When we released our latest episode featuring the advice of psychologist and parental estrangement expert Joshua Coleman, we didn’t expect that more than 1.3 million people would listen or, moreover, that dozens would contact us sharing their own experiences. According to Josh, America is going through yet another “silent epidemic”—broken parent-child relationships that many are ashamed to admit. Josh knows how painful it is to be estranged from your child—for several years, he wasn’t on speaking terms with his own adult daughter. In this episode of How To!, Josh reveals what he’s learned from years of studying dysfunctional families. When should you work to heal a relationship, and when is it better just to walk away? This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Charles Duhigg: Josh, you’ve written one of the leading books on parental estrangement, When Parents Hurt. But you also have a personal stake in understanding this dysfunction, because after you went through a divorce and remarried, your own daughter stopped talking to you for years. Is that right?
Josh Coleman: Yeah. You know, when you remarry and have children, it’s not uncommon for the child of the prior marriage to feel displaced or less important. I don’t think I did a particularly good job of helping her to feel as prized and prioritized, and there was a period of time in her 20s where she was reflecting back on that.
She cut off communication for several years. Initially, I just tried to prove her wrong, just tried to tell her all the ways that I was there for her, which, of course, didn’t go anywhere. Over time, I learned that I really wasn’t empathizing or attending to what she was saying. Eventually, I was able to dig past my own defenses—which is a hard thing to do—and sit with her feelings and accept it.
What’s the right thing to say in that situation?
The right thing is to really find the kernel of truth in the child’s feelings. To say something like, “It was clear that I had significant blindspots at the time that I didn’t see how much pain you were in and I didn’t know how unhappy you were.”
I was having dinner with my daughter and she was talking about her feeling neglected. I was facing that, accepting it, and crying with her in the restaurant. I said, “I’m so sorry. You’re right. I’m sorry. I did drop the ball. It was my responsibility to be there for you. And I didn’t.”
Her not talking to me for a period of time certainly woke me up. It made me feel like, OK, this is serious. It’s just not like something you can just sort of defend or explain away. This is a very serious protest on her part, so you better dig deeper into your soul and psyche here and come up with something a little better than what you’re doing.
What about when a parent cuts off communication with the child? It’s a different situation, right? What would you advise a daughter who was being mistreated?
So much in my practice is based around parents who want a closer relationship with the adult child and they’re really willing to walk through fire to connect with their adult child. They would kill to have a daughter [who is willing to make amends]. I would want that daughter to be really deeply grounded in the fact that this isn’t your fault, that you deserve to be loved, that you do not deserve to be mistreated before really reaching out to your parent.
When you do reach out, it’s really important to lead with what you like, value, love, and appreciate about the parent, because we as parents are just all walking wounded and are going to be very defensive about any kind of intimation that we’ve failed our children or let them down. I know this from my personal experience. So I think if you start the conversation by saying, “Look, I really miss the ways that we were close. And you are a great dad in the following ways.” The goal in these situations is to not create defensiveness. As soon as you’ve created defensiveness, the game is over. You might as well just pack up your bags and go.
Did your daughter ever do that with you?
She did. She recently said that she knew that she had her own issues when she was growing up. And if there were challenges that she brought to the table, that probably made it hard for me. She also empathized with the period of time where she wasn’t in contact with me. As a mother herself, now, she could see how heartbreaking that could be.
Our relationship is really good now and I’m very close to my grandson. We talk easily. When parents can do this, it ultimately can make your relationship stronger because it provides a platform to talk about difficult things. Not all parents can do it. Not all adult children can do it. But if both can, then it can create a platform for a much stronger relationship to occur as a result.
I know you often tell your patients to write a letter, acknowledging all the ways they’ve let the other person down and saying something like, “I’m sorry for the past. I can’t change it, but I want to work with you to make tomorrow better.” But what if you don’t get a response to that letter? Or just an “OK”?
Getting back an “OK” would be, in my reckoning, some version of a positive response. At that point then I would say, “OK, well, good. How about we plan a visit?” Or, “Let’s think about a way to communicate differently with each other so that these things don’t keep happening.” I would up my level of requests or demands at that point if I got an “OK.”
But if you get no response, I don’t think that adult children are obligated to keep trying. If your parent can’t respond respectfully and lovingly to a heartfelt message, then it’s not good for you to keep trying. It’s not healthy to keep trying to get water from that dry well—it’s not only dry, it’s kind of poisonous to your well-being if a consequence of that is that you end up feeling unloved and unlovable and blaming yourself.
When do you think it’s best for anyone who’s struggling with a parent-child relationship just to say, like, it’s not going to work? I’ve done everything I should’ve, is it OK for me to walk away?
It’s probably one of the most difficult questions that either side is faced with. In general, I recommend that people try for a few years if they have it in them, if it’s not making them feel more depressed or anxious. I don’t think people also have to make these decisions forever. Maybe having a relationship will be possible at some other point. I don’t know. But you don’t have to keep trying to have a relationship with somebody who’s making it impossible.
To hear Josh help a listener decide whether she ought to walk away from a toxic relationship with her dad, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! with Charles Duhigg wherever you get your podcasts.