Parents: 10 Steps to Connect With Your Adult Child

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The world is full of mothers who are wondering why their adult sons don’t answer their calls, and fathers who struggle awkwardly to talk to their daughters.

“What did I do wrong?” they ask. “Why can’t we be closer? Shouldn’t our relationship be easier now?”

It’s entirely possible to be a loving, caring parent who worked hard to do everything right in raising your child and to still end up with a strained relationship once your child grows up. It’s because parenting is so complex and multi-layered that it’s far too easy to make one crucial error that your child has difficulty either understanding or recovering from.

One of the easiest and most invisible errors that a parent can make – Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN) – passes silently from one generation to the next, unnoticed and unchecked. And unfortunately, it also can lead to some of the greatest parent/child emotional gaps once the child grows up.

Sadly, it’s all too easy to make this mistake. All you have to do is fail to respond enough to your child’s emotional needs when you are raising her. This leaves your child, as a grown-up, without enough access to her emotions. It also leaves her feeling as if you don’t really know her on the most deeply personal level: the emotional level.

So she may then come to you for advice, but not for solace. She may expect you to be there for her financially, but not emotionally. She may share her thoughts with you, but not so much her feelings.

One of the most common questions I receive from readers of this blog is from parents who have realized that they inadvertently, through no fault of their own, emotionally neglected their child. This is a painful realization for any parent, and it’s extra painful when your adult child keeps her distance from you, seems angry at you, or is struggling with issues of her own.

Please know that no matter what’s gone wrong between you and your adult child, the burden generally lies on you, the parent, to initiate fixing it. So what do you do if you want to repair or deepen your relationship with your CEN adult child? The good news is that there are clear steps that you can follow.

Four Guiding Principles to Keep in Mind Before You Start

  • It’s your job to initiate the fix but your child must then meet you halfway in working through it.
  • In your own mind, take blame and guilt out of it. All parents make mistakes. What you did was the best you could do at the time. You’ll be able to remedy this far better if you don’t blame yourself or your child, and instead focus on understanding and moving forward.
  • The key is to listen to your child in a different way than you ever have, and with a completely open mind. Your job: listen for his feelings, and then validate them.
  • Be aware of an easy mistake to make: taking too much responsibility for your adult child’s struggles. It’s important to walk the line between acknowledging your mistakes while also making sure your child understands that as an adult, he must be the one to resolve the effects of CEN within himself and within his own life. You cannot do it for him and you should not try.

10 Steps to Get Closer to Your Adult CEN Child

  1. Tell your child that you’d like to talk with him about something important, and ask him when is a good time. This will help him know that this really matters to you even before you talk about it.
  2. Start the conversation by saying, “I feel like we’re distant from each other. I want to be closer to you, and I want to fix what’s wrong, or missing.”
  3. Ask him if he feels it too. He may say no, in which case you should not be discouraged. Acknowledge his perception, but if he’ll allow it, continue to express yours.
  4. Talk with your child about your discovery of how Emotional Neglect happens; how invisible it is, and how it can separate a child from his feelings and persist into adulthood causing problems.
  5. If your child seems resistant to discussing it, then try to talk about yourself more than him. Chances are excellent that you were emotionally neglected yourself as a child (because we all naturally parent our children the way we ourselves were parented). Explain how it happened to you and how it’s affected you in your life.
  6. If your child acknowledges a problem, ask him what’s wrong from his perspective, and then truly listen.
  7. Validate, validate, validate. Do this by hearing him and acknowledging his feelings, whatever they are. Acknowledging does not require agreement; it involves only understanding.
  8. Ask your child what you can do differently for him. As long as his request is healthy for both of you and does not involve you fixing his life for him, then try your hardest to deliver it.
  9. Don’t expect your first talk about this to resolve matters. You may need to have multiple conversations.
  10. Keep trying. Don’t give up, even if your child resists or continues to be distant. Much can be gained from persistence.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, how it transfers from one generation to the next, and how it affects children once they grow up, see the book, Running on Empty. For many more specific tips and information about improving your relationship with your child see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.

A version of this article was originally posted on psychentral. It has been republished here with the permission of psychcentral.

Jonice

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Allen Francia - February 20, 2024 Reply

I’ve just recovred from Major depression and Schizophrenia ,it took more than 20 years for the symptoms remission.During those times i was on a child bearing age,in fact i gave birth to my eldest son,now 24 , suffering from those illnesses,then after 2 years, there came my 2nd child who is a also a boy.To make it short i was emotionally detached from them, although i met their physical needs like providing basic care with the help of their nannies.Now i noticed my eldest to be indifferent,he talks less and hardly open up.We never had a casual conversation in the family,and felt his studies are affted.Sometimes he exhibits insecurities toward her younger brother because of the latter achievements in school.But little by little he is trying to mingle with our family.Thank God for that.Now my present concern is my second son,now 22 andhave just finished college with flying colors,not to mention his being so talented in all areas, he’s a performing artist,singer,dance director and coach,to make it shor he is a total package.Very intelligent and smart.My main problem is myself,i felt indifferent towards him, though i know i love him but the feeling doesn’t show.In fact there are times when i feel angry with him for no reason.He’s a very nice guy.I know he’s longing for my affection,but i felt emotionally distant from him.I cared for his daily needs as well as appreciates his achievements in school.But why is the feeling so strange,i feel he’s hurting seing my reaction.Can anybody help me with this problem.Many thanks

    Jonice - February 26, 2024 Reply

    Dear Allen, you are at that painful stage when you first see CEN in the results of your parenting but you haven’t learned what you can do about it yet. I very much encourage you to contact several of the therapists on my Find a CEN Therapist list and choose the one you feel best with. Then let them help you connect with your feelings of love and warmth toward yourself and your sons. Most likely, you didn’t receive that from your parents and none of us can give what we didn’t get. But your sons need you to do this. All my best to you.

George - December 9, 2023 Reply

Hi I’m George and I’m trying to reconnect with son who is 26, it is hard because he dismissed me most of the time and put a stone face after defense mechanism, we both like weed so sometimes I us that time to ask about what up,some times he presents himself like he don’t need help, but as soon something goes wrong he stop talking about the issue and prefer to ask for help to someone else, but his solutions make no sense and that’s the only one he will care about, everytime I make a suggestion he teredown with a smart dismissal comet or some aptitude ,thanks for the information it is very helpful.

Sally - June 4, 2023 Reply

I am estranged from my mother and the last thing I want is for her to be trying to reconcile and doing no.10, being persistent. I am so grateful for how she has let me go and not made it about her need to have me around, but respects my need for the distance I need to heal. When you grow up with a narcissist in the family they destroy relationships and put you all through so much trauma that you just trigger each other. Even when you genuinely love each other. Similarly, my adult son is very low contact and I respect and understand that need. He doesn’t have the empathy or emotional maturity to cope with talk about how he was emotionally neglected or how I was too. He has Alexithymia and trying to connect with him that way will just make him feel inadequate and humiliated and angry and drive him even further away. He just wants to get on with his life without having to worry about ‘drama’ as he would see it and having his mother hassling him to talk about feelings. I believe that letting your children go is a gift to them. They should know they are loved and you are there but not be made to feel obligated to maintain or mend relationships with parents if that’s not what they want or what they can deal with.

Sherry - June 4, 2023 Reply

Would be interested in receiving more content

Cheryl - February 13, 2021 Reply

I’m amazed at how easy kids have it and yet they have such weak, fragile minds. I did not blame my mother for not giving me enough attention, I was outside playing ALL THE TIME. People need to pull up their pants and take care of themselves and stop blaming every little thing on their parents. Family is important yet these kids today are cutting off contact with their parents to punish them and acting like bullies. Yes, they are just being bullies to their own parents…it’s awful.

    Jonice - February 14, 2021 Reply

    Dear Cheryl, this perspective is one that has been around for millennia. It has not worked for anyone. It does not encourage the bonding, support, or love that children’s developing brains require. I hope you will reconsider and begin to think about human psychology as it is so important.

    Marilynn - May 9, 2023 Reply

    Excellent article! I am at a family cross roads with this issue. Thank you!

    Sue - November 7, 2023 Reply

    You couldn’t have said it better. I’m 76 and still miss my parents after taking care of them for 12 yrs. They were 93 when they passed. Thankfully they still had their energy, humor and awareness almost to the end. We don’t “owe” either side —-we just love them. They had very hard times and we’re not perfect, but they were there for me in a heartbeat. I tried to do the same with my daughters, but am faced now with a hateful daughter who has needs that we tried to help with but we’re blamed for messing that up. Our younger one died in a car accident in 1994. Nothing we said or did was the right thing. My husband and I are so tired of wondering what to do that we’re just about to give up.

      Jonice - November 7, 2023 Reply

      Dear Sue, I’m so sorry you lost a daughter, that must have been an awful thing to go through. I encourage you to consult with a therapist, preferably one trained in CEN who can advise you on whether reaching out to your other daughter and changing how you respond to her emotions might be helpful. Often, these changes can be very subtle and difficult to do on your own without guidance but it can be very effective.

Peter - November 25, 2019 Reply

Great article! Thank you very much. I’ll definitely use it in addition to your books to avoid CEN with my kids.
I’m hesitant to show this article to my parents. The reason is that they may get confused and won’t be able to understand it even if they try. On one hand, they may start blaming themselves for every problem. On the other hand, they may start coming up with million “arguments” why they did nothing wrong and it’s all my fault. Is the potential upside worth the risk of bigger downside?

    Jonice - November 29, 2019 Reply

    Dear Peter, it is an individual decision that each person must make for themselves. It’s not easy! And keep in mind that you do not have to talk with your parents about CEN. It can be a bonus if it goes well, but it’s not a necessary part of healing yourself.

Sarah - November 24, 2019 Reply

Thank you Jonice,
This is the article I am able to send to my mum.
I have been wanting to broach the subject for so long and been worried about sounding accusing but you lay it out so clearly and blamelessly that I think she will be able to start to take it in.
And if not then at least I have tried.

    Jonice - November 24, 2019 Reply

    Yes, indeed, Sarah. Good for you!

May - November 19, 2019 Reply

I am a mom and have sensed this very thing with our eldest son (of two), now 24, for quite some time. I have always felt on the periphery with my own parents and siblings (youngest of 5) especially in the relationship I had with my loving and caring father. I am overwhelmed by the idea that I may have contributed to what I perceive to be my son’s emotional distance or avoidance of it – but wonder how I can truly know if this is simply a part of a person’s temperament (vs a causal factor from one’s upbringing/environment). After all, the last thing I want to do is bring up this topic with my adult son who may feel as though I am implying there is something “wrong” with his personality – he is a wonderful, loving, beautiful person whom I adore exactly the way he is…is it possible my own insecurities could be projecting onto him? Dr, any thoughts on this would be most appreciated – thank you. Your articles have been extremely helpful.

    Jonice - November 22, 2019 Reply

    Dear May, there are ways of reaching out to your son besides talking directly about CEN with him. I recommend my second book, Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships. It has lots of very helpful info about exactly how to do that with an adult child. You sound like a very caring mom and that goes a long way!

Christine - November 18, 2019 Reply

Thanks for this message. It outlines, exactly the thing I’m trying to achieve with my mother, but from the opposite side. How can you open a conversation with your parents if you feel you’ve been brought up emotionally neglected? Most conversations I have attempted ended with her accusing me of being cold-hearted and then her crying I’d about her own childhood. I’ve taken a lot of space and saught my own therapy to work on healing, but it would be nice to have a closer relationship with my mother. Any suggestions?

    Jonice - November 22, 2019 Reply

    Dear Christine, it is not easy. There is a lot to consider in trying to connect with your CEN parent. I wrote a whole book about this topic, Running On Empty No More. Please check it out, it has lots of helpful info for you to navigate this situation.

    Sarah - November 24, 2019 Reply

    Hi Christine, I am in the same position and wanted to discuss this topic with my own mum for many months but worried she will play the victim and tell other family members I’m accusing her of neglect and just generally cause an even deeper rift between us siblings. Anyway I’m going to pass along this email and hope she can see the truth in it. If not then that is not my responsibility, I’ll keep working on healing myself and be open to her approaching me on this issue. We cannot do others healing work for them, or open their eyes if they choose to remain blind. I hope you find some peace.

Diana - November 17, 2019 Reply

This is excellent advice! Thank you so very much for providing a way forward for those of us who belatedly realized there was something missing in what we gave our (now adult) child.

As a parent, you try to do your absolute best for your child, and when the closeness you once had with your child changes or disappears, it can be devastating. It is difficult to stay neutral, depending on how things have played out over the years, but you hit it on the head with your advice of listening and validating your child’s point of view. It isn’t about changing their perspective, it’s about letting them know you care and want to be emotionally available to them.

Again, thank you. Your blog posts and your books have been extremely helpful.

SHARON J KERNEN - November 17, 2019 Reply

As a psychologist, I was on guard for the pitfalls concerning my own CEN. As it happens, my son and I very close with similar temperaments. I have reached out to my daughter multiple times and she refuses to answer me. I have decided that temperaments have much to do with it. She is like her father and not completely non-sensitive but does not seem to have the words for emotions and feelings. It took some time and years of marriage to figure out my husband did not have the capacity to provide emotional support (can receive it though) and that lack did not mean he does not love me. I am, however, having difficulty understanding the total stand off from daughter. It gives the feeling that my expression of emotions and feelings are seen as a sign of weakness by her. I have had to let it go for my own sake, but are there any suggestions out there?…thanks and take care

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