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Children Who Break Your Heart: Here's Some Expert Advice

05/24/2015 08:33 am ET | Updated May 24, 2016

In my studies of the lives of older Americans, I learned that almost nothing is as painful to them as estrangement from an adult child. When I wrote a blog post on this topic, it led to an extraordinary outpouring of interest that both surprised and moved me. When we reach the later years, our dream is to be surrounded by loving children and grandchildren. For some older people, however, a negative relationship with one of their offspring - or even worse, complete separation from him or her - is profoundly difficult.

Parents in this situation are looking for advice. So I consulted a group of experts on family relations - from psychology, psychiatry, and social work - to learn what they would advise parents who feel their adult child has broken their hearts. Here's what they told me:

Here's some advice to parents in this situation. (1) Remember it's their story and they're sticking to it so don't try to change or correct their version of the past. (2) Express your regret without letting them guilt-trip you; regret is guilt without the neuroses. (3) Stay open to their overture - who's the grown-up here? - but don't allow them to abuse you emotionally, physically, or financially.
Jane Adams, Ph.D., author of When Our Grown Kids Disappoint Us

The estrangement of adult children from parents, in cases where overt parental abuse had not in fact occurred, can in some instances be read as a mark of immaturity on the part of the adult children, who may not yet have experienced the emotional challenges of parenting; for this group, at least, there is the hope that if they find themselves in the same role a few years later, they will gain compassion, if not forgiveness, for their own parents. Some older parents can at least can hold out for this hope. No one, of course, had "perfect parents." Forgiveness involves understanding and identification with the difficulties one's parents may have had, and as such, forgiveness is an expression of love and maturity.
Robert C. Abrams, M. D., Professor of Psychiatry, Weill Cornell Medical College

My piece of advice on estrangement of children is this: I feel the parent is the one that can't stop reaching out, can't stop going above and beyond to do anything to repair this broken relationship. The parent has to steer this relationship to a better path. The parent must let go of his or her ego. Leave it at the door. Apologize. It doesn't matter what happened. It is your CHILD. Never stop trying. Be humble. Apologize and profess your unconditional love. When you finally meet, hug your child and don't let go for a really long time. If you are estranged due to parental alienation, I have the same advice. Don't stop trying. The kids will find out the truth one day.
Marina Sbrochi Spriggs, author of Stop Looking for a Husband: Find the Love of Your Life and Nasty Divorce: A Kid's Eye View (forthcoming)

Estrangement from an adult child can happen for any number of reasons. Sometimes it is the child's spouse who demands distancing from family. Other times it may be due to an adult child becoming abusive and the parent needs to cut off ties for safety reasons. And sometimes the reason can seem inexplicable. Whatever the cause, the loss can be heartbreaking. If it does not resolve, it can feel like a death. Compounding the problem, older couples may not agree on how the reality came to pass or on what to do and this may cause friction. And other family members may have strong opinions or judgments, adding to the distress. Not surprisingly, powerful feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety and depression may emerge. There may also be significant grief. Older adults living with estrangement deserve support and understanding from others. Healing is a process and takes time. Seeking professional counseling can help with the challenging practical and emotional problems surrounding the experience.
Risa S. Breckman, LCSW, Therapist and Director of NYC Elder Abuse Center

Experience has taught me that when it comes to family life, nothing is simple or formulaic. Children who remain close to their parents didn't all grow up on Sunnybrook Farm. And those who distance themselves or choose to have zero contact haven't all done so because their parents failed them in some significant way. (Though, of course, some have.) Many fine parents have children who pull away -- sometimes for reasons the parents cannot figure out.
If your grown child has pulled away, ask yourself this: Is there an unresolved issue that needs to be addressed? Is there something I might do to make that resolution possible? Is there something I need to apologize for or forgive? Difficult as it is, I've seen many parents remain openhearted to their estranged children, reaching out, inviting contact, expressing their love, with no expectation or insistence that it be reciprocated. Sometimes all we can do is leave the porch light on with a key under the mat.
Winifred M. Reilly, MA, Marriage and Family Therapist, author of Speaking of Marriage blog

Karl Pillemer's 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice From the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage was published in January 2015. For more information on the Marriage Advice Project, please visit the website, like the project on Facebook, and follow on Twitter:@karlpillemer.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Tips For Living With Adult Children