Family & Friends

5 Ways to Soothe the Pain of Holiday Estrangement

Estrangement from an adult son or daughter is painful every day of the year, but may be especially excruciating over the holidays. You may feel hurt anew as you watch other families gather to celebrate, other grandmothers enjoying holiday rituals with their grandchildren, as you sit alone and ashamed. Perhaps you’re wondering “What’s wrong with my family? What’s wrong with me?” And perhaps you’re wishing things could be different this year.

There are ways to make this holiday season less painful if you’re estranged or semi-estranged from an adult child.

1. Know that you’re not alone.

You may feel very much alone. People tend to keep quiet about estrangement from adult children but it is more common than you might imagine. One U.S. study found that 7 percent of adult children reported being emotionally detached from a mother and 27 percent were detached from a father. This may be faint comfort, given the pain of your own situation, but it may help to know that estrangement happens in many families and that your situationis not as strange and unusual as it may feel to you.

2. Find new hope in understanding.

An estrangement is often puzzling as well as distressing. You can’t understand why your adult child would choose to create such distance. It’s easy to blame this on your child, chalking it up to bad behavior or defects of character. But there may be a variety of reasons and knowing these may bring more hope and more power to change your situation. Many fathers, for example, find themselves estranged from an adult child, especially a daughter, in the wake of a late-life divorce. Mothers are more likely to become estranged as the result of continuing demands for closeness or giving unsolicited advice or acting angry or rejecting when your child’s core values are at odds with your own.

Sometimes your financial help can drive an adult child away, particularly if money is seen or used as power in your relationship. Quite often estrangements come from a conflict of needs: as parents age, they need and want closeness with an adult child, perhaps at a time when the grown son or daughter is busy with responsibilities to his or her own growing family and career. Understanding how these common conflicts can come between you and your adult child can help to tame the blame that may be a critical part of your estrangement.

3. Be the first to say “I’m Sorry”. Even if you’re convinced that you’re the one who is owed an apology, being the first to reach out, to accept a part of the responsibility for the rift and to extend an olive branch can mean a lot. Studies show that parents have a much greater stake in maintaining connection with adult children than do their grown sons or daughters. Adult children may be busy and distracted by their own growing children, their spouses, and their work. This doesn’t mean that they don’t care or would not respond to your overtures. But reconnecting may mean more to you. For your own sake, you might want to think about taking that first step toward making peace with your adult child instead of stubbornly clinging to the notion that you’re right and they’re wrong.

4. Reach out in ways that respect limits.

If total silence or near silence has prevailed between you and your adult child and he has made it clear he doesn’twant to hear from you, don’t expect that a phone call or letter will bring an instant change of heart. You may have to settle for small steps toward reconnection. Send a text to show you care without asking anything of him or her. Send a letter outlining your thoughts about what you’re willing to do to help resolve your conflict (without making any demands or even polite requests for a change in your child’s behavior). Remember your adult child and his family with birthday and holiday cards that simply express love and acceptance without asking anything in return.

5. Create a family of friends and new holiday traditions.

Who are the people who bring you daily joy and understanding? Treasure the love that remains in your life: from friends, from a spouse (who may be hurting, too, but in a different way), from other adult children, from siblings, from beloved pets. And don’t make holidays about the people who are missing, at least for now. Celebrate the people who share your days. Create your own holiday rituals. This might mean a holiday meal with friends. It may mean volunteering with your church or other charitable organization to feed the needy and make their holiday brighter. It may mean having a solitary but satisfying holiday doing exactly what you want – and nothing you don’t want! This doesn’t mean that you won’t miss your adult child and grandchildren during the holidays. But savoring the love you do have in your life and celebrating the holidays your own way can help to soothe the pain of estrangement and give you hope for better times to come.

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