June 20, 2023 — Edward T., a retired doctor from Pennsylvania, has had no contact with his 44-year-old daughter for 11 years. “Fiona has bipolar disorder,” he said. “After a manic episode, she cut off contact, blaming me for hospitalizing her.”
Edward continues to pay into a trust fund for her. “I want to be sure she’s provided for. And I won’t deny I hope she’ll come around. I’m in my 70s, with cardiac problems. I hope we reconnect during my lifetime.”
Yvonne B., a 61-year-old health care provider from California, has had almost no contact with her 34-year-old daughter for over a year. “She began distancing maybe 2 years ago. Then she texted, saying her therapist advised her not to be in touch,” Yvonne said. “She called me ‘manipulative,’ and ‘narcissistic,’ and said she needed to ‘set boundaries.’”
While Brenda did send a Merry Christmas text, any further contact was off-limits. “I’m heartbroken because I thought we were close,” Yvonne says. “She used to tell me what bothered her and we worked it out. I don’t understand what changed.”
Kevin H., a computer technician from New York, hasn’t spoken to or heard from his younger son for 15 years. “Fortunately, I have a good relationship with my older son,” he said. “I’ll admit I’m not the most emotionally expressive person on the planet, but I haven’t done anything to deserve this. I think my ex-wife turned him against me.”
Edward, Yvonne, and Kevin are examples of an increasingly common trend of adult children cutting ties with parents, according to Josh Coleman, PhD, a phenomenon he calls “a modern-day epidemic and a modern-day tragedy.”
Coleman, author of the books, Rules of Estrangement and When Parents Hurt, acknowledges there are certain situations (physical or sexual abuse, extreme invasiveness, ridicule, or condemnation) that might justify distancing or disconnecting from a parent. “But I’ve worked with hundreds of people who have been good — or good enough — parents and don’t deserve this type of treatment.”
The Evolving Concept of ‘Family’
“For centuries, society’s values included ‘respect your elders’ and ‘honor thy 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-esteem,” Coleman said. Anyone perceived as standing in the way — including a parent — can be jettisoned.
These values are part of changing notions of family in European-American culture, which emphasizes individuality and separation, especially among White Americans, he notes. “There is a more ‘collective’ focus among African-American, Asian, and Latino families, and estrangement initiated by an adult child is less common.”
A recent study of parents estranged from adult children, including 8,495 mother-child relationships and 8,119 father-child relationships, corroborated this. The researchers found that about a quarter of respondents were estranged from their fathers. On average, respondents were 23 years old when the estrangement began. On the other hand, only 6% reported estrangement from mothers, with a slightly older average age of estrangement of 26.
Black adult children were less likely than White adult children to be estranged from their mothers but more likely to be estranged from their fathers.
“Estrangement” was defined as “any period of time when there was either no contact between parent and adult child, or when there was little contact and very low relationship closeness, based on reports by children,” said lead study author Rin Reczek, PhD, professor of sociology at Ohio State University.
“Mothers are the primary caregivers to children in our society, so it makes sense that they have more durable ties and are more likely to stay closer to their children in adulthood,” said Reczek, who is the author of the book Families We Keep.
Differences between Black families and White families “may also reflect social-cultural norms centering mothers in Black family life,” she said.
Encouragingly, 81% of mothers and 69% of fathers ultimately reconnected with their formerly estranged adult children, although the researchers found no racial or ethnic differences in who reconnected.
Reasons for Estrangement
Coleman lists several reasons adult children cut ties.
- Divorce: Sometimes, the ex-spouse turns the child against the other spouse. Some children feel the need to “pick sides,” even if the other parent isn’t actively maligning the ex-partner. Or when a divorced parent remarries, the adult child might resent the new partner and reject the parent.
- Opposing religious or political views: Children may judge their parents’ religious practices or viewpoints or feel their parents judge them.
- A son- or daughter-in-law: Your child’s partner might turn your formerly loving child against you.
- Addiction and mental illness: For example, if parents have set boundaries with a child who’s using substances, the child might retaliate by not being in touch. And mental illness might distort the child’s view of the parent.
- Therapists: Therapists typically explore their clients’ childhood memories to see how they might have contributed to present-day difficulties. But in doing so, a misguided therapist may “inadvertently encourage a victimized stance in relation to the parent, as opposed to a stance that sees the parent in a more three-dimensional way.”
And some therapists use diagnostic terms, like “narcissist” or “borderline,” to describe parents they’ve never met. Mental health is regarded as a process of setting boundaries rather than finding compassion toward a parent’s human imperfections.
Disenfranchised Grief and Anger
Yvonne says it’s hard to find emotional support. Of the few people she’s told, some think she must have done something terrible to warrant this type of treatment. Others are dismissive, saying, “kids are like that.”
There’s social support for parents who have lost children to illnesses or accidents, but none “for my situation, having a child who’s alive physically but makes herself dead to me,” Yvonne says.
Most parents of estranged adult children dread Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, holidays, and other events in which family togetherness is celebrated. Even good relationships with their other children don’t make up for the “missing person” at the Thanksgiving table.
Mistakes to Avoid
Coleman points to common mistakes parents make when trying to heal an estrangement.
- Seeking fairness: This isn’t about you being treated fairly as a person. It’s about finding a strategic way to reach your estranged child.
- Utilizing guilt: Invoking how you’ve been wronged and hoping your child will feel guilty enough to reconsider isn’t likely to work and may worsen the problem.
- Returning fire with fire: Counterattacking will only create further antagonism.
- Thinking it will heal quickly: Even if there’s some movement toward reconciliation on your child’s part, healing is usually a slow process.
- Thinking the distance is all about you: Your adult children have issues that might impact how they see things in ways you’re not aware of.
- Challenging your child’s therapist, your ex-spouse, or your child’s spouse/partner: Doing so will only push your child further away. The same is true if you criticize your child’s favorite political candidate or spiritual leader.
What Can I Do to Heal the Rift?
Coleman recommends seeking the “kernel of truth” in your adult child’s complaints, even if they seem outrageous. “You might say, ‘I haven’t thought about myself in that way, but maybe there were narcissistic things I did. Is there a particular memory that gave you that feeling?’ That shows you’re receptive to their concerns.”
You can ask to go into therapy with them to address these concerns. And if you’re sitting with the therapist, it’s better to listen than to challenge your child’s memories or perceptions. “And if your child has a false memory, you can say, ‘I don’t recall it that way but let me think about it and get back to you,’” Coleman said.
You may not be able to propose therapy or respond to your child’s complaints if he/she won’t talk to you, so Coleman suggests writing a “letter of amends.”
Communicate empathetically and with willingness to take responsibility for any mistakes you might have made. “If you don’t understand why your child distanced, tell the child you don’t understand but you want to, that it’s clear you have blind spots.” In your letter, you can express willingness to go into family therapy together, even to meet his/her therapist.
Should I Keep Trying or Just Give Up?
Kevin has written “countless emails” to his son, asking what he did wrong and offering to go into counseling together. “My son wrote back once saying, ‘If you don’t know, I don’t have to tell you.’ He hasn’t responded to any communications since.” Eventually, Kevin gave up but wonders if that was the right thing to do and whether he should try to reinitiate contact.
Under certain conditions, it’s advisable to stop reaching out, at least for a while, Coleman says. Those include:
- If you’re being threatened with restraining orders.
- If your adult child says he/she needs time apart but will be back in touch.
- If the response is consistently hostile and threatening.
- If your letters or gifts are sent back unopened.
- If continually reaching out is too painful.
After a year, it might make sense to try again. Allowing time to elapse might promote reconciliation because your child may feel like you’re respecting their wishes, Coleman said. And the “cooling off” period can allow things to be less inflamed, so there may be more receptivity to being in touch.
The Agony of Grandparents
“Grandparents are often casualties of parent-adult child estrangement, finding themselves suddenly thrust out of their grandchildren’s lives when the adult child discontinues contact,” says Coleman.
The grief about the estrangement is compounded by the grief of losing their grandchildren. And the sense of shame felt as friends post pictures of their precious grandchildren on Facebook rubs salt on the wounds.
Coleman notes that even parents who were narcissistic or emotionally abusive to their own children can be loving grandparents.
“I’m not denying that some grandparents can interfere in their own children’s parenting style — a common reason adult children cut off their parents,” Coleman said. “But we have to learn and teach our children how to accept or manage difficult people.”
In some states, grandparents can turn to the legal system to enforce their right to see their grandchildren. But that can be a long, expensive process that’s unlikely to bring a healed relationship.
It’s better to send a “letter of amends” to your adult child or son/daughter-in-law, Coleman said. “Once again, finding the ‘kernel of truth’ in the complaint may provide a pathway to a relationship with your grandchildren.”
If the door remains closed, you can write letters to your grandchildren that they’ll receive when they’re adults, letting them know that you never stopped loving them. Hopefully, they’ll be willing have a relationship at that time.
Finding Personal Healing
Ongoing pain is inevitable, but “it’s what you do with the pain that will make the difference between a life tethered to constant, implacable sorrow and one that has joy and meaning along with the pain,” Coleman said.
He encourages self-compassion. “Without self-compassion, there’s no serenity, no happiness, no resilience, and no future,” he said. Guilt is a common obstacle to self-compassion — especially the feeling that you have done something wrong, a very common reaction of parents of estranged adult children.
Anger is another common feeling, as parents reflect on how much time, energy, love, and resources they lavished on their children, only to be rejected because of their human imperfections.
Getting therapy with a professional who understands estrangement issues can be helpful. It can also be helpful to join a support group of other estranged parents.
And general self-care is important. For example, healthy eating, exercising, listening to music, doing art, being in nature, volunteering, or doing yoga can be soothing to the spirit.
Yvonne says reciting the “Serenity Prayer” helps her get through the day, “praying for the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”