The holiday season puts pressure on us to be the ideal happy family enjoying each other’s company. So, what do we do when one of our children just doesn’t accept us? How do we deal with those feelings of rejection? Here are some principles to help get through those rough spots. Putting these principles into practice is not easy, just as the entire situation is extremely hard. But at least we will have goals to work towards to find our balance during this difficult time of year.
• Give Up Your Expectations. The first step is to ignore all of the advertising, peer pressure, and your own expectations of what your family should be doing this holiday. Every family has its own way of celebrating (or enduring) the holidays. Blended and foster families have a lot of challenges, and every family member will react differently to those challenges. On top of all that, this season may be a reminder to your kids that their whole world is a little bit off-kilter. Or their past experiences may make this time of year an exceptionally anxious one. The things that make the season special for one person may be the very things that trigger another person. Give everyone space to work through all of these challenges in their own time. Don’t burden yourself, or your family, with unrealistic expectations about what the season should be.
• Control What You Can Control, and Let Go of the Rest. The next important thing is to remember that our goal is not to inspire our kids to have a relationship with us. That may happen, but it’s only a side effect and only a possibility. We cannot control other people’s reactions, even our children’s. All we can control is what we do and how we think. So our focus, especially in dealing with kids who reject us, has to be on what is the right thing for us to do. If we start thinking in terms of “we’ll do this and then maybe they’ll do that,” then we’ll find ourselves flailing in the quicksand of empty gestures and unmet expectations. We have to concentrate on figuring out the right thing to do, and then doing it, letting the results be what they will be.
It's also important not to take all of the rejection personally. That can be the hardest part of dealing with rejection, because our children certainly can make it feel personal. But most often, a child's rejection isn't about you but about their own anxiety about their situation. Children cling to the idea of an intact biological family even when that ideal is not possible or doesn't make sense. They have a hard time accepting their new reality, and that reaction often has nothing to do with you. They may not want a parent-child relationship with an adult who is not a biological parent. That rejection doesn't mean that you are a bad person; it means that you need to work on forging a good relationship as a mentor or adult friend. The main thing in these situations is to understand that you can't force children to accept you, but you can still offer them unconditional love and friendship.
• Look at The Situation Objectively. The next step is to evaluate as objectively as we can how much of the unwanted behavior is our fault. That process is very hard because each of us is the hero of own narrative and we view everything through the lens of justifying ourselves. For these hard situations, however, we have to do the hard work of being objective about ourselves.
Ask for input from people outside the situation. Friends and family members can be helpful, and professional help can be invaluable. Even an online support group or the popular Reddit AITA threadcan give you good perspective. Above all, find people you trust and ask them to point out any errors in your thinking. It also doesn't hurt to do this tough evaluation on a regular basis. The exercise will put you in a much better position to repair fractured relationships. We can’t know what we should do until we have a clear view of what has happened.
• Accept responsibility. Once we have as clear a view as we can get of what’s actually happening in the relationship, we have to take responsibility for our mistakes. It’s natural to defend ourselves by focusing on the other person’s mistakes. To build solid relationships, however, you have to let go of your resentments and look at yourself. Most of the time, there are no clear-cut villains; everyone has made some sort of mistake. We have to figure out our part and accept it.
Sometimes we may view our mistakes as being tangential to the real problem. For example, I have a tendency to be very analytical about problems, and in the heat of a discussion, I can come across as being clinical and uncaring. Now, my lack of tact usually isn’t the topic of discussion, but it certainly doesn’t make the situation better. It definitely can create hard feelings if my kids think I don't care about their feelings. I often have to apologize and regroup. I don’t necessarily have any responsibility for whatever situation we are talking about, but I do have to take responsibility for my communication style.
Our children need to see us model accepting responsibility for our actions. It’s hard for anyone to admit they are wrong, and our kids need us to set a good example for them.
• Know When To Quit Trying. At some point, we will have done all we can do to rectify the situation. Then we need to quit trying. It’s not a vindictive stance. It’s simply that, at some point, we have to stop making gestures that give our kids more opportunities to reject us. Moreover, our gestures sometimes just make things worse because they increase the conflict that our kids feel about having us in their lives. Often the best way to give kids a safe space is to simply stop trying to reconcile. Leaving them in complete control of the situation will be hard, but it’s often the healthiest boundary to set.
Of course, disengaging is easier with adult children or stepchildren who don’t live with you. When you are responsible for a child, you have to set boundaries and provide structure. Kids who reject a relationship with you will be particularly resistant to letting you do your job of keeping them safe. But we still have to set healthy boundaries, regardless of their reaction. When we can do it safely, however, we need to stop trying to engage them and give them space for their resentment. For example, if they don’t want to be involved in social settings such family activities at the holidays, find a way to safely give them the option to not engage. If they have to go with you to an extended family gathering, ask only that they politely greet everyone. Then give them permission to sit somewhere by themselves listening to music or playing games on a tablet. Don’t worry about your family’s expectations, and don’t try to entice your kids to be part of the family. Let them have as much control of the situation as safety and good manners allow.
• Don’t Give Up. Even as you quit trying to affirmatively engage your kids, don’t give up on them. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but I’m really just talking about letting them know that you are still there and you still care about them. I call it “being like gravity.” People may find gravity annoying and may complain about it, but none of that changes what gravity does. Gravity just is what it is. And when someone is willing to work within its limits, gravity is still there.
Now the analogy is not perfect because we are not a force of nature. We are human beings who get exasperated and run out of patience. Rejection hurts and a child's rejection can cause tremendous pain that we would rather avoid. But to the extent that we can learn to be like gravity — to just be what we are, no matter what our kids throw at us — the happier we (and our families) will be. Instead of reacting to everything our kids say or do, we should learn to let them bounce off of us and keep offering them a loving relationship. If we can do that without getting emotionally exhausted, then we’ll be able to invest in them when they are willing to build a relationship.
• Leave A Way Open for Reconciliation. Even as we quit trying to stop our kids from rejecting us, we need to leave open a way for them to reconcile. It’s hard to do, because the process involves leaving ourselves emotionally vulnerable and open to more rejection. It’s much easier to just retreat into a shell and cut an alienated child completely out of our lives. A better way, if we can find the emotional resources to do it, is to leave a way for them to come back into the family.
These times can be heart-wrenching, because kids rarely make a clear and one-time decision to build a relationship. They will tentatively reach out and then pull away again, leaving you with emotional whiplash. It’s hard to keep going through this cycle, but it often is an unavoidable part of building a relationship. Children often need life experiences to understand what being a good parent involves, and they usually understand only in retrospect all that you sacrificed for them.
Sometimes leaving a path open may require reaching out from time to time. For example, when we had addresses for our adult kids, we sometimes sent them birthday and holiday messages. With young children, we always bought a present even if it was just a gift card, because those days are times to let them know that we are still here and still care about them. Your kids likely will need you sooner than they want to admit. Those are the times that you can remind them that you love them unconditionally and that they do have a family whenever they want to be a part of it. The kids often may ignore these gestures, but sometimes such small gestures are simply the right thing to do.
Of course, loving your kids unconditionally doesn’t mean that you ignore healthy boundaries. You still may not be able to trust your kids, for example, and you still are entitled to basic respect. With kids battling substance abuse or mental health issues, you can’t give them money. However, you can drive them for job interviews or visit them at rehab. The avenue you leave for them to come back home has to have healthy guardrails, both for your sake and for theirs.
If you have kids who have rejected you, there may be hope for the relationship to be restored eventually. Keep the door open, but concentrate mostly on being the sort of person that you need to be. Then, whether or not your kids are willing to reconcile, you still will have made progress this holiday season.