Life experiences work a lot like taste buds. One person scrapes off cilantro while another piles on more. And so with our families. Just try talking to your siblings to get an idea of how different the same family can appear, seen from different vantage points. The trouble with all this is that no one is objectively wrong. The person who loves cilantro doesn’t have the facts straight, and the person who loathes it isn’t an idiot. Each experiences the same thing in different but equally valid ways, shaped by their personalities, tastes, and life experiences. And nowhere does this thorny challenge of different lenses become more emotionally heightened and fraught than in the crucible of family.
Particularly between parents and children.
As an adult child who ended the relationship with my parents, I want to reach out to other parents who fear losing their relationships with their children. And I want to speak to you with the hope that it is possible to prevent your own family from going through the same pain.
Back when I was 25, I was hurting. Over the years, my parents had done and said a lot of things that still smarted, and each conversation with them left me bleeding anew. During a visit down to their new home in Austin, I became depressed and even contemplated suicide for the first time in years. I knew something was deeply wrong with our relationship. Still, I wanted to have them in my life, so after I got back home and evened out, I shot them an email.
I asked if we could talk about ways to transition into a healthy parent-child relationship as adults. I said there were some painful things I remembered, and I’d like to hear their perspective.
My parents dismissed my request. Each time I brought it up again, they put me off again. I suggested therapy, so a counselor could guide us through the process. They turned me down. This continued for nine months.
By that time, I was 25, and things had boiled over. I wrote unnecessarily lengthy letters detailing what I remembered since they were unwilling to share their memories. At the end of the letters, I asked for no contact.
My parents promptly wrote back calling me a variety of names, telling me I had imagined everything, and that I was unlikely to make it in this world without them.
They followed up their notes with Christmas presents. Talk about confusing.
Eventually, they stopped sending gifts and finally respected my wish for no-contact.
The last I heard from my brother, they were refusing to send me anything left to me in my grandmother’s will. It’s okay. I’ve made it without them.
And now? Eleven years later?
I feel safe. But I’m also grief-stricken. When I walked away from my parents, I also lost my entire extended family. And I wish that back when I was 25—confused and hurting and angry—someone had sat down my parents and got real with them.
I don’t have a time machine. But maybe I can do that for your family. So I’m going to get real with you.
And this is where we have to start: Most adult children I’ve known end relationships with parents because they believe the relationships are toxic.
This comes as a shock to many parents. But it makes sense. Culturally, our very conception of abuse has changed. What your own parents considered good parenting techniques are now cause for a phone call to social services. And for good reason. We’ve learned a lot in just the last few decades about how the brain develops and what experiences shape it. For more on the latest groundbreaking study, click here.
So if your child is considering ending their relationship with you or recently has, you’re going to have to enter some off-road terrain. You’re going to have to look at how an experience that was fine for you could have been very painful for someone else. It’s going to be hard. I’m not going to lie. But that’s okay. Take a deep breath. There are ways through it. After all, you’re still family.
1. Go to family counseling.
This was a last-resort deal I offered my parents. They didn’t take it. As far as they were concerned, nothing was wrong with our family, and I needed to toe the line—or they were through with me. I can guarantee that if this attitude doesn’t outright terminate the relationship, it will poison it for a long, long time.
If your child doesn’t suggest counseling, then bring up the possibility yourself. Use it to show that you take their concerns seriously. They are working through something difficult, and you want to help. It won’t be easy for you, but you love them too much to just give up. That will warm many a hurting child’s heart.
2. Offer to sit down and hear them out.
Then seriously—hear them out. If you offer to do this and then don’t follow through—instead serving as your own defense attorney—you’ll be that much closer to the edge. So only offer if you really believe you can do this.
But if you can, there’s a hidden bonus: You will gain invaluable insight into what, exactly, your grown child’s concerns are. Do they feel you’ve tried to control who they date? Do they feel you publicly shame them at family events by commenting on things they’re not proud of? Are they struggling to make sense of that time you lost your cool and hit them? This is an excellent chance to be handed a primer on what not to do as you go about building a new, adult relationship with your child.
And if you really need to say something during this conversation, try: “I hadn’t realized it affected you that much” or “I’m so sorry that hurt you.” Show that you’re hearing what they’re saying and that you yourself are mature enough to validate it. One way to show your grown child that you’re sincere about moving forward is to let go of the authority you once had as a parent and instead move into empathy. If you can just sit and listen to what their experiences were—trying to be okay with how different it all is from your own narrative—you’ll be much closer to building a new relationship based on trust and respect.
3. Work on yourself first.
Chances are, your child’s words have stirred up anger, hurt, and even resentment. They feel like accusations. Like ingratitude. How could this person you gave so much to say it wasn’t good enough? It’s tempting to get drawn into defending yourself. You may even want to strong-arm your grown child into seeing the past your way. Don’t do it.
The truth is, if you build up trust and credibility with your adult child, you may be able to have those conversations down the road. But right now, you need to keep your eye on the ball. It may feel otherwise, but your child is not after your ego or your reputation. Your child is trying to heal old wounds.
You can facilitate their healing if you acknowledge that you’re fallible. Gracefully accept that you didn’t do everything right. It’s impossible for parents to avoid ever hurting their child. So accept that you did. And it hurt. And that hurt is real. That’s what your child is after. They want the pain to stop.
They’re still young, so chances are they themselves are not going about this in the healthiest way. But you still get to set the tone here. Rise above the impulse to retaliate. And then identify and begin working on your own less healthy behaviors. We all have them. And children, grown or not, are often embarrassingly astute about them. When your child sees that you are sincerely making your best effort at getting healthy, you will have just laid the cornerstone for rebuilding trust.
You don’t have to go all out here. There may be things you feel are patently unfair. Maybe you don’t remember something at all that was integral to your child’s self-concept. Maybe you feel that your child drastically misread something that was not intended as hurtful. Again, experiences and taste buds. There are as many ways to see the same experience as people on the planet.
But remember: although your child stands in front of you now as an adult, what they’re remembering happened when they were only five or seven or twelve. Kids are vulnerable. There’s also a lot of stuff they’re not developmentally ready for. If something you said when they were seven scarred them deeply, remember—they were seven. You remember being seven. It basically sucked. You were powerless. Life was a roller coaster ride. And one bad day with an overwhelmed parent can make everything feel ten times worse.
So take the high road and apologize. Think of how much you love this person and what the relationship means. Think of how you wish your own parents had handled their mistakes. Think of how vulnerable and dependent your child was and how endlessly they needed you. And how you just couldn’t manage it some days. Say you’re sorry. Because really, if you do love your kid, you are. You’re sorry that you couldn’t be the perfect parent. You wish to god you could have been. And you’re sorry that you ended up hurting them. But you hope they’ll forgive you. Humble yourself, and you’ll be that much closer to keeping them in your life.
5. Respect boundaries.
Finally, your child is likely to try setting some boundaries. If it feels like they’re testing you, they probably are. If a child sets any boundaries at all before cutting you off, count yourself lucky and do everything you can to honor those boundaries. Demonstrate that this is a safe relationship where well-being and respect are priorities.
But if you’ve done everything above and your child still cuts you off, respect their decision. If they ask for no-contact, give them no-contact. If they ask for contact only on holidays, do that. Chances are that your child needs some time and space to heal on their own. They may be wise enough to know that their own anger and hurt is too raw and too likely to poison what’s left of the relationship. They are an adult now, and—just like you did—they are trying to do what they think is best. The last gift you can give them is to respect their boundaries. So do that.
In the end, your grown child—like every adult—has a primary duty to their own well-being and life responsibilities as a parent, spouse, employee, and citizen. They have to try their best—just like you did—so they can become healthy enough to do good in the lives of those around them.
You chose to be a parent. Even if it was an accident, at some point, you decided to keep the little bugger, to raise them, to do your best. You knew heartbreak was a possibility. But you decided to go for it anyway.
I don’t know how it will turn out for you. I do know that as much as I’m encouraging you to extend an olive branch, take the high road, and be humble about your mistakes—at the same time, you shouldn’t have to do anything unhealthy to keep the relationship. Even as a parent, you’ve got to look after your well-being. Especially then. And the world has sociopaths, narcissists, addicts, and other garden-variety humbugs. Sometimes they are our parents. Sometimes they are our children. Either way, keep your own boundaries healthy and just do your best. Offer compassion. Listen. Be open. Trust that if a healthy relationship can grow, you’ve tilled the soil and made a good home for it.
Now you wait. Only time will tell.