The truth is — I am estranged from my two adult sons.
The truth is — I love my sons and I miss them every day.
The truth is — I can’t understand how in the world this has happened.
The truth is — saying you love them and miss them is not enough. There is much more to say, but you need a conversation — you need actual interaction, not just silence.
For me, the estrangement began over what I believed to be a misunderstanding. Since then, I’ve been on a journey of understanding, or at least trying to understand.
Maybe the seed of children cutting off their parents started with us, the first generation with parents ultra-concerned about making sure their children had a “better” childhood than they had.
Since I have been met with silence when trying to understand my children’s point of view, however, I have turned to studying estrangement. I have researched every article I could find on the topic, presented at conferences and co-authored a paper about estrangement. I started a private social network for those who are experiencing the same thing, and one thing is clear — there are literally thousands of stories just like mine.
These are stories of love, though sometimes hearing parents tell their stories, a reader might understand why an adult child would need a breather.
The Rise Of Narcissism In The Young
Parents tell stories of ill-spoken words, of misunderstanding, of unhelpful interference from others. Much of what they describe, while conflict-laden and uncomfortable, doesn’t seem bad enough to have caused estrangement. The scenarios don’t appear to warrant a total cutoff. At least not according to the way I was raised. I hear that phrase a lot, too.
Most of the parents I talk to are boomers, who share similar values and beliefs, including thoughts on how parents should be treated. The similarities I’ve seen in stories about how they lost contact with their children created a new direction for my research — our culture.
Specifically, I have directed my focus to the rise of narcissism among younger people. The topic is hot right now.
The book, The Narcissist Next Door, was released just last month by Jeffrey Kluger, science editor of Time magazine. Kluger writes: “Parents spend a lot of time ensuring their children have high self-esteem. You need a healthy ego to climb to the top of your profession. But when does self-regard become narcissism?”
Narcissism has been long been associated with the notion of entitlement, which typically suggests a lack of empathy, a feeling of superiority and a tendency to overreact to criticism.
So I wonder.
Children At The Center, Adults On The Outs
In previous generations, no one worried about a child’s self-esteem. In the past, elders’ experiences were valued and their children listened to them. Estrangement did happen, but it appeared to be reserved for parents cutting off a wayward child — the “black sheep” of the family.
After WWII, Dr. Benjamin Spock entered the scene as one of the first parenting experts trying to understand children’s needs and talking about family dynamics. Spock gave parents what he considered the best recipes for a healthy happy child. He believed that parents should be more flexible and affectionate with their children and should treat them as individuals. Previous conventional wisdom had been that child-rearing should focus more on building discipline.
So maybe the seed of children cutting off their parents started with us. We boomers were the first generation with parents who were ultra-concerned about making sure their children had a “better” childhood than they had.
A common story among parents who have estranged adult children is how much they had focused on their children, how much they did to make sure their children had all the best advantages, made them the center of the family universe — and often how they treated them more like an equal or an adult than a child.
With more permissions, more social pressures and changes to the traditional family structure, I believe the shift in parenting that started back in the ‘40s needs to be examined.
Has a change in parenting style led to the rise of narcissism in subsequent generations over time, resulting in the ability of adult children to cut off their parents without much thought or concern for the consequences?
I believe that a culture of “self-esteem” — give everybody an award, change dress sizes so larger people feel smaller, allow teens to be disrespectful to those in authority — has set the tone and created a possible outcome I don’t think anyone expected: the idea that it’s OK to cut off contact with your parents.
When something, or more specifically, someone, no longer supports the view you have of yourself — get rid of them!
Problems Must Be Resolved
According to a survey of estranged people conducted through my website, out of 907 respondents, 82 percent of the adult children who are currently estranged from their parents acknowledged their parents’ past efforts to provide for them, but only 58 percent of those respondents report having any desire to have a relationship with the parent they are estranged from.
At the same time, 76 percent of the adult children say that being estranged has affected their well-being (even though it appears to have been their choice).
My sons consistently refuse to reply to my emails and let my calls go to voicemail, or barely speak if they do answer. They accuse me of being a terrible person, but won’t elaborate about exactly what I’ve done. Well, sometimes they do, but it doesn’t make sense, at least to me. For example, it’s hard to be part of the birth of my grandchild if I didn’t know that I was going to have one!
All this started because of a personal email they felt entitled to read on my computer.
If they are like the adult children who responded to my site’s survey, they are probably suffering, as I am.
Relationships might feel better when there is no contact. But, as Dr. Murray Bowen, credited with the most original new thinking about family systems since Freud and who coined the phrase “emotional cutoff” observed, the problems are just tucked away through estrangement, they are not resolved.
The only way to move forward is to get to resolution. To talk. To find common ground. To forgive.
Elizabeth Vagnoni’s career in advertising let her work on campaigns like AT&T’s Reach Out and Touch Someone and DeBeers’ Diamonds Are Forever. Now, she’s teaching and writing about estrangement, while trying to bring peace and hope to those who have experienced this loss.