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When Adult Children “Ghost” Their Parents
Go on, break it. Break another little piece of my heart.
Photo Credit: Noel Hendrickson
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy
For most families, the end-of-year holiday season is a joyful time for family gatherings. For those families in which a loved one is estranged, however, the holidays can be a painful reminder of missing persons and empty spaces.
The emotional toll of estrangement falls most heavily on the parents. It hardly matters that the adult child may feel the separation is necessary for their own mental health.
Some social scientists say estrangement is increasing, but evidence is hard to pin down. In a 2014 survey in Britain, 8 percent said they had cut off a family member. In another survey the following year, 11% of mothers between age 65 and 75 reported estrangement from a child. A survey by a Cornell University professor found one in four American adults estranged from their families. Yet another study reports more than 40% of families experience some form of emotionally stressful estrangement. So you can find support for saying 8%, 40%, or any number in between. One thing we do know for sure, though, is that is happens – even in the best of families.
The causes of rupture tend to fall into a few broad categories: the adult child has to make a choice between a parent and someone else (often a romantic partner); the adult child is punishing the parent for perceived wrongs or differences in values; physical or verbal abuse; betrayal; or poor parenting. Divorce is a significant factor. According to another survey, 70% of parents estranged from an adult child were divorced from the estranged child’s other biological parent.
Those are specific grievances. But beyond them, there seems to be something larger going on in our culture that is heightening family disruption. Joshua Coleman, a psychologist specializing in family estrangement and author of When Parents Hurt, makes the case that a cultural shift over the past 50 years has profoundly changed the rules of family life. “Deciding which people to keep in or out of one’s life has become an important strategy to achieve happiness,” he wrote in The Atlantic last January. “While there’s nothing especially modern about family conflict or a desire to feel insulated from it,” he continued, “conceptualizing the estrangement of a family member as an expression of personal growth as it is commonly done today is almost certainly new.”
To put it another way, expectations of families have changed. Today’s parents of adult children grew up in families where it was conventional wisdom that family members had mutual obligations; today’s expectation from adult children is for mutual understanding. The parents seek ongoing respect and gratitude; the child wonders how the parents could have been so oblivious during his upbringing. Estrangement can happen even when parents have been conscientious and responsive. Sometimes, in fact, excessive parental worry and concern so overwhelms the children that they are forced to separate just to find their own place to stand.)
Coleman’s views are informed both by his practice and by personal experience. His own daughter would not speak to him for several years. They have now reconciled, and it impelled him to write a new book, Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Contact and How to Heal the Conflict.
Coleman points to an enormous rise in individualism. We define ourselves more by our personal identity, he says, and less by our relationships to marriage, church, neighborhood, and certainly to the family of our birth. Coupled with that is what he calls “therapeutic culture,” which speaks in the language of therapy and needs. This narrative causes people “to assume that whatever their anxieties, dysfunction, depression, liabilities in adulthood are, [they] can be reliably traced to childhood.” Maybe, maybe not. But this way of thinking gives adult children reasons to be angry with their parents for their “failures” and to feel a need to break away from a “toxic” relationship.
Estrangement can be emotionally devastating, particularly for mothers, who made being a good parent their core purpose. A child who cuts off contact can make her feel shame and failure; she may be embarrassed to share this personal tragedy with friends, which can make her feel isolated.
One other important note about estrangement: it gives the adult child all the power in the relationship (a reversal from the original parent-child dynamic). It is entirely up to the child to determine whether he will reconnect with his parents.
As parents get older, they may feel increased pressure to heal rifts. But what can parents do? Given the new balance of power, it is up to parents to make the first move toward reconciliation. Some suggestions from psychologists:
· Take the high road. Acknowledge your own role in the conflict. Apologize for it.
· Identify your boundaries – what you will and won’t do or accept.
· Listen compassionately, not defensively. Try to understand the child’s point of view, whether or not you agree with it.
· Consider how you can do better, so that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.
· Don’t beg or plead. That just trips the guilt wires.
· Seek out support, either from a therapist or friends you trust.
A final parting thought, from Joshua Coleman:
“We are all flawed. We should have that at the forefront of our minds when deciding who to keep in or out of our lives – and how to respond to those who no longer want us in theirs.”