What to Do, When You Don’t Know What to Do

If you’ve been estranged from your adult child(ren) for any length of time, you’ve probably experienced that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing what to do next.

As a parent, your heart is breaking. And your brain is constantly picking at the problem in the background (when it’s not doing that in the foreground).

Whenever there’s a new challenge, a potential opportunity, or any other bump in the estrangement landscape, you find yourself scrambling for that elusive “what to do.”

Maybe you sent your child a nice note of apology and he hasn’t responded. Should you follow up with him? If so, when?

Your estranged adult daughter is coming to a family gathering for the first time in years. How do you prepare for the encounter?

Your adult child is about to fall off your insurance. Should you contact him despite his request for space?

The list of decisions that face parents during estrangement from adult children seems infinite.

Take Your Time

Whether it’s an external event or an internal shift within yourself, there’s usually a stimulus that catapults you into “What to do?” mode.

As soon as you ask yourself that question, press “Pause.”

Step 1 is always to stop, breathe, and get your bearings.

Notice how you’re feeling, physically and emotionally. Put words to your experience, such as, “I feel tense and anxious and I can’t stop my brain spinning about what to do next.”

Be with that tension, anxiety, and spinning brain for a moment. This will remind you of yourself.

You are not the tension. You’re not the anxiety, nor the spinning brain. You are the person experiencing those right now.

Breathe gently in and out, preferably through your nose. You don’t have to do anything else in those first moments.

It may be that you don’t have to do anything at all. It depends on your long-term objectives.

Take a Step Back

Once you’re grounded and somewhat calmer, and only when you have time to devote to some focused thinking, you can start to consider your options.

The key is to pull back from a closeup of the present moment, to a wider view of the whole picture. You need to take the proverbial “view from 30,000 feet” in order to stay on a true course to where you want to go.

If you think about just this one message, this one event, or this one need that you currently have, you might hamper your long-term strategy for reconnection.

For unwillingly estranged parents, the need of a given moment can conflict with what’s needed in the long run.

A good example of this is the need for contact.

If you’re a parent who’s been accused of being over-involved, not allowing enough space, being enmeshed with your adult child(ren) or something of the sort, your plan may look like this:

Objective: Attract my child(ren) back into a regular relationship with me

Strategy: Give my child(ren) plenty of room and time to miss me

Tactic 1: Respond only when necessary; don’t initiate any type of contact, not even links or photos.

Tactic 2: Cultivate established friendships and make new ones to meet some of my emotional needs

Etc.

This reconnection plan will take time to implement. It may also require some personal healing work, to overcome separation anxiety that likely pre-dated the adult child(ren).

What to Do, Revisited

Let’s say the parent following the plan above feels a sudden longing to connect with her child. She wonders whether she should send a quick text. She promises herself to keep it brief and positive.

Just before hitting “Send,” she asks herself, “Should I?” The mere fact that she’s asking suggests the idea is problematic.

In the closeup view, all the parent can see is her own longing, and the possibility of feeling connected by sending a text. What harm could it do? It’s only one text, right?

The view from 30,000 feet tells her that she wants to attract that child to her by allowing space to exist between them.

She reviews Tactic 1 and that tells her, if she still wants to work toward her goal, what to do.

In this case, it’s to sit and wait for the longing to pass. And possibly reach out to a friend for a nice, distracting walk. Or to a therapist for help processing feelings of grief and loss.

The point is to stop ruminating over options that put your goals in jeopardy. Take them off the table instead.

In summary, Step 1 is always to breathe and get grounded. Be here now. Notice the stimulus and your response.

Step 2 is to back away from the closeup view and gain a wider perspective. What are your long-term goals? What do you need to do today in order to reach them tomorrow?

How does the current stimulus create a challenge or an opportunity in reaching your objectives?

The next time you ask yourself what to do in the current circumstances of your adult child’s estrangement, take a breath and then step back. Let your future goals guide your decisions in the present.

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