Our relationships with our parents and our children can be complicated, difficult, and at times strained whilst these relationships largely are regarded, across history and cultures, as relatively sacred. They form the foundation for the stability of the family and its potential legacy for the future. In recent times, however, a trend has been developing as noted by psychologist, Joshua Coleman, who specializes in the treatment of estranged families, where this sacred bond is being threatened. In a recent article published in The Atlantic (January 10, 2021), titled A shift in American values is fueling estrangement, Coleman reports that more and more adult children today are estranging themselves from their parents. Why is this?
Since World War II, the United States has enjoyed a level of affluence associated with having achieved status as a supreme world power. But the price of this affluence along with the mechanization of industry and the burgeoning of the corporate world has cost society the stability of social institutions such as family and organized religion it has hitherto relied upon as sources of identity, values, and morality. According to psychologist and historian, Philip Cushman (Constructing the Self, Constructing America, 1995), Post World War II United States has commodified our relations with ourselves, resulting in an elevation of the self as bounded and hence less invested in our relationships and responsibilities to one another. This increasing isolation of our identities and values on which the self is predicated in the past several generations has been the subject of concern cited during this time period by social scientists such as Riesman, Glazer & Denny (The Lonely Crowd, 1950), Jules Henry (Culture Against Man, 1963), Christopher Lasch (Culture of Narcissism, 1979) among others.
The empowerment of the self that resulted from these changes in society coincided with cultural shifts in gender roles and reckoning with racial issues, the emergence of a more psychologically-minded populace, and identity politics. The culture wars that have ensued have understandably strained relations between these groups, including those between parents and their adult children whose values reflect these differences between them. As one of the consequences from the influence of these cultural changes on the family, not coincidentally, divorce has become commonplace.
Current Family Trends
In a more psychologically-minded generation that places greater value on the sanctity of the self and its concerns, such as self-esteem, self-other boundaries, and the denigration of dependency in relationships, and that, moreover, is less beholding to the sanctity of the conventions of marriage and family, adult children have become less respectful of the authority that traditionally has held families together. At the same time, the attenuation of the marital bond associated with an increased divorce rate has created a shift in the alignment of devotion within family relationships such that boundaries between parents and children have become more diffuse. Thus, we see more “helicopter parents” and enmeshment in families that crosses generational boundaries. As Coleman points out, this “. . . creates a higher dependence by parents on their children to substitute for the loss of a spouse,” in other words, parents who want their children to be their best friend. At the same time, an exaggerated importance given to their children by such parents may contribute to narcissistic trends in the younger generation.
It is a paradox that greater enmeshment between parents and children often results in children themselves setting boundaries from their parents instead. Even when this doesn’t occur, parents may alienate themselves from their children by unwittingly enlisting their children in marital battles to leverage divided loyalties as often can happen in families of divorce. The upshot of all this results in adult children inclined to blame their parents for their difficulties while failing to develop a sense of faith in themselves instead. Estrangement often results from the dynamics of these dysfunctional cross-generational relationships. Parents are left feeling they have raised ungrateful children while children feel exasperated with “clueless” parents.
What are the Solutions?
For parents of estranged adult children, it is important to listen to their children’s grievances even if they don’t agree with their reasons for them. Acknowledging their role in creating the reasons for their children’s grievances, when sincerely granted, can undoubtedly pave the way for rapprochement to follow even if it isn’t guaranteed. However even when an agreement cannot be reached, open communication may be all that is needed, a solution that could address what might have been part of the problem in the first place. Respecting boundaries when reasonable helps the adult child feel heard and grants the “sovereignty of self” adult children may be seeking in order to feel that their status as an adult is recognized. Parents are advised to seek their emotional intimacy needs elsewhere when cross-generational enmeshment is the source of the problem.
For adult children estranged from their parents, it can be helpful to distinguish between situations where their issues reside in the past, such as when they were raised as children, from problems that are current or ongoing, such as when dealing with a “difficult” parent. When grievances about the past are at issue, validation of experience would be ideal. However, more often than not, when this isn’t forthcoming, once again, the goal should be to be heard and, if not one’s memories is possible, to have one’s feelings validated. In either case, such discussions are inherently difficult. Two books that offer advice about how to prepare for these discussions are Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (1999) by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton & Sheila Heen, and Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (2012) by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan & Al Switzler.
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Robert Hamm Ph.D