Estrangement is complicated and deals with perspectives from many different angles. Estrangement can be challenging to navigate emotionally since both estranged parties likely want to solidify who is to blame.
Considering life development, the five stages of aging include independence, interdependence, dependency, crisis management, and end of life. The stages may not necessarily be linear and vary according to personal experience. Anyone who has witnessed their parent’s aging can attest to the changes and transitions the individual and their family face.
Typically, during their 50s and 60s, individuals find a rhythm of independence that is familiar and workable. As people age and their needs change, they will likely need to transition into interdependence, where the assistance of others is necessary.
Around the age of 80, depending on one’s health conditions, there is a high probability that one will need others’ assistance. Going beyond 90 comes with the high potential of crisis management in one’s future and the certainty of the end of life.
For many parents of estranged adult children, the emotional stress and the potential for chronic stress, along with the anxieties relating to dependency, further complicate the condition. Parents may worry about who will be there for them as they age, how they will manage without their adult child, and may feel anger that they are uncertain their adult child is concerned for them at this challenging time of life.
Aging reduces the ability to tolerate stress, so the ordeal of estrangement and the struggle to comprehend and accept the loss of the relationship status with an adult child makes it that much more difficult.
Parent and child relationships involve a plethora of layers and influences. There is no easy way to parent; sometimes, success and failure can be due to many factors. It is often perceived that poor parenting is the sole blame for estrangement. However, perfection is unrealistic and unattainable.
Parents become weighed on an unbalanced scale which results in a higher level of scrutiny from the adult child. This idea is outlined in Kylie Agillias’s book Family Estrangement: A matter of Perspective which discusses how people will make a low relational “evaluation based on the assumption that members will look after each other’s welfare.”
When there is a low evaluation, the relational partner values them less than they expect or desire. The adult child may perceive a low relational assessment when they do not feel protected, supported, or understood.
The adult child will review their relational value to their parent and decide how much they think the parent has their best interest in mind. Because of this assessment, the adult child will determine whether or not they want to continue the relationship based on the character and behaviors of their parents.
Our current state of culture contributes to our different perspectives regarding estrangement. In many cases, adult children maintained family ties to a higher degree in past generations than currently. It was not unlikely that adult children would remain closely connected to their parents because that’s just what everyone did.
It could have been seen as a sign of respect to stay close, or it could have been obligatory. Now, adult children decide to cut ties with family simply because they can. Whether it be because of prolonged abuse, moments of toxicity, or they don’t feel happy in the relationship, it is a choice that they think should be respected.
When an adult child begins psychotherapy, it is not uncommon for estrangement to take place. With good reason, a therapist might recommend estrangement for the adult child to heal from toxicity or abuse. Other times, the therapist may be inclined to attribute the parenting failure to the current discontentment of the adult child through only one lens: the adult child.
It is usual for therapists to agree and support the adult child’s perspective since they are the person sitting across from them, not the parent. For some adult children seeking therapy, estrangement is necessary for the adult child’s well-being. In other cases, the therapist pushing for separation may come from an imbalanced perspective served up by the adult child.
Many adults believe that their upbringing is the only framework that determines how they will succeed. Due to many other childhood factors, this is unrealistic. This idea, unfortunately, places an impossible responsibility on the parenting. Causes for estrangement are vast and valid, but attributing all of our successes, failures, and current mental faculties to our family upbringing is sometimes unreasonable.
In his book, Rules of Estrangement, Joshua Coleman says, “The family, more than any other institution, is the place Americans tend to go sniffing when they want to root out the inhibitions, anxieties or propensities to failure that appear to block their path to growth and achievement.” For some adult children, this idea could contribute to their decision towards estrangement.
Parents are heartbroken over their adult child’s decision to cut ties, and navigating life transitions makes it even worse. I hear from many parents who are grieving and questioning themselves, their children, their world, and their futures.
Many estranged adult children are hurting and angry. Despite their reasons for estranging, people want healthy, loving relationships, and the absence of such is painful. I plan to inform estranged family members so that through insight and acceptance, empathy for themselves and their estranged loved ones will follow.
Of all the topics within estrangement, differing perspectives are profoundly puzzling. In my conversations with parents, I notice similar themes of sadness, grief, anger, and confusion. They miss their adult children and long for connection.
When confronted, most identify and take responsibility for parenting methods their adult child perceive as harmful. Some dig their heels into their perspective, leaving little room for the views of their adult child. Others question why their adult child chooses to cut ties rather than confront and resolve the rift between them.
On the other hand, adult children are often angry and convinced that estrangement is the best solution to their present discontent. While I am confident that in cases of abuse the answer is to remove oneself from a harmful situation and seek support, that is not always the case. Many mental health professionals will agree that individuals whose mental or physical health is in danger should leave the relationship.
However, adult children can be stressed by many factors, other than and in addition to their parents. Adult children between 30 and 50 years old are raising families, navigating career and job choices, launching their kids, dealing with illnesses, and adjusting to the uncertainty of their futures due to economic fears.
In this environment of tensions and increased financial insecurity, societal changes, individualism and the shift away from family values may be so overwhelming for adult children that cutting off their parents relieves them.
The differences are apparent, but the issue remains – is there a way to bridge the divide? Addressing these polarities within a family perhaps begins when resolving one’s perspective includes accepting others.
We know that navigating estranged adult children involves an imbalance of power, with adult children having the advantage. Many parents find professional support to comprehend and move forward with their lives and possibly get some form of reconciliation.
They lean into self-compassion and empathy for their adult child. Parents benefit greatly when they practice self-care, learn how to listen and validate, and commit to actively engage with friends and those who love and value them.
What practices are you committed to doing to address your stress? What has helped you to gain insight into your adult child’s estrangement?
You are not including parental alienation. One parent intentionally turns the children and demands they cut the alienated parent from their life. A “cult of one”
Thank you for pointing this out. Parental alienation can often lead to an adult child estranging from the alienated parent. This ties into how divorce impacts children and the fallout of a conflicted marriage. I’m glad you mentioned this. Estrangement is so complex; there are so many different factors. Warmly, Marie
This is a very thoughtful analysis…worth reading for parents. Make the effort to reconcile, correct poor behavior, understand that their are many factors that can lead to estrangement; understand that your child may be brittle, fragile or overwhelmed and that their therapist may be choosing to see the issue only through their client’s eyes.
Thank you for sharing David. There are so many facets to estrangement.
Why is the assumption always that it is the child who is a victim and chooses estrangement? I know of many toxic adult children in their 40’s or 50’s still blaming their own repeated toxic life choices on their parents. I have such an adult child with two kids of her own and her toxic manipulative selfish ways became just too much and “I” chose to cut ties with HER 3 times over the past two decades. I am pretty certain this last time that started about 14 months ago will be permanent as per my choosing. I did so for my own sanity and self respect. We tried reconciliation a couple of times but in a matter of months she’d go right back to her old ways of excessive expectations from me and toxic behaviour from her if she did not get what she wanted ( financial and emotional abuse towards us and more) and no offer of anything beneficial of any sort from her. It is was and always will be all about her. She uses HER kids as convenient pawns to manipulate everyone in her life. It will not work on me anymore. She takes no responsibility for the choices she has made even when I was out of her life for years on end. That right there is reason enough to stay away from her. Can’t blame ME for the consequences of her actions and choices for years on end IF I’M NOT even IN her life lmbo.The stress of dealing with such innate narcissism on and off for years literally made me physically and emotionally sick every time I let her back into my life. Sorry but blood is not thicker than water, and my life without her in it is once again sweetly joyous peaceful and healthy. I have no regrets.
I have very similar story and my life is so much better without the stress & financial drain of my adult drug addicted & alcoholic son. I know in my heart I was a good parent and did my best to help him, but I can’t carry his internal struggle for him any longer. I’ve accepted the circumstance, wish him peace & recovery, but have no desire or expect we’ll ever reconcile.
I encourage you to go to an Al-anon meeting. If you keep going, there will be answers there.
Hi Lori: Thank you for sharing. Mental illness and drug addiction in our adult children present an extraordinary challenge. I am glad that you have come to an acceptance that honors your well-being. We can only do what is within our control. Choosing to care for oneself enough to create boundaries is sometimes what we need to do.
I appreciate you sharing your experience. Warmly, Marie
Thank you for commenting Diane. Your story is very similar to mine. My daughter has been estranged from me for almost 2yrs now. Through therapy I have come to realise that it always takes two people to make or break a relationship and it is not all the fault of one party. I’ve been learning to take care of myself and am now excited for my future again. I’m sad I’ll never know my grandchildren but I’m at peace knowing that was their mother’s choice and not mine. Like you I have no regrets – I did everything I could to be the best Mom for my kids and my son is living proof of that.
Thank you for sharing. I am glad that you are taking care of yourself and looking forward. Enjoying your life and appreciating your son demonstrates you are honoring your well-being. I’m happy you wrote. Warmly, Marie
Thank you for sharing. You mention a different dimension of estrangement, abusive and toxic adult children. In such cases, as with toxic parents, the individual benefits from creating boundaries. I am glad that you made choices that honored your well-being.
I wish you well, Marie Morin
My estranged adult child and I had been seeing separate therapists for several years when we entered into a “sharing agreement” between ourselves and our therapists in an attempt to communicate via email exchanges. Within 5 or 6 exchanges her therapist told me to block her. Did I feel vindicated? A little, momentarily, but it was quickly replaced with disgust at this so called professional who it seemed to me had failed her. He never recognized her mental situation because of his personal bias, never recommended her for a pharmaceutical review that might have helped her.
I have been estranged from my mother for 7+ years due entirely to her drinking.This article, like most of what I read about estrangement, leaves out addiction as a common and valid cause of estrangement. My mom wasn’t a perfect parent, but it is not what happened in my childhood that caused me to walk away from our relationship, but how she was treating me at that time. I am not opposed to reconciliation, but would only consider it if she was seeking treatment, which is not something I see her ever choosing.
I was unable to have children so believe I am more independent than many other women of my age seem to be. It is unfortunate to be estranged from one’s parents. In my case it was my mother, who lived to be 100. But we were, for at least a full year on two different occasions, and I still feel it was the healthy thing for me to do at the time. Today, I just feel responsible for taking care of myself and think other women, even those with children, should assume that same responsibility. I feel sorry for some of the grown children whose mothers in particular live in my senior housing apartment and seem to lean on them to the point of suffocation.
I think the imbalance of power is a very substantial contributor to ongoing resentment and difficulty in reconciliation.
I find that there is another component, that having to do with recovery from trauma that affects physical, mental, emotional well being. Our nervous system does not feel safe for months, perhaps years after an acute trauma event that leaves us feeling isolated and damaged. There is not enough about specifically healing from the trauma and grief of estrangement…so much different when who and what we are grieving are still alive and in the world.
From my vantage point, it’s easier to write off parents when families are faced with the stress of raising their own, a point well made here. However, the legacy of estrangement vs community is damaging inter-generationally, not only to the grand children, but everyone involved.
Thank you for mentioning the imbalance of power and, ultimately, its impact on grandchildren and everyone in the grasp of estrangement. I believe that healing from trauma is a significant consideration, and each needs to feel safe to consider reentry into a potentially harmful relationship. Also, I wonder if there is a way that when one works through the trauma, they may gain insight into the importance of self-care and the benefits of social and family connections. Of course, this means the individual would actively discern which relationships are safe. What are your thoughts on this?