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How Parents Can Heal Rifts with Their Adult Children

APRIL 15, 2024, Scientific American, Dr. Joshua Coleman

Repairing a broken parent-adult child relationship is possible

if both sides approach it earnestly and honestly...

Two parents reached out to me recently after their grown son cut off contact with them. In a letter, he’d told them that his problems with intimacy stemmed from emotional abuse inflicted by his parents when he was younger, according to his therapist. The son, their middle child, went on to say that he felt traumatized and didn’t want them around his children. He asked them to respect this new boundary. These parents were devastated. They thought their family had been close and loving.

As a practicing psychologist who also researches estrangement, I hear stories like this every day. While the adult child’s accusations vary, they are similar in quality and tone. The son’s invoking of his therapist’s authority, the allegations of parental abuse, his desire to protect his own children and his request for boundaries all track a newly familiar script regarding estrangement.

In counseling the mostly shocked and confused parents who find me after being cut out of their adult children’s lives, I make no assumptions about innocence or guilt. I know that parents can present themselves in an idealized light. I know that some mothers and fathers truly have been abusive. But I also know that not every accused parent is guilty as charged.

We start with reflection. While most parents are eager to heal the rift, many fail to recognize that these days the relationship between a parent and an adult child occurs with the latter’s mental health as the backdrop. It’s the focal point around which all discussion circles. To make any progress with their growth-focused child, parents must examine the mistakes they made in the recent or distant past.

Next the parents need to understand their child’s goals in severing ties. Was it out of hurt or anger? In pursuit of happiness? Mental illness? As an expression of identity or individuation? While there may be significant positives for the estranged child, their parents row a different boat entirely. There was no upside at all for a single mother in my practice when her grown child’s decision ended the routine she’d enjoyed with her two young grandchildren: the park on Tuesdays, music class on Thursdays. She began to feel physically ill whenever passing a playground. Like most of my clients, this mom found herself drowning in profound feelings of loss, shame, social isolation and guilt.

The parents I’ve described find themselves desperate to fix the rift with their adult child, and when the child demands no contact, the burden falls to the parents. Part of what makes that effort challenging is that an adult child can reasonably claim they were abused using today’s language of therapy, and the parent can reasonably claim that they were not abusive based on their own generation’s definitions.

A 2016 study by Australian psychologist Nick Haslam provides a way of understanding this disparity in perspectives. Haslam notes that the definitions of harm, trauma, abuse and neglect used by psychologists have grown in the past few decades to incorporate more symptoms and to pathologize experiences that previous generations considered normal. He found that the proliferation of mental disorders in successive editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual went from 47 conditions in 1952 to 300 in today’s DSM-IV. Trauma used to require a serious threat to life or limb and exist outside of normal experience. Now, for better or worse, someone can make claims of harm, neglect or trauma without any evidence beyond that person’s subjective experience.

There is good and bad news to this more contemporary version of harm: On the one hand, it offers a nuanced and socially authoritative way to characterize experiences that weren’t recognized by prior generations. Modern conceptions of trauma can start a conversation between parents and their adult children, prompting them to deepen their understanding of each other and to heal injuries prior generations would have left to fester. On the other hand, behaviors and emotions common to human experience for eons can now look diagnosable, pathological and traumatizing. Take another set of parents I’ve counseled. Their 33-year-old daughter accused them of abuse, but all the examples cited constituted normal parts of childhood and adolescence: feeling misunderstood by her dad, wanting comfort more quickly than that offered by her mother, and wishing both had praised her more readily. The result today is adult children like their daughter rejecting parents who are far more amicable and less culpable than their therapists and the culture at large have led them to believe.

Here lies the confusion for older generations, most of whom grew up in stricter, less sensitive environments. When boomers’ parents criticized them, no one labeled it emotional abuse. When their parents tried to convince them to adopt a different perspective, no one called it gaslighting. And no one considered it neglect when the silent generation (born 1928–1945) allowed boomer children to mope in their rooms, when they didn’t intercede to talk through their feelings. Raised in an environment of honor thy mother and thy father, today’s parents are also perplexed by their adult children’s prioritization of self-development. As historian Steven Mintz wrote inThe Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood,“No longer do the young long to grow up. Instead, the goal is simply to grow.”

That rooting out the traumas of childhood is essential to this endeavor seems self-evident to one generation and perplexing, even self-indulgent and wasteful, to another.

None of this is to say that therapy, particularly modern talk therapy, is categorically toxic or unhelpful. But it’s not always positive, or even benign, either. This is especially true when therapists assume traumatic experiences must have occurred based on a client’s current depression, anxiety or suicidal ideation. While childhood events may indeed create those symptoms, recent studies on genetics, cohort differences, socioeconomic status, peer influence, neighborhood and even random luck highlight the limits and limitations of this inference. They explain, at least in part, why reasonable parents may later be accused of failing as mothers or fathers by adult children who consume mental health content on Reddit, TikTok or Instagram.

The role of memory is another common source of dispute in parent–adult child relations. Most people feel confident that memory operates like a time-stamped video camera, capturing events as they occur and rendering them retrievable under the right conditions. Research indicates otherwise, which explains why both parents and adult children can be wrong about the past. One client shared with me an incredible trip to Hawaii in 1983, where her son, 15 years old at the time, went bodysurfing from sunrise to sundown. He has memories of spending long stretches of time alone in a hotel room. Such differences in the lived experiences of generations—something I see often—raise the risk of conflict and misunderstandings.

Because of these disparities, mending rifts requires that both parents and adult children show humility. From the parent must come a recognition that, despite their good intentions, their now-grown child experienced their behavior as more hurtful than they realized. A parent’s willingness to accept responsibility and find the kernel if not the bushel of truth in their adult child’s complaints—however at odds with their own memories or experiences—can create opportunities for a closer and deeper relationship with their sons and daughters.

From the adult child must come a recognition that their parents too are in the throes of genetic dictates, partner provocations, childhood traumas, financial threats and cultural milieu. For the adult child to look back and say that the parent should’ve known better or behaved differently— that their parents now deserve distance, if not contempt—is wrong.

After asking parents new to my office to engage in reflection, after explaining the new landscape in which their children are living, and after ensuring them that humility will increase their odds of reclaiming a relationship, I encourage mothers and fathers to express a willingness to abide by their child’s ideals and boundaries. The children hold all the cards, and often those cards are access not only to them but to their grandchildren. This type of commitment to the adult child, and a sincere attempt to fulfill it, is necessary.

Not everyone is able to do these things. Some parents just can’t empathize with their grown children, or even if they empathize, can’t accept any responsibility for their child’s pain. And even when parents follow these steps, not all children are willing to engage or, ultimately, to modify their opinion of the parents. Those families remain stuck in a kind of permanent purgatory of hurt and misunderstanding alongside longing.

But the first couple aren’t among them. They reached out to their son and acknowledged their blind spots, as well as their newfound understanding that their actions had been hurtful to him. They apologized for being defensive in response to his initial letter and said they wanted to learn more about how they had affected him and what they might need to change so as to heal the relationship. They suggested meeting with me or another family therapist to work on the issues that he’d raised. The son wrote back shortly after and said he was both grateful and surprised by their response. The four of us began meeting, and over time, the family was able to heal a rift that had seemed irreparable to both sides.

In all relationships—romantic, platonic or familial—a commitment to viewing the other with compassion is an essential ingredient for progress to occur. For parents and adult children who can approach each other in this way, a better relationship can often emerge from the ashes.

One much deeper and richer than either side thought possible.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

1 Comment

Apr 30

Thank you for continuing to write about the issue of estrangement, Dr. Coleman. I hope to reconcile with my newly estranged young adult daughter one day, but in all that I’m learning about this phenomenon, I am also grieving that she may never appreciate all that I did for her, that I cannot share my point of view, that our relationship couldn’t weather communication and repair to “negotiate our shared reality”) Dr Orna Guralnik concept) with empathy. I am not upset that she holds all the cards, as you state, it pains me that she thinks poorly of me. It hurts to be judged, after trying so very hard every day at the most difficult job in the world; and…

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