Joshua Coleman
Joshua Coleman

Q&A: He helps parents and estranged adult kids mend fences

Clinical psychologist Joshua Coleman, who has a private practice in San Francisco and Oakland, fills a particular niche: working with parents estranged from their adult children. The author of four books, including “When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along,” Coleman, 64, speaks widely on the subject and hosts a weekly webinar. He lives in Orinda with his wife, Ellie Schwartzman, a clinical psychologist, and is the father of three adult children. 

J.: You have stated publicly that you became involved in the field of parent-child estrangement because you had experienced it yourself — with your daughter, who is your eldest child from a previous marriage. Happily, you have a relationship with her again. How frequently do other parents find themselves in this situation, and what are the most common reasons?

Joshua Coleman: The research is relatively new, but it is believed that 10 to 15 percent of American families [are affected]. There is a silent epidemic, and people are too embarrassed and ashamed to talk about it.

Cases of sexual abuse certainly exist, but most estrangements are caused by other factors, such as the divorce of the parents, in which one parent can poison the child’s relationship with the other parent, or married adult children’s spouses, who may not like their in-laws [and force their partners to choose].

With the erosion of institutional structures, such as organized religion, over the last decades, the idea of relationships has become more voluntary. Adult children may feel that they have more of a claim [to cut off ties].

J.: Is there anything notable about Jewish families in which adult children have foresworn relationships with their parents?

JC: I work with a lot of Jewish families. As a group, our family structures are more meshed, and we often engage in a more anxious, involved, driven form of parenting. But being too loving, too involved, paradoxically, can backfire.

J.: So what can parents do if their children no longer communicate with them?

JC: It depends on the age of the child and the length of the estrangement. With a minor, you should absolutely keep reaching out, regardless of what he says. But if your child is grown, and especially if he is threatening you with restraining orders, calling the police or returning letters and gifts unopened, it means that things are too inflamed for now. It’s better to back off for a period of time, such as a year, before trying again.

Otherwise, especially in the first year or two, you should continue to reach out to your child with empathy and try to get into his heart and mind. If your child has articulated a particular grievance, or a set of grievances, try to understand where he is coming from. Don’t remind him what a loving and dedicated parent you were by saying things like, “Well, I sent you to Europe and to camp, college and graduate school, and I always did my best for you.” That tells him that you’re not hearing him and will only make you appear defensive.

Rather, approach it from the point of view as, “Gee, I see that you’re really hurting, and I’m sorry that I never saw that, and I want to do my best now to work through that pain with you to understand you and your feelings better.”

This isn’t a one-time conversation, of course. You have to find an opening, and then try to engage with him again and again. It may take years to re-establish the type of connection you once had with your child. If you can’t understand the complaints, make it clear that you’d like to better understand them. Try to find the kernel of truth. Don’t defend, don’t justify and don’t explain.

J.: You made the decision early on, as a teenager, to become a psychologist. An event at your family’s synagogue played a role.

JC: I was raised in Dayton, Ohio, and my father took me to our family’s synagogue to hear a talk by Dr. Haim Ginott, a well-known Israeli child psychologist and psychotherapist. I was probably around 15, and was very taken with him. Otherwise, I might have ended up a poverty lawyer.

J.: The work you do is rather heavy. How do you separate from it and relax?

JC: I’m a musician. I play the guitar, and I have a studio in my home. I studied composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Some of my music has been heard on television programs, including “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.”

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Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.