Parental estrangement – a ‘silent epidemic’
by Amy Dueckman
Liz* always dreaded that question during the holiday season. “So, it’s Christmas… are you having all your family over?”
She pictured her family together for Christmas dinner—all were there except for her daughter, Jenny.
When Liz divorced eight years ago, Jenny took her father’s side. She refused to come to Liz’s wedding, and she did not invite Liz and her new husband to her own wedding two years ago. Liz isn’t even sure where her daughter even lives now.
Parental estrangement from one or more children such as Liz is painfully experiencing, is more common than you might think, even in Christian families. Often the break comes when a child is in late adolescence or early adulthood. While severing ties with parents who were neglectful, abusive, or alcoholic would be understandable, sometimes children choose to estrange themselves from parents who provided a solid upbringing and to whom they were once close.
The reasons for estrangement are varied and complex. And although in rare cases parents cut themselves off from their children, children cutting themselves off from parents is much more common. Sometimes adult children feel they need to separate themselves from parents to establish their own identity. Sometimes parents’ actions, even if unintentional, have wounded the child. Sometimes different interpretations of an event or a misunderstanding create a rift that is not easily mended.
According to Dr. Joshua Coleman, psychologist and author of ‘When Parents Hurt: compassionate strategies when you and your grown child don’t get along’, estrangement between parents and children is a silent epidemic. Society has changed over the last decades as families have become more independent. A couple of generations ago, parents expected their children to respect authority, even to earn parental love through strict obedience. As families became more egalitarian and child-focused, children realized their freedom to do what they want and may no longer feel the same loyalty to parents as in past generations.
“With adult children, closeness or distance is negotiated on an equal playing field — a field with rules unheard of before in history,” explains Coleman.
Often the cause of estrangement is divorce, as children see their family foundation crumble and for the first time may view their parents as individuals rather than a couple. Often, they will designate one as the ‘good guy’ and one as the ‘bad guy’, with the latter punished with estrangement.
This was the case for Cheryl, whose daughter Kelly blamed her for not trying hard enough to save the marriage and now refuses to speak to her. Cheryl knows little about Kelly’s life but gleans what limited information she can from friends and relatives. Attempts to reconcile with Kelly have been unsuccessful, and Cheryl grieves the loss of her daughter. “Because the decision to reconcile is totally up to Kelly,” she says, “I have to accept that our relationship may never be restored again.”
Accusations & attempts
Unlike Liz and Cheryl, whose divorces contributed to their children’s estrangement, Curtis and Melanie are a happily married couple. Four years ago their daughter and her husband walked out on them, accusing them of betrayal, gossip, and lying. Despite their meeting with a counselor and the church elders together with their children, the distance not only remained, but got worse.
“Our many attempts to connect with them have all been ignored,” Melanie reports. She and Curtis feel keenly the absence of their daughter and son-in-law at family gatherings, and they long to meet their grandchild born since the estrangement. “I continue to have hope that one day there will be a miraculous breakthrough and that they will want to work things out with us. My faith is the greatest thing that helps me to cope,” says Melanie.
Parents who find themselves in an estrangement situation might wonder if there is hope for their relationship to be restored, and how they can cope with the heartache they feel. Experts have several suggestions.
According to Coleman, writing a letter of amends, in which parents acknowledge the hurt the estranged child is feeling and ways they contributed to it, may be a helpful first step in re-establishing a line of communication. www.drjoshuacoleman.com
Debbie Pincus, a Counsellor, says first resist the urge to call yourself a bad parent. Acknowledge that the severance of relationship is not your fault. “Although you may have contributed to the tensions between you, you are not responsible for your child’s choice to cut you off,” she says.
Estranged parents should not give up, but continue to let their children know they love and care for them. If the door does open, listen to what your child says without getting angry and defensive. Concentrate on your own life and choices that you can control, rather than those of your child, which you cannot.
“Your pain is real. Be mindful and compassionate of it, but don’t allow it to define or overwhelm you. Put the focus on what you have control of – your own life,” advises Pincus.
* All names have been changed