For a full year in my 20s, I did not speak to my mother. She was controlling, overbearing and hypercritical, and she had a nasty habit of shooting zingers at me and then insisting she didn’t mean anything by them. At 19, I moved to New York City from our New Jersey suburb to escape her, but every time she called or visited, we’d slip into the same old battles.
One day I’d finally had enough and stopped calling or returning her calls. I was her only child, and the rift devastated her. She phoned regularly and tried to see me, but I was adamant about needing my own space without her in it. My father, whom she dominated as well, made it his business to stay away from me.
I’m softhearted by nature, so I eventually relented, and my mom and I reverted to our usual tense relationship—but with one difference. I let her know that some of her behavior, such as constantly criticizing my weight, wasn’t acceptable and that if she didn’t stop it, I’d disconnect again. She knew I meant it and actually managed to change some of her more egregious behaviors.
After my father died following a long illness, my relationship with my mother improved immensely. She’d had to take care of him and had always been very unhappy in her marriage. With him gone, I believe, she was able to lighten up for the last 15 years of her life, during which time we became very close and actually had a lot of fun together, creating memories for which I am profoundly grateful.
Unfortunately, many broken parent/child relationships don’t have such a happy ending. I have many friends who are still bitter about the way their parents treated them, even years after their deaths. Many adult children can’t forgive or get past the issues; sometimes parents aren’t willing or able to change their behavior; and sometimes the child’s behavior is so negative or dangerous (such as with substance abuse) that the parent must cut him or her off.
In most cases, however, it is the parent who will have to make the first move to reach out and try to mend the rift, especially if the child is too angry or hurt to do it—or if they haven’t fully grasped that they don’t have forever to make things right. There is no sadder fate than a parent dying without a chance to say that final “I love you.”
There’s an adage that you can only be as happy as your unhappiest child. Estrangement from a child causes heartache, regret and shame, not to mention the belief that you’ve failed at one of life’s most important tasks. “Among the saddest people I met in interviews with older Americans were those living in this situation,” says Karl Pillemer who interviewed more than 1,000 elders for the Legacy Project at Cornell University and distilled them into 30 Lessons for Living; Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.
Why Parent-Child Rifts Happen
Rifts are often rooted in issues that go back to childhood. Issues never dealt with at an early age, such as a child feeling that a parent played favorites or a conflicted divorce, can cause pain and anger that festers. Then some “triggering incident” occurs later in life, often leading to an argument, and then the child cuts the parent off. The fight can be as minor as an argument over where to celebrate Thanksgiving or as weighty as a parent’s disapproval of a child’s spouse and constant comments and behaviors that reflect that.
Janet Pfeiffer is a life coach, the author of The Secret Side of Anger and founder of Reunion of Hearts, a group for family members dealing with such separations. But for a while, she was also an estranged parent, rejected by her children after leaving their father, although in her case the feud occurred long after the divorce.
“I was a single mom, and the stress of raising children on my own was more than I was prepared for,” she says. “I wasn’t always a good parent, although I really did try my best. Unfortunately, all my children remember is an out-of-control, screaming mother.”
Her children’s father wasn’t present much when they were young, and they naturally longed for a closer relationship with him. “He became vindictive when they got older and played on my being an emotionally abusive mom,” says Pfeiffer. “That fed their anger toward me. They viewed him as the innocent party, and since they were angry with me anyway, they ‘picked’ him.”
How to Move Past Blame
It’s common for children of divorce to believe one parent was responsible for it and to ally themselves with the parent they perceive as wronged. Since there’s animosity between the parents in the first place, they pull away from one to protect the other. In the case of a divorce when the children are grown, the triggering incident is often an affair. It takes a major act of will for the betrayed parent not to try to incite the children against the cheating spouse.
There was no affair in Pfeiffer’s case; her trigger occurred when her 19-year-old daughter had a baby and moved back home and expected Grandma to take care of the child. When Pfeiffer refused—arguing that her daughter needed to take responsibility for her own life—the younger woman moved out and stopped speaking to her. With their father’s encouragement, the other two daughters followed suit, in a show of support for their sister.
Pfeiffer made the mistake many rejected parents do: trying to justify herself. It didn’t work. “I did the best I could” is how most people put it. Regardless of whether or not this is true, it’s not enough to say this to children. They often don’t get it—or don’t care—unless they hear a sincere apology first.
Eventually Pfeiffer accepted that she needed to work on herself before she could approach her children. “I’m a spiritual person, and deep down believed that God had a higher purpose here. My children simply didn’t want to hear ‘How could you do this to me? and ‘Your father isn’t who you think he is.’ “
After much introspection, Pfeiffer realized that what her daughters needed was an apology. “I wrote a letter telling them how sorry I was for hurting them and acknowleding that they deserved a better mother,” she says. “I wanted them to understand I knew it was my fault. This was hard for me to admit, but I managed to do it.”
But changing your relationship with your child is not all about the past—it’s also about the present. You need to find out what your child needs from you right now to make the relationship right. That could be anything from not being critical of her career to embracing her choice of a spouse to relating better to the grandchildren.
Pfeiffer’s youngest was the first to call and say she wanted her back in her life, and gradually the others followed suit.
Taking Responsibility for Your Part
As it was for my mother, it can be very hard for parents to comprehend what they did to push their children away. Not everyone has an ability for that level of self-reflection.
In one Reunion of Hearts group, Pfeiffer met a couple in their 60s who were cut off by one of their daughters, in her 40s. The dad didn’t understand why and said things like, “I worked three jobs so they could have the best of everything.” To help broaden his perspective, Pfeiffer asked him pointed questions: “Were you there for their school plays? Did you help them with their homework? Did you take care of them when they were sick?”
It took a while for him to get that his daughter felt he was avoiding her when she was a child. But once he apologized and told her he regretted missing so much of her childhood, they reconnected and eventually became close.
The Hardest Two Words: “I’m Sorry”
The power of a sincere apology cannot be overestimated. You can’t just offer a blanket “I’m sorry,” though, and expect dramatic results. It’s essential to find out what’s at the root of the rift, acknowledge your part in it and make real efforts to mend it. Express remorse, not just guilt.
To convince your child you won’t commit the same offense again you have to give up being “right,” which can be the hardest task of all. And not just that—you have to do a lot of work on yourself so that you are able to avoid committing the same offense and learn how to shape a new dynamic. Often your adult child also has to do a fair amount of work as well to heal and change their reactions too. If you’re both willing, counseling can help you see each other’s point of view.
Bear in mind that your apology may not heal all wounds. If your child refuses to forgive or simply won’t communicate after repeated attempts on your part, you may have to pull back. As Pfeiffer advises, “You can’t force something that isn’t meant to be. At some point you need to come to peace with the fact that you did everything you could yet still couldn’t mend the rift.”
No matter what, parent/child bonds are for life. You are the only mother or father they will ever have, and eventually something may happen that impels them to come back to you. Reconciliations often occur after the birth of a grandchild. Once your child has a child herself, she may start to understand what you went through raising her and find it in her heart to forgive you. The desire for one’s child to have a relationship with her grandparents is powerful, and is often the glue that patches broken family bonds back together.
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