How To Reconnect With An Estranged Adult Child

Here are some things parents should consider when reaching out to mend a relationship with an adult child.

Estrangement in a family is not uncommon; research suggests that 27% of Americans have cut off contact with a family member at some point. Most commonly, it’s adult children who cut ties with one or both parents.

Naturally, celebrities aren’t immune to these types of family issues. Actor Kelsey Grammer recently told People that he has “regret” about his strained relationship with his eldest child, Spencer Grammer. Grammer and Doreen Alderman, Spencer’s mother, split when Spencer was only a toddler and Grammer was working long hours on the set of “Cheers.”

“I let her down,” Kelsey Grammer said, adding, “I feel sorry about it, but I’m also thankful that we had a chance to make amends.”

Spencer Grammer is now 39, and she and her dad have not only reconciled, they are co-starring in a new Lifetime Christmas movie, “The 12 Days of Christmas Eve,” about a workaholic father who has a strained relationship with his adult daughter.

The filming “was incredibly fun and wonderful to spend time with my dad,” Spencer Grammer told People.

“I think it was really healing for us,” she added.

Spencer Grammer and Kelsey Grammer.
Rich Polk via Getty Images
Spencer Grammer and Kelsey Grammer.

“The 12 Days of Christmas Eve” isn’t the only holiday-themed movie featuring a parent-child reunion. “The Noel Diary,” one of the most popular movies currently on Netflix, depicts the first meeting of a father and son after decades without contact. The pair talk while setting up a Christmas tree.

There’s clearly something about the holidays that draws us to these stories of healing and forgiveness. Perhaps it’s the emphasis on gathering together with family, or the reflectiveness that the end of the year can bring.

If you’re hoping to reconnect with an adult child who you became estranged from at some point in your relationship, here are some things to take into consideration.

Do your own work before reaching out.

If you are the one who initiated the estrangement, your strategy will be different, but “the reality is that most estrangements are initiated by adult children,” said Peg Streep, author of “Verbal Abuse” and “Daughter Detox.”

While some may view a child who is rejecting their parent as “acting in a fit of pique, being emotionally immature, and specifically ungrateful,” said Streep, it is “a decision most often years in the making” and preceded by previous attempts to draw boundaries.

“Research shows the adult children also cycle in and out of estrangement often,
reestablishing contact and then breaking it again,” said Streep.

Vinita Mehta, a Washington, D.C.-based psychologist, advised that “before reaching out to an estranged child, it would be helpful to reflect on your own role in the breakdown of the relationship.”

“If it’s unclear to you why your child has cut off contact, try to find out from another family member or close friend why your child has chosen to go no-contact,” said Mehta.

Be prepared to learn that your child’s view is likely quite different from yours. It’s also important to examine your own reasons for wanting to reconcile.

“If you are reaching out to ‘show you’re the bigger person,’ because a fractured family is an embarrassment to you, because you want access to your
grandchildren, or because you ‘want to set the record straight,’ the chances are good that the effort is doomed from the get-go,” Streep said.

If your child doesn’t see that you are open to admitting past wrongdoing and changing your ways, they will be less likely to engage. You should also make sure that you and your partner, whether it’s the child’s parent or stepparent, are on the same page about the reconciliation.

“Keep in mind that your adult child will be looking closely at your motivations, intentions, and sincerity,” said Streep.

She recommends that you “have a plan for changing your behavior, such as going into therapy.”

Respect your child’s boundaries.

Because feeling that boundaries have been crossed is a common reason for an adult child to cut off contact, it’s important that you respect your child’s boundaries when reaching out.

This “demonstrates that you take their feelings seriously,” Mehta said. “A letter or email may be received more easily received than a phone call, depending on the boundaries your child has set with you,” she added.

In some cases, this may mean backing off and giving your child some more time.

Streep advised against the “messenger scenario,” in which a parent sends a third-party, such as a sibling or other relative, to advocate on their behalf. She said she has often seen this strategy end badly.

If there is a restraining order, any violence, or police or attorneys become involved, the “connection is just too inflamed for anything productive to occur,” said Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco-based psychologist and author of the book “Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties & How To Heal The Conflict.”

Gifts or letters that come back returned-to-sender are another signal that the wound is still too raw.

In such cases, “I always tell parents to wait a year before responding,” said Coleman.

Unfortunately, if your child expresses no desire for contact, you will have to respect that as well.

“You can let your child know that the door will always be open and that your love is unconditional,” said Mehta.

If this is the case, “try to be compassionate with yourself and seek support from relatives and friends,” Mehta advised. “It may also be a time to seek professional help to process the pain and grief of losing your child — as well as the stigma that can accompany family estrangements.”

Show them that you see their perspective.

Many adult children don’t clarify their reasons for the estrangement or explain under what circumstances they would be open to communication again, so parents should proceed cautiously.

Coleman recommends writing what he calls the “letter of amends” (likely an email), in which he says a parent’s goal should be “to find the kernel, if not the bushel, of truth to address the child’s complaints about the parent.”

In other words, you don’t need to agree with every terrible thing your child has said about you, but you will need to show that you see their hurt and are ready to take ownership for the part you have played in it.

It may be helpful to remember that repair is a process, and your relationship won’t heal overnight.

“What happened had real origins and ... fixing things takes work,” said Streep.

Be prepared to listen.

Show your child that you care about them by hearing them out, even when you don’t agree with what they’re saying.

“Be prepared to listen, do not judge and respect your child’s feelings even if you disagree with their version of events,” said Mehta.

“You may very well hear a perspective that you find confusing or that you disagree with,” she continued, but the goal is to hear them out so that you understand what they are feeling, not act as an arbiter of the facts.

Coleman advised that “relationships in modern times are really based more on the adult model of friendship between parents and adult children.” This sort of relationship is “more egalitarian, more psychological, more mindful,” he said.

Rather than feeling a duty to engage with you, adult children will choose to do so if they think the relationship will benefit them in some way, too, and that you will respect their boundaries and needs.

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