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I’m so hurt by my adult child, I want to sever ties


The question

I have two adult children and, despite my efforts, I cannot seem to have a relationship with one of them since teenage years. I keep getting assurances nothing is wrong, but the lack of interest in having anything to do with me tells me otherwise. I find this attitude hurtful. I've been a single parent since they were young and always prioritized their needs over mine. I feel I have a good relationship with the younger one; we communicate regularly and show each other that we care for one another. Both see/hear from their dad regularly and have a positive relationship with their stepmom. We always shared special occasions and often used to get together as extended families. Sometimes the lack of contact with the older one makes me so mad, I would like to sever all ties and just forget I have two children.

The answer

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Now, now, momma bear: I know you don't mean that.

That's just the hurt feelings talking. And wouldn't it be kind of throwing out the baby – or in this case the younger grown-up offspring – with the bathwater?

I mean, if you broke off all contact with your kids in a huff, I could see the younger one going, "What'd I do?"

But I certainly understand how you feel. "How sharper than a serpent's tooth," hey? After all those sleepless nights; changing all those stinking, steaming diapers; taking a terrible hit on your career – suddenly they're not returning your calls?

I have three boys. If they grow up to ignore me, it will be upsetting in the extreme.

It took so much work to get them on their feet. Not to mention the unholy drain on one's cash flow. Sometimes being a dad feels like opening your wallet in a windstorm. They owe me, man!

And I'm not even a single parent. My hat's off to y'all – I don't know how you do it. There were some days, as a stay-at-home dad, when if I hadn't been able to hand the boys off like a rugby ball to my wife, Pam – "I spent the day dadding, now I say 'uncle'" – well, I don't know what I would've done.

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So yes, I understand why you might be a little bitter.

But it is the cycle of life. Children grow up and are ungrateful. They in turn have children who grow up and are ungrateful. On and on it goes.

As to what you should do – well, it's hard to say, since I don't know what particular issue your oldest child might have, or if he has one, or even whether he or she is a he or she.

Let me just point you, for now, to an interesting study on the relationship between parents and their adult children published a few years back in the journal Psychology and Aging. It looked at a number of factors, including personality differences, past relationship problems, children's finances, housekeeping habits, lifestyles and how often they contacted each other.

It came to some laughably obvious conclusions, e.g. that the tie between parents and their grown children "is often highly positive and supportive but it also commonly includes feelings of irritation, tension and ambivalence." Also that as children need us less and less, they contact us less and less often.

To the framers of this study: Ya think?

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But, more interestingly, it noted that grown children tend to have more conflicts with their mothers than their fathers, possibly because "mothers make more demands for closeness" and "are generally more intrusive than fathers."

And it mentioned "unsolicited advice" a lot. Now, I'm not saying this is you, or that if it is, you need to change your ways. I know it's hard for the momma bear to stop grooming and guiding her cubs even when they are well into middle age. Me, I can see my poor old mom biting her lip until it practically bleeds to stop herself from advising me on everything from health issues to how I relate to my boys.

But it's for the best. At this point I've just got to make my own mistakes.

I'm not saying back out of their lives, though. Another of the study's findings: "Avoidance doesn't work as a strategy for dealing with conflicts. It appears to make things worse."

As Lao Tzu says: "The sage, because he confronts all his problems, never has any."

The use of the term "confront" is unfortunate in this context. Be patient, circumspect and kind. One tidbit from the old I'm OK – You're OK self-help book that has stuck with me: Use the first-person singular, not the second-person singular, and you'll cause less friction. In other words, it's better to say, "I feel hurt that you haven't been returning my calls," than, "You're a jerk for not returning my calls."

And remember: When it comes to the discussion of ticklish things such as feelings, the phone is better than e-mail, and in person is better than the phone.

E-mail's the worst for this stuff and to be avoided. If, as Marshall McLuhan said, print is a "hot" and television is a "cool" medium, then e-mail is the "flare-up" medium and to be avoided at all costs.

Bottom line: Discuss your feelings with your grown offspring, gently, and continue patiently to maintain contact.

And who knows? If you wait by the phone and cultivate your own interests and independence, then maybe when they have kids of their own it'll all change.

Suddenly you are going to start to look very useful indeed, once again. That's a great second act for many people with grown children: babysitting!

David Eddie is the author of Damage Control, the book.

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