Why Your Estranged Child Doesn’t Want to Reconcile
Attribution theory explains their reluctance. Here’s what you can do about it.
Posted May 15, 2018
When your adult son or daughter won’t talk to you, you might wonder why they can’t be more forgiving. Sure, you weren’t always the perfect parent, but who is? You did everything you could to help them get along in life. Why can’t they cut you some slack?
If your child offers up specific complaints about your relationship, you’ll need to be able to hear, understand, and validate them in order to make repairs.
However, the central idea of something called "attribution theory" throws an extra wrench into the works that it’s important to understand.
Why Other People Do What They Do
In a nutshell, attribution theory says that we tend to explain other people’s behavior in terms of traits, and our own in terms of circumstances.
For instance, if I notice you driving over the speed limit, I assume it’s because you like to drive fast. In my mind, you’re a speeder; it’s who you are.
However, if I drive over the speed limit, I think it’s because I’m in a hurry. I’m not a speeder; I’m just driving fast because I’m late to an important meeting.
To me, my speeding is an aspect of the present circumstances, whereas yours is part of your personality.
The same is true of any exceptional human behavior, especially if it’s negative. If you criticize me, I assume you’re doing it because you’re a critical person. It doesn’t occur to me that you may be deeply concerned about my well-being and you’re attempting to steer me in the right direction to help me avoid trouble down the road.
But if I criticize you, in my mind it’s because I’m trying to steer you in the right direction. To help you correct a flaw. Because I’m a helpful person.
Attribution theory explains and predicts this double standard.
Attribution Theory & Estrangement
If your child accuses you of criticizing, neglecting, judging or trying to control them, they probably see you as inherently critical, neglectful, judgmental or controlling. Any behavior of yours they’ve ever complained about is potentially something they view not as a circumstance-based behavior, but as a personality trait. Meaning they don’t think it can change. Which is why they may not be eager to reconcile.
As long as they attribute troublesome behavior to your personality rather than circumstances, your estranged child will have a hard time believing you can relate to them differently.
While they might not realize this bias on a conscious level, you can address it outright.
For example, tell your son or daughter,
“I’ve criticized you on many occasions, and I regret it deeply. You never deserved to be criticized. My behavior was a reflection of my own fear that you might not succeed. But you’re doing just fine, and I don’t have to criticize your choices or actions. Especially now that I realize it was never really helpful, I’m very sorry for all the times I made you feel bad about yourself. I’m committed to changing that behavior. I hope we can start over.”
By referring to the problem as “behavior” instead of a personality trait (i.e., being critical or judgmental), you’re underlining the possibility of change. You’re reorienting your child’s thinking about you and the relationship you share.
Whatever else is contributing to the estrangement, attribution theory suggests your estranged adult child is inferring inherent personality traits in you, rather than simple behavior that can be corrected. To entice your child to reconnect, try the following.
- Talk about relational problems in terms of behavior, not traits.
- Claim responsibility for your words and actions.
- Acknowledge and validate your child’s concerns, even if you don’t agree with them.
In opposition to the fixedness of inherent personality traits, all of the above behaviors indicate the potential for positive change. That can make the difference between continued estrangement and a new, improved relationship.
Please keep in mind that young adults often need distance in order to launch successfully. If your child is recently launched and/or under 30, see my article, When Your Son or Daughter Stops Calling.
Harold H. Kelley & John L. Michela (1980) Attribution Theory and Research. Annual Review of Psychology Vol. 31, No. 1 , pp 457-501.