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Why Adult Children Are Cutting Off Their Parents More Than Ever

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“Whether it’s Megan and Thomas Markle or Britney and her teen sons, celebrity family feuds are having a moment,” begins our article today. And in fact, this sobering piece goes on to say that a whopping 10 percent of Americans are estranged from a parent or child. What a chilling thought!

We’re referring to this article from Newsweek in which reporter Sophie Lloyd breaks down this this all-too common experience into its most common causes. Perhaps you’ll find yourself or someone you know in the following paragraphs, or perhaps this article will prompt you to reach out and bridge the gap between yourself and someone you love.

Family Rifts Becoming More Common

Lloyd writes, “ Therapists and researchers believe that rifts in families are becoming more common, particularly with adult children stopping contact with one or both parents.” Research seems to bear this out.   Newsweek cites a study in 1997 that explored family relationships in later life. Back then, only 7 percent of adult children had cut ties with their mother and 27 percent from their father. By contrast, says the article, “ In 2020, research by sociologist Karl Pillemar showed that 1 in 4 Americans are estranged from their families—roughly 67 million people.”

Simone Bose, a relationship therapist in London, has some theories about why this could be. “It’s never an easy decision. It’s the hardest thing in the world to separate yourself from your parents. They were your everything as a child, and no matter what age they are your parents can be huge in your life. I think people are becoming more aware about mental health and how being in touch with their parents can affect their life and self-esteem.”

The following is Bose’s list for the top reasons why people cut ties with their parents.

Many Adult Kids Blame Parents for Toxic Behavior

“Last year, researchers at Ohio State University asked over 1,000 estranged mothers the reasons they believed their adult children had cut contact,” Lloyd writes. “Almost 80 percent felt that a third party, such as the other parent, a relative or their child’s partner, was to blame.”

This seems to be a pattern, as further studied suggest that parents and adult children “rarely agree on the reasons for the rift,” and children are more likely to simply label “toxic behavior” as the culprit. Lloyd elaborates that “lack of empathy, refusing to respect boundaries, and being highly critical or malicious” are all cited as toxic behavior, and all can fall under the umbrella of narcissistic behavior.

“ Parental narcissism has been shown to greatly impact a child’s self-esteem and personal development, leading to self-doubt or feeling unworthy or love as an adult,” Lloyd writes.

Bose adds, “[Narcissistic parents] don’t have healthy boundaries with their adult children and can be critical, needy or portray themselves as ‘the victim.’” Sometimes, these experts say, the only course of action is to restrict contact.

A Hidden Cause: Past Parental Abuse

As the Newsweek article explains, no matter how the relationship might have changed over time, many adult children cut off their parents because of past abuses. “Although few people would question someone’s decision to cut off a parent due to physical or sexual abuse,” Lloyd writes, “researchers found that emotional abuse was the most common reason participants distanced themselves.”

This alienation due to abuse can fall across gender lines, as in a 2015 study “26 percent of estranged parents blamed emotional abuse for a rift with their daughter, with no respondents believing emotional abuse caused an estrangement with their son.”

Parents and Kids With Different Values

Personality and mismatched expectations can cause incredible conflict in parent-child relationships, the article observes. Bose says, “I’ve seen couples where a parent or in-law is very intrusive or whose values are offensive, and this starts to impact on their own parenting and the values they want to give their kids. They might start to see this person as toxic.”

Politics, religion, and – in these contentious days – even an unhealthy fascination with conspiracy theories can also trigger estrangements and lead children to feel they have to love their parents from afar, as reporter Lloyd writes.

Kids Perceive Parents as Unsupportive

“It might not be as obvious as physical or sexual abuse,” Lloyd writes in the Newsweek article, “but neglect or failure to support their adult children’s life choices—both in the past and present—can led to estrangement. Even if all of their basic needs were met during childhood, ignoring a child’s emotional needs can lead to mental health issues, substance abuse, emotional trauma and difficulty coping as an adult.”

Modern sociological influences appear to be playing a major role in kids perceiving parents as unsupportive of their lifestyle choices. Bose references gender identity and sexuality as major trigger-points for estrangement, especially if parents are not supportive or are even hostile to a child’s identity.

Unempathetic Parents Make Reconciliation Difficult

The lack of empathy by parents toward their adult kids was cited as a major cause of the rift within families, says Newsweek. Refusing to acknowledge any blame for hurt feelings can itself be a reason for estrangement. While there may be two sides to every story, a lack of empathy from parents can really derail any hope for reconciliation.

But lack of empathy cuts both ways. “Only 18 percent of the mothers in the Ohio study believed the estrangement was their fault, while many parents taking part in a 2015 study by the University of Nebraska blamed their child’s ‘entitlement’ for the rift rather than their own actions,” Lloyd writes.

Bose adds, “It can be hard for people to acknowledge that they haven’t been a good parent. But the situation [moving forward] often depends on how well the parent receives the information.”

Parents Seem to be Stuck in a Rut

Similar to parents not being supportive, some parents struggle to keep up with the vastly different social landscape of our modern age, the article points out. Many adult children find themselves cutting ties with parents and instead creating their own “found families” based around lifestyle, identity, or choices, not blood.

“There’s a lot more support out there now, a lot more information,” says Bose. “If someone feels something about their life, they look it up, they join forums, they follow accounts on Instagram of people sharing their experiences. When people are feeling this way, they now have support to validate their choices.”

Rajiv Observes the Tragedy of Severed Relationships

We asked Rajiv Nagaich of AgingOptions for his view of the rift between parents and adult kids. “This is a real tragedy,” he said emphatically. “While I understand the need to study these issues academically – because we do need to understand why families fall apart – I think most of the items on this Newsweek list are just an attempt to normalize the problem and give everyone emotional cover. Personally and culturally, I think that’s terrible!”

While Rajiv acknowledges that there may be times when a child needs to cut off ties with a parent, those situations are extremely rare. But he thinks parents have earned a healthy dose of understanding, even more than kids have. “Parents did not drop off kids at the orphanage when they were trouble,” Rajiv says. “Life demands that we deal with some things we don’t like – including loved ones who irritate us – but that’s what maturity is all about!”

Rajiv wonders aloud whether some of the split between parents and kids is happening because the parents are now aging baby boomers. “This may well be an unintended consequence of the ‘question everything’ attitude of the Boomer generation,” says Rajiv. “Did Boomer parents unintentionally cultivate some of this attitude by disrespecting basic norms? Are today’s Boomer parents reaping what they sowed? It’s a thought. Judge for yourself.”

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(originally reported at www.newsweek.com)

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