How to heal fractured relationships with your adult children

Most familial distress arise from misunderstandings, hurt feelings, disappointment or unmet expectations.

Bill and his wife recently divorced. They have three adult children, in their early and mid-twenties. Harry, their middle child, is angry with Bill. He blames Bill for the divorce and tells his dad that he wants nothing to do with him. Bill is sad, disappointed and hurt. He has no idea what to do.

Amy’s daughter Nicola, 30, tells her mom that she needs a break from her. Nicola doesn’t want to get into the reasons why. Amy’s so upset that she can’t sleep. She’s called her and had her husband call, but Nicola won’t budge. She didn’t even call on Thanksgiving.

Most of us know someone who has a fractured relationship with an adult child, parent or sibling. It’s a painful experience. There are circumstances where distancing yourself from a family member makes sense — when there has been physical, sexual or emotional abuse. This is especially understandable when the offending adult takes no responsibility for their behavior.

But most splintered relationships arise from misunderstandings, miscommunication, hurt feelings, disappointment or unmet expectations.

Nicola and Harry are angry with their parents. Nicola has a long list of disappointments. Harry’s upset about his parent’s divorce. He feels that his father didn’t try hard enough to solve his marital problems. When they did try to communicate their feelings to their parents, they felt shut down. Both parents were defensive and felt unfairly attacked and criticized.

So what can parents and their adult kids do to heal their distressed relationships?

Reach out. As the older adult, I believe it’s the parents’ responsibility to reach out to their adult child. Send a card, email or letter communicating your desire to have a relationship with your son or daughter. Be respectful, acknowledge their feelings and let your child know that you love them, want them in your life, and hope for a better relationship and a better day.

Be persistent and patient. If your adult child doesn’t want to have contact with you, keep sending out periodic white flags. Don’t be pushy, just keep letting them know that you want to have a relationship with them. Be patient. Water will eventually wear away rock. Communicate respect for their feelings.

Don’t let political or religious differences divide your family. With so much divisiveness and polarization in our society, it’s easy for “purple” families to stop talking to each other. Don’t try to convince each other of the error of their ways. Agree to keep politics or religion out of family discourse — there are a lot of other things to talk about.

Listen. Invite your son or daughter to share their feelings with you either in person or in writing. Listen without defending yourself. Acknowledge their hurt and disappointment. Express your sorrow that you did something that caused them pain. Keep your judgements to yourself. It’s not always necessary to tell your side of the story. But it is helpful to open your ears, your mind and your heart to their experience.

Don’t take offense. An elderly friend of mine, Dixie, now passed away, used to say, “Take no offense, and if you do, be quick to forgive.” It’s not a requirement to take offense if someone says or does something that you don’t care for. Most hurtful words or actions are done with little awareness of their impact.

When I was a teenager, my parents went through a messy divorce. Both of my parents were caught up in the drama of their own lives and couldn’t see what I was going through. When I was an adult in my early 30s, I shared my hurt, anger and disappointment with them. They were far enough away from those difficult years to listen and express sadness that they weren’t able to be there for me. It was healing for all of us.

Don’t give up on each other.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.

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