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Jan Anderson, PSYD, LPPC

Navigating Estrangement

Why stepping back may lead to reconnection with your adult child

I’m a concierge psychologist specializing in relationships, resilience, and success. I primarily work with executives and professionals, including couples and families, who want to feel better and function better at work and home.

Over the past ten years, I’ve experienced the emergence of an unexpected specialty—the estrangement of a parent and adult child—which now accounts for one-third of my practice.

For parents navigating low or no contact with an adult child, the instinct is to try to fix the rift immediately. The last thing estranged parents expect me to put on the table is the possibility of taking a step back.

There’s a good chance your kid may appreciate your backing off a bit. I’ve noticed that adult children often view this space as giving them room to focus on their most pressing developmental task: “adulting.” Just don’t expect your child to express this in a mature, emotionally intelligent, or considerate way. It’s usually pretty ugly.

Believe it or not, recognizing when to pause and respect your adult child’s need for space can be crucial for your emotional well-being and the potential healing of the relationship.

The Challenge of Stepping Back

Most parents find it incredibly difficult to reduce contact or wait for the adult child to reach out. Creating more distance can feel counterintuitive when the ultimate goal is reconciliation. “If I back off, they will never come back!” is often an estranged parent’s first reaction.

If you’re an estranged parent and the fear of permanent loss is overwhelming, this article is for you. If you’re an estranged parent feeling guilt or shame about needing or wanting to take a step back, this article is for you.

Backing off doesn’t mean giving up. It’s a strategic pause. It’s about respecting your child’s need for space while still expressing love and readiness to reconnect when they are. In the meantime, don’t worry about spending every waking moment waiting anxiously or deep in depression. You’ve got important work to do, and you’ll now have time to do it.

How Stepping Back Can Build Emotional Resilience

Stepping back allows time and space for an estranged parent to develop three crucial emotional skills:

  1.  Emotional Regulation: Learning to manage your emotions better gives you the steadiness to handle potential future interactions with your adult child more effectively.
  2. Distress Tolerance: Developing the skill of soothing emotional pain without acting impulsively can improve your well-being and set a foundation for a renewed relationship with your adult child.
  3. Self-Compassion: Don’t confuse self-compassion with being a wuss. Developing self-compassion will be your superpower. Tender self-compassion will fuel your emotional recovery and make you resilient. Cultivating what Dr. Kristin Neff calls “fierce self-compassion” will enable you to recognize and honor your limits and set boundaries.

How Stepping Back Can Lead to Reconciliation.

  • Space can be a smart strategic move. It respects your child’s wishes and at the same time gives them an opportunity to miss you.
  • Space can be healing for both parties. Knowing that you have the option to take a step back can restore some sense of control, autonomy, and safety when you feel like you’re at the mercy of your adult child. In this way, stepping back can be therapeutic and ease an estranged parent’s suffering. Space gives your adult child the autonomy to handle their feelings independently, which can be crucial for their personal development.
  • Space can help reset expectations: Space gives you time to adjust your expectations about the relationship’s future. As one parent said, “I could consider what kind of relationship is realistic, not just the one I idealize.”

Here’s What Stepping Back Is Not:

I hope you’ve forgiven yourself if you have fallen prey to any or all of these common, natural, and very human reactions to being shunned by your adult child:

  • A power play to force or threaten your adult child into submission.
  • A passive-aggressive form of punishment or revenge.
  • An attempt to get a reaction from your adult child. For example, a guilt trip or something dramatic, desperate, or impulsive.

You’ve probably found that these tactics tend not to work and likely leave you feeling worse (as if you thought that was possible). Even when force, threat, or manipulation work, they don’t really work because you don’t get what you want—a genuine emotional connection with your child.

How to Step Back and Leave the Door Open.

So, how do you let your adult child know you’re always open to communication, but on their terms? How do you manage to be vulnerable enough to be open and emotionally available while maintaining enough personal boundaries to avoid being too vulnerable? An excellent place to start is by shifting out of some common “thinking errors” that may be getting in your way:

Thinking Error #1: If I back off, it means I don’t care about my child. It means I’m abandoning them.

Mindset Shift: Frequently, adult children perceive your repeated attempts at connection as “violating my boundaries,” “not respecting my decisions,” or even “selfish” or “needy.” Adjust your self-talk to “Backing off does NOT mean that I’ve stopped loving my child. It means I’m doing something more aligned with my child’s needs now.”

Thinking Error #2: If I back off, it means I’m giving up. I should never give up. I must always keep trying.

Mindset Shift: Sometimes, giving up is an intelligent and adaptive move. When you give up doing A, it frees you up to try B, C, or D until you find something that works better. One parent described stepping back as “I’m not giving up. I’m trying something different.”

Thinking Error #3: I’m the parent. I should be strong. I should be able to figure this out and fix it. Mindset Shift: Parents are actually pretty freaking vulnerable to our adult children. Our children have plenty of power to hurt us. It’s not only okay to seek support, comfort, and guidance, but it’s crucial to do so when you’ve been rejected by the last person you ever thought would reject you: your child.

Thinking Error #4: I’m the parent. I’m responsible for the strength of the family unit and the well-being of my family’s relationships.

Mindset Shift: “You’re the parent” does not mean that you should somehow be unaffected and unflappable when shunned and shamed by your adult child. So join the human race. Come on in. The water’s fine.

Thinking Error #5: No matter how my adult children treat me, they are my children, and I have to accept it.

Mindset Shift: Actually, you don’t have to take it. You are not superhuman and filled with a limitless capacity to absorb whatever treatment is inflicted on you by your adult child. Your inner child needs you, too. Let it be okay to set some limits and boundaries that protect, support, and validate your inner child’s needs and feelings. This does not mean your adult child doesn’t count. It means that you count, too.