Lost in Translation

textingA picture may be worth a thousand words, but all those words don’t necessarily paint a pretty picture.

When things go wrong in correspondence, they can spiral out of control quickly. Both parties may do damage without realizing it. Understanding how this happens and what to do about it can be a relationship saver.

This month we’ll talk about texting and emailing with your estranged adult child. If you don’t have two-way contact at the moment, think about how this information might apply to your other relationships for now.

Making sure you have good “communication hygiene” today means you’ll meet opportunity with readiness tomorrow.

Text, Schmext

In my opinion, texting is good for exactly two things:

  1. Quick questions (“At the store now. Do we need milk?”) and
  2. Logistical exchanges (“Running late. Be there in 10 mins.”)

Relying on texting for more complicated interactions invites … well, complications.

Think of texts as being a little bit like telegrams: Use them for necessary communication only, and be economical about it.

Email Hygiene

If a text is like a modern-day telegram, think of an email as an updated version of a postcard.

That’s right, a postcard. As in, not a letter. If you write to your child, keep it as short and as sweet as possible. Imagine you only have a small space in which to write, about the size of a postcard.

I’ve seen a lot of emails from estranged parents that are WAY too long. It seems to be more the rule than the exception. You want to be thorough, which is great, but…

If contact is unwanted in the first place, imagine how extensive contact goes over.

Let’s say you have some two-way contact, whether regular or sporadic, with your child. Or that you will one day.

If something goes awry via text or email, you’ll know it. You’ll feel hurt, irritated, or confused, and uncertain as to how to reply. If you’re having these feelings…

STOP texting/emailing immediately.

Remember this mantra: If it went wrong in writing, don’t try to fix it in writing.

I’ve lost count of how many “conversations” I’ve heard of that took place over text or email and led to broken bonds.

Tone of voice,  which is absent, is substituted with interpretation at the other end. Words are often interpreted as harsh or rude just because of a short sentence or a lack of acknowledgement — things anyone can do innocently, no harm intended.

And then there’s the impulsive message, sent before cooling down and thinking about how (and whether) to respond to what seemed like criticism or thoughtlessness on the other end.

The “conversation,” really a collection of words on a screen, minus all the little helpers — body language, vocal tone, inflection, pace and volume — quickly becomes a tiff.

Misunderstandings may be unavoidable, but allowing them to compound isn’t.

Find Your Voice

Pick up the phone and call. If you’re texting with your child, that means you have their phone number. Call them and leave a short, sweet voice message that stops the escalation and brings soothing instead.

Here’s an example.

“I’m calling because I got your text, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I’m sorry if we misunderstood each other. I hope things go well for you this weekend. I love you.”

Notice the apology. I advocate these because they pour oil on troubled waters like nothing else can.

Apologizing takes the target off your back and makes you more sympathetic. Fortunately, since we’re all human, it’s easy to find things to apologize for!

By the way, don’t ask an estranged child to call you back if they’re not in the habit of calling you at all. They might feel guilty, and people who feel guilty avoid those who help them feel that way.

Reach out and touch them

If you’ve been asked for no contact, then no contact is the only winning strategy.

But if you haven’t been asked for silence, then here are a few rules of thumb regarding communication:

1. The more sensitive a subject is, the more dangerous it is to address in writing.

2. Never send anything to your child — text, email, card, voice message — when you feel desperate, hurt, or angry. Wait until you feel calm and centered. Then make a decision about whether and what to communicate.

3. You don’t have to respond in writing just because someone writes to you (See Rule #1). Pick up the phone and leave a message in your warm, rich voice. Typed words on a screen often appear colder than intended.

4. Stand down from Red Alert. You don’t have to fix everything right this second (See Rule # 2). Especially with younger adult children, time is your friend.

5. Keep all communication short, whether in writing or otherwise. Leave them wanting more, not less.

6. Face-to-face communication goes better when you listen more than you speak. Get good at validation.

7. If you don’t have a way to leave your voice, leave your handwriting. The personal touch adds warmth to your message.

8. If all you have is an email address (no phone number, no physical address), tell them in the subject line what your email contains, and keep the email short and intensely sweet.

9. When in doubt, find something to apologize for. Make it a good apology.

10. If your adult child has made a request regarding communication that goes against anything in this list, honor your child’s request.

*   *   *

This article was featured in our monthly newsletter. If you’re a Reconnection Club member, feel free to leave a comment in our General Discussion forum.

Not a member? You can still receive our monthly newsletter. Click here to join the mailing list.

Members have access to helpful courses, workshops, downloads and expert interviews along with our friendly, private discussion forums. Learn more about the Reconnection Club.