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Why Are Adult Children Cutting Ties With Their Parents?

Due to a rise in parental estrangement, many are left feeling grief and shame

By Kevyn Burger

Editor’s note: Those interviewed for this story are using pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

Earlier this summer, Donna found out she had become a grandmother for the second time. She got the news from her ex-husband, who heard about the newborn in a chance encounter with one of their son's friends.

"We haven't seen our first grandson for a year. I don't know anything about the second but a name and that it's a boy. I don't know when he was born, how much he weighed. We've been blocked on every level," she said. "It's very sad."

Adult children
Credit: Adobe

Donna opened up about her heartache on Facebook and received several dozen posts from other mothers and fathers commiserating with her situation.

A surge of estranged parents are showing up in therapists' offices, speaking out in online forums and on social media; a private Parents of Estranged Adult Children Facebook group counts some 4,500 members. Social scientists are studying the parental estrangement phenomenon, and at least a half dozen books on the subject have been published since 2014.

"We haven't seen our first grandson for a year. I don't know anything about the second but a name and that it's a boy."

While fractured families are nothing new, in the past the adult children who cut off contact with parents tended to be those who had suffered with severe physical or emotional abuse, neglect, trauma or dysfunction. That's where psychologists are noticing a change.

"People without direct exposure to this suspect the parent must have done something pretty terrible, but there are often reasons beyond negligence or abuse," said Joshua Coleman, a psychologist based in the San Francisco Bay area and senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families. "There are many pathways. The child may need to blame someone for how their life turned out. There may be mental illness in the child. Tension between the parents and the child's spouse may trigger this."

'Rules of Estrangement'

Coleman's practice is devoted almost exclusively to wounded parents seeking therapy to make sense of a child's exit from their lives. His clinical experience and his survey results from 1,600 estranged parents are included in his book, "Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Estrangement," published earlier this year.

"With the rising emphasis on individualism, how family is defined is changing and that determines who we stay in touch with," Coleman said. "In Euro-American families, the obligations of parents to children has gone up and the reverse has gone down. For young adults, making the break may feel like an act of independence and an expression of autonomy. There might be an upside for the kids, but none for the parents, who feel shame, grief and guilt."

Ghosted by Adult Children

Coleman notes the estrangement is happening against a backdrop of unprecedented investment and involvement by Gen X and boomer parents with their millennial and Gen Z offspring.

His research finds that most contemporary parent-child estrangement is initiated by the child. He characterizes the number of parents cut off by their children as "small, but significant." A large-scale national survey conducted by the Cornell Family Reconciliation Project revealed that 27% of Americans reported cutting off contact with a family member.

In some cases, the rupture may follow a blow-up or intense conflict; in others, it's the culmination of long-simmering resentment or differences that range from the personal to the political.

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But some adult children turn their backs without offering a word of explanation. That's what happened to Darlene.

"In their generation, they have a word for it: they ghost people. That's how they break up with romantic interests or friends, they just vanish," she said. "When my daughter shut us out, it was swift and comprehensive. I was a mess. I wound up in the ER because I thought I was having a heart attack."

Until the rift, Darlene described her family as typical; she and her husband had "a congenial divorce" when their daughter was a high school freshman and co-parented with little stress, even spending holidays and marking family milestones together.

'She Just Walked Away'

When she went off to college, their daughter kept her high school romance going and then married her long-term sweetheart shortly after they graduated.

Not long after the young couple moved out of state for jobs, they both stopped being in touch with their parents and siblings.

Seeking answers, Darlene and her ex-husband did some sleuthing and were stunned to find their son-in-law had left his place of employment. A subsequent visit to the couple's home determined that they had moved without providing a forwarding address.

"Keep reaching out. On birthdays and holidays, send a gift even if they send it back."

They hired a private detective who found them, but family members have been blocked on social media and Darlene no longer has a working phone number.

"She was the only grandchild who didn't come to my father's funeral. She cut off her brother, who's lost his only sibling," Darlene said. "We poured so much of our life into her and she just walked away. The pain of that doesn't ever end."

Taking Responsibility for the Estrangement

The loss of a relationship with a child and, subsequently, grandchildren flies in the face of parental expectations and is a source of unresolved grief, said Jack Stoltzfus, a licensed psychologist practicing in suburban St. Paul, Minn.

In recent years, Stoltzfus has seen an increase in estranged parents seeking his help; currently he is working with three such families.

He counsels parents to be willing to shoulder the blame for the breach.

"I coach parents to write a letter and ask for understanding, to be willing to apologize even if they don't think their behavior was wrong. It's the child's perception that matters," he said. "I encourage them to be humble and take responsibility. Some are angry and not sure they want to do that."

Stoltzfus also advises parents to keep communication channels open, even when a child is non-responsive.

"Don't say, they cut me off so I'll cut them off. Keep reaching out. On birthdays and holidays, send a gift even if they send it back. Parents should not stop saying 'I love you, I want a relationship with you,'" he said.

That's a strategy that Darlene has followed, but to no avail. It's now been four years since her daughter cut ties. While Darlene has not given up on a reconciliation, enough time has passed that she worries if she will ever have any kind of a relationship with her.

"Friends say, 'We know her, we know she will come back.' I say, 'Please don't offer platitudes with no evidence to support it.' The longer this goes on, the less the evidence that she will. I've done my research, so when people say things like that, I have to say, 'No, she probably won't.'"

Photograph of Kevyn Burger
Kevyn Burger is a freelance feature writer and broadcast producer.  She was named a 2018 Journalist in Aging Fellow and a 2020 Continuing Fellow by the Gerontological Society of America. Based in Minneapolis, Kevyn is the mother of three young adults and one rescue terrier. Read More
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