These days—perhaps as in every generation—relationships between grown children and their parents have changed. Parents and grown children expect to be friends. Many have that experience. But, remarkably, Joshua Coleman finds that perhaps thanks to this closeness there also are profound falling-outs. Coleman works with families where parents and adult children have been estranged and his book, When Parents Hurt, is a resource for those isolated parents who wonder “am I the only one?”
Coleman is a psychologist at San Francisco Bay and a past Co-Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families.
LG: How common is parental estrangement? Do you see trends? So, for instance, is it more common? Or are there patterns–like does it happen in some groups more than others to the best of your understanding?
JC: A recent meta-analysis on the topic by Lucy Blake notes that while the research on estrangement has grown significantly in the past five years, it is still new and sparse. Therefore, getting a clear assessment of whether estrangement has become more common is challenging.
Based on my clinical experience though, I believe that it is widespread and growing for the following reasons:
- In the United States, today, and in some other developed Western nations, nothing binds grown children to their parents beyond whether or not the adult child wants that relationship. In the same way that marriages increasingly succeed or fail on the basis of how satisfying or meaningful the relationship, adult children may estrange themselves from a parent based on similar principles or ideals. However, while successful marriages require a somewhat equal level of investment between the partners, typically it’s more incumbent on the parent to be attuned to the needs of the adult child than the other way around.
- According to a recent Culture of American Families Survey, today’s parents hope to be best friends with their children for life. While many are succeeding, others may suffer in part because of high parental expectations of meaning and closeness with their children since these feelings occur in tandem with a decrease in social supports and activities for the parents. As a result, some adult children today complain about feeling too needed by their parents, in contrast to earlier eras where parents had richer, more varied networks of support. This is likely why the issue of boundaries is a frequent topic that I hear from adult children (wanting more boundaries) and from their parents (wanting less). Estrangements are sometimes the result of parents and adult children being unable to negotiate those very different needs and perspectives
- The use of therapeutic narratives (the language of psychology and self-help) as a way of making sense of life means that now, more than ever, young adults may blame “dysfunctional families” and poor parenting for the state of their lives rather than other contexts such as lack of decent paying jobs, health care, affordable colleges, etc.
- The American culture of adversarial individualism, where identity and autonomy are developed in opposition to parental authority, may also increase the risk of estrangement. Family relationships succeed or fail primarily based on whether they are a platform for individuality, growth, and self-actualization. From this vantage point, estrangement can be experienced as an act of existential courage on the part of the adult child.
- A rise in the power of children to set the terms of family life, both when children are in the home and out of it means that parental authority to compel contact over the life course has diminished. While it used to be the child’s job to earn the parent’s love and respect, today it’s the parent’s job to earn (and keep earning) that of the child’s
- While divorce rates have stabilized, parental divorce at any age may increase the risk of estrangement for the following reasons:
- It may cause the child to view one of the parents as the cause of breaking up the family.
- It may cause one of the parents to overtly or covertly poison the relationship to the other parent.
- Remarriage and dating after divorce may bring in new people to the child’s life with whom they must compete for emotional or financial resources.
- In a highly individualistic culture like ours, it may cause the child to view the parents more as individuals with their own relative strengths and weaknesses rather than as a family unit to which they also belong.
LG: What are some of the biggest hurdles that estranged parents have to get over to live with–or change–the situation?
JC: There are several common obstacles to resolving conflict with an estranged adult child:
- An inability on the part of the parent to see that the use of guilt or demands for a return on parental investment in the form of time or attention will backfire. Most adult children raised in the past 3 decades or so are likely to have been socialized with the belief that relationships, including those with parents, should be a platform for personal growth and the maintenance of happiness. From that perspective, the organizing principle is based more on those themes rather than historically earlier ones around obligation, respect, and duty.
- It’s important for parents to be able to take responsibility and empathize with the adult child’s perspective, even if it’s at odds with their own.
- Marriage of the adult child is also a common source of estrangement when the parent or parents don’t get along with the new spouse of their adult child.
In general, most reconciliations require the parent to take the initiative. However, there are many reasons why an adult child might not be willing, despite the parent’s efforts:
- He/she may have been successfully poisoned against the parent by the other parent after divorce.
- The adult child’s spouse may prevent the adult child from reconciling either because they feel too threatened by the adult child’s attachment to the parent or because of their dislike of them.
- The adult child, or a parent, may have a subtle or overt form of mental illness which makes the relationship too challenging, despite the relative health of one or the other.
- The adult child may know no other way to feel separate from the parent than to engage in estrangement. This sometimes occurs in homes where the child felt overly dependent on or enmeshed with the parent.
- The adult child may feel too hurt or mistrustful of the parent as a result of the parent’s earlier problematic behavior.
The following are some common obstacles to reconciliation on the part of the parent:
- The parent may not be psychologically able to express empathy for the adult child’s complaints because of their own emotional challenges. Thus, they may experience the adult child’s reasonable complaints as an unfair attack against them.
- The parent may be unwilling to change in ways desired by the adult child- for example, to be willing to accept their sexuality, religion, career path, partner choice, parenting style; or their requests to criticize less or demand less.
- The parent may not be able modify their demands for time and attention to be more in line with those of the adult child. Therefore, the adult child may eventually choose estrangement as a way to stop feeling chronically guilty or misunderstood.
LG: Is there such a thing as “recovery” from estrangement? I think it might take your whole book to describe, but can you tell us a little bit about what recovery might look like?
JC: In general, reconciliations are the most likely when parents can do the following:
- Empathize with the adult child’s complaints and take responsibility for whatever mistakes were made
- Avoid being defensive, qualifying, or explaining
- Show commitment to working on the relationship
- Accept the adult child’s terms for frequency and length of contact
- Accept the ways that the adult child is different from the parent without shaming or criticizing them.
On the part of the adult child, reconciliation is more likely if they can:
- Show compassion for the parent’s limitations as a person or parent
- Acknowledge that expectations of parents and parenting have risen and therefore, what seems like ineffectual or problematic parenting today, may have constituted reasonable parenting during their childrearing years
- Accept that the more attuned and psychological form of communication common today is relatively recent in parent-adult child relations and therefore learning this may take some time and practice on the part of the parent.