There’s a “joke” about a mother who keeps calling her son, only to continually be routed to voicemail. Is her son that busy? She decides to follow him. When she sees him sitting alone in a restaurant, she calls him. She watches as he looks at the caller ID . . . and declines the call.

Unfortunately, this is a painful reality for many parents. They chase after their children’s attention, only to be rejected or blocked out. Young Is her son that busy?children, teenagers, and even adult children can choose to distance themselves from their parents, claiming they are too busy to talk on the phone, or answering questions with monosyllables: “How are you?” “Fine.”

As a parent, you may feel humiliated, insulted and betrayed. The emptiness feels like a knife turning in your heart. It’s even worse if you’ve also been locked out of the lives of your grandchildren, just when you long to share your love and wisdom with them.

Why do some children distance themselves? Answers may include:

  • Excess monitoring and criticism. When parents are overly critical or overly enmeshed with a child during his formative years, a child may feel that he cannot wait to escape their clutches. He no longer wants to feel stifled by their advice and humiliated by their criticism, told how to dress, think, speak and behave, or told that his decisions are wrong. After hearing “not-good-enough” messages from his parents, he has become “allergic” to them and creates distance to avoid more pain.
  • Lack of bonding in early childhood. Many children get used to being distant from parents because there was so little interaction with them during their formative years. Babies who get lots of cuddling produce more oxytocin and vasopressin, the social-bonding hormones. Without that early bonding, a child produces fear hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. If parents are absent for many hours, the reach-out reflex shrivels up and dies. A loving bond is built by endless mini-interactions, which occur when children are touched frequently, given a hug or asked, “How did the test go? Do you need a Band-Aid for your knee? Did that bully bother you today?” If parents do not take time to show interest and listen non-judgmentally, a child feels unloved and unimportant. He may have difficulty bonding, not just to his parents but to people in general. Later, when parents seek a relationship, the foundation is missing. Many children feel, “You didn’t have time when I needed you, so how can I relate to you now? You are strangers. I don’t even know who you are, and you don’t know who I am.”How do you deal with the pain?
  • Lack of trust. Parents who have addictions or emotional illnesses are so self-absorbed that there is no emotional space for a child. If a parent is narcissistic, depressed, dysfunctional, obsessive or addicted, the child feels isolated, neglected and unwanted. Borderline parents have violent tantrums, lie, and are so unpredictable that it is impossible to build trust. Children learn to protect themselves by disengaging. For many, the “connect” button cannot be turned on again. It’s just too painful to go there.
  • Parental strife. Children cannot feel respectful towards parents who do not respect each other. Imagine a child hearing, “Your father/mother is crazy/lazy/stupid. That’s why I’m so miserable.” A child is ashamed to be connected to parents who cause him so much confusion and shame.

On the other hand, there are many parents who did their best to be loving and attentive, but the children suffer from addictions or emotional problems which have created distance. Narcissistic types are interested only in their own looks, pleasures and accomplishments. Manipulative types make contact only when they want something. Disturbed types cannot give; they want only to take.

So, how do you deal with the pain? First, realize that nothing will take away the awful ache in your heart, that empty place where your children or grandchildren “should” be. But the following will help:

  1. Stop fighting to connect. Do not pursue, hound, threaten (“You won’t get any money from me”) or guilt-trip (“How can you be so selfish and cruel to me?”). Pressure tactics create resentment, rebelliousness and resistance. However, keep the lines of communication open so that your children know they are always welcome in your heart and home. And if a child reconnects, smile and act happy! Do not act bitter and angry, even if that is how you feel. Do not criticize, blame or scold, or he will disengage again.
  2. Get active! You have time on your hands. Put your energy into projects where your love and concern will be appreciated. There are thousands of organizations in need of devoted people like you. Or go back to school. People in their eighties are getting degrees today! Be interested and involved in the world.
  3. Take care of yourself. Make sure you exercise daily and eat right. Become a person your children would be proud to connect to—if they decide to do so.
  4. Turn it around. Give yourself whatever you’re not getting from others—appreciation, respect, understanding and forgiveness. You weren’t the perfect parent, and don’t have perfect children. Forgiveness keeps your heart open, in case they return.Strengthen the other relationships in your life
  5. Examine your relationship with G‑d. To love G‑d is to love whatever reality He gives us from moment to moment. So, use the “turn around” idea to examine your relationship with G‑d. Ask yourself: “When did I last call out to G‑d? Do I ignore Him and act like He is an intrusive bother or not part of my life? Have I become so self-pitying and embittered that I block Him out and refuse to accept His love? Do I distance Him with my anger and resentment instead of taking positive action?”
  6. Strengthen the other relationships in your life. Your children may have blocked you out, but you can focus on other family members and friends. Knowing that you can still give and receive love will strengthen your own sense of self.

None of these exercises or activities will erase the pain, but they will bring you a sense of self-respect and open your mind to new possibilities of how you can grow spiritually and contribute to the world.