What Estranged Parents Get Wrong About Their Adult Child’s Decision To Pull Away

What Estranged Parents Get Wrong About Their Adult Child’s Decision To Pull Away

Family estrangement is rarely black and white. While some parents are unequivocally abusive, and it’s wise to cut ties, most situations are nuanced. However, estranged parents often fall into harmful patterns of thinking that prevent them from understanding their own role in the breakdown of the relationship, making amends almost impossible.

1. Believing their child is being childish, ungrateful, or just plain cruel

It’s really upsetting and stressful for a parent to be cut off, of course, but assuming your child is acting out of spite and failing to see the years of hurt that led to this drastic step really minimizes their genuine pain. Estrangement is usually the last resort after repeated boundary violations, disrespect, or unresolved emotional wounds, Psychology Today notes. Labeling them the villain doesn’t get you closer to understanding why it happened.

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2. Overlooking the impact of emotional abuse and neglect

Many estranged parents cling to the idea that they “weren’t that bad,” because there was no overt physical harm. However, constant criticism, invalidation of feelings, playing favorites, or the silent treatment are deeply damaging too. Emotional wounds can run just as deep as physical ones, and take just as long to heal.

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3. Demanding an apology before having a real, honest conversation

While an apology MAY be part of reconciliation down the line, demanding it as a pre-condition shows you care more about ego than repair. Your child needs to know you’re finally willing to LISTEN to their pain, without prioritizing saving face. Healing starts with understanding the root of the hurt, only then can genuine apologies – and forgiveness – potentially begin.

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4. Trying to recruit allies among other family members and painting the child as the problematic one

Spreading gossip or seeking validation in your version of events always ends up backfiring. Trying to force people to take sides poisons the well further. It shows your focus is on proving you’re right, not on rebuilding any kind of relationship. Adults see through this, and it alienates potential mediators who could bridge the gap.

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5. Weaponizing love and guilt: “But I LOVE you!” or “After all I’ve done for you…”

Love shouldn’t be conditional. True love allows space, respects boundaries, even when it hurts. Guilt-tripping is an attempt at manipulation, making estrangement about YOUR suffering, not theirs. Sacrifices made are tainted if they become perpetual ammunition used to override an adult child’s right to curate their own lives.

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6. Minimizing the effects of past events

You don’t get to decide how much your past actions impacted your child. Sweeping things under the rug conveys that their pain isn’t worth your time. Trauma works on its own timeline. Readiness for reconciliation can’t be rushed. Showing true acceptance of the past, without defensiveness, is the first step.

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7. Assuming unconditional loyalty despite harmful behavior

The saying “blood is thicker than water” is often misused to justify toxic family bonds. Biology doesn’t excuse abuse. Estranged adult children learn this the hard way – sometimes chosen family, those who provide genuine support and unconditional love, become more important than those with whom you merely share DNA.

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8. Spying on the child’s social media or asking other people for info about them

Seeing them happy without you is painful, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t have valid reasons for distance. Stalking them prevents you from doing the hard work of examining your own role in the situation. It fuels an “I’m the victim, they’re the villain” mindset that makes reconciliation even less likely.

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9. Expecting immediate forgiveness and a full return to the “old ways”

Even if you make massive changes, trust takes time to rebuild. They might be open to cautious contact, but full-fledged family holidays and back to how things were? Unrealistic. Small steps, respecting their need for space, is the only way. Rushing it, expecting them to magically forget the past, just repeats old patterns that led to the estrangement in the first place.

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10. Believing your child’s partner is the reason for the estrangement


It’s easier to blame an outsider than face your own shortcomings. However, adult children are strong-willed! If the relationship was healthy, no partner could force them away. The partner likely offers support and validation of feelings the parent didn’t, which can fuel resentment, but they aren’t the root cause.

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11. Holding on to bitterness that poisons your own life

It might be true that your estranged children will miss you when you’re gone one day, but dwelling on it ruins your present. You deserve peace, and they deserve to heal, even if that healing comes with a tragic sense of missed opportunities. Clinging to anger keeps you trapped in the very pain they’ve escaped by setting firm boundaries.

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12. Focusing on the “good times” while ignoring consistent patterns of dysfunction

Cherished memories are valid, but they don’t erase the toxicity. Many families with deep rifts have also had moments of genuine love. Fixating on the positive without acknowledging the patterns of hurt is a way to avoid the painful self-reflection necessary to change and potentially reconnect in a healthier way.

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13. Refusing therapy while demanding the child gets it

Therapy is often crucial for healing for everyone involved, Cleveland Clinic explains. Suggesting it for your child, yet being unwilling to look at your own behavior is hypocritical. Therapy helps uncover unhealthy patterns, develop empathy, and learn new communication skills – things the estranged parent desperately needs too.

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14. Contacting the child exclusively on holidays or their birthday to “keep the door open”

It shows that your priority is soothing your own discomfort, not genuine relationship-building. Those forced interactions stir up pain, not warmth. Respect their distance, work on yourself. If you change meaningfully, make amends where possible without expectation, then tentative outreach might be welcome down the line.

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15. Unwillingness to see any fault in your own past actions

Nobody’s perfect. Parents make mistakes, sometimes grave ones. Refusing to ever consider you said or did hurtful things closes the door on growth. It doesn’t mean you were a monster, but taking even partial ownership opens a crack for potential understanding, showing you finally see their pain as valid.

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16. Seeing the situation as a win/lose battle, rather than an opportunity for growth for everyone

Estrangement is tragic for all involved. Viewing it as needing to prove them wrong, to come crawling back begging…that guarantees everyone stays stuck in misery. If there’s any hope for reconciliation, it requires humility, a willingness to acknowledge hurt caused, and change on both sides. It’s hard, but potentially transformative for the whole family dynamic.

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Phoebe Mertens is a writer, speaker, and strategist who has helped dozens of female-founded and led companies reach success in areas such a finance, tech, science, and fashion. Her keen eye for detail and her innovative approach to modern womanhood makes her one of the most sought-out in her industry, and there's nothing she loves more than to see these companies shine.

With an MBA from NYU's Stern School of Business and features in Forbes and Fast Company she Phoebe has proven she knows her stuff. While she doesn't use social media, she does have a private Instagram just to look at pictures of cats.