Handling Complaints from Your Estranged Adult Child

If you manage to open communication with your estranged adult child, you’ll need to be prepared for the crucial task of receiving complaints.

Unless you have a conscious plan for your response, the rift could easily widen. Because the way parents handle complaints makes the estrangement either better or worse. Here’s what you need to know.

Seek First to Understand

Some estranged adult children are good at using “I” statements to express their feelings. But even if their children use appropriate language, parents can sometimes become defensive. Defensiveness makes it impossible for parents to respond to complaints constructively and keep the communication flowing.

As an example, an adult child may say, “Whenever I tried to talk to you about my day or my work or whatever, you would immediately change the subject to something more interesting to you, leaving me feeling inadequate and demoralized.”

This complaint follows the recommended structure of “When you do X, I feel Y.” It’s considered a healthy way to express feelings, and start working toward a solution.

But I’ve watched parents read statements like that from their adult children and react with tremendous pain. Even outrage. “This is so harsh,” they exclaim. “Why is my child being so aggressive and cruel?” and occasionally, “This sounds more like something her husband would say. Maybe he wrote this.”

These defensive reactions shut down the parent’s ability to hear and respond to the pain that’s being expressed. This child has felt inadequate and demoralized by the parent on multiple occasions. It’s why she wants to distance herself. That’s a vital piece of information.

If you believe that estranged adult children complain to their parents merely in order to hurt them, you’re probably missing opportunities for reconciliation.

The main reason to convey displeasure in an important relationship, is to see if the person wants to try to help change your experience.

Your child’s complaints are an invitation to make necessary repairs. They show the path to resuming a good relationship.

Consider a more constructive response to the above complaint. The parent could say to himself, “Despite how it feels to me, this isn’t a condemnation of me as a person, or as a parent. My child believes I’m not interested in her life, and that has caused her pain. In what ways have I tried to show my interest? Why did that fail to come across?”

This is how parents can turn complaints into useful pieces of  information, rather than destructive dead ends.

Don’t Get Distracted

Many people fail to use “I” statements. Instead they use “You” statements, and sometimes rude language, to express their feelings.

Such a person might say to their parent(s), “You always make everything about you. If it isn’t about you, you’re not interested.”

Obviously, this is a less effective way to express feelings. In addition to providing no insight as to the emotional impact of the behavior, it offends the listener. Even a very conscientious parent may be overwhelmed by feelings of defensiveness if their child communicates in this way. “You’re bad and everything you do is wrong,” is the only message that comes across. Not a good opener for a constructive conversation!

Ideally, both estranged adult children and their parents make efforts to meet each other halfway. To make each other’s jobs a little easier.

The estranged adult child’s job is to ask for what he needs, rather than merely making accusations or lobbing insults at the parent.

The parent’s job is to interpret even insults as legitimate complaints.

Assume there’s something real and true that your child is pointing to, even if not very effectively.

Whenever your child makes accusations or complaints about you, try to find the unmet need that underlies them. Complaints are not about your shortcomings. They’re about your child’s pain.

Even well-meaning parents miss the mark sometimes. Don’t be ashamed if this has happened with your child.

It’s not too late to hit the mark now. Do it through listening and trying to understand your child’s point of view. That’s how parents can turn the walls of estrangement into bridges to a better future.