Dear Neil: I have completely lost contact with my grown children (ages 30 to 18). Their mother and I had a nasty, acrimonious divorce, and she practiced child alienation, bad-mouthing and condemning me a great deal to them. I feel rejected by them because it feels as if they have taken their mother’s side and are against me. They also talked back to me a lot, and blamed me for the divorce. Recently I have been advised to reestablish contact with them, but I’m very reluctant to do so because I don’t want to be rejected and judged as an inadequate father. Could you advise on my dilemma?
Alienated and Isolated in Connecticut
Dear Alienated and Isolated: The role of a parent is to always be a guide—even when your children are grown—and even if they’re not behaving the way you would like.
I’m sure this loss has caused you a great deal of pain. Children are a gift, and I trust losing contact with them hurts you deeply. But you have the potential of regaining a relationship with them—and of giving them their father back—and that possibility is worth a great deal.
Kids learn how to behave in intimate relationships, and as parents, by observing how their own parents behave and respond in those roles. Guiding them, by your example, to not repeat their parent’s relationship would be a huge gift to your children. You could offer them a positive role model of how to resolve differences and disagreements without back-biting, and without destroying a relationship.
Virtually all kids talk back to their parents, but adult kids have the ability to speak for themselves about what they feel and think. That’s not talking back. That’s disagreeing with you, and everyone should have that right—even your children.
I would guess your children are waiting for you to reach out to them—and from what I can tell, you’re waiting for them to reach out to you—and all of you are caught in this stand off. But many children—even adult children—still feel childlike around their parents, and that will cause them to be hesitant to reach out to you if they fear you’ll be rejecting back. You are both the parent and the role model, and you can’t expect your children to be more adult than you are.
Therefore, I would advise you to be willing to take the first step and to reach out to them. Tell them you miss them and want them back in your life. Set aside your own emotions and acknowledge what the divorce must have felt like to them, how hurtful it must have been to have had their parents so angry at each other, and what it must have felt like to have lost connection with their Dad. Have enough self-confidence to do the right thing, and to guide them to do what’s right as well.
In the end, you have to risk being rejected in order to have a relationship with your children. But from what you describe, you’ve already lost them—so you have far more to gain than you have to lose by taking the first step and inviting them back into your life. But don’t bad-mouth or criticize their mom. Provide a healthier role model than their mother has.
There is a story in the Torah—a companion to the Old Testament—where the king orders his son to return back to the kingdom. The son says, “Father, I cannot do that.” So the king sends his son a message: “Come back as far as you can, and I will meet you the rest of the way.”
Be willing to reach out to your kids, and keep reaching out until they respond positively. Humility is persuasive, and boldness has magic and power.