Attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects parents and their children. However, parental estrangement from adult children is not uncommon. Usually considered a phenomenon of families that have endured traumatic disruption, experts report an increasing occurrence within families without such a history. Parents in pain from their adult child’s rejection and desirous of a restored relationship need support in navigating an uncertain course.
Reasons for Estrangement
When families have endured disruption related to abuse, addiction or other trauma, adult children may sometimes step back from their parents as they sort through their childhood experience. However, estrangement can also occur when adult children experience their parent as failing to honor established boundaries, when there is a conflict over money or when there are long-standing resentments. Parental divorce and remarriage are frequent sources of distress. The disconnection that occurs when an adult child alerts a parent of the need to take a break from the relationship differs from the type that results from an angry, unexpected cut off.
Society's Possible Contribution to Estrangement
Psychologist Joshua Coleman, a parent who worked through estrangement with his adult daughter and who established an expertise in this area, thinks our culture’s emphasis on individual fulfillment has eroded the child-parent bond. "Little binds adult children to their parents these days, beyond whether the relationship feels good to them,” he says. The high divorce rate may diminish for children the sense that they are part of an unbreakable unit, while the conveniences necessary for today’s working parents reduce interdependence among family members.
Consequences for Parents
Therapists working with parents who are estranged from their adult children note powerful consequences from the cutoff. Depression related to loss and shame along with a strong sense of failure are commonly reported. Some have pursued grief counseling to deal with the overwhelming feelings of loss, while others have sought assistance to mend the relationship. There are others who suffer silently because they feel ashamed of their perceived failure. Indeed, horrific parental behavior is sometimes assumed to be the cause of parent-child disconnection, an assumption that can heighten discomfort and despair.
How you bridge the divide with your adult child depends upon the circumstances contributing to the rift. If there has been past trauma and your adult child has requested a break in the pursuit of healing, it is important to respect that request. It is reasonable to convey a desire to reunite when they feel ready, and it is important to hear their concerns when they are prepared to discuss them. If the cutoff has taken you by surprise, shock can interfere with good judgment. Demanding contact, using guilt as a strategy and defending yourself simply extend the distance.
Tips for Avoiding Estrangement with Adult Children
It is important to remember that you are no longer the parent of a child who needs direction and requires your permission. Criticizing decisions that your adult child makes is a certain path to tension. Unless your input is invited, who they date, how they parent and where they work are choices appropriately directed by your adult offspring. When disagreements arise, acknowledge your mistakes and remain committed to respectful resolution of differences. Both parties should feel heard and should feel the relationship is a valued priority for the other.
Certain areas can be land mines. If your adult child requests financial assistance, be clear about expectations. Remember that aid is not an excuse for control. If you cannot fulfill a request for assistance, do not allow your guilt to interfere with your message. In other words, remain loving and supportive even if you need to say no. In the midst of an estrangement, remember that each member of a family has a point of view and that it must be respected. It is important to obtain support for the emotions alienation can evoke. You can keep the door open to reconciliation by accepting responsibility for past mistakes and consistently conveying a desire to resolve differences and repair the relationship.
- Attachment. Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Loss; John Bowlby
- Simply Psychology: Attachment Theory
- New York Times: When the Ties That Bind Unravel
- When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along; Joshua Coleman, Ph.D.
Barbara Keane is a licensed psychologist who has enjoyed a variety of experiences in 25 years of practice, including work with adolescents and their families. Dr. Keane, who believes that warmth and humor are essential components of the therapy process, emphasizes creative problem-solving based on the individual's strengths and resources.
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