Parenting doesn’t always go along they way we planned.
When your adult child is estranged, it is an emotionally painful experience.
I stumbled upon Tina Gilbertson’s insightful Guide and found so many of her tips to be helpful to any parent who is struggling with this issue.
In this interview, Tina sheds some light on what parents can do to help themselves and begin the process of reconciling with their adult children.
Please meet Tina Gilbertson!
Tina, can you briefly introduce yourself to the readers who may not know you?
Sure! I’m a Portland, Oregon-based psychotherapist and the author of the electronic Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children, as well as a traditionally published book, Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them.
What inspired you to write the Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children?
I started my career as a therapist with no particular knowledge of parent-child estrangement, but I kept hearing from clients who had cut off their parents, often without telling them why. So a few years ago, I wrote an article for parents that spelled out some of what I’d learned, and posted it on my website.
The response to that article was overwhelming; comments and stories started pouring in from parents.
I could fee how much pain these parents were in, but they weren’t coming in to see me for therapy. So I put all the compassion I felt for parents, and all the information I had that could potentially help them, in writing, and it became the Guide.
What should parents be aware of to avoid estrangement with their adult children?
First, don’t panic if they start to pull away from you. Most parent-child estrangements are temporary; they only get drawn out when both parents and children develop hard feelings toward each other.
Stay calm and remain focused on your child’s happiness and well-being (including their necessary independence from you), and be consistent with your personal boundaries.
Don’t offer money as an incentive to stay connected; that’s a recipe for resentment.
Be a good listener when your child talks; listening is gift that’s hard to resist.
Above all, be aware of your own emotional needs and make sure you get them met somewhere other than from your kids. They’ll feel safer being close to you if they don’t sense that you need them to fill you up inside. And you’ll feel more secure if you’re getting your human needs for affection and appreciation met somehow.
What strategies do you suggest to help parents have more self-compassion when their children are estranged?
Don’t take your child’s desire for distance as a reflection of your worth. If you know you made mistakes, join the club! Every parent makes mistakes.
Apologize if necessary for falling short of meeting their needs. Then apologize to yourself for the fact that your needs haven’t always been met, either.
We all start out with an empty bucket, and we rely on important others to fill it. It’s impossible to give more than you have in your bucket; you can’t give what you don’t have.
Focus on the fact that you’re an adult child yourself, and speak softly to yourself when you feel sad, angry, disappointed or lost.
Can you explain the importance of parents getting their personal needs met?
If you’re coming from a place of unmet need, you won’t feel strong and good about yourself. From that place, you can’t deal with any relationship problem effectively.
Every harsh word, every unreturned phone call or email, will activate more self-criticism, shame and misery.
If estrangement becomes entrenched, you’re going to need inner resources to stay calm and centered for the long haul. Rewards may be few and far between for a long while.
Trying to survive this without having your emotional needs met is like trying to cross the desert without water. Not a good idea.
What tips do you have for parents who are attempting to reconcile with their adult children?
Be patient. Calm and steady wins the race. Parenting is not a sprint but a marathon that continues throughout life.
If things seem to go well for a while and then go badly again, don’t despair. Remember the tide goes both in and out as it makes its way up the beach.
Avoid looking to your adult child for affection, appreciation or other emotional resources; if they’re estranged they don’t have those to give to you now. DO get those needs met elsewhere.
Don’t let a focus on your child(ren) distract you from your own personal growth. Get therapy or seek emotional support from compassionate friends or family members.
Drugs and alcohol use adds to the complexity of the problem. What suggestions do you have for parents who are struggling with this issue as well?
Recognize that not everyone who uses substances becomes addicted to them, so if your adult child is experimenting, treat them as though they have a functioning brain and the will to succeed in life without drugs. Research has shown a tendency for people to live up to the expectations we have of them.
However, if your child has become lost in a full-blown addiction, your expectations are a moot point. It’s time to seek outside help. Addiction is a bigger problem than you can or should deal with alone. Search for solutions through local authorities such as churches, hospitals and social services. There’s also a fantastic Resources page right here on this website.
For people who are addicted to them, drugs and alcohol take the place of family. The only loyalty is to the drug. As expected a side effect as this may be, it’s still incredibly painful for parents. I recommend therapy if at all possible.
What other support options are there available for parents?
In many areas, calling 2-1-1 will connect you with local social services information. You can also try calling The United Way for ideas. Of course, Al-Anon is a wonderful place to connect with others who can understand your position, and also to learn about local resources.
Tina Gilbertson, LPC, DCC is an author, speaker, teacher and therapist based in Portland, Oregon. In addition to writing a regular column on PsychologyToday.com, Tina’s advice has appeared in dozens of magazines and newspapers, including Healthmagazine, Fast Company and the Chicago Tribune. She has a private therapy practice and speaks on a variety of personal growth topics, including emotional literacy, assertiveness and self-esteem.