For some parents and their adult children, the Holiday Season is not the warm, loving family time that other families are experiencing right now. That’s because of parent/adult child estrangement, a phenomenon that psychologist and parent Joshua Coleman, Ph.D says has become a silent epidemic in the United States.
For the purpose of this article, parent/adult child estrangement refers to an adult child choosing to estrange themselves from one or both parents (and not the reverse situation). Since we have coached several young adults who communicate minimally with their parents, it’s an important topic for us. And a complex one, as well!
Unfortunately, our estranged young adult coaching clients did not progress as much in coaching as they could have if they had a healthier relationship with their parent(s). So that’s why we want to share some information on this important topic with you (as a parent) – or with other parents that you know and with whom you share this article.
I’ll begin with an overview of parent/adult child estrangement. And then I’ll tell you about just one tool (among many) that parents can use to help transform estrangement into an opportunity for self-growth.
What Is Parent/Adult Child Estrangement?
Parent/adult child estrangement occurs when an adult child attributes something about their parent’s present or past behavior as being so uncomfortable or hurtful to them that they decide to stop most or all contact with the parent.
The concept of attribution theory is central to understanding estrangement. The adult child tends to explain a parent’s behavior in terms of “traits,” but explains their own behavior in terms of “circumstances.”
Here’s a typical scenario. The parent offers an opinion or advice to their adult child in an attempt to be helpful. However, the adult child feels that the parent is judging, critical, or controlling. Consequently, the adult child attributes the parent’s behavior to “troublesome” personality traits, rather than to their (the adult child’s) own behavior. The adult child decides that the parent will not change and it’s best just to cut off contact. Believing that the parent cannot or will not change is what makes reconciliation so difficult!
Interestingly, when the adult child displays the same judging, critical, or controlling behaviors toward the parent, he or she often attributes their own behaviors to circumstances.
For instance, the adult child feels that they have a right to criticize the parent because “I was going through a difficult period, and you were judging and made me feel ashamed.” Or “I couldn’t return your calls the last two months because I’ve been very busy. You’re so demanding and controlling! You have no consideration for how busy I am!”
What Causes Parent/Adult Child Estrangement?
Though attribution theory is central to understanding parent/adult child estrangement, dozens of things can contribute to the problem. Here are just a few of them.
Though many adult children still keep in close communication with their parents, it is more common in recent years for adult children to live independent, non-traditional lifestyles in which they simply don’t feel that they “need” their parents. Their adult friends are often their “family of choice.” Spouses or “significant others” may reinforce the belief that they really don’t need to communicate with their parents.
Parents often don’t know how their children perceived childhood events when they were growing up or as they mature into adulthood. For example, a parent may feel that their child handled a difficult event quite well when it happened. The child didn’t express fears or frustrations to the parent. Yet, as the child matured into adulthood, the memory became distorted. The adult child decided that their parent abused or mistreated them. This leads to their deciding to no longer maintain contact with their parent(s). Sadly, therapists sometimes buy into a “reconstructed” version of the event and encourage the adult child to cut off parental contact.
Even in cases of “amicable” divorces, a child sometimes perceives that one or both parents did bad things to the other. As this belief festers and is firmly established in the adult child’s mindset, he or she may gradually – or abruptly – withdraw from one or both parents.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), half of mental health conditions begin by age 14, and 75% of mental health conditions develop by age 24. When an adult child has bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, or another major mental health condition, his or her relationship with their parent(s) can change dramatically. The adult child may become distrusting, paranoid, or depressed. They may decide that the best way to avoid unwanted parental input is to withdraw from the relationship.
No Singular Cause for Parent/Adult Child Estrangement
In many cases, there’s not a singular cause for estrangement. For more complete information on the many causes of parent/adult child estrangement (as well as strategies for healing), we recommend that you read Dr. Coleman’s book, When Parents Hurt, Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along.
When and How Does Parent/Adult Child Estrangement Happen?
It can happen quickly – even overnight! Or it can come on gradually over a period of years. Either way, when an adult child initiates the estrangement, it catches many parents by complete surprise. That’s probably the most complex, frustrating, and perplexing aspect of the problem.
Parent/adult child estrangement usually starts during the late teens or 20’s. However, it isn’t unusual for it to happen when the adult child is in his or her 30’s. Occasionally, it happens even later. The longer the adult child remains estranged, the more likely that the parent/adult child relationship will remain broken.
In many cases, there’s a “partial estrangement.” That’s a healthy sign because there is not total cut-off. The adult child responds to some parental outreach and/or actually initiates outreach with the parent occasionally.
Unfortunately, whether there’s partial or full parent/adult child estrangement, the relationship is often never quite the same.
When an adult child rejects a parent, it creates a deep, gut-wrenching wound. There is almost nothing as hurtful to a parent as rejection from their own child. This is especially true in cases in which the parent reaches out for years, and the adult child barely responds or does not respond at all.
When contact does reoccur, the parent does not know if they can fully trust that cut-off won’t happen again. In fact, once an adult child has initiated an estrangement, it’s quite common for partial or complete estrangement to reoccur (often with no warning).
Is Parent/Adult Child Estrangement the Parents’ Fault?
Dr. Coleman says that most parents who seek his assistance with healing their estranged parent/adult child relationship are loving, well-meaning parents. This is certainly true of the estranged parents whose young adult children we have coached. They have usually made many sacrifices of time and money, and they have provided tender, loving care for their child over a prolonged period of time. They usually did their best to give their child a good home and education and to help them launch successfully into adulthood. But something went wrong along the way.
Of course, all parents make mistakes. No parent is perfect! When an estranged adult child makes a legitimate complaint, it’s important for the parent to listen with an open mind, be humble, own their mistakes, and make amends. If a parent is unwilling to do these things, they can certainly expect the estrangement to continue.
And, of course, there are also parents who did do something horribly wrong – like child neglect or even child abuse. Estrangement is more understandable under those circumstances. But why would any adult child not want a healthy relationship with a parent who is not neglectful or abusive, but just did his or her best to raise their child?
Isn’t it Natural for Adult Children to be Independent?
Sure! It’s natural (and healthy!) for adult children (especially young adult children) to put some distance between themselves and their parents.
For example, adult children may not tell their parents how much they spend or what they buy, their college grades, how much alcohol they drink, or even who they date or break up with. It’s natural for young adults to draw boundaries between themselves and their parents. It’s how they figure out things on their own – and grow up!
But estrangement is different. By definition, parent/adult child estrangement is when adult children cut off their parents from all or almost all contact.
Transforming Parent/Adult Child Estrangement
Parent/adult child estrangement sounds pretty bleak. And it is! But there’s hope.
In a recent article, I mentioned a free positive psychology app called Bliss. It has several exercises which, if done regularly, help increase your happiness level: Gratitude Exercise, Best Possible Future, Could Be Worse, Honoring People, Three Good Things, etc.
One of the best Bliss exercises to help with parental estrangement is called “Transforming Problems.” If you’re feeling burdened by parent/adult child estrangement, the app can coach you through a 3-step process to transforming the problem. When you need a “pick-me-up” or reminder of how far you have come with resolving your parental estrangement situation, you can review your previous “Transforming Problems” entries.
3 Steps – Problem, Opportunity, and Response
Let’s see how a parent might transform their parental estrangement problem, using the Bliss app “Transforming Problems” instructions:
Identify a problem.
Start by identifying the single problem that is troubling you most. It could be a source of stress, discomfort, anger, or sadness.
Sample Problem: No matter how supportive I am to my adult son and how much I try to develop a close relationship with him, he never really warms up very much. I often feel sad that I cannot have the consistently open, warm, friendly relationship with him that I want.
How is this problem an opportunity for growth?
How could dealing with it help make you a better person? What new skills could it help you develop? Are there tangible benefits that may come from dealing with the problem effectively?
Sample Growth Opportunity: Many parents have the same problem that I do. Having this experience with my son has deepened my understanding and empathy for others who are experiencing parental estrangement. It has also helped me to build new skills for taking care of myself and learn more about the way my son wants me to communicate with him.
How do you choose to respond?
How do you choose to respond to the situation? What values and strengths will you use in your response?
Sample Response to the Problem: I try to be patient and respond with love and compassion. I’ve also learned NOT to expect a response from my son when I would like for him to respond. I cannot control when or how he will respond. I can only control my own behaviors. However, I work hard on developing other significant relationships in my life so that my life is full of joy and meaning. And I also do self-compassion exercises. I know that I am a good person, and I can reach out to others when my son does not respond.
In order to heal, parents who are estranged from an adult child need to be compassionate and patient with themselves, as well as with their adult child. There are no guarantees that a parent will have the relationship that they want with their adult child.
There are, however, a lot of strategies that parents can learn and implement that will help. It will take some time – maybe a long time. But a better relationship with your adult child is worth the wait!
We encourage parents who are estranged from their adult children to seek professional help by reading and implementing some of the strategies in When Parents Hurt, signing up for Dr. Coleman’s webinars, or getting involved in an online estranged parents support group. They may also want to connect with other estranged parents through https://www.rejectedparents.net/ or join a local support group.
As usual, please contact us for a free consultation to find out how our coaching and assessment services may be helpful to you. Wishing you a happy and peaceful 2019!