June 20, 2023 — Edward T., a retired physician from Pennsylvania, has not had contact with his 44-year-old daughter in 11 years. “Fiona suffers from bipolar disorder,” he said. “After a manic episode, she cut off contact, blaming me for her hospitalization.”
Edward continues to pay into a trust fund for her. “I want to make sure it’s provided for her. I won’t deny. I hope she comes. I’m in my 70s, and I have heart problems. I hope we get back together in my lifetime.”
Yvonne B. , a 61-year-old healthcare provider from California, has had almost no contact with her 34-year-old daughter for over a year. “She started distancing maybe two years ago. Then she texted saying her therapist advised her not to be in touch,” Yvonne said. She called me a “manipulator” and a “narcissist,” and said she needed to “set boundaries.”
While Brenda sent a Merry Christmas text message, any other contact was off limits. “I feel sad because I thought we were close,” says Yvonne. “She was telling me what was bothering her and we worked it out. I don’t understand what changed.”
Kevin H., a computer technician from New York, has not spoken to or heard from his youngest son in 15 years. “Fortunately, I have a good relationship with my eldest son,” he said. “I will admit that I am not the most emotionally expressive person on the planet, but I didn’t do anything to deserve that. I think my ex turned him against me.”
Edward, Yvonne, and Kevin are examples of an increasingly common trend of adult children cutting ties with their parents, according to Josh Coleman, Ph. D., a phenomenon he calls “the modern-day epidemic and modern-day tragedy.”
Coleman acknowledges that there are certain situations (physical or sexual abuse, severe violation, ridicule, or condemnation) that may justify distancing or separation from a parent. “But I’ve worked with hundreds of people who have been good parents — or good enough — and don’t deserve this kind of treatment.”
The evolution of the concept of “family”
“For centuries, society’s values included ‘respect for elders’ and ‘honour your father and mother,’ and there were notions of loyalty and family ties. But today’s values focus more on identity, personal growth, individual happiness, and self-respect,” Coleman said. Anyone who is seen as getting in the way can be abandoned – including a parent.
These values are part of the changing conceptions of the family in Euro-American culture, which emphasize individuality and separation, especially among white Americans, he points out. “There is a more ‘collective’ focus among African American, Asian, and Latino families, and estrangement initiated by an adult child is less common.”
a A recent study of parents Far from adult children, including 8495 mother-child relationships and 8119 father-child relationships, supported this. The researchers found that about a quarter of the respondents were estranged from their parents. On average, the respondents were 23 years old when the estrangement began. On the other hand, only 6% of mothers reported estrangement, and the average age of estrangement was just over 26.
Adult black children were less likely than white adult children to be separated from their mothers but more likely to be separated from their fathers.
said lead study author Rin Reczek, PhD, professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.
said Reczek, author of the book The families we keep.
The differences between black and white families, she said, “may also reflect maternal-centered social and cultural norms in black family life.”
Encouragingly, 81% of mothers and 69% of fathers eventually reconnected with their previously separated adult children, although the researchers found no racial or ethnic differences in who reconnected.
Reasons for estrangement
Coleman lists several reasons why adult children cut ties.
- divorce: Sometimes, the ex-spouse will turn the child against the other spouse. Some children feel the need to “take sides,” even if the other parent wasn’t abusing the ex. Or when a divorced parent remarries, the adult child may resent the new partner and reject the parent.
- Opposing religious or political opinions: Children may judge their parents’ religious practices or views or feel judged by their parents.
- Son-in-law or daughter-in-law: Your child’s partner may turn your formerly loving child against you.
- Addiction and mental illness: For example, if parents set boundaries with a child who uses drugs, the child may retaliate by not communicating with them. Also, mental illness may distort the child’s view of the parent.
- Therapists: Therapists often explore their childhood memories to see how they may have contributed to current difficulties. But in doing so, the misguided therapist may “inadvertently encourage the victim’s position in relation to the parent, as opposed to one that sees the parent in a more three-dimensional way.”
And some therapists use diagnostic terms, such as “narcissist” or “borderline” to describe parents they’ve never met. Mental health is seen as a process of setting boundaries rather than finding empathy for human imperfections in parents.
Deprived grief and anger
Yvonne says it’s hard to find emotional support. Of the few people she was told, some believe she did something terrible to justify this kind of treatment. Others are dismissive, saying, “Kids are like that.”
There is social support for parents who have lost children to illness or accident, but there is no social support for “my situation, having a child who is physically alive but who makes herself dead to me,” says Yvonne.
Most parents of estranged adult children dread Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and other holidays and events in which family gathering is celebrated. Even good relationships with their other children don’t make up for the “missing person” at the Thanksgiving table.
Mistakes must be avoided
Coleman points out common mistakes parents make when trying to handle estrangement.
- Pursuing Justice: This is not about being treated fairly as a person. It’s about finding a strategic way to reach your estranged child.
- Exploitation of guilt: Excusing how you were wronged and hoping your child will feel guilty enough to reconsider is not likely to work and may exacerbate the problem.
- return fire with fire: A counterattack will only lead to more hostility.
- Thinking it will heal quickly: Even if there has been some movement toward reconciliation on your child’s part, healing is usually a slow process.
- Think distance is all about you: Your adult children have problems that may affect how they see things in ways you are not aware of.
- Challenge your child’s therapist, your ex, or your child’s spouse/partner: Doing so will push your child away. The same is true if you criticize your child’s favorite political candidate or spiritual leader.
What do I do to heal the crack?
Coleman recommends looking for a “kernel of truth” in your adult child’s complaints, even if they seem outrageous. You might say, ‘I never thought of myself that way, but there may have been narcissistic things I did. Is there a particular memory that gives you this feeling? It shows that you accept their concerns.”
You can seek therapy with them to address these concerns. And if you’re sitting with a therapist, it’s best to listen rather than challenge your child’s memories or perceptions. “If your child has a faulty memory, you can say, ‘I don’t remember it that way, but let me think about it and get back to you,'” Coleman said.
You may not be able to suggest treatment or respond to your child’s complaints if he or she doesn’t talk to you, so Coleman suggests writing a “letter of modification.”
Communicate with empathy and a willingness to take responsibility for any mistakes you may have made. “If you don’t understand why your child is being turned away, tell the child you don’t understand but you want to, you obviously have blind spots.” In your letter, you can express your desire to go through family therapy together, even to meet his or her therapist.
Should I keep trying or just give up?
Kevin wrote “countless emails” to his son, asking what he did wrong and offering to go to counseling together. “My son once wrote, ‘If you don’t know, I don’t have to tell you.’ He hasn’t responded to any communications since.” Eventually, Kevin gives in but wonders if it was the right thing to do and if he should try to reconnect.
Under certain circumstances, it’s advised to stop communicating, at least for a while, says Coleman. These include:
- If you are threatened with a restraining order.
- If your adult child says they need some time away but will get back in touch.
- If the response is persistently hostile and threatening.
- If your messages or gifts have been sent without being opened.
- If constant communication is very painful.
After a year, it might make sense to try again. Allowing time to pass may promote reconciliation, Coleman said, because your child may feel that you respect his or her wishes. And a “cool off” period can allow things to be less inflammatory, so there may be more receptivity to communication.
The torment of the ancestors
“Often, grandparents are victims of filial estrangement between parents and adults, and find themselves suddenly thrust out of their grandchildren’s lives when the adult child stops connecting,” Coleman says.
Grief over the estrangement is compounded by grief over the loss of their grandchildren. And he was mortified when friends posted pictures of their precious grandchildren to Facebook, smearing salt in the wounds.
Coleman notes that even parents who were narcissistic or emotionally abusive to their children can be loving grandparents.
“I don’t deny that some grandparents can interfere with their child’s parenting style — a common reason for isolating adult children from their parents,” Coleman said. “But we have to learn and teach our kids how to accept and manage difficult people.”
In some states, grandparents can turn to the legal system to enforce their right to see their grandchildren. But this can be a long and expensive process that is not likely to lead to a relationship recovery.
Coleman said it’s best to send an “adjustment letter” to your adult child or son/daughter-in-law. “Again, finding the ‘kernel of truth’ in the complaint may provide a path to a relationship with your grandchildren.”
If the door remains closed, you can write letters to your grandchildren that they will receive when they are adults, telling them that you never stopped loving them. Hopefully, they’ll be ready for a relationship at that time.
Find personal healing
Ongoing pain is inevitable, Coleman said, but “it’s what you do with the pain that will make the difference between a life associated with constant, unbearable sadness, and a life that has joy and meaning alongside the pain.”
Encourages self-compassion. “Without self-compassion,” he said, “there is no calm, no happiness, no resilience, and no future.” Guilt is a common roadblock to self-compassion—especially feeling like you did something wrong, and it’s a very common reaction for parents of separated adult children.
Anger is another common feeling, as parents reflect on the amount of time, energy, love, and resources they lavished on their children, only to be rejected for their human shortcomings.
Getting therapy with a professional who understands estrangement issues can be helpful. It may also be helpful to join a support group of other estranged parents.
General self-care is important. For example, eating healthy, exercising, listening to music, doing art, being in nature, volunteering, or doing yoga can be soothing to the soul.
Yvonne says reciting the Serenity Prayer helps her get through her day, “a prayer for the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”