I often say that reconciliation between parents and estranged adult children is a process, not an event. It’s not like on Monday you’re estranged, on Tuesday you reconcile, and on Wednesday everything is back to normal.
During and after reconciliation, things can feel anything but normal. You’re walking on eggshells, trying to avoid a replay of your child’s painful rejection.
If anything, you’re even more anxious than you were when your child was out of touch! With reconciliation, there’s more at stake. You now have something to lose.
Even though it doesn’t feel like it, all of that is normal. Below are some notes from the reconciliation front lines to help you feel normal in a not-very-normal-feeling situation.
You can expect one or more of the following during reconciliation…
1. The relationship doesn’t feel natural. You don’t have the same level of comfort around your child that you once enjoyed. You no longer say the first thing that pops into your mind.
You may have been asked to curb specific behaviors, such as giving advice, asking too many questions, or reaching out too often – things you did unconsciously and without concern before. Now you’re highly conscious of them, and constantly concerned about the impact of your behavior on your child and the relationship you share.
Things don’t feel natural because you’re not behaving naturally. Everything feels new and unfamiliar, because it is.
There’s no way around this discomfort of novelty; only time can move things from “new” to “familiar.” You can’t do that. All you can do is tolerate this (normal) discomfort until time has had a chance to do its work on the relationship.
2. You still feel hurt. The emotions stirred up by your child’s behavior don’t disappear just because he’s back in your life. You need to be allowed to feel and express those emotions – but it’s usually best not to do that with your child.
You might want to model your behavior after a good therapist.
Because we’re human, we therapists sometimes have emotional reactions to our clients that would be inappropriate to discuss with those clients. The ethical and therapeutically appropriate way to deal with these feelings is to consult with other therapists, so we can process and work through them on our own time – not the client’s. This protects our clients from the inappropriate burden of their therapist’s emotions.
In your case, you might “consult” with a spouse or partner, an understanding friend, your therapist, a cleric, or a support group. This will protect your child from the complicated feelings stirred up in you by her behavior.
When consulting with your peers, ask up front for what you need. Otherwise, you might get someone ragging on your child for hurting your feelings when you’re not looking for that.
3. You don’t trust your child. Because you were so wounded by your child’s rejecting behaviors, you find it hard to let your guard down, even though you’re speaking again.
Your child might seem like a powerful dictator who must be obeyed, lest he unleash his wrath on you again.
First, you’re allowed not to trust your child. You don’t have to trust him in order to improve the relationship, because he’s not a peer; he’s your child. When he was 4, you didn’t trust him to roast a turkey. At 34, he might not be someone you can trust with your feelings.
But you don’t need to trust him, because you’re not relying on him for emotional support.
Focus instead on what you can do to become trustworthy from his point of view. Assuming he’s within the normal range of human psychology and not sociopathic, brain-damaged, or clinically narcissistic, his behavior will change in response to your consistent, calm, and affectionate parenting.
This takes time. Assume to begin with that he’ll show up empty-handed to the reconciliation table. Be prepared to do all the heavy lifting for a while, with regard to establishing trust between you.
4. Conversation stays surface-level. You despair of ever having heart-to-heart talks with your child again, because she seems so guarded now. Because of 1., 2., and 3. above, you’re probably guarded, too.
Surface-level conversation with your own adult child can be disturbing and make you sad. And why wouldn’t it? It reminds you of the psychological gulf between you, carved into existence by the estrangement.
To combat despair, remember you have to start somewhere. Your child can’t make the conversation deeper, or flow more easily, for herself or for you. So start where you are. Have those silly, surface-level conversations and realize this isn’t your final destination.
Dare to Hope
Reconciliation is a journey back toward each other that requires patience and persistence, especially from the parent. It’s not usually possible to go from “estranged” to “natural” overnight.
Remember the expression, “Easy come, easy go”? Anything worthwhile takes time to build, including a new relationship with the adult your child has become.
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