I work with some of the most heartbroken people in the world: parents whose adult children want nothing to do with them. Parents who have been denied attending their children’s graduations, weddings, or the birth of their grandchildren. Grandparents who were close and involved with their grandchildren until they were suddenly cut out of their lives for conflicts with their adult children or their spouses. I also work with parents who still have contact with the adult child but are treated in such a chronically abusive way that the parent is left feeling hurt, bewildered, and enraged.
Consider one father who is thinking of cutting his 28-year-old son out of his will. “My adult son cut off contact with my wife and me three years ago after we said something to his wife that she found offensive,” he wrote to me. “We have since apologized many times but they say we don’t mean it. To make matters worse, he will no longer let us see our three grandchildren who we were very close to, especially my wife. This is our only child who we loved very much, sent him to expensive schools, took him on great vacations. And now we’re treated like we don’t exist.”
It is not surprising so many estranged parents and grandparents in my practice want to cut their children out of their wills. Doing so feels like the only way to demonstrate how hurt and betrayed they feel. It expresses a desire to have the child experience some of what they believe the child visited on them, despite the years of love or dedication by the parent.
And yet, I believe that cutting a child out of a will is wrong. The will is the last parental act. If your parents have passed you probably know that parents continue to exert influence from the grave. Good memories and bad memories often affect how we continue to parent, the kinds of romantic partners that we choose and who we choose as friends.
Just because you believe that your child’s rejection or anger is undeserved doesn’t mean that you’re right.
As parents, I believe we’re obligated to take the high road even if our children take the low one. Part of taking the high road is having your last act on earth be one that will be good for them even if they weren’t able to behave in a way that you deserved or desired.
Second, just because you believe that your child’s rejection or anger is undeserved doesn’t mean that you’re right. We all have our blind spots as parents and sometimes the way our family members treat us — children or otherwise — is more in reaction to our behavior than their creating it from nothing. We may be far more critical, rejecting, and hurtful than we are able to face. We may be too disrespectful of their boundaries around our grandchildren, too insensitive toward their spouses, and too opinionated about their sexualities or their values.
Third, some adult children behave badly because they have a subtle or overt form of mental illness. While we might wish they got better help (any help) it’s not their fault they carry those burdens. And if their mistreatment of you is due to their mental illness, you’re punishing them for something largely out of their control. Their mental illness may mean that you set up your trust so their inheritance is managed by a reputable third party. But leaving them out of an inheritance they would have received if they were healthier will feel like one more injustice to someone who has already had to carry too heavy a burden in their lives.
Fourth, in my survey of 1,600 estranged parents, it was not unusual for the estrangement to occur after the child married. Sometimes it occurs because the parent is critical of the son- or daughter-in-law or disrespectful of their boundaries. It can also result from the child’s spouse saying “choose them or me; you can’t have both.”
Fifth, if you’re divorced, your ex may have successfully poisoned your child against you. While that is both painful and unjust, children of any age are vulnerable to those kinds of negative influences. As with a persuasive or manipulative spouse, if they were strong enough to resist it, they would have.
I understand how this advice might seem like a giant excuse for a child’s hurtful and destructive behavior. I’m not giving them a pass. I’m appalled at how some adult children treat their parents or parents-in-law and the model they show to their own children. I’m also surprised by how cavalier many are when it comes to cutting out a once-involved grandparent despite their child’s obvious attachment to the grandparent.
But in the same way that parents do the best they can when raising their children, those grown children do the best they can do in relating to the parent or treating them respectfully.
Generation-skipping is an option
Some estranged parents decide that giving their kid an inheritance is unreasonable given their feelings of hurt or neglect, so they skip a generation and leave it to their grandchildren. Here are the negatives and the positives of doing so:
• Your message to your child is still punitive, however carefully worded.
• Doing so complicates your grandchildren’s relationship with their parents by making them feel guilty toward their parents. Such guilt may:
• Lessen or erase the positive intention of your gift to them.
• Put them in a caretaker role with their parent and/or
• Become burdensome rather than welcomed.
• You’re indirectly giving to your child by giving to their children.
• You’re acknowledging that the grandchildren are a casualty of the estrangement rather than the primary agents of it.
• You’re providing a gift to your grandkids that has meaning and value to you and, presumably, to them.
Money has more meanings than almost any material object. It can be used to express love, commitment, value, protection and security. It can be used to control, punish, manipulate, and express disappointment. Your will is your final parental act. Make sure that you’ve carefully considered your last message, because it will live on long after you’re gone.
Joshua Coleman is a psychologist in private practice and senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families. His books include The Marriage Makeover (2004), The Lazy Husband (2005), When Parents Hurt (2007) and Rules of Estrangement (Harmony/Random House, forthcoming in March 2021). Reach him on Twitter @drjcoleman or through his website www.drjoshuacoleman.com