• Most parents might do the best they can, but this doesn't mean their children won't feel hurt or let down by the relationship

  • Therapist Sue Cowan-Jenssen explores family estrangement, and what it takes to heal parent-child rifts

  • If you are struggling with events from your childhood or your relationship with your parents, find a therapist here

When I realised that I had recommended Joshua Coleman’s Rules of Estrangement three times in one week, I started to wonder if situations where family members cut contact and refuse to communicate is an increasingly common occurrence. 

No-one expects family life to be without drama and conflict. Who is favoured, who feels neglected, who feels not seen and unappreciated is the stuff of normal families. Perhaps one element that has greatly changed over the decades is the increasing number of blended families. Family members now often include step-parents, half-siblings and step-siblings. It is very easy to feel resentful of a parent’s new partner and the arrival of any subsequent children. In fact, Joshua Coleman was inspired to write his book when his own daughter from an earlier relationship cut contact after she saw how much better a parent he was to his new family. It is very painful indeed to see another child get the attention that you did not get. He had to work very hard to repair the damage and hurt.

We also have very different expectation of what good family relationships, and good parenting look like. A generation or so ago, it was considered good enough parenting to feed, clothe, and educate your child. Being emotionally attuned was not seen as paramount or even required. If you could give your children better opportunities than you had had yourself, then job well done. It can be very hard for parents to see that their adult child might see them and the world through a different lens than theirs. What looks to you as a parent as ‘job well done’ doesn’t necessarily ‘feel’ like a well-done job to your child. It can feel neglectful, insensitive, even cruel.

Deficits in parenting will always have more to do with the adult parent’s emotional and social situation than with the child’s inherent worth. However, it rarely feels that way to a child and it is the origin of so much low self-esteem and pain. Thoughts like if I was a ‘better’ child, I wouldn’t have been shouted at so much, or hit, or told I was worthless. A child cannot afford to think the parents are inadequate or bad. Ronald Fairbairn, the well-known Scottish psychoanalyst put it eloquently. ‘It is better to be a sinner in a world ruled by God, than to live in a world ruled by the Devil.’

Coleman’s book concentrates on the need for both sides of any family dispute to listen and recognise the feelings of the other as valid even if the accusations feel grossly unfair. Mutual recognition is essential, as is recognition of the power of the feelings. Excuses are not recognition. They can feel like a refusal to hear or listen. For example, I hit you because I was overworked and stressed, doesn’t cut it, neither does shifting the focus onto yourself by telling how much harder it was for you as a child. As a parent or any adult, you must be prepared to hear the pain and consequences of your actions, and that is never easy. 

It can be very scary to enter another’s view of oneself. If I as a parent really understand where you are coming from, and why you feel the way you do, I have to accept that I hurt you. It is not enough to say that I didn’t mean to hurt you. 

Saying ‘sorry’ in a meaningful way is one of our most powerful healing tools. When a person gives a full-hearted apology, so much can be forgiven and repaired. Good people can do hurtful, bad things. Our job as adults is to be prepared to hear that, and bear it without withdrawing, retaliating or punishing.

Sue Cowan-Jenssen is a verified welldoing.org psychotherapist in London and online

Buy Joshua Coleman's Rules of Estrangement here

Further reading

Revealing the hidden pain of family estrangement

10 signs you grew up with emotionally immature parents

5 ways to encourage teamwork in your family

Why are mother-daughter relationships so complex?

Mothers, stepmothers, and stepfamily dynamics