'Generational Divide' Can Complicate How We Think About Estrangement, Psychologist Says

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Many who are estranged from their family create distance with a family member because of an ongoing negative relationship. (Victoria_Borodinova/Pixabay)
Many who are estranged from their family create distance with a family member because of an ongoing negative relationship. (Victoria_Borodinova/Pixabay)

How do you handle estrangement around the holidays? Close to Thanksgiving, Here & Now's Robin Young interviewed one of the few academics who studies the topic. Dozens of listeners wrote and submitted their own stories.

Young and Joshua Coleman (drjcoleman), a psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area, take a deeper look at what happens when someone creates distance between a family member.

While Coleman counsels parents through estrangement, he also recommends that adult children going through estrangement looking for support reach out to the group Stand Alone.

Interview Highlights

On the idea that estrangement can be triggered by concerns about safety

"I think it's important that we're not too overly reductionistic in terms of the causes of estrangement. I do think that there are plenty of abusive, neglectful parents, and that estrangement is certainly understandable from that perspective. But I do not believe that constitutes the majority even of people who end up estranging — even though I wouldn't contest the reasons.

"Other common reasons might be that the adult child is married to somebody who hates the parents and has basically said, 'Choose me or your parents.' That's incredibly common. Or the child's mental illness, or their addictions, or the child feels too burdened with worry about the parent and how unhappy the parent's life is, or the effects of a divorce where one parent poisons the child of any age against the other parent. So the idea that only terrible, abusive, neglectful parents are being cut off from their adult children, I believe, is a myth."

"In some ways it's a silent epidemic, in part, because both parents and adult children don't want to talk about it because they feel like they're going to be blamed or misunderstood."

Joshua Coleman

On how someone struggling with self-worth after an estrangement can manage their feelings

"I think it's important to try to do it in a way that you're getting lots of support. This is something where there's enormous shame on both sides. In some ways it's a silent epidemic, in part, because both parents and adult children don't want to talk about it because they feel like they're going to be blamed or misunderstood.

"So it's important that you surround yourself with people who have your experience, either through forums or Facebook groups or therapy support groups or individual therapy — getting support is critically important."

On parents who estrange themselves from their adult children due to mental illness or drug addiction

"There are certain adult children who, they're abusive, they steal from their parents, they threaten their parents. Some adult children move back in with their parents and then they're very abusive and threatening — it's not a high percentage.

"I don't think this is something that either side does whimsically or impulsively. Typically estrangements happen slowly and over time. What I'm often counseling my estranged parents of adult children, [I tell them] you want to respond as quickly as possible to your child's complaints from a perspective of empathy and assuming that there's at least a kernel of truth to what they're saying.

"Part of the conflict is that there's this huge generational divide in what's getting called abuse today. From the parent's perspective, a lot of what some adult children say is abusive, their generation might been considered obnoxious, hurtful, critical. But the adult child today, they've been socialized in a way that's made them kind of much more psychologically sophisticated - they're more knowledgeable about parenting and these kinds of things.

And so that conversation never goes anywhere if the parent just tries to assert the rightness of their perspective. They're far better off empathizing with the child's perspective with their complaints, taking responsibility, trying to repair the hurt and feel like you did a good job and your child could still feel like you did something that was really hurtful or miss something really important about them."

On how adult children and parents can accept when one has made the choice to create distance

"More typically it's the adult child who's estranging from the parent. And so sometimes the parent just doesn't understand and it's partly because of this generational divide. And I don't think it's nearly as important about who's right and who's wrong. I think these can kind of deteriorate from you know the adult child side thinking of parents as being abusive and toxic. And from the parents side it can deteriorate into over-entitled children who don't know the meaning of respect. Neither of those occupies a place of particular helpfulness in terms of healing a relationship.

"It's far more important for there to be an understanding of why parents feel the way that they do and why the adult child feels the way they do. And typically my counsel is for the parent to take the lead. I do think that the buck stops with the parents. And secondly, because today the only thing that maintains the tie between the parent the adult child is whether or not that adult child wants to have the relationship with that parent."

On how he helps parents through the estrangement process

"First of all, we never know who's going to reconcile and who won't. I mean I put together the principles in my book, 'When Parents Hurt,' because I wanted to give people a set of guidelines of do's and don'ts. And once an estrangement starts to get triggered, it's like stepping into the quicksand for parents, so they start doing all kinds of things that are highly problematic — they blame the kid, they invalidate them, they blame other people like their spouse, or whatever they do.

"Some of the families that I've been working with have had reconciliations after 10 years or 20 years. And what little research is out there shows that in general most estrangements are time-limited, but not all of them.

"And so if you are a parent and it looks like your kid's never going to reconcile, you have to engage them, in what one author referred to as 'radical acceptance.' We have to accept that some things are beyond our control. And once we've done everything possible to try to effect change in that relationship and if it doesn't actually get us what we want, then we have to dig down and find other sources of support and other forms of family and friendships."

Your Comments About Our Initial Estrangement Segment

Let's start with a web comment from reader Jack, who described how he decided to cut ties with his father over concerns about his safety:

I heard this segment in the car and had to pull over to listen to it before I lost the station. Thank you so much for affirming the fact that adult children usually estrange because of issues of safety. I tolerated my father's emotional and verbal abuse for years and tried to renegotiate boundaries in a ton of different ways. It didn't matter that I had a therapist tell me that all of my depression and anxiety issues were caused by this abuse. I loved my father and wanted a good relationship. The only way to do that was to whittle myself down to almost nothing. By the last year, I was sharing almost none of my life with him. I'm a successful professional with a good life, loving family, and large support group of friends who treat one another with empathy and kindness. You wouldn't know it from the way my dad treated me and described my life to others. But I never wanted to cut him off, as he'd done to so many people in my childhood. I didn't want my children to suffer that loss like I had.

But two years ago now my dad physically attacked me in the presence of his grandkids over nothing. Really nothing. Even in the moment, he claimed they "had" to do so because I was being so "terrible." I was literally trying to leave the room in fear that he'd hurt me! It had been almost a decade since he had laid a hand on me in anger, long enough that I'd begun to doubt it had ever happened. But this time it was very clear. In the moment, and in the aftermath, my dad has told everyone that I'm crazy and have anger issues and he did nothing wrong. No apologies. Just aggressively abusive emails and letters meant to make me feel like it was all my fault.

I can't do it anymore. I need my kids and my family to be safe--never mind myself! Even just after, I tried to keep up contact, seeing my dad in public. He was nasty and contemptuous toward me. I can only take so many slings and arrows. My dad will never be the dad I needed, so it's time I learn to parent myself and create the life I deserve, one where I don't have to fear for my fundamental physical safety on a daily basis.

A reader named Teri emailed to say she appreciated the effort to bring the subject to light, and wanted to share why her only child is estranged:

I read your article on navigating the holidays and family estrangement. You made some good points and I appreciate your perspective and your effort to bring this subject to light. Our daughter and only child is estranged from our family. There was no abuse but our daughter does suffer from mental illness. Mental illness is a significant factor in many estrangements. I think it would have been helpful to mention this in your article.

Reader Sherri McGregor shared how she has created a peer support group for parents:

As a mother of five adult children with one who is estranged, I know the anguish parents feel. In my efforts to heal from the emotional trauma of this devastating experience, I researched the trend that's taking place, and learned to heal. It's a tough reality for parents who devoted so much time, love, and energy into people they loved and cherished ... and whom they never abused. On the contrary, so many estranged parents encouraged their children to have a voice of their own, and honored them for their unique and beautiful gifts. Yet, they are discarded.

This piece leaves the impression that abusive parents is the norm in these estrangement situations. It is a bias that is perpetuated, yet is not correct. The myth that Sharp and others spread about Estrangement always being based on valid reasoning creates shame and fear of judgment for parents that is often undeserved. And it affects thousands of parents, around the world.

My research and experience in healing led me to use my education and occupation to share, and support other parents like me ... with a book (Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children) and a site with articles and a peer support forum. If you're a parent hurt by a grown child's rejection, you will find you are not alone in this ... and you can still have a happy life.

Ashley Bailey produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on December 18, 2018.


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Robin Young brings more than 25 years of broadcast experience to her role as host of Here & Now.



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