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Are You Estranged From Your Adult Children?

Four tips to help you heal … and maybe reconnect.

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Jan Buchczik
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Barbara Fortune last saw her youngest grandchild shortly after he was born. Today, she says, she wouldn’t even know the boy if she saw him on the street.

“I have no idea what he or his older brother even look like now,” she says. Fortune has been estranged from her son, the boys’ father, for eight years. As a result, she also lost contact with her two grandsons. Like so many parents of estranged adult children, she has spent countless hours trying to understand what went wrong.

“David was my youngest,” Fortune says. “When I look back on home movies, whenever I enter the picture, he’s always beside me. Even when he grew up and married, we were so close. It’s hard to believe he’d do this to me.”

The break seemed sudden and inexplicable to her; though looking back, she sees signs. It began when he wanted her to visit less. Next, he tried to limit communication to Skype. David’s wife became extra critical of Fortune’s housekeeping. She begged her son to explain why he was withdrawing from her life. She asked what she’d done wrong and promised she could change her behavior. But Fortune says David has never explained himself. After years of effort, she has given up trying to reach out. She takes comfort in her relationship with her daughter and granddaughters.

Fortune’s situation is surprisingly common. Dubbed “the silent epidemic” by parenting pros, estrangement between adult children and their parents is on the rise. Most ruptures are initiated by the child. Surveys vary, but research by Cornell sociologist Karl Pillemer conducted in 2021 indicates that roughly 25 percent of American adults are estranged from their families. Pillemer, author of Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, speculates that the real figure is higher. Numbers may be underreported because parents feel judged, rejected and enormous shame about the estrangement.

Sure enough, when I began talking to friends about this topic, many privately revealed their own family rifts. Some were estranged from siblings, some from parents.

Certainly, there are valid reasons for adults to cut off relationships with their parents. A history of sexual or physical abuse and other family anguish can render an emotionally safe relationship impossible.

“We live in this trauma-obsessed culture where these kids get into adulthood and look at their lives and say, ‘Gee, I have low self-esteem. I have depression. I’m bad with relationships. I’m not able to launch an adult life.’ And they go into therapy, and the therapist looks for hidden trauma,” says Josh Coleman, a psychologist and author of Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties & How to Heal the Conflict. “We’re preoccupied with parents as sort of the root of adult outcomes in a way that’s really problematic.”

In many families, this sets up scenarios of competing realities. The parent struggles to understand what went wrong, while the adult child accuses the parent of denying the past. Estranged adult children point to abuse, “toxic behavior” (disrespect, lack of boundaries, feeling unsupported and criticized), parental narcissism and opposing values as reasons for cutting off relations.

Evolving parenting styles compound disconnected perceptions, because what is considered appropriate child rearing has changed dramatically over the generations.

“The parents who have been parenting in the last four decades or so, are some of the most educated, dedicated, wealthy parents that have ever existed,” Coleman says. “They know more about child development than any other parents before. And so many of them feel, ‘I’ve invested in my child’s happiness and well-being and made sacrifices for them. I gave them a childhood nobody ever gave to me, and now I’m being told I was emotionally abusive because I was at work too much,’ or some other thing. The idea that the child owes something to the parents because of their sacrifices or dedication is completely taken off the table.”

Divorce also drives estrangement. Coleman’s research reveals that 70 percent of estranged parents were divorced from the child’s other biological parent. One family rift begets another. In other cases, estranged parents blame their adult child’s spouse for driving a wedge.

Whatever precipitates the break — and it’s usually complicated — estrangement is gut-wrenching for everyone concerned.

“It sent me into a pit of despair, and it was something I hadn’t expected, wasn’t prepared for and knew nothing about,” says Sheri McGregor, author of Done With the Crying and Beyond Done With the Crying, as well as the founder of the website www.rejectedparents.net. McGregor has good relationships with four of her five children. But one of her sons cut off contact when he was in his 20s. Her initial reactions were shame and self-blame, a pattern she sees repeatedly in the stunned parents who come to her site.

“We look back with a fine-tooth comb over everything, from conception onward,” she says. “And of course, when you’re looking at your life in that negative light of ‘I did something wrong,' you’re going to see every mistake you ever made and magnify it.”

After her son cut off their relationship, McGregor started researching estrangement. She says she found little support. “What I found instead was an awful lot of judgment,” McGregor says. “Parents were being told they were too lenient, too strict, too critical, too close, too distant, they just ran the gamut. To compound the loss with judgment is just an added level of cruelty.”

Reconciliation is possible, but it takes work and humility. Experts say that pleading your case or arguing is rarely effective. Ditto guilt trips. Some parents have been advised to write “amends letters.” Even these are tricky. “I’m sorry you believe you were abused,” is not helpful. “You are clearly in pain, and I’m sorry for my role in causing it,” is better.

And sometimes, you just need to move on. “It’s OK to hope, but if you’re spending a lot of time ruminating about something that brings so much pain and it’s causing paralysis in your life, that’s not good for anyone,” McGregor says. “It’s also good to put things in perspective and get on with your own life and make peace with it.”

Four tips to help you heal … and maybe reconnect

Respect your adult child’s request for better boundaries. If they’ve asked you to stop emailing and texting, restrain yourself. A break may lower the emotional temperature of the relationship and demonstrates your willingness to listen. It also may give your adult child time to reflect on their own behavior. A “time-out” from the relationship isn’t necessarily forever.

Get over your need to be “right.”

A reconciliation will require you to have at least some understanding of your adult child’s perspective.  Be willing to change behavior that has upset them.

Be kind to yourself.

Focus on other relationships and activities that bring you joy.

Get yourself support.

Talking with others who share your experience can help, as can seeing a therapist who specializes in estrangement — with the children adrift from you, if they are willing.

As I finish writing this article, my son and daughter-in-law are visiting, both working remotely from our battered family room couch. I just paused to give each of them a kiss on the top of the head. And silently offered up a prayer that our bond never breaks.

Are any of you estranged from your adult children? Let us know in the comments below.

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