis
It’s interesting. In light of using this teleseminar
approach, I know there are men on the call right now. I
see we have about 150 people online on their computers
and about 50 on the phone. Of the men who are on the
call, it was one of the advantages to allow for the
anonymity of these sessions.
Dr. Coleman:
That’s a good point. For men, reaching out, getting on
forums and needing support is typically harder. Most
men feel a greater sense of shame about it, although I
will say that all estranged parents feel shame.
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Every time I do any national media on this topic I get
tons of letters and calls from people saying, “I thought I
was the only one.” I feel such a debt of loyalty to
Debbie Kintner, who went on with me on “The Today
Show,” because it was so courageous. She was one of
the first people nationally to be willing to put a face on
this. I know Debbie got a lot of calls from people who
are so grateful to her. We had never met before the
Today Show.
This is an epidemic. It’s happening to a lot of parents
and to really good people. As far as I’m concerned, if
you made a lot of mistakes as a parent that doesn’t
mean you’re not a good person. It’s really hard being a
Mistake 2 is huge and it’s both very subtle and not
subtle. That is either trying to motivate your child
through guilt or not being mindful about the ways
that you communicate with your adult child that
might make them feel guilty.
The reality is that with adult children today, guilt is
really your biggest enemy. It used to be in our society,
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and it still is true in many other cultures, that a parent
had a right to make demands and to say, “You haven’t
called me. What’s the story? You haven’t called your
mother,” or some sense of moral outrage about the fact
that the kid isn’t holding up their end of the bargain.
That’s no longer true and therefore that card has been
taken out of your hand. Our society and culture is
getting more and more individualistic. What that means
is that the ways people are encouraged to define
themselves are on the basis of whether or not
relationships make them feel good or good about
themselves and whether or not they’re contributing to
their self-esteem and personal development.
There’s a very strong sense in our culture that if a
relationship, including a relationship with a parent,
doesn’t make you feel good about yourself or makes
you feel guilty or bad that completely cutting that
parent out of your life is a reasonable decision.
We could talk about whether that is or isn’t. What I
want you to get is that guilt is your enemy. The more
you make your child feel guilty, the more you’re going
to shut them down and drive them away.
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Their guiding light is whether or not the relationship
makes them feel good and good about themselves. I’m
not saying all adult children are narcissists. I think it’s
part of our culture. I think we as parents have actually
raised our children in this way more than parents in
other generations.
If you look at parenting surveys in the 1920s, for
example, what parents wanted from their children was
for them to respect them, if not to fear them. They
wanted them to be basically conforming, upright
members of society.
What parents have wanted from their children since the
1960s and increasingly on is that they want their
children to be individuals. They want their children to
be in touch with their feelings, to be autonomous,
independent thinkers, and to be self-interested.
That’s all well and good, but we’ve also given our
children the shovel to hit us over the head with as well
because we’re saying to them that in general we want
them to be entitled. We want them to talk about what
feels good and doesn’t and to make choices around that.
Guess what. A lot of them are.
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Guilt is your enemy because it will shut your child
down and turn them away from you. When Debbie
Kintner and I were on “The Today Show” and when we
were interviewed in The New York Times, there was a
flood of furious emails and letters about that from adult
A lot of the adult children said, “My mother is a
narcissist or a borderline personality.” I assume that
some of them do have narcissistic or borderline
personality parents, but I don’t assume that it’s as many
as they are saying.
My theory about it (calling your parent a narcissist or
borderline personality disorder) is that it’s a way to
devalue the parent’s need of them and to not feel as
guilty about not wanting to give the parent something
that they don’t want to give them. If the parent
complains and says, “Ouch! I miss you or need you. I
haven’t seen my grandkids in a year,” that’s a character
flaw in the parent because it makes the child feel guilty.
What are other examples of trying to motivate your
child through guilt? One is just telling them how
unhappy you are with the estrangement. It will just
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backfire on you. You can maybe do it a year or two
after a reconciliation, but while you’re working on a
reconciliation or earlier in a reconciliation I do not
recommend it.
Another, ironically, is assuming that telling your child
about an illness of you or another family member will
get their interest or attention. I can’t tell you how many
parents I’ve worked with who have done that and it has
actually had the opposite effect. Why?
If a child is working for whatever reason on being more
separate from you as a parent and they feel rationally or
irrationally that we as parents are trying to rope them
back in through guilt, which is how they would
experience it, they feel like they have to push back even
harder. That’s Mistake 1. It’s not fair, but to be strategic
you can’t really go there.
With all these things, you can ignore me. These are my
recommendations. With all of these things you can say,
“That’s all well and good, Dr. Coleman, but I don’t
want to do that. I like my anger. It helps me. I don’t
really want to keep reaching out to this kid who keeps
treating me abusively.”
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I can support that. I’m just telling you what I think
works given all of the families that I work with and the
successes that I’ve had with getting people to reconcile.
There are plenty of things that can make your adult
child feel guilty, but the last I’ll mention is criticizing
them or their spouse in any way. There are so many
estrangements I see that are a result of one or both of
the parents saying something negative about the spouse.
That just starts the whole foot in the quicksand thing.
Then it’s all gone.
The other part of guilt that’s really important to
understand is how it relates to how much that parenting
has changed -- we’re spending much more attention on
what our children feel and think. We’re also spending
more time with them.
There has been a 40% reduction in outdoor play in the
past 20 years. Fathers have tripled the amount of time
that they spend with their children in the past three
decades. Mothers, even career women, actually spend
more time with their children these days than moms did
in the 1960s.
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There are also fewer children. The family environment
has become much more intense as a result. Parents now
expect a kind of intensity or friendship and intimacy
from their children over their life course.
That is relatively new.
It used to be the parent’s job to launch the kid into
adulthood and hope that they would call or write
periodically. Now parents really feel that they want a
long-term, close, intimate relationship with their child.
It’s that much more rejecting when it doesn’t happen. It
also makes the family environment much more
involved. Children are more aware of their parent’s
feelings because the parents are more aware of the
child’s feelings. There’s much more intimacy in that
households where there’s not another parent there to
deflect the child’s needs. If they’re really dependent on
a single mom, when they grow up they may have to
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reject her as a way to show or prove their independence
or gain some kind of immunity to her feelings.
I’ve worked with many single moms where Dad may
have left early and not been very involved, and later
Dad becomes their best friend and Mom gets kicked to
the curb. Sometimes it’s a way for the children to really
separate from Mom. That’s why you don’t want to
make the kids feel too guilty. They’ll get really
confused by it.
These changes mean that our adult children today have
less immunity to our feelings. That’s why there’s all
this talk on the forums about borderline and narcissistic
parents. They’re trying to find some way to distance
That’s why in many ways letting the adult child take the
lead and not making them guilty about what it is that
they’re doing really works so much better than
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Mistake 3 is qualifying your amends through
explanation, persuasion or defensiveness.
If you’ve read my book, you know that I talk a lot about
the importance of making amends, meaning that most
of us have a pretty good idea of why our child is
rejecting us. It may not make a lot of sense to us. We
may disagree or think it’s preposterous, but at least we
have some sense of the reason that they’re doing it.
What I recommend to parents is that they speak to the
kernel of truth in it. They can think that there are things
that they really do need to address. Maybe there really
were serious mistakes. Frankly, we’ve all made them.
Do that (make amends) in a very undefensive, vigorous
way where you don’t try to qualify it.
What do I mean by qualifying it? I mean by saying
things like, “I did the best I could,” “It’s not my fault
that your dad was never there,” “It was all your
mother’s fault that I left or that you have these feelings
about me,” “You were a difficult child,” or “Your
memory of me or the past is all wrong.”
If you’re being told you were a child molester, you
can’t admit to that kind of thing if it’s not true. I’m not
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themselves, but sometimes the way things are presented
are really hard for us to listen to or endorse.
What I recommend that parents do is listen to the
kernel of truth. In my own case, for those of who
know a little bit about my story, I was married and
divorced in my 20s. I have a 30-year-old daughter.
When she was little I remarried and had twin sons with
my wife who I’m currently still married to. My twins
are 18.
My daughter, in her early 20s for a period of about two
to three years estranged herself from me. There would
be brief periods where she’d come back in and be angry
about her treatment. Then I wouldn’t hear from her for
long periods of time.
It was really that whole nightmarish experience that got
me thinking about this issue and how there was no help
for it. I thought, “What the hell do I do with this
nightmare that I now have on my hands?”
When she would talk to me about her feelings she
would say, “I thought you were really selfish when I
was young. You put all your attention into my brothers.
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They had a much better quality of life than I did. You
were really neglectful of me.”
That broke my heart. The first 10 times I heard that it
took every ounce of willpower to not try to prove her
wrong and say, “Yes, but I was dealing with all this
pressure, work, stress or parenting twin boys, etc” to
defend myself, to tell her how wrong she was, to tell
her all the good ways that I was a good dad and that I
had been since then.
I knew that the only thing I could really say was, “I’m
really sorry. I could see how you felt that that was
really selfish of me. I really regret that. I wish that I
could have done it differently. You’re right. You did
suffer as a result of that.”
It’s hard to argue with that if you’re the person on the
other side. It wasn’t manipulative on my part. I really
believe that. If she wants to talk about that issue with
me still I will go there.
There’s not a lot to argue with there. I’m not saying
she’s wrong. I’m taking responsibility. There are ways
that you could argue that I was being selfish at that time
of her life. It wasn’t my goal. She actually was on my
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radar, but the choices that I made actually did cause her
to not get as much as she deserved to.
Qualifying always backfires. I know that some of you
haven’t had any contact with your adult child for years.
I’m orienting you because sometimes the people I’ve
worked with haven’t had contact; then they start doing
some of the principles that I recommend and lo and
behold their kid slowly over time begins to become reinterested.
These principles are based on the idea that if you
defend yourself too much or explain it away, or if you
say, “I was going through a hard time,” “I did a lot
better job than my parents did with me,” or “You’re
making it a lot worse than it was,” your kid is just going
to shut you down.
They’re going to shut you off. They’re not going to
think that you’re a credible person to deal with and
somebody that they can really be closer to. This is
critically important.
How do you do it? I’m asking you to do something
that’s super hard. When my daughter would say that to
me, sometimes I’d feel really mad. Other times I’d feel
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really depressed and hopeless. That’s why I’m saying
that these estrangement dynamics bring out the worst in
One of the most important things that you have to do is
distinguish between self-dialogue and the dialogue
that you have with your child. Self-dialogue is what
you tell yourself.
You tell yourself why your kid is saying these things to
you. “I did the best I could.” You tell yourself, “It’s not
my fault because the other parent was not a good
partner.” You tell yourself, “You were a difficult kid to
raise,” if they were. You tell yourself, “Your memory
of me is all wrong. I was a much better parent than
you’re recalling.”
In other words, you have to soothe yourself. You can’t
rely on your child to soothe you in this regard. They’re
not going to do it. This gets back to the first one.
What’s required is to be strategic, not to think about
what’s fair. What’s fair is that you would actually get
empathy from your child. You’re not going to get it.
You just have to accept that you’re not going to get that
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What you say to your child is different from what you
say to yourself. What you say to yourself is really to
soothe yourself in the way that you would if you were a
loving parent to yourself. You’re tender. If you made
big mistakes, you have compassion for why you made
those mistakes.
You think about it. You think, “I actually had no role
models. I had no money. I was going through
postpartum depression.” There are so many reasons that
parents often make mistakes that their kids later
complain about. I want you to have a lot of compassion
for yourself. I just don’t want you to expect to get that
compassion from your child.
The other key way to frame this that can be helpful is to
really get rooted into the concept of separate realities.
That is that in any family, if you have a family of five,
there are going to be five different realities of what
happened in that family. You’re going to get five
different versions. We all experience our families very
I have two brothers. We talk about what my parents
were like. Our versions of who our parents were are
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radically different. It may have to do with your birth
order. You may have been more like one parent than
the other.
Some kids are much easier to raise and that can affect
how they view the parent and how the parent views
them. The genetic temperament of the child affects their
view. They may have been somebody who’s very
sensitive to stimulation. That might have made them
feel overly sensitive to criticism, shame, etc. from the
Things that the parent may have thought were
completely innocent may have been experienced as
being critical or harsh from the perspective of the adult
child. We all bring our own temperaments into the
situation as well.
Don’t get into the right and wrong of it. When your
adult complains about you or if you’re trying to reach
out to them and address their concerns from the past,
don’t do it from your perspective. Do it from their
Come from the perspective of the separate realities that
you can have two independently valid perspectives at
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the same time. You can have two people in the same
room witnessing the same event coming away with very
different experiences of that event.
You’re much better off coming from the perspective of,
“You really felt that I wasn’t really as involved with
you as you wished I’d been. You felt like I was too
much involved in my work, relationships or whatever. I
can see how it might have felt like that.” This is a
critically important point that I really want parents to
There are a variety of reasons that our adult children
say really hurtful, cruel things to us. I’m not giving
them a pass. I’m appalled, frankly, by some of the
things that I hear some of these adult children saying to
their parents.
We have to think about it from, “What’s their
motivation?” I don’t really think that the vast majority
of them are doing it purely out of a sense of sadism.
There probably are a few that are doing it out of a sense
of sadism, but the fact that it feels sadistic doesn’t mean
that that’s really their primary orientation or goal.
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Typically, and I know this from the adult children that I
work with in my practice, they are trying to
communicate something that’s important about their
experience or the relationship that they don’t have the
skills to do in a more tactful way.
Secondly, and more subtle but equally important,
they’re trying to sort out the past and can only see
what’s true and what isn’t by blaming you and seeing
what you do with it. If you get too angry or defensive it
just muddies the water.
The more you can come at it in a very flat-footed, calm,
respectful way, be investigative and interested in what
their thoughts and feelings are, and not get into a big
fight with them about it, the more clarity it will actually
bring to the situation.
I work with a lot of couples. I’ve seen over and over
again that if one person is blaming the other one
furiously, and the other person is calm and says, “I see
your point. I guess I could have done that better or
differently. It sounds like you’re really upset,” in a nondismissive way, the other person typically calms right
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down because they’re not really giving them anything
to hit up against.
Another reason that adult children say really hurtful
things is that they’re trying to separate from you and
they don’t know any other way to do it than to put a
wedge between you and them.
In a large number of the families that I work with, the
adult child has estranged themselves or is engaging in
very provocative, negative behavior as a way to
independence and to prove to themselves that they
don’t need the parent and that they can launch an adult
This is particularly true of adult children who may have
grown up in some ways feeling defective or shy. They
had a hard time growing up or were overly dependent
on the parent, anxious, depressed, etc. They may have a
need to go the other extreme as a way to really reassure
themselves that they can be independent and they don’t
need the parent.
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The way they defend against that is to devalue you as a
parent and say, “You’re worthless or terrible. You did
all of those things.”
What should you do in response to that? In general, ask
questions such as, “What did that feel like to you? Do
any examples come to mind? Has anything like that
happened in the past few years?”
It’s hard for a lot of adult children, particularly those
who are estranged, to have a separate realities
perspective and the perspective that just because the
parent may have done things that didn’t feel good
doesn’t mean that that was the parent’s intention or that
it makes the parent a bad parent. It depends on the adult
Mistake #4: Returning fire with fire
Many parents of estranged children are furious with
their adult children. They feel devalued, misunderstood,
taken advantage of, kicked to the curb, shamed and
humiliated, like their child has taken the most innocent
and vulnerable part of them and rubbed their noses in it.
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They feel blamed for things that they either never did or
said, or if they did, that should fairly be balanced out by
all the loving, dedicated things that the parent did over
the many years of parenting.
As I said earlier, many adult children are quite abusive.
They’re abusive in their blame, coldness and lack of
empathy. However, you’re never going to get anywhere
if you return fire with fire. It’s human nature.
My German grandmother used to have this saying that
if somebody hits you in the nose, they mean you. What
she meant by that if somebody is really being abusive to
you, they’re not abusing somebody else. They want to
hurt you.
In this domain of estranged families, you have to tread
more lightly than that. As I said earlier, there are many
reasons that adult children engage in these behaviors.
You don’t have to tolerate the bad behavior or rubber
stamp it, but if you return fire with fire you’re not really
advancing anything or creating potential for a better
relationship if that’s your goal.
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You’re also stirring yourself up. It’s much better to
work on soothing yourself and responding in ways that
you’re going to feel better about. How do you do that?
One example is if you’re going to write or call, make
sure you do it when you’re feeling calm. Don’t do it
when they’ve just sent you some hostile email or
refused your call or something for the 20th time. That’s
why emails or letters are sometimes better.
If your child does do or say something that makes you
furious, try to get off the phone as quickly as you can. If
you feel your temperature rising, say, “I suspect this
isn’t going to be very productive. Maybe I should go. If
you want, we can talk about this later.” Just try to
quickly get off before you do.
I understand a lot of you have no contact whatsoever
and probably would welcome even abusive calls at this
For those of you who have no contact, you may have
some contact in the future. It may start out poorly if
there has been a big period of distance and lack of
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Occasionally I get letters and hear from parents where
the adult child out of the blue jumps in and says, “I’ve
been thinking about things. I want to work on them,”
and is more sensitive. Much more typically if there’s a
reconciliation, it’s a matter of the parent slowly reeling
them in over time.
There are some other things you can do. Say you need
to take a timeout. Try to actively slow down your
breathing. Count to 10 before you respond. Don’t
reinitiate communication until you’re calm.
Use “I” statements. For example, “When you call me
names I feel really misunderstood by you,” rather than,
“You’re such a selfish little brat. How can you treat me
like this?”
Finally, make stress reduction through regular exercise,
yoga or meditation a regular part of your routine. Your
study guide should have homework on all these
mistakes as well.
Mistake 5 is failing to see how long reconciliation
takes and to be able to see progress when it occurs.
As I’ve already said, reconciliation is a very long road.
It’s much more typically a matter of years than months
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though for some it’s only months if they catch it early
enough and their kid is willing to hear them out.
If parents can catch it early enough and really get
invested in these principles that I’m talking about here
and in my book, it can get resolved often much more
quickly. Once an estrangement has already been going
on for a while, typically if it’s going to resolve it takes a
long time.
You have to have the marathon model in mind.
Sometimes there are little glimmers of light along the
way. It’s really important to nurture those little
glimmers of light.
I often find in my work with estranged parents that it’s
hard for me to convince them that these crumbs are
meaningful, that if your kid is sending you a birthday
card, doesn’t send back your emails, hasn’t blocked
you, hasn’t sent out a restraining order on you or will
occasionally take a phone call, that those are all little
steps that over time, and sometimes over a long time,
you can build into something that’s more meaningful.
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That doesn’t mean if you’re not getting any of those
that all is lost. If you are getting even those little tiny
things, those are good little guide posts along the way.
Parents often say, “When do I get to say how I feel or
say ‘enough is enough?’” The answer is whenever you
want. I’ve supported parents in my practice saying,
“I’m sick of this. I’ve had enough. I can’t deal with it
anymore. It’s too painful. I feel too disrespected,
rejected and hurt. I’m not doing this anymore.”
I never try to talk parents out of it. I think that parents
have the right to do that and at some point say that
they’ve tried hard and long enough and it’s just too
painful. There’s nothing more difficult than trying to
live through an estrangement.
If you’re still on the path toward reconciliation, when
you get to say how you feel is probably not until there
has been a full, strong reconciliation. Maybe it’s a year
or two into it. The conversations I’ve had with my
daughter about how I felt during our period were
probably two years after she and I had reconciled.
It’s a very fragile place when parents and their adult
children newly reconcile. Parents often feel like,
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“Good. We’re back to normal. I can complain if they’re
not calling,” or whatever we do. That’s a mistake. You
want to keep your strategy-not-fairness principle and an
unconditional, loving, giving mindset in mind for at
least a few years.
Your child is going to be watching you pretty darn
closely to see if you’ve really changed, if you really
want to have a different relationship with them, and if
you’re going to really let them set more of the terms of
the relationship.
That’s what a lot of adult children say to their parents
and to me. “I want to have more say over the terms,
how often and how long we visit, and that I get to tell
them I don’t want to hear their advice about parenting,”
or whatever. I think if parents want to have a
relationship with adult children those are the new terms
and new rules.
Mistake 6 is assuming that their distance or
negativity is all because of you. There’s so much of
adult children’s behavior that we personalize that has
little or nothing to do with us.
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Sometimes we get on a slippery slope. We personalize
everything that they do and then complain about how it
makes us feel. Then it is about us. A lot of what
children are going through has nothing to do with us.
One of the ways to think about this is that our
children’s lives are on a different course than ours. By
the time we have adult children our lives are in many
ways largely set. We may be newly divorced, dating,
have new careers or whatever, but we’re who we’re
going to be. By the time you get into your 40s, 60s, etc.,
you’re basically who you’re going to be.
It’s not so for your adult child. They’re in the process of
still figuring out who they are. They’re raising children
and working on their relationships. They’re developing
their careers.
Our adult children are, for most of us, our central
pleasure or joy if they’re being nice to us. They’re our
central preoccupation when we’re close to them. If not,
they’re our central source of torment.
We’re very oriented toward them. They’re very much
on our minds all the time. We’re not very much on their
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minds all the time. It’s not because they don’t love or
care about us.
A lot of the adult children in my practice who are
estranged from their parents say, “I do love my parent. I
actually feel guilty about this. I feel bad for the ways
that they suffer.” They say that in addition to all the
complaints that they say about them. But it isn’t that
they don’t care.
It’s so easy when you’re in the midst of an
estrangement to assume that your adult child no longer
loves you and only hates you and has completely
forgotten about all the good, wonderful things that you
did do for them growing up.
The reality is that it’s in there. It may not be at the
forefront of their consciousness, but if there were many
ways that you were close to your child when they were
growing up, it is in there. They just may not have
access to it or may not, for whatever reasons, want to
bring it forth and work on it with you in that way.
Just to review strategy, we want you to think in terms of
what’s strategic, not what’s fair, to avoid guilt in any of
your communications, and not to qualify your amends.
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The key to that is to be in self-dialogue with the way
that you were a good parent, think about it from the
perspective of separate realities, avoid fighting fire with
fire, recognize that reconciliation is a very long road, be
oriented toward that, and finally not assume that it’s all
Most importantly, my dear estranged parents, is to
really work on that unconditional love for yourselves. If
there’s a takeaway from tonight it’s that you wouldn’t
be on this call if you didn’t love your kid and weren’t a
good parent in that way and therefore, need to also love
If there were mistakes, you really deserve to forgive
yourself for those mistakes and to have compassion for
yourselves. We all make mistakes as parents. It’s an
unavoidable part of being a human. Really work on
developing that unconditional self-love because it will
give you the greatest sense of strength of all.
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