Family Estrangement and Changing Values

It is not uncommon for there to be estrangement between adult children and a parent, and often this detachment can go on for years, even decades without resolution when one or both parties is unwilling to delve into the reasons behind the separation.  But with a global pandemic crystalizing the importance of family and loved ones, understanding the vast difference in parental expectations between the generations can help uncover some of the underlying causes of conflict, and help to heal old wounds.  

According to a recent article by psychologist and author Joshua Coleman in The Atlantic,  adult children and parents who experience estrangement often fail to recognize the enormous change in the rules of family life over the past 50 years.  Older adults with grown children were raised to view family relationships as mutual obligations, a sense of duty between parent and child.  Today, parenting is a complex tapestry that weaves happiness, personal grown and sometimes confrontation, with psychological obstacles.   

Traditional values that gave families an identity such as class, religion, inheritance or property are less important to the next generation of adults who seek to achieve growth and gain respect, understanding and acceptance as a demonstration of love and commitment from their parents.  Instead of fighting over the family home or land, adult children today are more likely to bristle against perceived psychological injustices from the past. 

The idea that setting personal boundaries when it comes to friends and family in order to achieve well-being is a relatively new concept. One that the older generation may fail to understand.  With young adults travelling far and wide to pursue education and career opportunities, the reliance on family can fray and the opportunity for estrangement grows.  Focused on being a different type of parent than previous generations, adult children may pull away from what they may consider “toxic relationships.” The lofty goals of today’s young and middle-aged adults to parent with positivity and nurture mutually supportive marriages can be a tall order that can be difficult to fulfill, leading to a greater incidence of parental estrangement and divorce. 

A recent University of Cambridge study found that 1 in 5 families in the United Kingdom are affected by estrangement and second to emotional abuse, adult children surveyed said that mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships were at the heart of the separation.   And in the majority of cases, the estrangement was initiated by the son or daughter, usually in their late 20s and early 30s. 

Sometimes young adults need space from their parents in order to thrive and don’t want to feel responsible for their parents’ happiness.  With better boundaries and good communication, it is possible to rebuild a mutually respectful relationship.  While not all family estrangements are unhealthy, there are many that would benefit from working with a therapist or mediator to talk through problems and painful subjects, working to create a more understanding and supportive parent/child relationship. 

Coleman’s new book, Rules of Estrangement:  Why Adults Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict, is due out March 2, 2021. For more support and resources after family estrangement, follow this link to Dr. Becca Bland’s website or follow her StandAlone page on Facebook here