Out in the Open

'Is this going to be forever?': How to handle losing contact with a child

Psychologist Josh Coleman lost complete contact with his daughter for years. He says he slowly earned her trust back by talking through their issues that had gone unspoken for so long.
Psychologist Josh Coleman lost complete contact with his daughter for years. (Courtesy of Josh Coleman)

Josh Coleman knows how hard it can be when your adult son or daughter wants nothing to do with you.

His professional psychology practice focuses on parents who are estranged from their children.

But it's also an experience Coleman has grappled with in his personal life, after his daughter decided to cut him out of her life.

"As the months tick on and trying to reach out (is) falling on deaf ears, it's really terrifying and so I can deeply empathize with the parents that I work with when they come in and they are crying, and they're suicidal and they're just worried that they're never going to ever see their child again."

In his mid 30s, Coleman married his second and current wife, with whom he has twins.

He says, over time, this led his daughter from a previous marriage to feel displaced, neglected and unimportant, and that eventually she stopped talking to him in her early 20s.

After a couple years of distance, Coleman and his daughter managed to improve their relationship.

He says it took constant conversation to be able to work through the issues that seemed to have piled up over the years.

"I had to kind of continue to talk to her and empathize, take responsibility and hear her hurt and her anger," he says. "It wasn't just one conversation, it was multiple conversations."

Getting to the root of parent-child estrangement

Coleman says most of the parents he works with are estranged from their children because of issues stemming from divorce.

"A child may, at any age, blame one parent more than the other … One parent may intentionally covertly or overtly poison the child at any age relationship to the other parent. It can bring in new people into the child's life they have to compete with for emotional or financial resources," he says.

"And perhaps most importantly, it can cause the child to view the parents as more as individuals with their own relative strengths and weaknesses, and less as a family unit that they are a part of."

The best advice that Coleman says he can offer parents looking to rekindle their relationships with their children is to empathize and try to understand what has happened with their children.

"There's almost always a kernel of truth in our children's complaints ... even if they seem really wrong or over-amped from our perspectives."

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Estrangement".