By the time we reach our 60s, we reflect on what we once hoped for with our family. I hear from women that they would grow older harmoniously with their families. It is encouraging and a blessing when this is the case. But many struggle under the shroud of secrecy.
Few will admit they have enough family conflict to sink a ship or are estranged. Some women have no clue why an adult child rejects them. Self-blame and shame are difficult to overcome. All parties suffer when the rift causes physical and emotional distancing. So, how did we get here? Why are adult children cut off from one or more parents?
We have come along in the last 50 years relationally. The many positive changes undoubtedly have given way to more equality, opportunity, and freedoms. Our society is far from ideal but more accepting of differences than our younger days.
Intact families are closer than before, texting or messaging frequently. Also, there is much more freedom to leave relationships with discontent or abuse. Children from divorced marriages are insulated from caustic interactions. Indeed, the changes have brought more significant advantages to our society.
How has this transformation affected how our adult kids see their world? In Dr. Joshua Coleman’s book, Rules of Estrangement, he explains the rise of individualistic thinking. Notably, a shift from loyalty to individual fulfillment.
Indeed, having agency and doing what pleases you rather than doing what others want is a good thing. But have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater? I’m not particularly eager to go to funerals, but I do it to respect my loved ones. Individualistic fulfillment can, at times, teeter on the extreme. It is devastating when your adult child is unhappy with you and cuts ties.
Expectations are a natural part of relationships. Codependency recovery teaches that having expectations sets us up for disappointments. The balance comes in recognizing expectations exist in social norms. We have standards about how much time and support we receive from our family and adult children.
The commonality and exchange within families are part of social norms and expectations. If you need me, I am there for you, and when I need you, you will be there for me. When they break the standard, it can feel like a violation and cause friction and resentment.
Welcome to the imperfect parenting club. Estrangement stories and parenting vary greatly.
Yes, abusive, narcissistic, negligent, absent, uninvolved, and unloving parents. When the children of these parents go to therapy, they are encouraged to separate with good reason. However, recently, abuse seems to include inconsistent parenting, fighting, yelling, and on occasion, nasty behaviors towards children.
None of this is acceptable; however, it happens. Less than the best parenting hurts kids. From my research, it appears that the focus of blaming parents anywhere on the spectrum is fashionable.
Identifying what parental behaviors hurt and how they affected them is helpful to process pain. The process helps them to see and have greater insight. Some adult kids get stuck here for a long time. They detach to protect themselves.
Hopefully, if they continue to get help, they will gain insight that their parents were mere humans. It is the cycle of awareness and growth. However, the trend of seeing others as responsible for one’s present mental state is problematic.
Divorce can affect adult children by causing them to take sides, finding a victim and perpetrator in their narrative. Parental alienation, where one parent maligns the other and influences the child negatively, affects everyone. When a child experiences parental alienation, they may hold their learned grudge even when they are adults.
Adult children can also be overly worried about one parent. Divorce can also alter the family by adding new boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, stepchildren. The new “members” may not get along or be unappealing to the child or adult child. Interestingly, when kids are young, divorce increases the likelihood of later estrangement.
The adult child may have married someone who is emotionally troubled. They may pressure your child to keep distant. The spouse or partner may be threatened by you and insist on less involvement. They may also encourage isolation from you. Your adult child, consequentially, may succumb to their wishes.
Many estrangement stories are rooted in the who, what, where, when, and how of your money and/or property. Sibling rivalries, expectations of unending support, unpaid loans, and their perception of unfair inheritances can aggravate the conflict. Often, deep-rooted conflict can result in estrangement when no resolution occurs.
The behaviors and attitudes of those who struggle with addictions and mental illness can be challenging. They can be highly dysregulated, angry, nasty, and abusive. Often, they are highly likely to misunderstand or misinterpret your communication due to their mental state.
Adult children in this state can be nearly impossible to relate to reasonably. Parents are likely to return nasty comments, be equally dysregulated, and fight back. Parents in this situation would benefit from learning communication skills and setting clear boundaries.
It is challenging to unravel this alone. Many parents in this situation intentionally distance their adult child out of self-preservation. Adult children with addiction and mental illness can estrange from not knowing how to cope with their condition. They may likely blame their parent for their misfortune.
There are more reasons why adult kids cut ties with their parents, including a history of estrangement in the family, perceived negative childhood experiences, the guidance of their therapist, and a trend towards victimization.
Also, there may have been too close of a parental relationship where leaving is the only way to individuate. The presence of differing values, lifestyles, and choices is also a common reason for detaching from parents.
Estrangement is a complex topic with varying stories. I hear most of my clients’ deep sadness that their adult child ignores them. I listen to their heartbreak over not seeing their grandchildren. They tell me they never expected their child to do such a thing. They expected their adult kids would reciprocate love and affection. They also feel a deep sense of loss and grief more complicated than losing a child. They never expected to be “kicked to the curb.”
Not one parent expects to be alienated and rejected from their adult child. After all, we grew up in an era where loyalty, respect that did not need to be earned, obligations, and responsibility were the norm. We want our adult children to live their own lives, but we want to be a part of it.
The expectation is reasonable; after all, we were the generation of Little House on the Prairie, Happy Days, The Jefferson’s, and Family Ties. We got our dose of The Golden Girls, Roseanne, and Married with Children. Television programming was full of relationship stories.
We watched conflicts get resolved; women worked outside the home, families gathered and talked. We had some realism but more idealism. The culture was changing before our eyes, tempered with understanding, respect, and levelheaded conversations.
Is it any wonder that parents are shocked and heartbroken when their relationship with their kids falls apart? Aside from programs, many grew up in families with similar yet less idyllic homes, but they acted like families. They talked, cared enough to check-in, and were loyal and interested.
Of course, for some, their family life was difficult and painful. Children of alcoholic parents, possibly abused, admit they worked even harder to nurture a long-lasting family bond. They wanted to provide the loving atmosphere they never had.
So, then, what has happened to our society’s family unit? And why is at least one out of four people in the United States now estranged from one or more family members? As a therapist and wellness coach, I listen and guide others to healing. Primarily I help people get out of stuck.
When your kid chooses to estrange, of course, you grieve and cry. I will encourage you not to go down with the ship. If you are doing well, I applaud you. Many have done well by accepting and moving on as best they can. They make time to gather with their other kids and welcome friends. They resist isolation and start socializing. They embark on a daily routine to climb out of the messy place and continue without the estranged child.
They keep informed, find support, do daily self-care, process their grief through journaling, find gratitude and keep living. My clients also learn from my eBook, videos, and blogs on estrangement. Information brings insight to prepare for reconciliation if this is your goal.
Not every parent wants to reunite. When the rift is too broad, you may wish to remain estranged. My clients preparing for reconciliation are grieving, learning communication skills, doing emotional visits, and gaining support. They are learning to understand their adult child and understand themselves. We are on the road together to rediscover who they are despite their condition. Remember, you are not alone.
Where are you in your estrangement story? Do you find that parts of this article resonate with your own journey? What steps have you taken to care for yourself during this time?