Handling Complaints from Your Estranged Adult Child

If you manage to open communication with your estranged adult child, it’s good 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 can make 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 an appropriate 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 his wife would say. Maybe she wrote this.”

These defensive reactions shut down the parent’s ability to hear and respond to what’s on the table. It appears this adult child has felt inadequate and demoralized on multiple occasions. It’s why he wants to distance himself. 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 repairs. They show a 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 his life, and that has caused him 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 information, rather than a destructive dead end.

Don’t Get Distracted

In this culture, we often we fail to use “I” statements when approaching relationship conflict. Instead we use “You” statements, and sometimes rude language, to express our displeasure.

So estranged adult children might say to their parents, “You always make everything about you. If it isn’t about you, you’re not interested.”

This is not an 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 hurt feelings or defensiveness if their adult 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!

In an ideal world, 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 she needs, rather than merely making accusations or lobbing insults at the parent.

The parent’s job may include sifting through insults in search of legitimate complaints.

Assume there’s something real and true about their experience of you that your adult child is pointing to, even if not effectively.

Whenever your adult 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 adult child’s pain.

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

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