Emotional Estrangement

Parents sometimes ask me, “My child talks to me, but I don’t feel comfortable with him; are we estranged?” This article is my response.

If you’re in touch with your child, but the relationship feels more distant, more stressful, or more effortful than it used to be, or than it feels like it should be, I would call that “emotional estrangement.”

There’s distance, but it’s not physical.

Instead of a lack of actual contact, there’s an absence of real connection.

Since you can’t say your child isn’t speaking to you or returning your calls or even spending time with you, it might be hard for others to understand why you still feel estranged.

Walking on Eggshells

You may experience this kind of hard-to-define emotional estrangement following a reconciliation. In this case, there was a previous physical estrangement that’s now in the process of healing. Contact has been re-established, but connection is lagging.

Or you may feel estranged from a child from whom there was never a textbook estrangement. This emotional distance you feel between yourself and your child IS the estrangement.

In either case, it can feel like you’re walking on eggshells (or cracked glass, as one parent put it in a recent office-hours call) every time you interact with your child.

Other parents, who have no contact with their children at all, may view your situation with envy because “at least you have contact.” But you know how uncomfortable it is to feel distant from your child who’s right there in front of you. It’s a different kind of pain. But it is still pain.

It might help you to understand the reason(s) for this distance you’re feeling. Here are some possible culprits.

1. There’s an elephant in the room. Maybe there’s something that’s gone unsaid, something important you both know but haven’t talked about. Bringing it up would probably be scary, difficult, or both. That’s why it’s remained unspoken.

If there’s something that’s affecting your current relationship, and you know it won’t go away until you address it, then you’ll need to bring up the subject with your child. Of course, you’ll want to do this in a way that protects your child from unnecessary stress.

Not talking about it at all is not the answer; not if it’s taking a toll on your relationship. Discussing whatever it is will be stressful to some degree. You can remove unnecessary stress, but you can’t remove all stress. Not for your child or for yourself.

If you’re scared to talk about the topic with your child, it will be a tall order for you to make your child comfortable having that conversation with you. Don’t attempt this alone. Find a counselor or therapist to help you figure out how best to approach the conversation you want to have. (And no, they don’t need to specialize in estrangement. A good family therapist will do just fine.)

2. It’s like you don’t know each other. If it’s been a while since you’ve had much two-way contact, it will naturally take time to get comfortable communing again. In some ways, the intervening months or years have made you strangers to each other. There’s catching up to do.

Give yourself and your child time to get used to each other again. Don’t assume that a lack of familiarity means the relationship is doomed to be forever distant. Things are as they’re bound to be, after a hiatus in a relationship.

Build familiarity and greater ease over time, concentrating on getting to know the adult your child is today. Your new relationship may not be the same as the one you had before, but it can still be fulfilling for both of you.

3. Your feelings are hurt. Your child may have ended the estrangement, but the injury of her hurtful words and behavior hasn’t healed yet. Consciously or unconsciously, you’re protecting yourself against being hurt again; your ability to trust your child has been damaged.

Don’t blame yourself for not being able to “forgive and forget.” You’re only human. But recognize that your own walls may be up, and your child’s guarded behavior may very well be a reflection of your own. It’s like a feedback loop, with guardedness begetting guardedness.

The solution is to process the pain with a peer — not your child. Acknowledge and work through your feelings, making sure to give yourself compassion and patience in the process. Healing takes time as well as intention.

4. Circumstances. Though your child is back in touch now, he’s also an adult with all the responsibilities, concerns, and exigencies of adult life. He may have a job, a family, or both to take care of. Or he’s working his way toward attaining those goals. His relationship with you, let’s hope, is not his highest priority.

The fact that he’s decided not to shut you out anymore does not necessarily mean he’s ready for weekly lunches or daily texts.

Allow for the fact that he’s still working on building the components of life that those of us who are older have already built for ourselves. What feels like distance may be merely an artifact of his full schedule.

What’s Your Strategy?

To the extent that you need to do anything at all about addressing the awkwardness of emotional estrangement, remember the apology. You don’t have to have done anything wrong to use an apology to smooth things out between you and your child.

Apologize for the elephant in the room, or for “not feeling ready to talk about it.”

Apologize for any awkwardness you’re communicating through self-conscious behavior; explain that you need time to get to know your child again, and you really want things to go well.

Apologize for your own guardedness that’s due to the fact that you’re still “processing” (not reeling, healing, or recovering from) the estrangement. Encourage your child to approach you with any questions or concerns.

Apologies are flexible tools. They can accomplish all sorts of positive feats in relationships. Use them liberally.

Reconnection Club members, we have an apology course in our library to help you make sure yours is effective.

Not a member? Click to view a sample lesson on what makes a good apology.

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