Dear Neil: I was an emotionally absent mother, just like my mother was to me. Now my children are adults with their own children, and I would like to mend the past with them. My son shows the scars of his past and often rejects me by words or actions. My greatest wish is that we can make peace.

Don’t Know What Else to Do in New Zealand

Dear Neil: We, now in our late 60’s, have been the focus of verbal and emotional abuse by one of our adult children now in her 40’s. It’s hard to cope with this as we look after parents in their 90’s and provide pre-school and after-school for two young grandchildren. I have had to seek help to come to terms with her anger and rejection. It’s her view that “I was not in love with my children.”

We loved all of our children, gave them every opportunity for success in their lives, and we still help out financially. We did set boundaries and had expectations about their behavior. We did cuddle and caress. We did listen and support. We did not hit or verbally abuse our children. How do we have an adult to adult relationship with our children at this stage in our lives?

Still Trying to Do Our Best in New Zealand

Dear New Zealand: Making peace with the idea that you and your adult children may never have the close relationship you had hoped for can be a very bitter pill to swallow. Yet for some it is the key to their serenity and mental health.

In the book When Parents Hurt, Joshua Coleman says that among the reasons an adult child might temporarily or permanently cut off a parent are:

  • Anger or hurt over past treatment
  • Anger or hurt at how the parent treated the other parent
  • Allying with the parent of the same gender
  • Allying with the parent who has made it clear that he or she needs that child’s alliance, especially in a high-conflict marriage or in a divorce
  • Reaction against the parent’s rejection of the child’s sexuality, politics, religion, living situation or choice of romantic partner
  • Reaction to the parent’s judgement or criticism
  • Reaction to the parent’s values, lifestyle, life choices, decisions, behaviors or words—past or present
  • Alcohol/drug dependency—on either the parent’s or the child’s side

The most useful thing to do is to attempt to talk to your adult child about his or her feelings regarding you, or regarding his/her childhood and upbringing. Not for you to talk, but for you to truly listen while your child talks, and for you to contain your own feelings, defensiveness and angry reactions so that your adult child can feel safe enough to tell you what’s eating at him or her.

Without justifying or explaining your actions, if you can express empathy for their pain and how your actions affected them, do so. If you can, accept responsibility for any of the ways you may have contributed to your child’s hurt, rejection or pain, and express regret—which includes the words: “I’m sorry.” After you have heard your child out completely, ask what s/he would like now. What can you do now that would help? How could you assist in repairing their wounds and in healing the relationship between the two of you? Be sure to say that any mistakes you made in parenting them was about your lack of effective parenting skills, and not about them.

It’s very hard to accept that there may be nothing you can do to repair the relationship between you and your adult child, but it sometimes happens that your child needs to reject you no matter what you say or do. Not every child wants an adult relationship with his or her parents. If that happens to you, make sure your life has meaning and purpose apart from your role as a parent.