Papers aren't filed, and no judge hears the case, but more and more adult children are divorcing their parents, often completely cutting off contact. What's driving the increase in parent-child estrangement? Professionals who work with families have some ideas, and thousands of individuals have shared their experiences online. Definitive answers may be elusive, but it's fairly easy to get a feel for some of the issues.
A Few Statistics
On the website Estranged Stories, both parents and their adult children can fill out surveys about their estrangement. The results can be surprising. For one thing, the parents who are estranged are older than one might expect, with over one-third falling into the 70-80 age group. When asked to describe the parent-child relationship before the rift, the most popular answer given by the adult children was "moral obligation." The second most popular answer was "volatile and/or not close." When asked whether they bear some responsibility for the estrangement, slightly more than half said yes.
Another interesting area concerns whether the children ever "concretely" told the cut-off parent the reasons for the estrangement. Over 67% said they had. This is a reverse mirror image of the parents' response in a similar survey when over 60% said that they had never been told the reasons for the estrangement.
This disparity reflects difficulties that parents sometimes have in communicating with adult children.
Some Repeated Themes
Reasons for conflicts with adult children vary. Some adult children have severed relationships with parents due to traumatic childhoods: They were abused or grew up with parents who were alcoholics or drug users.
Occasionally, family disputes have erupted over money. In the majority of cases, however, the reasons for estrangement are not so clear cut. Still, certain themes occur over and over in commentary from adult children who have divorced their parents.
- "You Weren't a Good Parent."
Sometimes children feel that they weren't loved or nurtured sufficiently. Sometimes that is because they were reared in a time or a culture that didn't value open expressions of love. Sometimes it is because their parents truly had a hard time expressing their feelings. Sometimes children still feel hurt from episodes that occurred years ago, episodes that the parents may not even be aware of.
- "You Broke Up Our Family."
The children of divorce often blame one party or another for the divorce. Sometimes that is due to what they have been told by one or another of their parents, but even when the divorcing parties remain civil, children often place the blame on one partner or another. After adult children marry themselves, they don't always gain sympathy for their parents' marital troubles. While they acknowledge that marriage is tough, they tend to feel that if their parents had persevered, they could have made it work.
- "You Still See Me as A Child."
Parents and children live for many years in a specific relationship, with parents in charge. Parents sometimes have difficulty giving up that construct. Children, on the other hand, are usually ready and willing to make their own decisions and chafe at continuing input from parents. Differences about partners are among the most divisive issues. Many conflicts arise because the parents do not approve of the adult child's partner. Finances, jobs, and lifestyle are other flashpoints for conflict.
- "We Don't Have the Same Values."
Trouble often arises when an adult child marries someone who differs in important ways from his or her family of birth. Sometimes the difficulty springs from differences in political leanings or religious beliefs. Interfaith families present especially difficult challenges because religious beliefs tend to be closely held.
Some families learn to live with such differences. Others never do.
- "You're a Toxic Person."
Exactly what is meant by a toxic person depends upon the speaker. It's not included in standard handbooks of psychological disorders, but generally, it's understood to mean a person who is harmful to another's emotional equilibrium. Those who are overwhelmingly negative, who blame others, who are excessively needy or who are casually cruel sometimes are called toxic. Other labels that are often used to justify ending a relationship are narcissistic and bipolar. Both of these are genuine psychological disorders, but the labels are often casually applied, without any professional diagnosis.
The Possibility of Reconciliation
Overwhelmingly adult children who have divorced their parents say that they did it for the good of their families, or for their own good. When asked whether the parents should try for a reconciliation, answers vary. Some consider any attempt at communication as harassment. In the Estranged Stories survey, however, around 60% of the adult children said that they would like to have a relationship with the person from whom they were estranged. The steps cited most often that could effect a reconciliation were apologies from parents, parents taking responsibility and boundary setting. Parents in this situation may find some hope in these findings. Even if they have been divorced, perhaps the decree is not yet final.
What Estrangement Means for Grandparents
Parents who are cut off from adult children are often grandparents cut off from grandchildren as well. In trying to reconcile, grandparents sometimes plead that grandchildren need grandparents, which is true. Grandparents can fill four very important functions for grandchildren. However, the focus in these situations must be on nurturing the parent's relationship with the adult child. Once that relationship is repaired, grandparents should be able to see their grandchildren again.