How often does an adult child have to call and visit his parents? The answer differs as cultural and ethnic boundaries are crossed, but the common factor is that it often leads to heated family arguments and hurt feelings.
When parents don’t see their children as much as they would like, they often wonder if they are still important to them or what role they play in their lives. In fact, the lack of contact can leave parents feeling confused and rejected. When children get too far from their parents, they often experience deep feelings of loss.
Obviously, every story has two sides. And this is not the exception. Each part builds its own narrative. Some parents think that their children are ungrateful or have withdrawn for no reason, but this is rarely the case. In fact, there are extremely controlling, possessive, manipulative or even abusive parents who lead their children against the ropes, until they can’t take it anymore and they distance themselves.
Who is right? And, above all, how to fix it?
Children of their parents, but also of a generation
They say that children are more like their generation than their parents. And times are changing – for better or worse. Psychological studies reveal that the distance between parents and children is becoming more and more common, to the point of cutting off the relationship.
A 1997 investigation explored family relationships in old age and found that 7% of adult children had cut ties with their mother and 27% with their father. In 2020, 1 in 4 Americans had distanced themselves from their family and 10% have broken ties with their parents.
There is no doubt that in the last half century the dynamics of family relationships have changed a lot. Of course, family conflicts have always existed. They are not a new phenomenon. But the way we approach and “fix” them has changed.
For much of history, parent-child relationships were based on mutual obligation, rather than understanding. Parents and children could reproach each other for not complying with duties well defined by the respective social roles they played, but the idea that children would reproach parents who did not recognize their identity was practically inconceivable.
Instead, currently family relationships have been enriched, going beyond social expectations to intertwine with personal growth, the search for happiness and the need to deal with psychological obstacles. As a result, we can decide which people are part of our circle of trust and whom to exclude from our lives in order to achieve happiness and protect our mental health.
That distancing is often assumed as an expression of reaffirmation and personal growth. In fact, this increased focus on personal well-being runs parallel to broader societal trends, such as gravitating towards a more individualistic culture and way of life. Fewer and fewer people depend on family ties with previous generations, giving them more confidence to draw their own boundaries and say “no” to what they are not willing to tolerate.
As a rule, parents expect a reciprocal bond in which their parenting years will be rewarded with later closeness as they age. However, that expectation of reciprocity is becoming increasingly weak. If receiving shelter, food, and clothing is enough, then most people should be grateful to their parents, regardless of how they spent their childhood.
However, in a society where parents are supposed to raise happy and successful adults by meeting not only their basic needs but also their emotional ones, that expectation can backfire as their children can blame them – fairly or unfairly – for their unhappiness and failures.
Why do adult children are cutting off their parents?
There are as many reasons as there are relationships, but the most common reasons for children to distance themselves from their parents are emotional, physical, or sexual abuse in childhood. They allude to toxic behaviors of their parents, such as disrespect or damage inflicted. When children feel that they have been mistreated or humiliated, they feel the need to get away from their parents to rebuild their identity.
Other children allude to the lack of support from their parents and the clash of values. When parents have not been a supportive figure, but have fostered insecurity and have tried to clip their children’s wings, they often need to get away from that destabilizing figure in their lives. Likewise, when the expectations, values and worldview of parents and children differ, the relationship suffers to such an extent that sometimes the only solution is distancing to avoid falling into a conflict loop.
In other cases, this distancing arises from love itself. In fact, there is no contradiction between loving someone and getting angry because love often maximizes the load. Sometimes children can feel too responsible for their parents’ happiness, especially when they are blamed, so they need to set healthy boundaries. At other times, children may simply feel the need to let go and find their footing away from parental overprotection.
Whatever the cause of the estrangement, parents and children look at the past and the present with very different eyes. Parents may think that their child is rewriting their childhood story, accusing them of things they didn’t do and/or not acknowledging all those situations in which they showed their love.
Instead, children often point out that their parents are trying to manipulate them by not acknowledging the harm they have caused or continue to cause, not respecting their boundaries, and refusing to comply with their requirements for a healthier relationship. More and more adults affirm that they are only motivated by the desire to be masters of their lives and make their own decisions.
The damage caused by distancing between parents and children
Many mothers and fathers tell me that they feel betrayed by the unavailability or unresponsiveness of their children, especially those who have worked to provide them with a life they consider enviable in comparison to their own childhood.
In a general sense, when children cut off the relationship with their parents, a deep sadness is established since there is a longing for reconnection. Many parents experience shame and even regret or wish they could turn back the hands of the clock to act differently.
At the same time, although the decision to separate is usually the children’s, they often experience conflicting emotions, such as liberation and guilt, joy and sadness. Breaking the relationship with the parents can also have a ripple effect on future family ties and traditions. Some people confess that their biggest regret is that their children grow up without grandparents. Such distancing breaks family traditions and rituals, producing a sense of uprooting that affects the balance of the family unit.
How to recover the bond?
A 2015 study found that parents are more likely to blame the estrangement on their divorce or their child’s partner. In fact, it has been appreciated that divorce increases the risk of distancing, especially from parents, probably because it produces a radical realignment of the ties of loyalty, gratitude and obligation within the family, causing children to lean more towards one parent in spite of the other.
However, if the objective is to reestablish ties, it is important to stop looking for blame. Since the children are usually the ones who decide to distance themselves, it is up to the parents to take the first steps towards reconciliation. However, it is essential not to rush because on some occasions this distancing is necessary to rethink the relationship and heal the wounds. Therefore, it is possible that children need some time.
Reconciliation is achieved when parents take responsibility for the harm they may have caused their children, show empathy for their perspective and the feelings they are experiencing, and are willing to change problematic behaviors by accepting healthier boundaries.
It is also crucial to avoid arguments about what is right or wrong, as well as to abandon expectations in order to renegotiate the relationship. Instead of assuming that the child is wrong, parents should try to understand what has created the conflict and be willing to rewrite the rules of their relationship, not with a young child but with an adult.
Like everything, modern family life has positive and negative parts. The fact that the new relationships between parents and children are increasingly based on bonds of affection, rather than duty or obedience, means that there is the possibility of building more meaningful bonds and spending time together of our own free will, sharing things that make us feel good.
However, children also need to examine their conscience. We can ask our parents to be more sensitive to our needs, emotions and aspirations, but we must also be sensitive to theirs, because all mature and adult relationships must be equitable. We can all be wrong. We all have defects. We should always keep that in mind when we decide who to keep in or out of our lives, or how to respond to those who no longer want us in theirs.
Pillemer, K. et. Al. (2022) Patterns and Processes of Intergenerational Estrangement: A Qualitative Study of Mother-Adult Child Relationships Across Time. Res Aging; 44(5-6): 436-447.
Blake, L. (2017). Parents and children who are estranged in adulthood: A review and discussion of the literature. Journal of Family Theory & Review; 9(4): 521–536.
Carr, K. et. Al. (2015) Giving Voice to the Silence of Family Estrangement: Comparing Reasons of Estranged Parents and Adult Children in a Non-matched Sample. Journal of Family Communication; 15: 10.1080.
Lye, D. N. (1996) Adult child-parent relationships. Annual Review of Sociology; 22: 79–102.