5 Tenacious Myths About Adult Child-Parent Estrangement

8 min read
Source: Ave Colvar/Unsplash

Source: Ave Colvar/Unsplash

I got a message a week or so ago from a therapist in practice for 20 years who accused me of soft-pedaling what she called “a silent epidemic” in estrangement in a post called “No, Adult Child-Parent Estrangement Isn’t Just a Fad.” She asserted that it was a fad, and that more Millennials (born 1980-1996) and Gen-Xers (born 1965-1980) were estranging, perhaps because younger therapists were recommending it. And she asserted that perfectly loving and supportive parents were being cut off for no reason.

This last part is something I hear all the time, especially from estranged parents. I should mention that while I am neither a psychologist nor a therapist, I do believe that while familial estrangement is not a solution, it needs to be on the table for some adult children who have tried and failed at setting boundaries and limits. I mainly rely on peer-reviewed and published psychological research, but my own surveys do not include people younger than 35. The reason for that is straightforward: Even in the best of relationships between parents and children, there are periods of tension, and the child’s entry into adulthood is most notably one of them, although it is understudied as the transition into adolescence famously is not.

Tension as well as disagreement over choices—both those of the adult child and those of the parents—are typical in many families, and, of course, in the ones where the parents are attuned, dialogue is the norm, and differences are tolerated, the parties find a way around the tensions.

That is not going to be true with parents who believe in an authoritarian style of parenting, who are high in control or combative by nature, ignore their children emotionally, disparage or dismiss them, or see them as extensions of themselves.

Examining the 5 Myths

These aren’t listed in any particular order, and yes, these myths can overlap and sustain each other. Keep in mind that the world is a big place, and there’s probably someone who walked away from family without saying a word, just as there is probably a partner or two who manipulated someone into estrangement. But, generally, this is not what happens. (Also, these statements do not apply to adult children who are actively struggling with addiction or have diagnosed, undiagnosed, or untreated mental illnesses. That is also true for parents with similar struggles.)

1. The Fit of Pique Cut-off Without Reason

This is the most commonly adduced myth which paints the parent both as a victim and an innocent bystander to a drama not of her or his making and labels the adult child as an insouciant and petulant ingrate. Studies show that not only do adult children cycle in and out of estrangement (suggesting that they are trying new strategies to manage and perhaps assuage) but that most adult children spend a few decades trying to figure out how not to estrange and that the process of estrangement is a decision long in the making. And, yes, they give reasons.

I was actually one of those adult children for close to two decades, and I have heard from literally thousands more who spent a decade or two cycling before fully estranging.

2. The Myth of the Unspoken

Since estrangement from your parents as an adult usually ends up with your being estranged from everyone you are related to, this part is a variation on the “fit of pique” and “we were great parents” narratives. The reality is that you can talk and talk but you cannot necessarily make your parents actually listen. My mother deflected my statements with denial and gaslighting (“I never said/did that, Peggy”) even when there were witnesses. People have routinely shared letters, texts, and voicemails which would convince any sentient person of the reasons for their pain and their desire for change, but, of course, they didn’t work. Yes, probably, somewhere in the world, there’s someone who self-orphans without saying a word, but this remains a myth.

3. My Child Was Manipulated by Their Partner or Spouse to Estrange

The melding of families by marriage or partnership is by nature often fraught, and for some parents, the introduction of “other parents” with equal squatting rights can become a real crisis. I knew a highly controlling father who demanded that his children and their spouses show up at his Thanksgiving and Christmas, and, no, the in-laws were not invited. The adult children did not estrange but settled into a two-tier celebration so each set of parents could be placated. That, folks, is territoriality.

It is also true that if someone is in a verbally and physically abusive relationship that the abuser works to isolate the target from friends and family alike. That is a highly specific situation and needs to be separately treated.

Yes, sometimes, one person will pressure the other to keep the peace and make concessions they’re really not happy with, but how often does that lead to estrangement or choosing one family of origin over the other? Not often. (This is often mixed up with money as well; see the point below.) Anecdotally at least, what does appear to happen is that a spouse or partner points out the abusive behavior which the adult child has normalized or become inured to, especially if it “migrates” to their children. I have heard from sons and daughters whose spouses’ vision of their family’s dysfunction spurred them to go into therapy and take action.

And then there are those who are lucky enough to marry into loving and supportive families. That, too, happens, and yes, it is a major wakeup call and occurs more often than you’d think. Some adult children get lucky in their choices, and that makes all the difference. No, they weren’t coerced or coopted; they saw what a loving family looked like, sometimes for the first time.

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4. They Cut Bait Because the Money Spigot Dried Up

It is true that parents today are far more involved in their children’s lives than in previous generations; go here for more on that. But parents paying for the expenses of adult children is rarely uncomplicated, especially if the money comes with strings attached, as it often does since money tends to be a symbolic counter; the myth parses this as a parable of loving, generous parents and venal adult children determined to cash in, but, anecdotally at least, it is usually more complicated than that.

Another myth is that the “poorer” set of parents gets left in the dust because of the perks the wealthier parents shower on the couple. People don’t estrange from their families of origin because they have fewer resources; they do so because of continued abuse or neglect.

That said, what does cause estrangement is the parents’ differential treatment of their adult children or grandchildren, both emotionally and in terms of money and material goods. Money is showered on one adult child while not on the other; grandchildren are given gifts that make it clear where each stands in the grandparents’ firmament. Expensive dirt bikes for one set of kids and sweatshirts for the other was the tipping point for one son who’d been disparaged by his parents all of his life.

5. The Therapist Made Them Do It

You may remember that this was part of the message that the therapist sent me, but a number of streams feed this myth, the first of which is the cultural distrust of “shrinks” and “therapy.” The second is the confusion between correlation and causation; it’s doubtless true that many adult children do choose estrangement after entering therapy and really seeing the dysfunction for what it is.

The “buts” however far outweigh whatever appeal the myth might have. It won’t surprise you that many therapists believe you have to be in a relationship to fix it, which is logical enough. I have been at this long enough to remember the shock waves when psychiatrist Richard A. Friedmann published a piece in The New York Times announcing he was reversing himself on estrangement in a piece called “When Parents Are Too Toxic to Tolerate” published in 2000. There is a whole branch of therapy—family systems therapy—that believes the cut-off itself is a sign of dysfunction.

Additionally, therapists aren’t cult leaders with patients in their thrall. In interviews for my book Verbal Abuse, patients discussed firing, walking out on therapists, and defending their parents when a therapist suggested estrangement as a path. There appears to be a highly individual point of readiness to estrange, and it seems to come later in life.

Final Thoughts

I fully understand why these myths appeal to some people and how they beat the pain of actually owning your behavior as a parent. But, trust me, most of the time, it’s not the zeitgeist.

The ideas in this post are drawn from my books, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life and Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Reacting, Dealing, and Recovering.

Copyright © 2023 by Peg Streep

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