Ask the Rabbis | How Would You Counsel a Parent and Child Who Are Estranged?

INDEPENDENT

I wouldn’t. Assuming the child in question is an adult, and depending on the degree to which the estrangement has festered, and barring cases of abuse, trying to heal such rifts is misplaced effort.

We are not asked to love our parents, only to respect them. Feel estranged from them? They are not the purpose of your existence, nor are you theirs. Go on with your life and try to do it better with your own kids, if you’re so smart.

To well-intentioned parents, I say, “Let ’em go, and move on with whatever those ingrates left you of your years on earth,” for we are expected to bend in relationships, but not break. So stop poisoning one another with guilt and grudge. Banish a so-called child who has morphed into a chronic oppressor. And as for you, O estranged child, you don’t owe your failed parents what you don’t feel for them, but do look in on them every now and then out of simple decency and respect.
Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Walking Stick Foundation
Monument, CO

HUMANIST

Listening? Yes. Providing counseling? That is a red line that clergy without professional mental health training must not cross. Because our society privileges religious belief, clergy—including rabbis—are too often assumed to have some special capacity for providing psychological counseling. It’s not that we don’t play a role. We maintain close relationships with many people, often interacting with them at times of maximal stress, particularly around life-cycle events. But none of that grants us the skills acquired by mental health professionals. We are at best first responders, some with good enough instincts to listen and be present for people at those moments of crisis. But listening is not the same as guiding and advising. Unless the rabbi is properly trained and certified—as some are—their responsibility is to refer troubled people to real help. The bond between rabbis and community members can be very powerful, but the most effective rabbis are those who understand their limits.
Rabbi Jeffrey L. Falick
Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Metro Detroit
Farmington Hills, MI

RENEWAL

Rabbis should not function as therapists. (Those of us who are also therapists, like one of us writing this, keep the spheres of our work strictly separate.) But whatever the circumstances—perhaps abusive or toxic parenting, or a child’s substance abuse or mental illness—there is hurt, and need. Rabbis can leverage linkage to needed medical or psychological help that people have been reluctant to seek.

Not all parents are willing to look honestly at their patterns of parenting and interacting with estranged children. But with willing parents, gentle questions can elicit the layers of difficult relations that precipitated estrangement. Rabbis can give permission and support to abuse survivors who choose not to expose themselves to more abuse. When parents or children repeatedly misuse resources and abuse trust, our compassionate authority can help people break away from inadvertent enabling.

For both parents and children, rabbis should work to lift burdens of sorrow, bewilderment, guilt and grief. We carry and offer hope. Rabbis must exercise utmost discretion, especially when both estranged parties are members of our congregations. We must also meet our legal obligations to report abuse concerns to relevant authorities.

We draw on Jewish sources of wisdom to ground this difficult work in compassion. As the Book of Proverbs says, lev yodei’a marat nafsho—the heart knows its own bitterness.
Rabbi Gilah Langner and Rabbi Richard Ruth
Congregation Kol Ami
Arlington, VA

RECONSTRUCTIONIST

Estrangement is tragic by any objective measure. But who is fully objective? We all have our foibles and limitations. When two imperfect people reach a breaking point, though one may be primarily at fault, each of us must first acknowledge our own contribution to the deteriorating dynamic. Self-awareness must be cultivated so we can see ourselves more objectively. It’s a central tenet of mussar, Judaism’s ethical-spiritual-psychological path, that introspection and cheshbon hanefesh (soul-accounting) should be not just for the Days of Awe but a daily, year-round, lifelong practice.

“Honor thy parents” is an ideal, but with boundaries. When parents commit physical, sexual or emotional abuse, child survivors may rightly make a clean break for safety and healing. When grown children turn violent, or refuse help with an addiction, parents may rightly maintain distance. But if there’s general advice here, it’s again from mussar: Always err by taking the ethical and relational high road. Nothing is worse than looking back, more clearly, a little too late. To leave most room for rapprochement, and least room for regret, let’s stretch as far as we safely can, while we can.
Fred Scherlinder Dobb
Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation
Bethesda, MD

REFORM

Following the dramatic, and undoubtedly traumatic, conclusion of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, we never see the two together again. Following Jacob’s theft of the birthright from his brother Esau, the two do not speak for many years; their reunion is marked by fear and joy. Our biblical “heroes” are flawed and exemplify authentic family dynamics from which we may find guidance.

Sometimes the Jewish values we strive for are in tension. As children, how can we honor our parents and protect our own health and safety (pikuach nefesh) when that relationship is clouded by dysfunction or harm? As parents, how can we raise children with the space to be themselves as guided in Proverbs 22:6, which may mean they separate themselves from us, and teach them to live out Torah, as directed in our V’ahavta prayer?

While navigating these values, we must consider whether repair is possible and mutually beneficial. There are circumstances in which not all would be helped or healed by a reconciliation. Allow yourself, and the other, the time to do the psychological and spiritual work that can bring clarity of mind and heart.
Rabbi Laura Novak Winer
Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion
Fresno, CA

CONSERVATIVE

Judaism teaches that parents are responsible for their children when they are minors. In contrast, children have responsibilities for their parents for their entire lives. A child is obligated to ensure that parents have the support they need as they age—and this obligation is binding even if parents and children are estranged.

Tragically, estrangement is sometimes necessary—perhaps even preferable. In the Conservative Movement’s siddur, Lev Shalem, we include a prayer for a hurtful parent in order to help children find support in painful relationships.

Of course, it is better not to be estranged from one’s family. When estranged members of a family are seeking reconciliation, I encourage them to take seriously the rabbinic adage dan l’kaf zechut—judge the other person’s behavior generously. While actions may have caused great hurt, that was not their intent.

Our ancestors clearly knew from estranged relationships. After all, it is the messianic vision of Malachi that encourages us to hold hope that someday reconciliation will be possible—when the prophet Elijah will come back to earth and “return the hearts of parents to children and children to parents.” (Malachi 3:24)
Rabbi Amy S. Wallk
Temple Beth El
Springfield, MA

MODERN ORTHODOX

I have tried twice to reconcile parents and children. In one case, the parent asked me to intervene. In the other, I learned of the situation and tried to help. In both cases I approached the estranged child and said that, in my experience, a child also suffers due to such an alienation. And as a parent, I thought the most painful experience would be to feel that your child rejected you or that you were alone when you needed support. I asked if the child would share with me the direct cause of their estrangement. I offered to speak to the parents to see if they could acknowledge their contribution to the breakdown and possibly make changes.

In one case, the child responded positively. I briefed both sides about the other’s responses, which led to a series of direct exchanges, then to a renewed sense of connection and eventually a much-improved relationship. In the other case, the child declined, explaining that the parental misbehavior was so painful that even talking about it disturbed his hard-won equilibrium. I sadly reported this response to the parent and honored the child’s request not to get involved.

My conclusion is that approaching the parties directly and frankly is the best policy for a rabbi. However, I have no sense of what approach or policy is likely to succeed.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg
J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life/Hadar
Riverdale, NY

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ORTHODOX

The growing phenomenon of parent-child estrangement is disturbing but not without basis in Jewish thought. We’re commanded to honor our parents, but there are certainly parents who have made very serious mistakes in raising their children, such that those adult children cannot function without creating some distance. That’s different from disparaging or despising one’s parents, which is forbidden halachically. The Talmud in Kiddushin says that when a parent makes demands that a child finds oppressive, or can’t live with, the child should move away.

In general, though, Jewish thought would advocate trying everything possible in order to restore a relationship. Our Torah established the basis of the family for the Western world. The stories in Bereshit about estrangement within families illustrate people’s difficulties in relating to each other and the price they pay when conflicts are not resolved. In a sense, we’re still suffering today from the unresolved tension between Yaakov and Esau.

That said, if I were counseling a family, I would not give them bromides from Jewish tradition but would urge them to find therapy. The roots of these conflicts are so deep and complex that even if rabbis have the training, which is rare, they don’t have the hours and hours it would take to make a real difference. So I tell people they won’t be at peace unless they find a good therapeutic environment.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Cross-Currents
Los Angeles, CA

NEO-SEPHARDIC

The bond between parents and children, especially mothers and children, is by nature a very powerful one. The Hebrew word for mother, em, has the same root as emun/emunah, faith and trust.

And while it is extremely difficult to bridge an alienation between parents and children, we may be morally obliged to attempt it. I have found that when the child initiates the estrangement, it is easier to bring the two parties together. When it is the parent, it depends on the reason for the estrangement. One common cause is parents’ belief that a child has failed to live up to their religious, academic or financial expectations. Parents may feel a deep sense of frustration, even personal failure when their children are not as they expected. In such cases, I would start by advising the parents to focus on a child’s positive character traits rather than only on accomplishments.

It is important to emphasize the natural love of parents for their children. I tried, and failed, to convince my mother to open up to my sister, who was not as observant as my mother expected. I had more success with a mother who wanted to part ways with her son, whose younger brother had outed him to her. I told her that in 10 or 15 years, she would probably want to get closer to her son and would regret all the lost years. So wasn’t it better to remain close to him now and not lose even one moment of love?
Rabbi Haim Ovadia
Torah VeAhava
Potomac, MD

CHABAD

Estrangement between parents and children, whatever brought it on, is one of the most painful things imaginable, because the source of emotional oxygen is being denied for both. The nurturing love between parent and child is absolutely essential for our well-being. My first step is to try to find some commonality, some bridge. At the end of the day, this person will always be your parent, this person will always be your child. Then build on that. This isn’t a business disagreement, it’s a severing of an intrinsic connection. The parties may not even understand the underlying conflict.

The most important thing is for both parent and child to put aside their personal interests and exercise the key ingredient in healthy love: allowing space for the other. If counseling a child, I would say: Protect yourself first, make sure you have a support system and can engage from a position of growth and strength. It’s like they say on the plane—put on your own mask first. Elderly adults still sometimes tremble in front of a parent who hurt them. But when the parent was abusive and then dies, the child may feel it never really resolved. It’s in the child’s own interest to find closure.

I’m often asked, “Should I say Kaddish for such a parent?” It’s complicated. How can you honor a parent who doesn’t deserve honor? The Ten Commandments say to honor your parents, not necessarily love them. If they don’t deserve love, you can always say Kaddish to honor the gift of life they gave you. Ultimately, forgiveness—asking and granting it—is one of our greatest strengths and a critical element in healing for both parent and child.
Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Meaningful Life Center
New York, NY

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