When Your Adult Child Distances Themselves

Carla, age 38, is a helpful and caring adult daughter. She lives five miles from her parents and assists her mother with caregiving for her father, who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She scaled back her hours at work and made arrangements for aftercare for her children so she could stay with her father longer. She goes above and beyond to make sure he is comfortable, content, well-fed, and gets where he needs to be.

On the other hand, Carla’s younger sister, Michelle, age 29, used to be close with her parents and sister. But these days, she doesn’t return her family’s calls. Her mother or sister might occasionally get a text, but it’s usually only if Michelle needs something.

Michelle is convinced that her parents want her to drop everything to help them with caregiving like her sister, that they dislike her new boyfriend, and that they call way too often and nag about her life choices. In reality, for her parents, although some help would be nice, they just want some contact to know that she is alive and well.

“Why won’t she talk to us? Where did we go wrong? How can she do this when her father is suffering from dementia?” her mother often wonders.

Reasons for Detachment

Sometimes, when adult children separate themselves from their loved ones, it is because they may be feeling anxious, tired of conflict or pressure, or they simply need more independence. Maybe it’s not easy for Michelle in our example to see her father’s memory deteriorate, and she’d rather preserve the happy memories she has of him from the past. Whatever it is, Michelle is choosing to detach herself from her family.

Kathy McCoy, Ph.D., author of Making Peace with Your Adult Children, believes that perceived indifference is usually just an adult child’s act of independence. “Young adults may be caught up in their own lives and not in touch as much as a parent may wish,” she says. But there are ways to gradually bring the detached adult child back, even if it means giving them a lot more space and making some changes.

Will This Estrangement Last Forever?

When we reach the later years, our dream is to be surrounded by loving children and grandchildren. For some older people, however, a negative relationship with one of their offspring – or even worse, complete separation from him or her – can develop. And when it does it is almost always profoundly difficult.

So how can parents manage to stay close to grown children who need space and what should the family in our example do? Here are six practical tips:

1. Don’t assume your adult child always wants to chat or text. Response time almost always gets longer as children get older, experts agree. A good idea for the family in our example is to try to be considerate of Michelle’s schedule. If she is working all day, don’t reach out to her during that time. It may take days for an adult child to get back to you. Remember that not texting daily doesn’t mean your children don’t love you. Maybe Michelle in our example believes that her sister has it covered at this time. Don’t take it personally if she takes a while to respond and don’t pressure her.

2. Don’t compete with your adult child’s partner. The more we complain to a child about their partner, the greater chance we take of driving him or her away. It may hurt not to say anything or hold back, but it’s an important process. If her partner is no good for her, hopefully she will learn on her own and be able to move on.

3. Treat them like the adults they are. You may be concerned that your adult child isn’t eating right or has gained or lost too much weight. Bear in mind that adult children are just as sensitive about criticisms of their appearance as they were when they were teens. If you keep criticizing, it could be a reason why they aren’t calling.

4. Don’t act too needy. Grown children may recoil if they perceive their parents as being needy. Maybe Michelle is concerned that if she calls, she will have to take on half of the caregiving duties, and it isn’t something she could do right now in her life. There are many helpful things that Michelle, in our example, and others in similar situations can do as caregivers, without getting too involved. Once she starts talking to you again and your relationship is repaired, read my article, “Long-Distance Caregivers: Making the Most of Your Role” for details and make suggestions if she wants to help out, but not to take on a huge role. Start small.

5. Take the initiative when you sense genuine estrangement. If you’re feeling distant from your child, try to proactively tackle the issue in a conversation. The key is to start from a position of empathy and hear what he or she has to say. Maybe you don’t know what is really going on with them, and by simply listening, you can learn what’s really happening.

6. Create a full life that doesn’t revolve around your adult children. A parent who expects his or her adult children to be everything becomes a burden. We need to fill our lives with our own passions and hobbies. When our happiness or well-being doesn’t entirely depend on our children, we can better enjoy them more when we do see them. In other words, the more interesting our lives, the more interesting we become — and the more interesting our children will find us.

Making Changes to Get Closer

Parents who feel detached from their children should test out new behaviors and see what works best. We may need to stop calling so frequently or refrain from critical behavior in order to get closer to our children. It might not be the situation you really want, but at least you will have them in your life and know that they are alive and hopefully doing well.

When More Help is Needed

What happens when your loved one needs more help than you can provide? For instance, in our example, if Carla can no longer help with her father’s dementia in the home, and if he needs more help than she or her mother can provide, then a nursing home may be needed. Nursing homes in Northern Virginia and the Washington, D.C. Metro area cost $10,000 – $14,000 per month, which can be catastrophic even for wealthy families. By being proactive and helping your loves ones plan for long-term care in advance, you can help make sure your loved ones always receive the care they need without worry or financial struggle. Remember, it’s never too early or too late to get started. Reach out to us to make an appointment for a no-cost initial consultation:

Elder Law Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Elder Law Fredericksburg : 540-479-1435
Elder Law Rockville: 301-519-8041
Elder Law DC: 202-587-2797

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