Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My husband and I have two adult children: a 39-year-old son who is married with three children and lives 15 minutes away, and a 33-year-old daughter who is single and lives out of state. My daughter-in-law’s parents live three hours away.

Even though he lives close by, my son hardly calls or comes over. He tells us he’s busy working and being a father and husband. We do hear from him when he needs something, like someone to watch the grandkids.

For most of the holidays, my son, daughter-in-law, and grandkids spend several days visiting with my daughter-in-law’s parents and her other family members. This year, I asked my son whether his family would be coming over on Easter, and I explained that I had Easter gifts for the grandkids. He texted that they didn’t have time to come by, not even for 30 minutes. My daughter-in-law’s parents came to town for the Easter holiday and stayed overnight at my son’s house, as they do for Christmas and other holidays. They spent the entire day with the grandkids and the rest of my daughter-in-law’s family. My husband and I were hurt and felt it was somewhat selfish of my son and his family not to spend any time with us. Is it unrealistic for me to expect an Easter visit with my grandkids, even for a few minutes, or for our son to visit us periodically?

Some potentially relevant information is that our son was hospitalized four months ago for pancreatitis. He drinks quite a bit and has been warned of the consequences if he continues. I learned that my daughter-in-law is covering up our son’s drinking.

My son also has always felt that my daughter got more than he did when they were growing up. However, this is not the case. Sometimes he doesn’t remember what we did for him and the help and support we have given him.

I don’t understand why we can’t have a closer relationship with my son and daughter-in-law. Any help would be appreciated.

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

I understand how painful it is to feel rebuffed by your son. After all, from your perspective, you’ve been loving parents, and your son should call to say hello and offer to make arrangements to see you on the holidays, especially when he and his family live so close by.

Many truly well-meaning parents like you are baffled when their adult children seem to have so little regard for them. Sons or daughters may take days or weeks to respond to a phone call, say they’re too busy for a visit even though they seem to find time to see other family members or friends, get angry when you try to constructively advise them, have no curiosity about how you’re doing, and share little about their own lives when asked.

Children, however, often do let their parents know why they’re keeping their distance. The problem is that sometimes what they’re saying is hard to hear—so hard to hear that parents spend more time rejecting their complaints than considering how to repair the relationship. This pushes the children further away, because eventually they get tired of trying to be heard. If sharing their experience feels futile, they’ll simply withdraw.

One common complaint that adult children have is that their parents are critical—of their life choices or appearance or partner or job—when what they need is to feel supported and accepted for who they are. Another is that their parents still treat them like children, trying to micromanage their lives. Or that their parents are intrusive, calling constantly and not allowing for comfortable space. Sometimes, too, what parents perceive as emotional closeness with their child is viewed by their son or daughter as parental neediness, of relying on the adult child to fill a parent’s own emotional voids.

I don’t know whether you understand yet why your son has pulled away, but the good news is, he has given you some clues. Keep in mind that none of what your son says makes you bad parents. Even parents who do their absolute best will sometimes unwittingly leave their children feeling hurt in one way or another. So it’s important to be open to hearing his perspective, especially because a child often sees his parents in ways that contain some valuable feedback.

For instance, when your son lets you know how he feels about the way he and his sister were treated, he’s not saying, “You were awful people.” Instead, he’s saying something like, “Sometimes I didn’t think you were there for me when I needed you.” And if you reply with, “This is not the case—we did so much for you,” what he hears isn’t your love, but another perceived rejection: “You’re not interested in my experience. My inner world doesn’t matter to you.”

That’s not to say you didn’t do everything you remember doing for him. It’s just that it’s equally true that he has different recollections and experienced the dynamics in the family differently than you and your husband did. If you want a relationship with your son and his family, you’ll need to take his perspective seriously—you don’t have to agree with it, but you do have to understand it and know that it’s just as valid as yours. There’s no point in arguing over whose version is more accurate, because the truth is that both of your experiences are subjective.

Your resistance to hearing his pain surrounding this may be one reason he’s choosing not to spend time with you, but it might not be the only one. Perhaps he’s genuinely overwhelmed by the responsibilities he mentioned—his job, his spouse, his children. Perhaps he’s struggling with alcohol addiction and is avoiding you (who will call him out on it) as a way to avoid dealing with his need to get treatment. And perhaps there is something else that isn’t even on your radar yet. The only way to know is to ask—but from a place of deep empathy rather than blame.

So instead of “Why don’t we ever see you? Is a quick visit too much to ask?” you might try something like “I imagine there’s a reason we don’t see much of you, and I wonder whether we’ve done something to push you away. We love you and care about you deeply, and I know we haven’t been as open as we should have been in the past when you’ve shared some of how you felt about us and our family. We regret that we weren’t more receptive to your experience, but we are now. The last thing we wanted to do was hurt you, but we probably have, and we’d like to understand more about that so we can do things differently to support you.”

Your son may not be open to this conversation initially, but the more you refrain from complaints like “What, you can’t drive 15 minutes to see us when you spent the entire day with your wife’s family?” and instead stay on point about wanting to hear him out and support what he needs from you, the more inclined he’ll become to move toward you and share what’s really going on.

Meanwhile, you can send more enticing invitations. There’s a world of difference between “Will you be coming over for Easter?” (meaning: for our sake) and “Hey, we’d like to do something fun with you. Why don’t we take you all out for dinner at your favorite restaurant—or take the grandkids to the movies so you two can have some downtime?” When your son begins to see you as helping him rather than asking something of him, the dynamic will gradually shift, making it more likely that he’ll be inclined to talk to you about what has been getting in the way of having a closer relationship. And talking to each other—and listening—is the best path toward the relationship you so deeply want.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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