Relationship Gone Sour: Parents & Adult Children – Getting Back On Track (‘Can This Relationship Be Saved?’ Part II)

If children are like little caterpillars guided by the Universe into the parent’s meadow of life, then it would be logical for the parent to expect a butterfly to one day emerge – ready to take flight. Parents hopefully offer the best environment they can (mind/body/spirit) to assist their children to recognize their own pure beautiful inner spirits. Ideally parents also offer mind/body/spirit survival tools to help their young fulfill personal and professional potential.

As children go off into the wide wonderful world, they need to know their parents are available to emotionally support and encourage them, with acceptance and love – no strings attached. (Feel free to leave comments – especially if you disagree).

Lucky is the parent whose adult children choose to perpetuate healthy patterns and break unhealthy ones set during their upbringing. Blessed is the parent whose children continue the family traditions, holidays, and dinners enjoyed by all during childhood. What happens when this is not the case? What if the children become interested in traditions outside of those with which they were raised? Deep breath. Stay centered. Read on.

Parents of adult children often need to be very patient, gentle and kind in the face of what may appear to be blatant rejection by their offspring – especially when the children enter their twenties, and become interested in trying out all sorts of lifestyles introduced along their journey. Paths, choices, friends, even dietary preferences may differ from those with which they were raised. Parents need to remember: every journey is sacred. Your child was a caterpillar guided into your meadow. It was your responsibility to provide all you could until the time your child would spin that chrysalis and break through with wings. It is healthy for adult offspring to respectfully reject the parents’ ways as the emerging adult offspring selects a personal lifestyle which may conflict with choices made by parents.

Parents who accept the offspring – even if they don’t adopt the newly chosen lifestyle rhythm for themselves, create feelings of unconditional love. When parents reject the new lifestyle choices, children may feel they themselves have been rejected. This could complicate the adult relationship that follows. Ideally, children and parents trust and respect each other enough to get past lifestyle differences.

Coping With The Emptying Nest

It is a blessing when a parent can be confident in the skills she or he provided to the child(ren). Preparing offspring with tools necessary to navigate life’s unpredictable terrain with gratitude, joy and centered peace is what a responsible parent does. Parents who offer love without fear, encouragement without strings, support without guilt, and who sincerely believe their children have tremendous potential – as well as the ability to fulfill it, often have less anxiety about children leaving the nest than do parents who used fear, shame and/or guilt to control their children during youth.

Setting the stage for positive relationships. Offering children skills to find their own happiness sets the stage for acceptance, trust and respect going forward.  Parents are able to cultivate gratitude within the family unit when they themselves were raised with respect and love without bitterness, control or fear. Though easier to follow this pattern when raised this way – anyone can learn how to do it.

The first step is honest self-reflection. Ask yourself a few difficult questions regarding your own fears, shame & guilt. If this creates anxiety, then the next step may be to find a reputable, well trained mental health professional to create a safe space for you to review & reflect. Your goal is to embrace the following truth: you deserved better in your youth, and now need to offer better to your own children. Where there is life there is hope.

Once healed enough, a heartfelt, “I know what I did wrong, where I let you down, how I screwed things up, and I now understand how to nourish a healthy adult relationship with you” can begin to repair your parent/child relationship – if both are interested and willing.

The promise is big. The relationship may require a third party who is a well-trained mental health professional to get it back on track.

Reestablishing Communication

The parent and child may begin to resolve once a safe space is able to be maintained for an hour, once a week, for a few months (even if only through ‘cyberspace’ – i.e. SKYPE, if geography is a factor) .

What happens when the parent reaches out to the adult child, but consistently finds the child is interested only in either (1) viciously attacking the parent or (2) engaging solely in small talk? This does seem complex – because of the extraordinary maturity and focused energy required on the part of the parent, but is able to be resolved if (1) both parent and adult child sincerely want resolution and (2) neither has an uncontrolled personality disorder or lives with an unaddressed brain chemistry imbalance. Additionally, the ages of the people involved, life experiences, and mental status of both impact the outcome.

That having been said, there is never an appropriate time to accept abuse of any sort. It is often valuable to draw a healthy boundary beginning with, “this is clearly a hot topic for us. Let’s agree to discuss it with a mental health professional as our third party.” This boundary helps create a safe space, shows you are interested in the discussion and resolution, and demonstrates recognition that you require guidance to be certain you both hear each other accurately.

Chances are greater that resolution can occur if both parent & adult child are (a) mentally well (i.e. neither suffers with an unresolved personality disorder; for example, one such as BPD, unless there is a successful treatment plan in place facilitating healing and resolution) and, (b) the parent is in his/her 50’s / the adult child in his/her 20’s – than if there is an uncontrolled personality disorder in one or both, &/or if this is between an 80 year old parent and adult child in his/her 50’s.

In the case where the parent is around 80 years of age and the child around 50 years of age, chances that the child built a life around a long-standing ‘disconnect’ is greater than the scenario in which the parent/child team is 30 years younger. Recognizing that, unless there is a personality disorder in one or both and/or if age and lifestyle built around the dysfunction for more than 10 years is working against the relationship, there are steps each can take to re-build the healthy, happy relationship both desire.

Values. A possible way for one or the other to begin: “I want to see if we can improve our relationship. I’d like to tell you what I value and I wonder if you would feel comfortable to share what you value. That way, we can each communicate in a way the other can appreciate.”  The more values you have in common, the easier it is to reestablish the caring relationship you both state you want. Mutual respect grows when people accept and understand each other.

~ Worst Case Scenario ~

In the case wherein a retired father in his 80’s and a busy, jet-setting son in his 50’s agree they both wish to reconnect emotionally, the father might discover that he values deep heartfelt discussions with his son while the son values donating all his spare time at a soup kitchen. Both father and son have separate needs – each defining himself by different externals. The father seeks self-definition as ‘a father’ and the son seeks self-definition as ‘a philanthropist’ – but neither one can satisfy the other, given their separate goals. The son might find a relationship with the father takes too much energy – energy he prefers to spend elsewhere in order to satisfy his definition of ‘self’.

~ Is mine a ‘worst’ or ‘best case’ scenario? ~

In the example wherein the father has time and desire to have deep philosophical discussions, address past disconnects, mend unresolved issues, walk in the woods or take a father/son fishing trip – essentially feels driven to build a future relationship, he might begin with a question similar to this: “Son, we’ve grown apart. I know you are very busy and doing your best to balance a hectic schedule. Do you miss our time together?” The son would then say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If the son agrees that a closer relationship is what he wants, the father’s next step would be to say, “I realize your schedule is tight. What I value is quality chats. Do you value these, too?”  This gives the son an opportunity to agree, disagree, or redefine in accordance with his own values.

Hints and tips that clarify truth. The son might say, “I absolutely love quality chats.  You and I  have them all the time.” In this response, the son makes clear he is satisfied with the current level of communication. To be sure the father understands, he might follow-up by seeking clarification: “Son, are you saying you are okay with the way things are between us? No issues to discuss? Nothing to work on?”  If the son says, “Yes” then the father needs to realize the son is satisfied with the current level of communication – even though the father is not. The father needs to defer to the son’s stated preference and recognize that his son is his own person; his journey is sacred. Let it go. Remain available. Stop pushing.

On the other hand, the son might say, “I absolutely love quality talks and I miss them also.”  In this response, the son suggests a desire to work to improve the relationship. This opens the door for the next steps.  Now that father and son agree there is something missing, and share a desire to fix it, a return to the initial statement focuses on the elephant in the room: time. The father might say, “Realizing your schedule is tight, when can you possibly squeeze me in?” The son might say, “I can call on my way home from work.  I will have about 15 minutes to chat.”

Father and son agree on a time to chat. Once on the phone, the father (since he started this mending scenario) would have to be considerate of the boundaries of time from the son’s perspective. The goal is to build trust by honoring (without fear, shame or guilt – given or accepted) the son’s time. This means the father could, during that ‘on the drive home’ chat, state a concern that weighs on his mind, without expectation that an answer would be given in a specific time frame dictated by the father. The concern is stated, then an indication that ‘no answer is expected at this time – but that one would be greatly appreciated whenever the son gets around to it’ opens the door to the next defining steps.

Learning where you are on the other’s ‘list of priorities’ defines the relationship & impacts energy you invest going forward

The value of the above stated approach (letting the other person know what you value, and seeing where it falls on that person’s list of priorities) – in this case, from the father to the son, affords the father an opportunity to see where he is on his son’s full plate.  The father needs to be ready to understand that just as he might be honored as front and center, he might not be on the plate at all.  Sadly, he might not even be at the table from the son’s perspective (and the son might or might not even be aware of it).  The father’s status becomes clear in the timing and quality of the son’s response after that chat – and in the ways in which the son handles clarification sought by the father.

Rejected: by someone you respect? REFLECT; by someone you don’t? REJOICE.

Respecting rejection. If the son takes several days to respond to the concern, without offering an ‘interlude’ email or phone call excusing himself from giving this the attention it deserves (knowing it is of value to his father), the father might recognize he is not as much of a priority to the son as the son is to him. From the son’s perspective, the fact that he even thought about his father that day might mean (to the son) that the son invested more energy in the father than the father deserved.

The son might have repressed deep-seated anger or resentment. By the same token, the son might have – on his own, with or without therapy, long since resolved any issues with his father, to the point where he concluded he never really wishes to reconnect in the way the father wants/ needs.  Whether the son has firm self-protective boundaries because of unresolved childhood trauma or has truly healed enough to permit himself to move on without catering to the father’s needs – the son’s reality must be embraced and respected by the father.

What would not be appropriate would be for the one who rejects the other (in this case the son rejecting the father’s reaching out) to twist the reality to appear ‘as if’ the one rejecting the other has been rejected by the other. We see this in families and friendships when the one who rejects another claims to be the victim of the short end of the stick, poor treatment etc., without owning the recognition that she/he is the one who boxed out the other.

Awakening in recognition of truth. Whether it is repression of trauma or awakening through healing, if the son elects ‘no relationship’, the reality won’t become clear until the father makes himself vulnerable, and permits the son to be in the position of power – to reject the father on the son’s own terms.  Unless the father permits this, he risks distracting the son from the reality that the son rejected the father’s reaching out. This may morph into the possibility that the son might self-victimize ‘as if’ he was rejected – when in truth, it is the son outgrowing the need for a relationship with his father that drives the division. The son rejects the father; the son needs to own it; the father needs to respect it.

After all is said and done, children have the right to ‘move on’ – even if it disappoints the parents. If you are the adult child rejecting the parent/child relationship:  own it. When and if children choose to reject the parent(s) – for whatever reason, the adult children owe it to themselves to admit they accept responsibility for rejecting the parent(s). Parents have the responsibility to offer the best they can to their children, and remain available to the best of their ability.

If or when children outgrow, reject, cut off communication etc., the parents need to accept and remain available. If you are the parent rejected by your adult child: recognize your child has the right to draw boundaries where she/he chooses. This is his/her life. She/he has a sacred journey to travel. The best you can do is send positive energy through the Universe for healing and guidance to all your children – those who accept as well as those who reject you and/or your lifestyle choices. [To read Part I, click here]

I wish every reader healing of mind, body and spirit – and, with gratitude for your time in reading this very long article, I invite you to disagree with any point made.  May you and those you love be blessed and centered.


Dr. Nancy Iankowitz

One response to “Relationship Gone Sour: Parents & Adult Children – Getting Back On Track (‘Can This Relationship Be Saved?’ Part II)”

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