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Does Social Media Worsen Parental Estrangement?

One of the benefits of technology has been an increase in the means available for people to stay in touch. While families once had to wait weeks, sometimes months, for letters to arrive, contact is now available from almost any part of the world at any time. This not only allows more opportunities to feel included, connected, and involved but also more chances to give and provide support, assess others’ needs, determine their states of mind, and work to resolve conflicts.

However, availability for contact isn’t always a good thing. For example, it used to be that estrangements between parents and their adult children were done far more privately. Prior to the existence of social media or the rapid transmission of the internet, one could be estranged from a child or parent, and the only people who would hear about it might be whomever the parents wanted to tell and the close circle of confidants of the estranged adult child. For all the anguish it caused, an estrangement could mean a fairly clean break, however painful, for both the parent and the child. People would cut off contact and perhaps never be heard from again, unless or until they reconciled.

Social-media communications have stood all that on its head. In my practice, where I specialize in parental estrangement, I’ve seen how commonly social media is used by adult children to:

  • Publicize their estrangement, eliciting the feedback of known others and perfect strangers;

  • Hurt the parent, intentionally or unintentionally by posting photos of the estranged child, their children, or other non-estranged family members, stepparents, or family friends;

  • End access to the adult child by unfriending the parent;

  • List stepmothers or stepfathers, but not the biological parent, as family members;

  • In the case of adoptive parents, list only the birth mother and not the adoptive mother as the mother

  • Isolate the parent by announcing such critical events as births, parties, or weddings through social media while not letting the parent know directly; and

  • Provide other motivated friends or family members with information to hurt or malign the estranged parent.

On the other hand, social media also allows a motivated parent to:

  • Hurt or punish an estranged adult child through the same means, such as involving other family members in criticizing or isolating the estranged adult child

  • Encourage other friends or family members to avoid events where the parent isn’t invited

  • Express lack of empathy with the estranged adult child’s legitimate complaints

  • Shame the estranged adult child for their decision to estrange

In other words, at the same time that social media provides numerous formats for feeling included by a parent or an adult child, it generates an equally high number of ways for family members to feel hurt or excluded.

This suffering is exacerbated by the constant opportunity for comparison that social media creates. Family members can feel hurt or humiliated, not only by lack of contact but also by the many ways in which they can compare themselves negatively to more fortunate peers or family members, some of whom are still active with the estranged family member on Facebook or other forms of social media.

Many of the estranged parents in my practice learn of such important events as upcoming weddings, births, college acceptances, or graduations from non-estranged family members or friends. In those cases, the parent not only has the sadness of feeling excluded but also the humiliation of learning of these events from those closer to the adult child than the parents themselves.

Whether you are the parent or the adult child, social media has the capacity to radically increase suffering in estranged families. Proceed with care and caution.

~Dr. Joshua Coleman


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