Part of the appeal of becoming a parent (or getting a puppy) is to have another living thing love you and require your love, attention, and care. But in life, there is no guarantee that reality will live up to your expectations (true for both kids and puppies). Not every parent-child relationship is destined to be a great one, and given that everyone has faults, these can sometimes get in the way. Ultimately, this can lead to a fractured family with grown children who ignore their parents.
When your kids are young, you have close to total control over their lives — thanks to their age and the fact that they rely on you for food, clothing, shelter, and making arrangements for their education and healthcare, among other things. Sure, you may and probably will have your disagreements. But even when those happen, your child is still typically at least somewhat dependent on you.
That all changes when they get older. Once they hit 18, they (at least legally) can attempt to strike out on their own, and part of that may involve ignoring or cutting ties with you. While there are many reasons this could happen — not to mention two sides to every story — being ignored by a grown child can be heartbreaking. Here’s what to know about parent estrangement, including ways to cope if this happens.
Why do some grown children ignore their parents?
Before we get too far into the topic, we should acknowledge that the concept of “ignoring” someone can mean different things to different people. For example, for a grown child, seeing their parent once or twice a year on major holidays is more than enough interaction — but to the parent, it feels like they’re being ignored. Or maybe your friend’s grown daughter calls her once a day, but yours only checks in once a month, leaving you feeling ignored in comparison. It’s always important to remember that every relationship is different, and there are always two sides to every story.
There are, however, criteria to help determine if the relationship between a parent and adult child has turned to estrangement. Per the Journal of Marriage and Family, some indicators include:
- The pair hasn’t had any contact (in person or by phone) for at least a year.
- The pair is in contact less than once a month; the parent rates the relationship quality as less than a four on a scale of one to seven.
Interestingly, a study from the University of Cambridge found that, in many cases, neither the parent nor child know who actually initiated the estrangement. But it did shed some light on the reasons behind estrangements.
According to the adult children surveyed, the most common reasons they estranged from their parents are:
- Emotional abuse
- Conflicting expectations regarding family roles
- Differences in values
- Neglect or uninvolved parenting
- Problems related to mental health issues
- A traumatic family event
Meanwhile, the parents in the survey reported that the reasons behind their estrangement from their adult children include:
- Mismatched expectations about family roles
- Traumatic events
- Mental health issues
- Emotional abuse
- Issues related to in-laws
- Issues related to marriage
What parents should never say to their child?
Adults internalize words said or actions done to them as kids. Negative experiences as children can lead to estrangement from parents later on. It’s important to stay away from language that invalidates their feelings or makes them feel less than. So, to keep from hurting your kids or causing a rift in the relationship, here are several phrases to avoid saying to children.
- “Stop being dramatic.”
- “You don’t feel that way.”
- “Why can’t you be more like *insert other sibling’s name?*”
- “I wish you’d never been born.”
- “Why can’t you do anything right?”
How often do adults talk to their parents?
According to a CBS News survey, 24 percent of adult children believe they should contact their mothers at least once a day. Thirty-five percent thought they should speak with their parents once a week, while 24 percent believed ringing in a few times a week was enough. And about 12 percent felt that once a month or less was OK.
How do you cope when your grown child ignores you?
If you’re a parent who believes your adult child is ignoring you, you’re probably wondering where to go from here. How do you deal with a disrespectful grown child? What should you do when your grown child breaks your heart? Here are some coping strategies that might help, courtesy of Debbie Pincus — a therapist, an expert in “calm parenting,” and a mother of three grown children:
Seek out support.
Understandably, being ignored by your grown child is a very difficult situation, which can also be traumatic. That’s why being in touch with people who love and support you is so important. “In addition to reaching out to friends and family, consider joining a support group,” Pincus writes. “If you are not able to function at your best, get some professional help.”
Don’t fight fire with fire.
Just because your child has cut you off doesn’t mean you have to do the same thing. “Continue to reach out to him, letting him know that you love him and that you want to mend whatever has broken,” Pincus writes. “Send birthday and holiday messages as well as occasional brief notes or emails. Simply say that you are thinking about him and hope to have the opportunity to reconnect. Send your warmth, love, and compassion — as you get on with your life.”
Don’t let your anger rule.
It’s natural to be angry when you feel your grown child is ignoring you, but it’s not particularly helpful. “Step back and try to understand what led to this estrangement,” Pincus advises. “What patterns were operating in your family dance? If you can look at your family from a more fact-based vantage point, it may feel less personal. No one is to blame. Now, if the door opens, you will be in a much better position to reconcile.”
Listen to your child (really listen).
If you have the chance to speak with your child, take it! And when you do, resist the urge to defend yourself and take the time to listen to them. According to Pincus, you should listen to your child’s perceptions of what wrongs took place — even if you disagree. While you’re at it, reflect on your own behavior, and try to understand that even if you did something with the best of intentions, it could still be incredibly upsetting and hurtful for your child.
“Your adult child may need to hold on to blame as a way to manage her own anxiety,” she writes. “Just letting her know that you hear her will go a long way. Keep in mind that she, too, had to be in tremendous pain to reach the point of shutting you out. Try to empathize with her pain rather than get caught up in the hurt and anger.”
Focus on what you can change: your behavior.
If you and your grown child do reconcile, you must leave the past in the past and focus on what you can do better (including changes you can make) to improve your relationship. “Put your efforts into changing yourself, not your child,” Pincus writes. “Let go of your resentments regarding the estrangement. Understand his need to flee — and forgive him.”