The parent-child divorce: Why your adult kids may estrange themselves

Many parents struggle to understand an estrangement.

For most parents, that they’ll have a life-long bond with their children seems a fairly safe assumption. But what happens when those kids grow up, and cut you out of their lives completely?

While some families may have a tumultuous background, with clear reasons for an estrangement, many parents are shocked when their offspring choose to estrange themselves. In this case, parents can be left clueless as to why their children have suddenly stopped all contact.

It’s also a more common situation than some may believe. Writing in her book Family Estrangement, author Kylie Agllias said as many as one in 12 families are suffering an estrangement, with around one in 25 Australians reporting an issue between them and family members that had caused a loss of contact.

Meanwhile, a study in the US that was published in Psychology Today, found 7 per cent of adult children said they were detached from their mother, and 27 per cent were detached from their father.

The reasons adult children cite for this detachment can vary, from a past family dispute to hurt over a divorce, right through to the perception that their parent is overbearing or that they are uncomfortable with the role their parent plays in a grandchild’s life.

Ad. Article continues below.

Read more: I haven’t seen my son in 10 years, and he lives an hour away

But a very common theme – whatever the reason – is a lack of communication and understanding over why the child has estranged themselves. While they may insist they’ve explained their reasons to their parents, the parents themselves may not understand or even claim they’ve never been told.

That confusion is painfully apparent in a British study, named Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood, which found that 67 per cent of adult children who were estranged from their parent or parents claimed they had “concretely” told their parents their reasons. However, more than 60 per cent of parents said they were never told why. 

It signals the deep importance of communication. While adult children may believe they have a very valid reason to cut off contact, if their parents are unaware of a problem, there is little chance of resolving the issue and mending the rift. Elizabeth Vagnoni runs internet forum and website Estranged Stories, inviting people from across the world to share their stories and seek advice on how to mend broken relationships.

Read more: Are you likely to be an “elder orphan”? Here’s what you need to do today

Ad. Article continues below.

She has previously spoken out about her two adult sons estranging themselves from her, and struggling to understand their reasons, even when they tried to explain them to her. As a result, she began researching estrangement extensively. “The truth is, saying you love them and miss them is not enough” Vagnoni says. “There is much more to say, but you need a conversation — you need actual interaction, not just silence.”

While estrangement can happen for a number of reasons, there are a few common problems experts have found contribute to a parent-child divorce. While each case is different, they can often help a confused parent to understand their child’s point of view. Have you experienced any of these?

A difficult relationship with a child’s partner

Watching your child marry and create their own family can be a joyful time. But for many it can also be extremely difficult, watching them take the ultimate step away from your care. And while letting go is one thing, accepting another person into your family is another completely.

The dream situation for any parent is to get on well with their child’s spouse, but it’s not always possible. Whether they have different values, or they struggle to bond with you straight away, it can cause tension – and that will inevitably come between you and your child too, as they feel caught in the middle.

Ad. Article continues below.

This may be the first time your child has seen you in a different perspective – through the eyes of their partner. It could change their view of you, and create a wedge in your previously-close relationship. While you may not have necessarily done anything different, old habits that were never an issue before may now become so.

Experts advise parents in this situation to sit down with their child and ask openly what they’re doing wrong, and if there’s anything they can change. That can be helped greatly if the relationship with their child’s partner is mended too.

A tumultuous childhood 

Possibly the most common theme, and one some parents may already be aware of, is a difficult past experience or childhood. Whether a child suffered past trauma, or they felt a lack of security while growing up, it can affect them for life – and often cause irreversible damage to their relationship with the parent they feel is responsible.

However, it may not be as cut and dried as that. Some children can grow up feeling unwanted for various reasons, and it can be as simple as a parent not regularly expressing their love or simply not being as effusively affectionate as they child felt they needed. Many parents may have brought up children in a time when elaborate displays of affection just weren’t common. They may also have struggled to express their feelings openly.

Ad. Article continues below.

While they know themselves the love they have for their child, the child can’t read minds – and may have grown up feeling some distance. That can be shown more in later life, when they themselves become parents and find it easier to show their love to their own children. Explaining why you didn’t do certain things when they were a child, or didn’t express your love in certain ways, may help them understand more.

Australian psychologist Sabina Read told Starts at 60 it can sometimes be easier to take a step back, and trust their opinion enough to concede defeat, even if you don’t feel you intentionally did anything wrong. “In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to concede they are right and you did the best you knew at the time but you wished things had been different,” she says.

Grandparenting style

Becoming a grandparent for the first time is a huge change, and can often provide another chance at parenting – only this time from a distance, with less need for strong discipline or stress.

As a result, many grandparents may find it easier to show their love to and interact with their grandchildren than they did their children. As their now-adult child watches this happen, they could feel some resentment, and struggle to understand why they weren’t given the same treatment as kids.

Ad. Article continues below.

Another problem could be a grandparent being too overbearing. Stepping back and allowing your child to learn how to be a parent for themselves is essential, but it can be very difficult – especially if you think you have a better way of doing something, from your own past experience.

In this case, it’s important to bear in mind how times will have changed greatly since your own parenting stage. Meanwhile, while repeatedly offering help can seem kind and caring to you, it may appear overbearing or even patronising to your child. Taking a step back, asking where and if they need help, and letting them come to you if they want it, can help you keep that strong bond with your child – and assure you hold a solid place in your grandchildren’s lives.

Finally, going against parents’ rules for their children can be a huge issue. If they have banned their child from doing something for example, and in an effort to become close to your grandchild, you then allow them to do it, it can undermine the parent’s authority.

Resentment over a past separation

Just like a past childhood trauma, watching parents have a messy divorce or toxic separation can leave a lasting impression.

Ad. Article continues below.

As parents, you may have moved on and found happiness with someone else, and while your children may get on with your new partner, it doesn’t mean they’ve completely got over the hurt they felt during your original divorce.

Problems may be triggered from how you handled it. If you were to blame for the split, whether it be through an affair or just falling out of love with your partner, your child may continue to blame you for “destroying” their family. This can be hard to overcome later in life, but speaking to them, explaining your reasons, and apologising, can be huge steps to heal the hurt. After all, as adults they’re more likely to understand your reasons.

Read explains that it’s common for both parties to view the past experience in different ways – with both often insisting they’re right, and the other is wrong. “All too often, our child’s viewpoint of what transpired between us will be different to the way we saw the situation,” she says. “This can leave us questioning our own parental and family experiences.”

Is a change in parenting style for Baby Boomers to blame? 

Vagnoni believes the problem really began to escalate during the Baby Boomer generation when, she believes, parenting style underwent a huge shift. She believes parents began working to increase their child’s self-esteem more, and in doing so, may have promoted narcissism among younger generations.

Ad. Article continues below.

She wrote on Next Avenue: “Maybe the seed of children cutting off their parents started with us. We Boomers were the first generation with parents who were ultra-concerned about making sure their children had a ‘better’ childhood than they had.”

In fact, she believes promoting this healthy self-esteem during childhood may haven given Baby Boomers’ children the idea that it’s acceptable to behave in an entirely self-interested fashion. She asks: “Has a change in parenting style led to the rise of narcissism in subsequent generations over time, resulting in the ability of adult children to cut off their parents without much thought or concern for the consequences?”

Is reconciliation possible? 

The chance of reconciling can depend greatly on the reasons for the estrangement. However, the chance of reconciling is improved greatly by communicating and airing the issues openly.

“The only way to move forward is to get to resolution. To talk. To find common ground. To forgive,” Vagnoni says.  Meanwhile, Read says writing your feelings down can often help, if a conversation is too difficult.

“Where possible, it can be useful to listen and acknowledge the importance of the story your child is telling you, or if it becomes too hurtful to hear, you may ask them to write their feelings in a letter in order to give you time to digest while minimising feeling attacked and criticised, yet still leaving the door open,” Read says.

Have you become estranged from your adult children? Do you understand why, or are you unsure of their reasons?