The first thing that popped into my head when I was reading the listserve discussion of estrangement or cut-off from parents was of two clients I had previously worked with and their relationships with their parents. In both of these instances a major focus of these clients was their feelings of guilt, frustrations, distress and conflicts about their relationships with an elderly parent. One of the clients was clearly a “baby boomer” while the other would be labeled as a member of gen-x. Both detailed multiple examples of having a parent who, per their reports: needed increasing assistance as they aged; was unappreciative of the assistance (in one instance the parent required extensive assistance; had a long history of being focused on their own needs and concerns; and was prone to being critical of or non-responsive to the clients’ well-being and to showed little interest in the client’s life. Both of these clients reported much anxiety, distress and frustration, including strong feelings of guilt about their anger and frustration, resulting from their interactions with their parents (or even from contemplating interactions with the parent). In both instances, despite all of their reported struggles with and about their parents these clients consistently reported a pattern of reaching out to their parents, visiting with and making effort to include their parents in their family life, and assisting the parent with a variety of problems the parent encountered as part of their aging.
In thinking about these situations I am struck by several things (again, it is important to note that I never met these parents and that my perspective of them was completely through the eyes of my clients). First, that these clients persisted in maintaining a relationship with their parents and assisting their parents in ways which appeared to be exemplary from the perspective of helping a parent with increased needs. Second, despite all of the instrumental assistance these clients provided, per their reports, they both reported much guilt about how they felt (angry, hurt, rejected) toward their parents. Third, these clients never considered cutting off their relationships in any meaningful way.
The situations I have detailed stand in marked contrast to the reports of other clinicians and writings in the popular press, regarding persons who have cut-off ties with their parents. The obvious differences are: the parent was aging and per client reports clearly needed assistance; and the clients were raised with reportedly very traditional values. Much of the discussion of cut-off from parents (on the list serve and in the popular press reports (1,2) focuses on millennials and younger adults, gen-z. Thus, the possibility of some generational effect may be worth consideration. Moreover, it may be psychologically easier to cut-off a parent who is self-sufficient and not in need of the assistance that elderly parents often require.
In considering the current literature (the professional literature is far from extensive) on the topic (3,4) and the comments of other professionals it appears that a number of factors may be contributing to the purportedly increased rate of estrangement from parents by adult children. First, the increased acceptance and public rise (in parts of the culture) of non-traditional values and lifestyles, including but not limited to people who reject traditional religious values and LGBTQ+ individuals, coupled with the increasingly acrimonious debate about these values, identities and lifestyles may be a significant factor for some young adults. Persons who identify as queer, trans or other non-traditional identities may feel more comfortable asserting their identities and values which could certainly result in tensions with parents who hold traditional values and increase the likelihood of cut-offs for those with more traditional parents. Second, Covid19 and forced separation between family members may have also been relevant and “greased the skids’ ‘ for people to cut-off all contact (3). Third, our increasingly polarized society including the rise of conspiracy theories may further strain relationships and lead to cut-offs (2). Finally, the rise of what I would label ” mental health culture” with its emphasis on feelings and the valuing of the individual experience (see Jonathan Haidt, PhD’s discussion of these issues in his book, the Coddling of the American Mind, (5) may also be relevant. Specifically, there appears to be an increasing shift in how problematic relationships are conceptualized and considered (both by therapists and certainly in the popular parlance). This would include the discussion of toxic relationships, a focus on the challenges of living with and relating to a person who is labeled as having a personality disorder (typically narcissistic or borderline), and the popularity of concepts such as gas lighting, all of which clearly imply that one is a victim of the actions/pathologies of other people. This shift in how personal problems and struggles are conceptualized is clearly playing out in our field. When I was a graduate student the focus was often on the choices the individual made with the implicit (or sometimes explicit) view that the issues one was struggling with were best solved by looking at the self. Now the focus on trauma has proliferated throughout the field. With the shift from the unconscious conflicts, neurotic style or negative patterns of thinking of the individual, to the impact of trauma and toxic relationships, we can see a shift in where the locus of one’s problems are thought to be: from the self to others. This shift may be a relevant factor contributing to cut-offs because the solution to difficult relationships can be seen as shifting from how the individual perceives, thinks about and responds to difficult relationships, to ending these relationships.
Clearly, I am not suggesting that an awareness of and an understanding of trauma is the problem. Nor am I suggesting the alternative lifestyles, values and identities are the problem. In fact, our increased willingness to acknowledge and address abuse, and support people in feeling able to acknowledge their feelings, values, and identities is very positive. Moreover, I am not suggesting that all cut-offs are unhealthy or problematic. Certainly there are situations where most reasonable individuals would think cutting off or at least significant distancing from a relationship would be a healthier choice. Rather, I am suggesting that a variety of complex social and cultural factors, including how mental health problems have come to be understood by many professionals and lay persons, may be relevant in the purported growth of estrangement.
In addition, it is important to have a developmental lens in considering this problem. People who cut-off family members at one point in their lives may reconnect at others. This may be an outgrowth of the pattern of teens and younger adults working to develop their own identities and lives, and then reconnecting with their parents as they all age. Moreover, it is not helpful to assume that people (parents and adult children) are not capable of growing, focusing on ways to mend relationships rather than battling about differences, and ideally finding ways to respectfully agree to disagree.
Finally, the need for additional data and research on this topic is called for. Despite the challenges of assessing whether there really is an increase in cut-offs from previous generations, and the complexities in exploring what factors may contribute to these cut-offs, more research and scientific evaluation of the issues is clearly needed. Clinical, anecdotal and popular press reports are not sufficient to elucidate all of the issues involved in family estrangement.
- A recent article in Cosmopolitan Magazine, https://www.cosmopolitan.com/author/269737/fortesa-latifi/, (that appeared in my news feed) that focuses on millennials and Gen Zers. The author, to her credit, cites one of the few researchers on the topic, Karl Pillemer (see below for his work), who reportedly has conducted research that suggests family estrangement is rising particularly in younger (under 35) white populations. The author also cites the frequency of this topic on TikTok, and the popularity of books, such as the recent bestseller, “I’m Glad my Mom Died”, https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Im-Glad-My-Mom-Died/Jennette-McCurdy/9781982185824
- David Brooks, in his insightful article in the NY Times, December 10th, 2021, touches on how cultural shifts may be at play in family cut-offs. Brooks suggests that an overfocus on parenting in the upper middle class coupled with cultural shifts in values and an overall decline in mental health in the past decade may all be factors that are at play.
- Karl Pillember, PhD, a Cornell University professor and gerontologist has written and spoken on this topic, and appears to be one of the leading experts in the field. See the following resources:
- Dr. Pillember’s book on this topic: Fault Lines: fractured families and how to mend them at: https://www.amazon.com/Fault-Lines-Fractured-Families-Mend/dp/0525539034
- A video detailing his book and work on the topic of family estrangement: https://www.cornell.edu/video/fractured-families-karl-pillemer
- See the work of Joshua Coleman, PhD, a psychologist who has written and presented on the topic:
- Dr. Coleman’s website has linked to multiple articles he and others (including the David Brooks NYT article) have written on the topic: https://www.drjoshuacoleman.com/
- The website also notes his book, Rules of Estrangement, and has links to a number of youtube talks by Dr. Coleman and others.
- His article in Atlantic Magazine from 2021, which is posted on his website.
- The Coddling of the American Mind, by Lukianoff, and Haidt. While not addressing issues of family estrangement this book does identify a shift in cultural values quite articulately, and for some, quite provocatively.