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7 Things Parents Say That Predict Estrangement

In this blog article we’re looking at seven things parents say that my work with estranged adult children has taught me are highly correlated with adult children choosing to go no-contact.

If you’re a parent who’s said any of these things in the past to your child and your child is still speaking to you, I strongly encourage you to sincerely apologize to your child. While you should never pressure your child to forgive you—forgiveness is a deeply personal decision—something you can do is begin the work of learning to forgive yourself.

Let’s get started.

1. “Stop crying.”

Telling a child to stop crying is invalidation, which is a form of emotional abuse. If I had a dollar for every estranged adult child who’s told me a story about hearing this one from a parent I’d be able to buy every estranged parent a parenting class. Look, I get it. Parenting is hard sometimes. But no matter how hard it gets we never have the right to invalidate our children’s emotions. This is true whether ou4 children are two or 62.

Invalidation can also sound like:

  • “Big kids don’t cry.”

  • “It’s not worth being upset about.”

  • “Get over it.”

  • “You’re still on about that?”

  • “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”

2. “I was just joking.”

While it might seem harmless to respond to a child who says, “That hurt my feelings,” with something along the lines of, “I was just joking,” my work has taught me it’s actually the opposite. Not only that, it significantly ups a parent’s chances of estrangement. Truth be told, the phrase “I was just joking” is actually a form of emotional abuse known as gaslighting.

Other gaslighting phrases parents should avoid include:

  • “You’re overreacting.”

  • “That never happened.”

  • “I didn’t say that.”

  • “Stop being so dramatic.”

  • “You’re so sensitive.”

3. “I’m sorry you feel that way.“

Not all apologies are created equal; some are genuine and some aren’t. For a parent’s apology to be genuine it needs to focus on their actions (or inactions), not on their child’s feelings. What the parent who says, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” is ultimately saying is, “The problem is you, not me.”

Apologies that take ownership and therefore don’t push children away, on the other hand, include statements like:

  • “I’m sorry for my actions.”

  • “I’m the one who messed up.”

  • “It’s my fault.”

  • “I apologize for my mistake.”

  • “I was in the wrong.”

4. “I’m sorry but…”

Another non-apology that predicts estrangement is the classic, “I’m sorry but…” As relationship expert Harriet Lerner writes in Why Won’t You Apologize?, “When “but” is tagged on to an apology, it undoes the sincerity.” For an apology to be genuine, it must be heartfelt, and this is just as true for our children as it is for everyone else.

And as for the parents who’ve been saying, “I’m sorry but…” to their children for years and years? None of those apologies were actual apologies. No wonder they always felt off to those of us who were on the receiving end of them.

5. “I don’t believe you.”

Before someone says, “But Stephi parents don’t have to believe their kids!” consider this: Say a friend comes to you and tells you they’ve been abused. Are you allowed to tell your friend you don’t believe them about the abuse? Sure. Is it likely that your friend will want to stay friends with you? Of course not.

And it makes sense. If someone we trusted enough to go to about abuse doesn’t believe us about said abuse, why would we want to invest even more of our time and energy into fostering a relationship with that person? At least if we were to strike up a new friendship with a stranger they would be neutral!

6. “I’m the parent, you’re the child.”

Nothing says “I don’t think of my child as a full human being” better than the old “I’m the parent, you’re the child.”

And if you think this know-your-place-kid ideology goes away the day a child turns 18, think again. That’s not how power works.

Humans don’t spend just shy of two decades in complete and total control of other people to just wake up one day and randomly decide to start sharing all the power they’ve been benefitting from hoarding. Without a dedicated effort on the part of the parent to do differently, the parent who saw their young child as less than will also see their adult child as less than. Confused? Please refer to the course of human history.

7. “What’s wrong with you?”

When a parent says, “What’s wrong with you?” what they’re doing is called shaming. Unlike guilt which says “I did something bad,” shame says “I am bad.” None of us benefit from being shamed. For children, however, the pain of being told you’re a bad human by your own parent—the very person you’re dependent on for love and care—is downright immense. Clients have described the experience of being shamed by a parent decades later to me as “absolutely debilitating,” “utterly crushing,” and “the worst feeling there is.”


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