Parental Estrangement

January 2, 2022

When feeling good about ourselves matters more than filial duty, cutting off our parents comes to seem like a valid choice.

We haven’t heard from our son in five years. We thought, with the pandemic and all, that he’d finally reach out with just a “Hey, wanted to make sure you’re doing okay. Let me know.” But nothing. He hasn’t answered our emails checking to see how he or our grandkids are either. We just don’t understand.’

Parents of a 27-year-old

A family member’s reaction to the pandemic shines a light on the painful reality that some adult children want little or nothing to do with their parents. Reacting to the phenomenon of parental estrangement, I wrote my first book on the topic, When Parents Hurt (2007). Since then, I’ve worked with thousands of estranged parents in and outside the United States through therapy, in webinars, and in my survey of 1,600 respondents conducted with the University of Wisconsin Survey Center, forming the basis of my latest book, Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict (forthcoming, 2021).

Parental estrangement is a topic that evokes strong opinions and emotions. It invites people to reflect on their family experiences, to review whether they treated their own parents fairly; and to consider whether they failed their children or deserve their distance or contempt.

A common perception is that parents become estranged only if they’ve behaved in an egregious fashion when raising their children or in the years since. Indeed, there are plenty who behave in ways that make estrangement seem like a reasonable if not a necessary solution for their grown children: parents who abused their children or neglected them; who vilify them for their gender identities or sexualities; who continue to degrade them for their religious or political beliefs.

Yet others become estranged for reasons that would mystify those in prior generations. For example, an adult child who wants to go ‘no contact’ to work on ‘co-dependency issues’ that they believe stem from the parent’s ‘over-parenting’. Or a daughter who wants to end the relationship because she can’t get her mother’s anxious voice out of her head.

The conditions under which estrangement might be considered acceptable depend on how cultures regard the obligations of parents and children to each other. Countries clearly differ in those considerations. For example, in the US, the idea that a society would require a grown child to pay for his father’s old-age care would be considered an intolerable infringement on his rights.

However, a federal court in Germany in 2014 ruled in exactly that way against the son, despite the fact that his father had abandoned him four decades earlier and left his estate to his girlfriend. Similarly, in the US, there would be outrage if a law suddenly made it a crime not to visit your ageing parents, yet this is precisely what was prescribed by China’s ‘Elderly Rights Law’ in 2013.

Research on estrangement is still sparse and relatively new. As a result, it’s difficult to cite studies showing an increasing trend over time or to assess different rates of estrangement across cultures. However, studies suggest that parents in the US might be more at risk for estrangement than parents in other countries.

For example, a large international study in 2010 of nearly 2,700 parents over the age of 65 found that parents in the US have almost twice as much conflict with their adult children compared with parents in Israel, Germany, England and Spain.

I believe that the strain in relationships between parents and their adult children in the US results partly from the profound social inequality that puts an enormous burden on American families, one that sometimes causes them to break. In addition, high rates of divorce and nonmarital childbearing in the US sometimes weaken ties between parents and their offspring by tempting one parent to blame the other and by inviting new people into the child’s life to compete for emotional or material resources.

‘I thought my father was a good father until he divorced my mother and left the home,’ said a young woman in my practice. ‘Even though I was grown, I can’t really forgive him for what he did to her so I basically haven’t spoken to him since.’ In a highly individualistic culture such as ours, divorce can also cause the child to see the parents more as individuals, with their own strengths and weaknesses, and less as a family unit of which they’re a part.

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