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Can My Relationship With My Adult Child Ever Be What I Hoped For?

“Can My Relationship with My Adult Child Ever Be What I Hoped For?”

By Joshua Coleman, Ph.D.

“So, as we progress through this estrangement seminar I am beginning to ask myself what hurts more – the actual estrangement, or the realization that the relationship will never be the close wonderful one that I dreamt of when I held her as a baby? Estrangement or no estrangement, the relationship is broken. Though I try very hard to recognize and honor my daughter’s good points, (she’s witty, intelligent, clever, interesting etc.), I could never like someone whose personal style involves putting others down for her own aggrandizement, raging so she can feel powerful and twisting the truth so she can feel righteous. I must love her, or I wouldn’t be writing this, looking at websites or buying into your seminars. However, even if we do all the “right” things and she becomes willing to visit with us, I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready for a total reconciliation or that I’ll ever hang up the phone without feeling a deep sense of sadness and disappointment….Yet, I’m afraid to lose her.

In short, I can’t live with her and I can’t live without her. Hence my question: “How do you love the child you don’t like?” What do you do? What do you say? She KNOWS we don’t like her. She’s said it (in a rage), and we’ve denied it – but she was right. Do we admit it? Do we fake it forever? And how do we handle the pain? How do we keep from being hurt every time she lashes out?

adult childI think it’s an important question, and one that more than a few other estranged parents have wondered about. There are several issues here that are worth highlighting:

  • While we all wish that we’d love all of our children equally, the reality is that many parents don’t love all of their children equally and that has to be okay. Some children are more lovable, engaging, rewarding, easy, and most of all from the perspective of estrangement, forgiving. So my first wish would be to help you to let yourself off of the hook for not liking a kid as much who isn’t likeable.
  • Since she knows that you feel critical about her behavior I wouldn’t try to whitewash it when it comes up. If she asks about it or criticizes you for it, I would be very direct, but in a kindly way: “Honey, this is a part of you that I have a really hard time with. You’re welcome to disagree with me, you don’t have to share my values, but you can’t be mad at me if I don’t like your values. That doesn’t mean that I don’t love you or want to be close to you, but this behavior is something I have a really hard time with. I’m sure there are lots of things about me you have a really hard time with too.”


Dr. Coleman is a psychologist in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area and a Senior Fellow with 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 about 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.

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 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.

Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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