How to Heal a Rift with an Adult Child

Frequently I help my clients work through problems with their grown children. Sometimes, an offspring is angry about something, and the parent is at a loss for what is wrong or what to do about it. These struggles often have their seeds in things that happened long ago, when the child was young. Even parents who love their children and try to do the right thing can make mistakes, and some parents let their issues—struggles with spouses, stresses of single parenting, fears about money or social disapproval—skew their child-related decisions.

Although it sometimes takes some time, almost all these rifts can be healed, especially if the parent doesn’t get defensive or upset. This, of course, is not easy, but it is well worth the struggle.

First, you have to understand what the cause of the rift is. Rifts between parents and adult children can be caused by several things:

1. A divorce which the child blames you for, or has sided with the other parent. If your family was split up while the child was living at home, your child may have had a difficult time, and blamed you for it; whether or not it was actually your doing. Children's loyalties are split in a split household, and they may feel, or be told, they have to choose sides; so they carry the resentment, hurt and anger into adulthood, and often distance themselves from one or both parents as a result.

2. Dysfunctional family dynamics: If there was a lot of drama in the family when the child grew up, including induced guilt, fighting, violence, verbal abuse, or other dysfunction, the child may feel it's necessary to create distance as an adult, to protect him or herself from the drama.

3. Fights about something that happened after the children grew up, such as hurt feelings, money or sibling issues (you like/treat my sibling better), struggles with the spouse of your adult child, smothering behavior on your part, neglect or avoidance by you or your child. If you have not behaved in a mature manner around your adult child's friends, family or in-laws, have behaved in a manner your adult child(ren) perceive as unfair, or been perceived as unsupportive in some way, your adult child may be punishing you by keeping an angry silence. If you have been perceived as too clingy or smothering, the adult child may withdraw to get some breathing room.

No matter what the issue is, it's important that you allow your child to grow up and become independent of you. Don't look to your child to fill your life after they grow up, as they did when they were little. Don't view your child's partner or spouse as an enemy; or your child may choose them instead of you. Back off, give your adult child some space, and make sure you have a life of your own. With space, your child will have a chance to see you as a person, not just their disappointing parent.

It’s also important to listen and acknowledge your offspring’s experience, feelings and point of view, even if it’s not very flattering or kind toward you. If you let your child know you’re willing to try to understand, he or she will be more willing to hear your side. Once you two can have a good discussion (and sometimes it helps to do this in writing instead of face to face—email can give each of you a chance to say your full piece, and absorb what each other is saying).

Use the guidelines below to help move from the parent/child dynamic to a more friendly one.

It's not easy to let go of adult children. As you see it, they're still your babies. However, you'll do much better interacting with them if you help them grow into friends. Stop seeing them as people you should take care of, and see them more like your other adult relatives: siblings, cousins, etc. Of course, you'll always have the honorific of Parent, but

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