Parents of estranged adult children often wonder, “I’ve been giving my child space, but now her birthday (or an important holiday) is coming up. Can I contact her?”
This month we’ll addresses this common question.
(Also check out the Reconnection Club Podcast, where we also discuss questions of contact, gifts, etc.)
Giving Them Space
“But it’s his birthday!”
Maybe you decided months ago to give your child the space he asked for, and reluctantly ceased all contact. But now his birthday is coming up and you’re wondering whether to send him something anyway.
Despite the distance he’s created and how hurt you feel, you don’t want him to think you’ve abandoned him. You didn’t prepare him in your acknowledgement missive for missed birthday greetings, so…
What should you do?
Try the Dial It Down technique: If you normally celebrate your child’s birthday, do acknowledge the date, but do less than you would normally do.
If your family has never celebrated birthdays, don’t start doing so during an estrangement. Dial it down for holidays that your family does celebrate.
How to Dial Things Down
Here’s how “dialing it down” works: If you used to give a card and a gift for your child’s birthday, just send a card this time.
If you used to give a card with money inside, well … DON’T send an empty card! It could be construed as punitive. Instead, try an e-greeting, an email, or a text instead of sending anything in the mail.
Dialing it down is based on the idea that if your child isn’t participating in a relationship with you, he doesn’t get to reap the rewards of that relationship.
Gifts become cards, cards become emails, emails become texts; the more birthdays and holidays that go by without your child engaging with you in a positive way, the less you need to offer materially.
This is not about punishing your child. It’s about respecting yourself.
It’s one thing to turn the other cheek when you’re slapped in the face. It’s quite another to turn the other cheek AND offer gifts to the person who’s slapping you.
“Being the bigger person” means that you understand your child’s coldness as self-protective, and avoid reacting negatively. It doesn’t mean you reward their coldness with gifts or extra effort.
If your cards, gifts, emails or texts have been ignored in the past, it may be okay to send a greeting on VERY special days (Groundhog Day doesn’t count) to remind them that your heart is still open. If you’ve been asked for no contact, however, it’s better to err on the side of silence than send anything.
If you must contact your child, keep messages brief and simple, such as, “Hope you have a very happy birthday.”
Your love for them may be free and unlimited, but your time and effort, including trips to the post office, are not.
If and when your child does come around, feel free to dial it back up.
One more thing: Try not to make decisions about birthdays and holidays with your hurting heart, or when you may be feeling desperate for contact.
Decide ahead of time what you’ll do if you’re still estranged when the day comes. Then stick to your plan. If you’ve received a specific request for no contact, the best strategy is zero contact (after an initial acknowledgement).
Next month, I’ll discuss special considerations for communicating with estranged adult children about family events, both planned and unexpected.
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