Be Predictable (Except When You’re Not)

PredictablePredictability is a good quality in any parent. For parents estranged from an adult child, it’s an absolute requirement.

Being a little bit unpredictable can also be good occasionally, but only when it’s strategic and creates a pleasant surprise for your child.

This month’s newsletter offers specific ideas on how to use predictability to repair the bond with your child.

Predictability Builds Goodwill

Imagine you’re an employee, and you have a supervisor who’s unpredictable.

“I’ll be gone all afternoon,” he might say, “So you’ll have to work independently.” But at 2pm he pops into your office, asking about your progress.

“See me in my office tomorrow morning at 8:30,” he says. You show up at the appointed time, but he’s not there.

Sometimes he tells you nothing. You simply don’t know when you’ll see him, and when you won’t.

Most employees don’t appreciate unpredictable bosses. If a supervisor says she’ll be out all day, they want to trust that she really will be gone. If she says she’ll be somewhere at a certain time, they like to be able to bank on that.

Predictability helps employees relax and focus on their work. Unpredictability is stressful.

As unpleasant as it is to think about, your current status with your child puts you in the same category in his or her mind as supervisors, bosses, managers, the tax authority, and other “facts of life that must be managed.”

Being predictable makes you easier to deal with. As a current “fact of life that must be managed,” being easy to deal with could nudge you out of that inglorious category, and back toward having a normal relationship.


“I do better with routines and predictability.
I don’t react well when there’s a sudden change in the schedule.”

– Gretchen Rubin


Give your estranging child the soothing (and possibly unexpected) gift of your predictability. Here are a few specific ways to do that.

1. Tell them when you’re going to contact them, then do so only at the stated time. Not before, not after.

2. Ask them if your contact is too frequent. If the answer is Yes, cut it in half or follow whatever schedule they suggest.

3. If they tell you, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you when I’m ready,” reply that although it will be hard to follow that request on special days like birthdays and holidays, you WILL respect their wishes.

4. Then follow the request to the letter: No contact, not even on special days. (It’s okay to grieve around those days. It’s a loss, not to be able to connect during special times. But by no means contact them.)

5. If you’ve been reaching out and decide to stop trying for now, let them know that you’re stopping, and when you’ll resume. Then do what you told them you’d do (unless they request that you don’t resume that soon).

6. In that same “I’m stopping” notice, mention future special days when it will be hard not to contact them, but assure them you won’t. Then (tie yourself to a heavy object if necessary, but) don’t contact them for any reason before the stated resume date.

No Contact, No Kidding

Life will happen within, around, and between the two of you while you’re estranged. But unpredictable events in life shouldn’t dictate your contact schedule.

If you’re in doubt as to whether to contact your child when you said you wouldn’t, the answer is almost always, “Don’t.”

Not-contacting your child, as hard as it may be for you, is considered an act of goodwill by an estranging adult child. Your predictability is the shiny bow on that gift.

The less you contact them when they don’t want contact, the more likely their door is to spontaneously open later. Whatever is making them desire distance right now will diminish naturally with time and space. So make sure you provide those.

Get support while you exercise this temporary letting-go of connection to your child. Realize that in many cases, holding on has the same effect as pushing away.

Strategic Unpredictability

Your child may think she knows you well enough to expect to be disappointed in how you relate to her.

If your child sees you as selfish and narcissistic, it’s okay to be unpredictable by apologizing and listening empathetically.

If your child thinks you incapable of honoring his wishes, it’s okay to surprise him with the silence he requested.

If she believes you’re pining away without her because you’re “too needy,” it’s okay to go off on an international holiday instead of waiting for her to call on your birthday.

These are the kinds of UNpredictability that convince your child you’re capable of change. They’re pleasant surprises that could open doors in the future.

The rule of thumb? Always do what you say you’ll do. But don’t always do what your child expects.

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