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10 Common Mistakes That Therapists Make When Counseling Estranged Parents

Do you know that just like therapists can help solve parental issues, there are a few mistakes that therapists do make with estranged parents?

Here Are 10 Common Mistakes Therapists Make With Estranged Parents

1. Blaming the parent. 

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While it’s potentially forgivable that the general populace doesn’t yet know that a decent and dedicated parent can become estranged, there’s no excuse for a therapist failing to know that.

Many therapists, without evidence, assume that the parent is the primary cause of estrangement and as a result, perpetuate feelings of shame and guilt.

2. Not helping the parent acknowledge the legitimate complaints of the adult child. 

On the other hand, some therapists believe that it’s their job to support the parent no matter how problematic their behavior. In doing so, they fail to challenge the parent’s behavior that either led to the estrangement or continues to perpetuate it.

3. Giving bad advice. 

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It’s not uncommon for therapists to encourage estranged parents to be overly assertive or confrontive with their estranged adult children.

This advice imagines that the parent has more power and influence than they commonly do once an estrangement is in place.

Therapists with this orientation fail to recognize that being more assertive and confrontive with an estranged adult child typically worsens, rather than betters the parent’s situation. It causes the adult child to feel hurt or misunderstood and to further their resolve to keep their distance.

Want to know more about how you can have a healthy parent-child relationship? Read 10 Do’s and Don’ts To Keep Your Parenting Healthy and Non-Toxic

4. Failing to understand the power of a letter of amends to the estranged adult child. 

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The road to a potential reconciliation almost always starts with the parent’s acknowledgment of their past mistakes, however small.

Therapists who don’t help their clients find the kernel of truth in the estranged child’s complaints miss a critical and often necessary opportunity for repair.

5. Being too reassuring. 

It’s common that not only friends but therapists are overly reassuring about the chance for a future reconciliation: “They’ll be back;” “They’ll remember all that you’ve done for them;” “It’s just a phase.”

While sometimes those predictions are accurate, no one knows for sure if or when an estrangement will end. False reassurance is no assurance at all. Better to help the client practice radical acceptance and self-compassion.

6. Failing to take an adequate history of the parent and their estranged child. 

It’s inappropriate to give advice to an estranged parent without first getting a detailed developmental history of the parent and of the now-grown child.

Otherwise, a therapist wouldn’t be able to determine the influence of parental mistakes or the influence of long-standing issues in the child such as learning disabilities, mental illness, addiction, or other challenges.

7. Failing to understand the power of a motivated son-in-law or daughter-in-law. 

The troubled spouse of an adult child can create an estrangement where one wouldn’t ordinarily exist by saying, “Choose them or me.”

Want to know more about how you can have a better relationship with your in-laws? Read 5 Rules For Living With Your In-Laws (and Making It Work)

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Joshua Coleman Ph.D.
Dr. Coleman is a psychologist, speaker, and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is frequently contacted by the media for opinions and commentary about changes in the American family. He has been a frequent guest on the Today Show, NPR, The BBC, NYU Psychiatry Radio, and has also been featured on Sesame Street, 20/20, Good Morning America, America Online Coaches, PBS, and numerous news programs for FOX, ABC, CNN, and NBC television. He has written for the New York Times and his work with parental estrangement has also been featured there. He has also written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Variety Magazine, CNN, Greater Good Magazine, and The Huffington Post. He is the co-editor, along with historian Stephanie Coontz of seven online volumes of Unconventional Wisdom: News You Can Use, a compendium of noteworthy research on the contemporary family, gender, sexuality, poverty, and work-family issues.
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