How can you tell if your estranged adult child wants no contact? The answer is not always clear.
Some parents receive specific requests such as, “Please don’t call, text, email or come to my home or workplace.”
But many are left with either statements they can’t decipher, or no guidance at all.
In this article, I’ll share a few common ways adult children ask for no contact without explicitly saying so.
Between the Lines
Here are some statements that should usually be interpreted as no-contact requests from adult children:
“I need time.”
Take this to mean not just time, but psychological space. Otherwise, you might wonder why you can’t be in contact while they take whatever time they need.
As long as your child is hearing from you, she’s not getting the time she asked for. Whenever you send an unwanted gift or text, you may be re-setting the clock to zero.
Sometimes parents will say, “It’s been X months or years of no contact, how long does she need?” But they’re only considering contact that they’ve received; not what they’ve sent.
Even if it’s been a year since you heard from your child, if you sent gifts last December, it’s only been a month from her point of view.
If your child has said she needs time, plan to send *nothing* until you hear from her. No cards, gifts, texts, or emails, even on special occasions. If something important comes up, you can use the flowchart in our library, Is Contact Necessary? to make a determination.
“I’ll call you/let you know when I’m ready.”
For the time being, your adult child wants to control the what, why and how of contact. Make no mistake: This is a no-contact request even if he doesn’t explicitly say not to contact him.
Although this “Don’t call me, I’ll call you” attitude might feel unfair, and even galling, this isn’t a meaningless power play by your child. It’s only because you are so powerful in the relationship, that he feels the need for more control.
You’ll gain nothing by reaching out to an adult child who has promised to call when he’s ready. Unless it’s been at least a year, leave the prerogative to him.
Spend the time on your own emotional healing and personal growth, so that he’ll find a more whole person when he comes back around.
“I need to figure myself out/find out who I am/do my own work, etc.”
These are, broadly speaking, references to the developmental tasks of differentiation and individuation. In order to grow into the adults we’re meant to become, we all need to face these tasks. Most of us will be working on these throughout our lives.
For many people, developing as an individual is easier with distance from our families. It doesn’t have to last forever, but separation can be beneficial in the initial stages.
You can facilitate your adult child’s growth by graciously stepping aside when needed. He’ll let you know when he’s ready to close the gap again.
“I’m not ready.”
Take this at face value. Trust your child to let you know when she’s ready to re-engage. Don’t be overly concerned about the details or reasons why she’s not ready; those are hers to grapple with.
Of course, if there are changes you think may be needed in your own behavior to improve the relationship, take the time to work on those. Therapy is a good use of your time while your child is involved in her own process.
Respecting your adult child’s boundary when she says she’s not ready is one of the surest ways to convince her that it’s safe to be close again.
If she can’t trust her parent(s) to act with respect to her stated needs when she’s far away, what guarantee does she have that her boundaries and needs will be respected when she’s close again?
A good response to “I’m not ready” is, “Take all the time you need.” This may feel reckless, but remember: Pressure repels; vacuums attract.
If your estranged adult child hasn’t said a word about contact, and all you get when you reach out is silence, should that be taken as a no-contact request?
If you send a gift and don’t get a thank-you, take that as a no-gift request.
If you send chit-chatty texts and get nothing back, take that as a no chit-chatty texts request.
If you haven’t already done so, try sending a truly good apology. You might still get nothing back, but you will have made an investment in the future of your relationship.
If your child has ever accused you of neglecting or not caring enough about her, you may wish to reach out now and then after sending a good apology for anything you can think of that might need addressing. Even if she’s silent, at least she may come to realize she’s important to you.
But if you haven’t been accused of neglect or lack of caring, then take silence to mean that there’s something about the relationship that was painful for your child. He may not know how to fix it, or even what to ask for. He may have little hope that things can change.
Prove him wrong by studying the parent-child relationship. Learn what can go wrong, and how to make repairs. You’ll find plenty of ideas in the courses, workshops, and interviews in our library, as well as in my book, Reconnecting With Your Estranged Adult Child.
Take the time that silence bestows to learn more and seek your own healing. If you turn your focus inward, you won’t be the same person a month from now. You can make decisions about contact then, with greater insight, perspective and wholeness.
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