No parent wants to imagine a day when your child would refuse to speak to you. But estrangements between parents and adult children may be more common than you think.

Joshua Coleman, a psychologist, called estrangements between adult children and their parents “a silent epidemic.” “It’s sadly very common. I work with parents in my practice who have had estrangements for 10 years, permanent estrangements.”

The problem is silent because people are too embarrassed to discuss it. Coleman said, “They feel ashamed. The feel humiliated. And the kids, they don’t want to talk about it either.

Parental divorce can often cause a breakdown in the relationship between grown children and their parents. “Divorce is probably the single most common cause that I see,” Coleman said. With divorce, children may see one parent as a winner, the other as a loser. “Somebody got hurt more, somebody got left,” he added.

Divorce can sometimes lead to parental alienation, where one parent negatively influences a child against the other parent, so the child no longer trusts that parent or feels hateful towards them.

Other reasons for children to stop talking to their parents:

1. Parents may disrespect the child’s spouse
2. Parents play favorites among siblings
3. Parents offer too much advice
4. Parents pry into child’s life, finances, etc.
5. Parents refuse to apologize for hurtful comments

This is not to say it’s always the parents’ fault. Some children feel:

1. We don’t have the same values
2. You still see me as a child
3. The family situation was toxic with alcohol, drugs or anger issues
4. They weren’t loved, supported or nurtured sufficiently
5. Feel hurt from episodes that occurred years ago

And then there are the somewhat common situations where no one knows why there is the estrangement.

For parents who find themselves dealing with an estranged child, Coleman offers these tips:

Accept Responsibility

“I wouldn’t say take the blame, but if your child has been estranged from you, something is very wrong there,” he said. “You have to start from the perspective of really trying to understand and making yourself vulnerable. Typically, in our children’s complaints about us, there’s a kernel of truth.”

Don’t Defend Yourself

“It’s about your kid, it’s not about you,” Coleman said. “If you defend yourself, you get into the right and wrong, it’s just going to escalate.”

It’s important to remember that all families are different. “You could be a good parent and feel like you did everything right and your kid could reasonably feel you missed something important about them,” he said.

Have Empathy and Don’t Give Up

Coleman said parents should keep trying to work on the relationship, with some exceptions. “Unless you’re getting restraining orders or the kid is sending back gifts, then I don’t think you should,” he said.

A British report surveyed 800 family units. They found that 44% had estranged children. Of this group, they found 96% alienated from mothers and 90% from fathers.

In a survey of estranged children, around 60% of the adult children said they would like to have a relationship with the person from whom they were estranged. The steps cited most often that could affect a reconciliation were apologies from parents, parents taking responsibility and boundary setting.

The British study painted a less optimistic picture. Children in that study were much more likely than the parents to say that the situation was hopeless, with no chance of reconciliation. In fact, over 70% said a functional relationship in the future was not a possibility.

Still, parents in this situation should not give up hope. Young people have been known to change their minds as they get older and gain life experience. And parents can draw encouragement from the knowledge that even if they have been divorced, the decree is not final.

Relationships might feel better when there is no contact. But, as Dr. Murray Bowen, credited with the most original new thinking about family systems since Freud and who coined the phrase “emotional cutoff,” observed, the problems are just tucked away through estrangement, they are not resolved.

The only way to move forward is to get to both parties…To talk. To find common ground. To forgive.

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