Estrangement: Why are adult children cutting off their parents?

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Psychologist Joshua Coleman talks about his estrangement from his adult daughter and reflects how the increase in parental estrangement causes pain and shame that’s tearing our society apart. Graphic by Gabby Quarante.

Joshua Coleman, psychologist, senior Fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families, isn’t just academically versed in family estrangement; it’s a situation he knows firsthand as a parent — one he describes as “incredibly painful.” 

His own experience prompted him to further research the phenomenon, including interviewing thousands of parents whose adult children have broken contact with them. The findings are included in his latest book, “The Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict,” which addresses how the modern shift in family values is fueling an increase in family estrangements.  

Divorce and single parenting have helped to shift the equation, as has economic opportunity. Today, it’s common for kids to choose their own paths in life, often moving away from their parents to new cities or states. Alongside the amazing opportunities that come with that, rapid societal, cultural, and political shifts have also produced an increase in family tensions. Adult children frequently disagree with their parents’ views or choices and live opposing lifestyles, and some desire a complete break and to disassociate all together with their parents.

A nationwide Cornell University poll from 2019 by sociologist and gerontologist Karl Pillemer found that one in four people over the age of 18  reported a current estrangement from a parent.  

 “Virtually every estranged adult child letter-to-the-parent that I’ve ever read has the word ‘boundaries’ in it — that you need to ‘respect my boundaries’,” Coleman says. “We have a rich language of separation, boundaries, and individuation. I feel like we have an impoverished language of connection and interdependence and compassion and forgiveness and I think it's really tearing our society apart.” 

The problem is widespread, growing, and multifaceted. “It's becoming a kind of a silent epidemic,” he says, explaining that family bonds have changed to such a degree that, today, “nothing compels an adult child to stay in contact or be in contact with the parent, beyond whether or not that relationship is in line with that adult child's ideals around their identities of their mental health and their happiness.” 

Coleman emphasizes that he isn’t against parental estrangement, but rather is concerned that “people are engaging in it more, too quickly these days, and that there should be due diligence.”  

He says that, for the parent, typically, it's all downside. “It's all shame, it's all regret, it's all guilt, it's all sorrow, it's all terror, about never seeing one's child ever again.” 

So why is the phenomenon becoming increasingly widespread in the first place? 

“People in the United States have the highest rates of individualism in any other society,” Coleman cites as a potential reason. “Individualism, as measured by preoccupation with growth of identity with separation, with individuation, and [with] orientation towards one's own personal happiness. All of those things do have the potential to make family life much more fragile.”

Coleman also says contemporary therapy and social media may also play a role. “Contemporary therapy, including Instagram and Tiktok influencers, assume that every present a malady has a parental cause, but in fact parental influence is a relatively small cause of adult dysfunction.” 

Coleman offers some hope for parents experiencing estrangement, but says that when it comes to reconnecting, ultimately “it's still incumbent on the parent, even if they feel like the child is rewriting history, to find a way to empathize with how the child came to have that position.” 

Joshua Coleman, pictured here, laments that emphasis on individualisation may increase the pain within families. Photo by Terry Riggins

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  • Joshua Coleman - Author; Psychologist and Senior Fellow, Council on Contemporary Families


Andrea Brody