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Why Parents and Children Become Estranged

3 ideas for healing and repairing the relationship

By Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett

After a difficult divorce, Fran’s relationship with her daughter, who blamed her for the divorce and for the years of conflict preceding it, suffered. Now her daughter is in her 20s and the two have been estranged for many years. Her daughter is about to have a baby and Fran is heartbroken that she won’t be able to see either her daughter or her grandchild.

For most parents, when their kids reach their 20s it seems like reaching the Promised Land, especially after the tumultuous years of adolescence. According to the Clark University Poll of Emerging Adults, 86 percent of parents say their relationships with their emerging adults are a source of enjoyment — more than anything else in their lives.

Contact Once a Month or Less

Of course, even if 86 percent of parents say their relationships with their twentysomething kids are a source of enjoyment, that leaves 14 percent who say they aren't. And even for the 86 percent, human relations are always more complicated than happily ever after. Although most parents in the survey (55 percent) reported being in contact with their child “every day or almost every day,” 7 percent were in contact once per month or less.

What causes parents and their near-grown kids to become estranged? Based on Jeff’s research on 18- to 29-year-olds over the past 20 years, as well as interviews with parents we conducted for our book Getting to 30: A Parents’ Guide to the Twentysomething Years, we identified these reasons:

  • The hangover of an unpleasant family life. Home may be where the heart is, but it can also be where the pain is. For emerging adults who grew up in a family where there was high conflict, an acrimonious divorce or the parents were emotionally, physically or sexually abusive, reaching an age when they can leave home feels like liberation, and they have little need or desire to refresh the pain once they leave.
  • The desire for freedom to make their own decisions. Parents have to make a lot of choices for their kids in the course of family life, and sometimes it’s hard for parents to break the habit once their kids reach an age when they would like to decide things for themselves. If parents seem overly intrusive, some emerging adults may feel they have to protect their freedom to make their own decisions by minimizing contact.
  • Shame over their problems. The 20s are a time of many challenges, when a variety of problems can first arise, from school failure to substance abuse to eating disorders. Especially when parents’ expectations have been high, emerging adults may feel their parents’ disappointment whenever they have contact with them, which may lead to staying away.
  • Inability to get along. Sometimes parents and children simply don’t see things similarly, because of different personalities or values or beliefs. When children are young, family members are together a lot, whether they like it or not, but once kids reach emerging adulthood, either parents or children or both may decide they’re happier when they see each other less.

Even if family relations are not always harmonious, nearly all parents of twentysomethings love their kids and want to keep a relationship with them.


3 Tips If You've Become Estranged From Your Kids

What can you do if you have become estranged from your emerging adult? Here are three suggestions, based on our research:

  • Keep the door open. Because family relations are so emotionally charged, it can be difficult to let past conflicts and problems go, especially if you think you were right (and doesn’t everyone?). Short of something truly unforgivable, be willing to move on from past troubles and reconcile if you have the chance. Don’t give up reaching out even if your attempts are rebuffed.
  • Keep the communication cool for awhile. If there have been problems in the past, face-to-face contact may cause them to resurface and explode. Try a less emotionally-fraught way of beginning to heal the breach. Texting is not only the preferred way of communicating for most emerging adults, it’s also a form that is simple, short and emotionally cool (most of the time), so it’s a good place to start. If texting feels too abrupt, consider email or a handwritten note which will allow estranged kids time to take a deep breath before responding.
  • Treat them as adults. Perhaps the biggest challenge for parents when their kids reach the 20s is to show them the same respect as they would other adults. This means recognizing their right to make their own decisions even if you don’t agree. You might not like their choices, but once they reach the twenties, trying to control them won’t change their minds; it will only make them avoid you.

Finally, it’s important to be willing to change what hasn’t worked so far. The twenties are a dramatic decade for most people, but it’s not only the kids who are changing. Parents, too, can grow and become wiser and more mature. If what you have been doing in the past in relation to your emerging adults hasn’t worked and you are now estranged, be brave enough to take a hard look at how you may have contributed to the problem and think about what you can do to change the dynamic.

Elizabeth Fishel is the author of five nonfiction books including Sisters and Getting To 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years (with Jeffrey Arnett).  She has contributed to numerous magazines including Vogue, Ms., New York, The Writer, and Oprah's O.  She has written for Next Avenue since 2014. Read More
Jeffrey Arnett is the co-author of Getting to 30: A Parent's Guide to the 20-Something Years. Arnett is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University. Read More
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