Louann and her daughter, Brenna, were once close and never imagined needing to reconcile their differences or having to learn how to re-build trust. However, a tear in their relationship started after Brenna married. During the decade before the wedding, Louann and her husband helped provide for Brenna and her son. After Brenna married, disagreements about parenting began to emerge between Louann and her daughter. They couldn’t find common ground, which began to lead them down the path toward family estrangement.
Brenna finally told Louann that she wouldn’t be allowed to see her grandson again. Louann was devastated. She tried to talk with her daughter, asking for forgiveness for any offense she’d caused. But Brenna would not address the dispute or speak honestly about past hurts and their relationship suffered.
If you are like Louann and want to reconcile with your adult children after a rift, you can move forward by learning new ways to build trust and respect between you and your child.
How to Build Trust and Reconcile With Estranged Adult Children
1. Initiate Change
Consider that your goal is to reconcile and restore the relationship, and not to determine who was right or wrong. If you desire the relationship to change, then be the first to work toward reconnection.
Becky realized, too late, that some comments she made to her daughter, Jane, were not well-received. She had been critical of a choice her daughter made and reacted without considering how her words might impact her daughter. So she wrote a letter to Jane, asking for forgiveness and affirming her child for who she was.
At first, Becky received the silent treatment from Jane, but the letter was vital for her daughter to see that Becky wanted a relationship, that her mom saw her as more important than their disagreement. Becky had to see past what she thought was disrespect or entitlement and instead see where her daughter was growing in order to heal the family estrangement that had happened and reconcile.
2. Walk in Humility
My mother, Dr. Helen McIntosh, and I wrote Mended: Restoring the Hearts of Mothers and Daughters. During the process, we found that parents must move forward with humility and put the relationship first. “You will need to humble yourself in the ways you approach your relationship,” my mom says. “Make sure you are not trying to defend yourself but are instead extending yourself to the other.”
Sometimes as parents, we don’t get things right with our adult kids. Our intent isn’t to hurt our children, but our kids may not see things as we do. My mother says that we can ask God: “Show me where I am not seeing what I need to see with my son or daughter.”
My mom once told me: “God has shown me where I have wronged you. Will you forgive me for being controlling?” She had tried to live her life through me — making unsolicited suggestions about what I should do and smothering me with her need to always be close to me. She went on to say, “And if you hear me trying to control, you need to say, ‘That feels like control.’”
Her words permitted me to speak up when she was overstepping her boundaries, so we wouldn’t disconnect from each other and risk a family estrangement. Those words helped us to reconcile the differences that we did have. When children move into adulthood, parents can invite their children to reconcile the relationship by giving their honest opinions about specific conflicts and differences. After all, the relationship between you is often far greater than what divides you.
3. Find Common Ground
When you don’t support certain aspects of your children’s choices or how they run their family, find common ground somewhere else. You and your adult children don’t have to agree on everything, but you can agree on some things.
Margie’s adult daughter moved back into her home while going through a divorce. The young woman knows Margie is disappointed in some of her choices, but Margie has tried to show love to her daughter.
“Our common ground has been going out to dinner,” Margie says. Although Margie would often prefer to eat at home, she realizes that time out of the house together has worked wonders in their relationship. It has given them a neutral place to talk. “I told her that I was so thankful she was my daughter and that God gave her to me,” Margie says.
They don’t share the same perspective on many issues, but they still enjoy their relationship. Margie believes that as God works on her daughter, God is also working on her. She is learning not just to share her ideas but also to listen to her daughter’s thoughts.
Licensed counselor, author, and speaker Michelle Nietert advises parents to start with small interactions to establish lines of positive communication.
“Some of the best common grounds are mutual, good memories that evoke a lightheartedness and joy that is missing in the relationship,” Nietert says. One of the best ways to begin to find common ground and build trust is to affirm your adult kids’ place in your family. Then move into areas of mutual interest, such as movie nights, a home project, talking while walking the dog, or celebrating someone or something you both enjoy.
4. Choose Affirmation
Although it may not seem like it at the moment, adult children are looking to their parents for acceptance and validation, regardless of the children’s choices. When parents lay aside their opinions and meet their adult children where they are, kids know they’re loved and respected as individuals. Parents need to say in their words and show in their actions: “I see you as someone God and I love very much. Whatever was done or said can be restored.” Brenda L. Yoder, an educator, and author says, “No matter how disconnected the relationship is or how dysfunctional a parent is, children long for true affirmation.”
5. Let Go of Control
Steve and his wife, Beth, experienced almost no communication from their son after a significant disagreement over his life choices. Beth knew she’d reacted negatively to those choices, but she didn’t realize how her responses had hurt him. He lived in a different country and viewed his life back home through a filter of that hurt.
The young man told his parents that he needed space and didn’t want to talk with them. For two months, these parents honored their son’s request and didn’t communicate with him unless something important happened in the family — and in those cases, Beth simply texted him.
Steve and Beth chose to respect their son’s need for boundaries as a first step toward restoring their relationship and healing the family estrangement that had occurred. Later, when their son did call, Beth knew she had to listen more and speak less. Steve’s and Beth’s opinions had already been made clear, and their son needed to express his thoughts — and his pain — to his parents without feeling more judgment.
There is a great unknown when it comes to relationships and learning how to build trust because no one can dictate how adult children will react when their parents approach them and want to reconnect.
6. Take the Time Needed
While there isn’t a cookie-cutter answer for reconciling a parent-child relationship, or how to build trust, this restoration almost always takes longer than a parent may want. Louann and Brenna have interacted a couple of times in the last year. However, Louann hasn’t yet seen an open door to grow a stronger relationship actively.
But Louann has hope their relationship will heal. Brenna called on her birthday, and Louann received a Mother’s Day card for the first time in years. Today she talks to Brenna as she would a friend, cautious not to offend her. Louann also avoids asking about her grandson, so Brenna can see that she cares about her, not just her grandson.
“The biggest thing for me is being available, but not being forceful or too evasive,” Louann says. “What I want is more truthfulness, but that may not be what she wants — and that’s where I need God’s wisdom.”
In Becky’s case, her letter to her daughter became the first step toward changing their relationship. It set them both on a new course with each other, one in which Becky honored her daughter for the person she had become and was able to show how Becky was prepared to change her pattern of communication with her daughter.
Moving Forward After a Family Estrangement
Empowering adult children to make their own choices and sometimes fail is foundational. Kids are still growing into their identities, and they will make mistakes, but it’s these mistakes that will help them learn and grow. Through this process, continue to show them they have value.
Maybe your adult kids aren’t truthful with you, feel smothered by you, or have chosen to do things in a way that you know isn’t best for them. Perhaps a family estrangement has occurred because of this. Instead of continuing to call them out or harping on how they need to change, focus on how to move forward in your relationship with them. By doing this, you’ll model healthy communication and reaffirm your intent to love them, even as you seek reconciliation.
Copyright info: © 2020 Blythe Daniel. All rights reserved. Used with permission. This article first appeared in the April/May 2020 issue of Focus on the Family magazine, empty nest version, as “Rifts and Reconciliation.”