Do you prefer listening to reading? Hear an audio treatment of this topic in Reconnection Club Podcast Episode 141: Go For a No, And Only If You Have To.
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“Is it okay to send gifts to the grandchildren for Christmas?”
“Can I at least attend your graduation?”
“Would you mind if I sent a card for your birthday?”
Who ever thought you’d find yourself asking questions like these, of your own adult child? How did the two of you end up here?
Estrangement is a barren land with punishing terrain and no road signs.
You may have a general sense that your child doesn’t want to be close right now, but what exactly does that mean? Does that include special occasions? And are gifts out of the question?
Most parents who receive a no-contact request, even a subtle one, do best to respect that request at all times. But because estrangement can continue through birthdays, holidays, graduations, weddings and other milestones, it may feel nearly impossible not to reach out at times.
If you’re in this position, the most respectful (read: relationship-preserving) thing you can do is to ask your child’s permission to color outside the lines they’ve drawn.
You may balk at the idea of asking permission, and if you do, you’re in good company. But if your relationship is more important than your pride, here’s a way you can try to meet your own need for connection without doing too much harm to your child’s need for distance.
Forget “Is it okay?”
When you ask for permission, don’t use phrases like these:
Would it be okay if… ?
Is it alright if I… ?
Can we… ?
Do you mind if… ?
The problem with all of these, and many more like them, is that you’re asking for a yes from your child. He’s already said no to contact. If you ask for a yes by using these kinds of terms, you’re creating two situations you don’t want:
1. You might come across as tone-deaf, uncaring, or unwilling to hear what your child is trying to tell you. She made it clear she wants less contact, and yet you’re asking if contact is okay. That could create some bad feelings in your child, who may see you as “clueless” at best, or narcissistic at worst.
2. If you don’t receive an answer to your question (which will often be the case), then you’ll have no idea what to do. Should you do the thing anyway? Or shouldn’t you? Does silence give consent? Or not? You’ll be in the same confused and anxious place where you started.
Go For the No
One solution is to ask for a no instead of a yes. Here are some examples:
“I know that things are strained between us right now, but I’d like to send a couple of small Christmas gifts to the grandchildren. Unless I hear otherwise, I’ll assume that’s okay with you. I want to respect your wishes.”
“Your graduation will be such a milestone in your life. I know we’re not close these days, and I don’t want to have any negative impact on your special day. I’m planning to stand in the back, as unobtrusively as possible, and watch you receive your diploma. I won’t stick around after that. I’ll assume my plan is acceptable unless you tell me otherwise. I want to respect your wishes.”
“As your big birthday approaches, I’m not sure what to do. I understand that I’m not welcome to celebrate with you, but I’d like to send you a card, and perhaps a small gift. If that’s not okay with you, please let me know and I will respect your wishes.”
All of these examples address the two problems above.
1. They’re the opposite of tone-deaf; they respectfully acknowledge the estrangement and the child’s desire for distance.
2. They ask the adult child to reply only if he wants to say no. If you don’t receive a reply, then you can reasonably assume you can go ahead and do the thing you’re proposing.
However, there’s another problem that isn’t addressed by going for a no, and that is that your child could feel manipulated. If that’s the case, going for a no will make things worse, not better, between you.
If you successfully go for a no, then here’s the hard part: What if she replies and says no?
Then you have a contract with her that you can choose to either honor or break. You asked, she answered, and now… How will you respond?
If They Say No
What you do when you’ve been asked not to do something you want to do, sends its own message.
If you honor your child’s refusal, you make a deposit in the relationship bank account. That is not nothing. Your behavior towards your child today is the most important element in whether (and how soon) the relationship can be repaired.
I don’t recommend breaking the contract — that is, doing something anyway once your child has said no. That will deepen the rift and you’ll end up in a worse place than before.
If you think it’s better not to ask at all, and just do whatever you feel like doing, you’ll miss a chance to start repairing the relationship with your child and healing your estrangement.
You’ll just be treading water at best, or possibly making things worse with your actions.
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