When Your Son or Daughter Stops Calling

When 20-somethings cut off their parents, it's not always permanent.

Posted Nov 22, 2016

Twenty-three-year-old Amy (not her real name) used to be the apple of her father’s eye. But these days, she doesn’t return his calls.

Occasionally Amy might answer a text from her mom, but that’s usually only if she (Amy) needs something.

To her parents, Amy seems less happy than she used to be. Her surly new boyfriend isn’t helping matters.

Mom and Dad are anxious about Amy’s lack of communication. All they want to know is that she’s okay. But even that seems too much to ask these days.

"Why won’t she talk to us? Where did we go wrong? How do we fix this?" her parents wonder. They feel like they’re losing her, one silent day at a time.

When parents come to me for help reconnecting with estranged adult children, the first question I ask is how old their child is.

Anything under 30 is generally good news.

Separation Anxiety

At some point, most of us will separate from the people who brought us up.

Taking some physical, mental, and emotional space from parents is a normal part of becoming an adult. You did it yourself. (If you have kids in their 20s, I’m guessing you haven’t been living with your parents all this time.)

Going off to college, traveling, and getting one’s own place are socially sanctioned separations from family. They’re considered normal for people Amy’s age.

Yet separation from parents can be a tumultuous process that feels anything but normal.

There’s no logical reason why communication between young adults and their parents should decrease or stop during this developmental phase. But often, it does.

Parents can get their feelings hurt. It’s as though they’re being shunned. They anxiously wonder if they’ve done something wrong.

Many parents mistakenly believe the estrangement will last forever if they don’t make it right somehow, and soon.

But everything they do just seems to push their child further away.

Estrangement as a Phase

Parents would do well to remember that new adults often find it necessary to create distance from family.

Don’t assume you’ll never see your child again just because your 20-something son or daughter wants nothing to do with you this year.

It’s easier said than done, but do your best not to take it personally. 

Yes, it feels like you’re being shunned, but the behavior is fueled by your adult child’s stage of development. It's not necessarily about you or your parenting -- even if it seems to be.

Stages are by definition temporary. They're part of an ongoing process. Given sufficient time and space, a young adult’s need to separate from parents naturally lessens.

The big push to become one’s own person doesn’t last forever.

In most cases it's possible to enjoy a relationship with your child again later. But it will be different, to accommodate their new autonomy.

Parents in Crisis

If parents are so upset about their child pulling away from them that they find it hard to think about anything else, it could be because

  1. The parent has been rejected, abandoned, or dismissed by important others in the past, or
  2. They may have relied on their child to meet emotional needs that aren’t met elsewhere.

Parents in these two situations are vulnerable to severe distress when their now-grown children suddenly go radio silent.

If your 20-something son or daughter has cut you off, recognize that it’s likely to be temporary. If you feel emotional about it, that’s okay. Sit on your hands and don’t act on your feelings.

Overreacting to this developmental phase can prolong it. Remember those cliched but still wise words, "If you love something, set it free."

Let your kids know you’re there if they need you, then shift your focus away from their affairs (which can be rocky – they’re new at being adults) and pay attention to your own needs as a human being.

Get support if you feel hurt, panicked, or angry at your child for cutting you off.

Read books about lifespan development, parenting, inter-generational trauma, or any other subject that speaks to you right now.  

Focus on healing from the emotional wounds in your own life to this point. We all have them. This is a good time to seek therapy or some other kind of outside support. You don’t have to navigate this alone.

You’re going to need a full bucket of inner resources to weather this phase.

New Beginnings

Becoming the people we’re meant to be is a lifelong task. While your child takes some time to continue his or her development as an individual, you can do the same.

You don’t have to white-knuckle it. You were a huge part of the first two decades of your child's life; trust the relationship you've established. Wrench your focus away from your absent child for now.

Spend the time instead on personal growth. That includes letting yourself grieve if you need to. As always, practice constructive wallowing.

There’s no reason you can’t enjoy a new relationship with your child on the other side of this estrangement, when the two of you are closer to whole than you were before.