Estrangement is complicated and deals with perspectives from many different angles. Estrangement can be challenging to navigate emotionally since both estranged parties likely want to solidify who is to blame.
Considering life development, the five stages of aging include independence, interdependence, dependency, crisis management, and end of life. The stages may not necessarily be linear and vary according to personal experience. Anyone who has witnessed their parent’s aging can attest to the changes and transitions the individual and their family face.
Typically, during their 50s and 60s, individuals find a rhythm of independence that is familiar and workable. As people age and their needs change, they will likely need to transition into interdependence, where the assistance of others is necessary.
Around the age of 80, depending on one’s health conditions, there is a high probability that one will need others’ assistance. Going beyond 90 comes with the high potential of crisis management in one’s future and the certainty of the end of life.
For many parents of estranged adult children, the emotional stress and the potential for chronic stress, along with the anxieties relating to dependency, further complicate the condition. Parents may worry about who will be there for them as they age, how they will manage without their adult child, and may feel anger that they are uncertain their adult child is concerned for them at this challenging time of life.
Aging reduces the ability to tolerate stress, so the ordeal of estrangement and the struggle to comprehend and accept the loss of the relationship status with an adult child makes it that much more difficult.
Parent and child relationships involve a plethora of layers and influences. There is no easy way to parent; sometimes, success and failure can be due to many factors. It is often perceived that poor parenting is the sole blame for estrangement. However, perfection is unrealistic and unattainable.
Parents become weighed on an unbalanced scale which results in a higher level of scrutiny from the adult child. This idea is outlined in Kylie Agillias’s book Family Estrangement: A matter of Perspective which discusses how people will make a low relational “evaluation based on the assumption that members will look after each other’s welfare.”
When there is a low evaluation, the relational partner values them less than they expect or desire. The adult child may perceive a low relational assessment when they do not feel protected, supported, or understood.
The adult child will review their relational value to their parent and decide how much they think the parent has their best interest in mind. Because of this assessment, the adult child will determine whether or not they want to continue the relationship based on the character and behaviors of their parents.
Our current state of culture contributes to our different perspectives regarding estrangement. In many cases, adult children maintained family ties to a higher degree in past generations than currently. It was not unlikely that adult children would remain closely connected to their parents because that’s just what everyone did.
It could have been seen as a sign of respect to stay close, or it could have been obligatory. Now, adult children decide to cut ties with family simply because they can. Whether it be because of prolonged abuse, moments of toxicity, or they don’t feel happy in the relationship, it is a choice that they think should be respected.
When an adult child begins psychotherapy, it is not uncommon for estrangement to take place. With good reason, a therapist might recommend estrangement for the adult child to heal from toxicity or abuse. Other times, the therapist may be inclined to attribute the parenting failure to the current discontentment of the adult child through only one lens: the adult child.
It is usual for therapists to agree and support the adult child’s perspective since they are the person sitting across from them, not the parent. For some adult children seeking therapy, estrangement is necessary for the adult child’s well-being. In other cases, the therapist pushing for separation may come from an imbalanced perspective served up by the adult child.
Many adults believe that their upbringing is the only framework that determines how they will succeed. Due to many other childhood factors, this is unrealistic. This idea, unfortunately, places an impossible responsibility on the parenting. Causes for estrangement are vast and valid, but attributing all of our successes, failures, and current mental faculties to our family upbringing is sometimes unreasonable.
In his book, Rules of Estrangement, Joshua Coleman says, “The family, more than any other institution, is the place Americans tend to go sniffing when they want to root out the inhibitions, anxieties or propensities to failure that appear to block their path to growth and achievement.” For some adult children, this idea could contribute to their decision towards estrangement.
Parents are heartbroken over their adult child’s decision to cut ties, and navigating life transitions makes it even worse. I hear from many parents who are grieving and questioning themselves, their children, their world, and their futures.
Many estranged adult children are hurting and angry. Despite their reasons for estranging, people want healthy, loving relationships, and the absence of such is painful. I plan to inform estranged family members so that through insight and acceptance, empathy for themselves and their estranged loved ones will follow.
Of all the topics within estrangement, differing perspectives are profoundly puzzling. In my conversations with parents, I notice similar themes of sadness, grief, anger, and confusion. They miss their adult children and long for connection.
When confronted, most identify and take responsibility for parenting methods their adult child perceive as harmful. Some dig their heels into their perspective, leaving little room for the views of their adult child. Others question why their adult child chooses to cut ties rather than confront and resolve the rift between them.
On the other hand, adult children are often angry and convinced that estrangement is the best solution to their present discontent. While I am confident that in cases of abuse the answer is to remove oneself from a harmful situation and seek support, that is not always the case. Many mental health professionals will agree that individuals whose mental or physical health is in danger should leave the relationship.
However, adult children can be stressed by many factors, other than and in addition to their parents. Adult children between 30 and 50 years old are raising families, navigating career and job choices, launching their kids, dealing with illnesses, and adjusting to the uncertainty of their futures due to economic fears.
In this environment of tensions and increased financial insecurity, societal changes, individualism and the shift away from family values may be so overwhelming for adult children that cutting off their parents relieves them.
The differences are apparent, but the issue remains – is there a way to bridge the divide? Addressing these polarities within a family perhaps begins when resolving one’s perspective includes accepting others.
We know that navigating estranged adult children involves an imbalance of power, with adult children having the advantage. Many parents find professional support to comprehend and move forward with their lives and possibly get some form of reconciliation.
They lean into self-compassion and empathy for their adult child. Parents benefit greatly when they practice self-care, learn how to listen and validate, and commit to actively engage with friends and those who love and value them.
What practices are you committed to doing to address your stress? What has helped you to gain insight into your adult child’s estrangement?