What happens when an adult child cuts off contact with their parent?
I would like to draw your attention to the little recognised subject of parental estrangement. This can occur when an adult child intentionally chooses to sever contact with a parent because of a real or perceived negative relationship. This is a phenomenon that, even though existing for thousands of years, seems to be increasing rapidly in the western world to the extent that it is sometimes termed a "silent epidemic".
In the US, it affects many families, and some research reports as many as one in five parents are estranged from an adult child. I believe that this occurrence is on the rise in the UK, though it is less known about and, to date, it hasn’t had much exposure in the media.
I am writing this article exclusively from the estranged parent’s perspective to highlight the unique trauma which is experienced by them. Whether the cut-off is gradual or sudden, it can leave the parent in a state of shock and confusion and faced with a range of devastating emotions including hurt, rejection, shame, betrayal, guilt, grief, and despair. They may feel isolated and tend to blame themselves for having made mistakes bringing up their child. They may be frightened to talk about it in case they are judged for being a bad parent.
Estranged parents are left heartbroken and often unable to understand why their adult child now wants nothing to do with them especially if they have had a close relationship in the past. They feel helpless and unable to manage such a loss. It is a very different kind of grief from the feelings of sadness when a loved one dies as it is experienced as a living bereavement.
From the time their children are young, most parents anticipate remaining close to, or at least in touch with their adult children for the rest of their lives. How could a child to whom you have given so much love and encouragement now turn their back on you with no care or concern and sometimes with contempt and hostility? The betrayal that rejected parents feel is experienced more deeply than any other betrayal or estrangement from another family member, a friend, or even a spouse.
I am not talking here about families where there has been any kind of abuse or trauma, where the adult child would have a valid reason for not wanting to have a relationship with their parents and the decision to estrange is the right choice. I am also not denying that estranged parents might have unwittingly played a part in their adult child’s decision and that they contributed to an unhealthy dynamic.
There is a great deal of stigma attached to estrangement and, when the rejected parent turns to friends or other family members, they might be faced with an uncomfortable silence or even avoidance. This may be because other family members are reluctant to get involved for fear of the estranged adult child disconnecting from them too. It can also be because they privately think it must have been the parent’s fault to make their child need to distance themselves.
Sometimes the parent is left wondering what their adult child’s reasons or grievances really are. They may have been told they are “toxic” or that they need to see a counsellor to “work on themselves”.
In many cases of estrangement, the child has been brought up in a dedicated and loving family with parents even though not perfect, who have done their best.
Strained parent/adult child relationships
Sometimes, there is not a complete cut-off but a situation where the relationship connection is spasmodic or strained, and both parties feel they are walking on eggshells and have to be very careful what they say in order to avoid confrontation. Relationship therapy can offer a safe place to talk about grievances and the therapist will ensure that both parties are heard and can express themselves freely.
Healthy relationships are characterised by mutual respect and commitment. Both the parent and the child need to have an equal stake in the relationship but parental estrangement destroys this balance.
It is generally the case that the adult child is the one to break off the relationship, leaving the parent feeling abandoned and betrayed. He or she is left longing for a relationship with their child that they have no power to reinstate. They may be given ultimatums or conditions of behaviour that they have to obey otherwise their adult child will close the door entirely.
This feels one-sided and the parent feels controlled or even abused by the child. Over time, this can destroy the parent's self-worth and lead to chronic self-doubt and depression. Unless the parent gets help to rebuild their self-esteem it can lead to psychological disturbance or even physical illness.
Some reasons for estrangement:
One parent can put blame on the children’s other parent and turn the child against their mother or father. This is known as parental alienation.
Individuation and differentiation
All children need to separate from their parents in order to become independent and mature individuals in their own right. This process normally happens in the child’s late teens to early twenties but it can take a lot longer. In most cases, this naturally happens without the young adult needing to distance themselves or pull away entirely from their family and the transition happens smoothly. It is quite possible for a person to become autonomous and remain emotionally close to their parents at the same time.
Changing societal trends and attitudes
Our society is becoming more individualistic and family ties are becoming less important. In the past one relied upon one’s family for support and inheritance. Parents and grandparents no longer hold positions of authority in the family system. The personal growth movement starting in the 1970s has paved the way for less dependence on family and more reliance on the social unit of the nuclear family or friends. As the American psychologist and parental estrangement specialist Dr Joshua Coleman says (eon. co 22 December 2020):
“The prevailing sentiment is sometimes lose your parent, find yourself”.
This has become an increasingly common attitude validated by young adults on social networking sites. The adult child may have come to believe that the parent is limiting them, expecting too much or causing them too much stress so it feels easier to cut them off.
The importance of achieving personal happiness and reaching one’s potential is prioritised and any relationship that is considered detrimental to this has to be discarded for the sake of one’s mental health and personal happiness. In my view, this is a dangerous trend and has become a way to manage conflicts in the family, rather than the young adult learning how to deal with them in less avoidant and destructive ways.
Social media and our growing cancel culture have made it very easy to “de-friend” or “cancel” someone even if that person is your parent or a member of your family.
Technology has facilitated the practice of “ghosting” or not replying to someone’s attempts at communication. This is a deeply wounding experience because it is experienced as a lack of respect and a denial of one’s identity.
A powerful partner or friend may put pressure on a young adult and turn him or her away from their family.
Mental illness in the adult child or parent can have a detrimental impact on healthy relationships.
An adult child’s betrayal can be paralysing
- The rug is pulled away from under the parent’s feet. The foundation they thought solid now feels like quicksand
- Where do you go from here?
- What does the future hold?
- How do you heal this deep wound?
- What do you do if all your attempts at reaching out to your daughter or son have not been successful?
- You feel alone in a world where everything is uncertain and your trust in others is broken.
If you are a parent facing this painful and life-changing situation, maybe having been cut off from your grandchildren as well as your adult child, I would like to reassure you that help is available and you don’t have to remain isolated and unable to talk about this sensitive subject.
How can counselling help?
Counselling can help a parent:
- move towards reconciliation
- understand their role in the estrangement
- write an amends letter, if appropriate
- recover from estrangement (accepting what has happened, rebuilding one’s confidence and self-esteem, and moving on with one’s life)
As a relationship therapist, I have deep empathy and compassion for any parent reading this who may find themselves estranged from their adult child and doing their best to come to terms with it.
I know from personal experience the struggle you will be going through as this unimaginable trauma has happened to me so I am well placed to help you and understand your loss.