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I’m Wrong No Matter What I Do


By Dr. Josuha Coleman

So many of the parents (many now grandparents) I work with either have no idea why their child is behaving like they are, or why they need to respond to their feelings by estranging the parent. Here are some of the most common reasons for estrangement.

Estrangement evokes powerful feelings of sadness, loss, anger, guilt and helplessness. Often, our very well-intended behavior can make the situation worse. Many parents complain that when it comes to their adult children, they’re damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. This is because they are being constantly faced with the following dilemmas in relation to their estranged child:

1)   Do I keep trying or give up?

2)   Do I defend myself against false memories or exaggerated accusations, or just listen?

3)   Do I swallow my pride or let my adult child know how I feel about how hurt and mistreated I feel?

4)   Do I keep quiet while my daughter-in-law or son-in-law poisons my relationship with my adult child or confront them?

5)   Do I challenge my adult child’s abusive behavior toward me or just continue to positively make efforts to keep the door open?

6)   Do I keep sending money and gifts to my adult child and my grandchildren when I get absolutely

nothing back or just stop?

7)   Do I apologize for my past mistakes even though I’ve already apologized before, or let sleeping dogs lie?

8)   Do I defend myself against accusations made about me by my ex or just listen?

9)   Do I explain the reasons for my behavior in the past or just empathize with how they feel?

As you can see this list of common dilemmas, there are endless pitfalls for parents to fall into with their estranged children and you need a guide to help you navigate this treacherous territory.

As much I would love to, I cannot promise you a reconciliation. Some adult children have problems or issues that make reconciliation impossible or highly unlikely. But, my own experience and my experience working with hundreds, if not thousands of parents tell me that feeling hopeless about a reconciliation is not a good predictor of whether or not you’ll get your child back. And neither is the way that they treat you in the present. Very often, there is a LOT that parents can do to heal an estrangement. And just about every day I get letters from estranged parents who reconciled because they’re practicing these methods.

On the other hand, there is a lot a parent can do to perpetuate the estrangement.

You should know in advance that while I don’t share the cultural assumption that parental estrangement is always the parent’s fault, I believe that parents often have to work harder than they might want to in order to heal an estrangement. I have fired parents who weren’t willing to do the hard work that is required for a reconciliation and I have had parents fire me because I insisted that they work harder to reach out to their adult children and not just blame them for the estrangement.

My decades of experience working with adult children who have cut off their parents has taught me that they have a perspective with a logic to it, however hurtful or however at odds it is with your own, something we’ll talk about.

wrongThat doesn’t mean that their view of you or their childhood is right. They are sometimes dealing with forces larger than themselves such as a powerful spouse, a vulnerable personality,  your ex-husband or wife, or some other influential figure in their lives. They may also need to estrange themselves from you precisely because you were a good parent and because you were so close. In other words, they may feel so close to you that they don’t know any other way to feel separate than to cut you off. This is far more common than most people realize.

Whatever the reason, getting into the right and wrong of it won’t buy you much. Your own success at winning your child back is often commensurate with your ability to take an unvarnished look at yourself. Not with hatred, but with compassion and honesty.

If you think you didn’t make any mistakes as a parent there’s nothing I can do for you. We ALL make mistakes as parents. You can’t be a parent and not make mistakes. This does NOT mean that your mistakes are the reason for your estrangement or that you deserve it. But, I have never seen a reconciliation happen without the parent at least being willing to look at their own part in why the adult child has created such a powerful form of distance between themselves and the parent.

On the other hand, sometimes ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!

Some parents are so abused, mistreated, shamed, humiliated, and vilified by their adult children that the only thing to do–the HEALTHIEST thing to do–is to say goodbye to that adult child and move on with their lives without them.

However, whether you want to work toward reconciliation or work toward getting on with your life without your adult children, I promise I won’t make you do anything that’s bad for you. Whatever I ask you to do will not only be good for your potential relationship with your adult child, it will be good for your personal development as a human being.

If you need more help with these issues, join us for the FREE webinar on

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wrongDr. Coleman is a psychologist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area and a Senior Fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, a non-partisan organization of leading sociologists, historians, psychologists and demographers dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings of American families. He has lectured at Harvard University, The University of California at Berkeley, The University of London, Cornell Weill Medical School, and blogs on parent-adult child relationships for the U.C. Berkeley publication, Greater Good Magazine and GRAND Magazine.

Dr. Coleman is frequently contacted by the media for opinions and commentary about changes in the American family. He has been a frequent guest on the Today Show, NPR, and The BBC, and has also been featured on Sesame Street, 20/20, Good Morning America, America Online Coaches, PBS, and numerous news programs for FOX, ABC, CNN, and NBC television. His advice has appeared in The New York Times, The Times of London, The Shriver Report, Fortune, Newsweek, The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Psychology Today, U.S. World and News Report, Parenting Magazine, The Baltimore Sun and many others.

He is the author of numerous articles and chapters and has written four books: The Marriage Makeover: Finding Happiness in Imperfect Harmony (St. Martin’s Press); The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework (St. Martin’s Press); When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along (HarperCollins); and Married with Twins: Life, Love and the Pursuit of Marital Harmony. His books have been translated into Chinese, Croatian, and Korean, and are also available in the U.K., Canada, and Australia.

He is the co-editor, along with historian Stephanie Coontz of seven online volumes of Unconventional Wisdom: News You Can Use, a compendium of noteworthy research on the contemporary family, gender, sexuality, poverty, and work-family issues.

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