Updated: Nov 7
“Parents aren’t powerless; they have virtually all the power to set the tone in their relationships with their children, and this hardly wanes over a lifetime.” - Tina Gilbertson
Special note: This article is about parent-child estrangement, NOT parental alienation. Parental alienation is an entirely different phenomenon that’s not discussed here in any way. To learn about how estrangement differs from parental alienation, read this article.
Enjoying loving relationships with our children once they become adults is a hope shared by most parents. We look forward to things like celebrating their first jobs out of college, attending weddings, forming strong bonds with their partners, and maybe even the arrival of energetic little ones. But for millions of parents of adult children this hope never actually comes to fruition.
You’d have to be living under a rock to not know that parent-child estrangement is on the rise, with many social scientists and mental health professionals even going so far as to say we’re experiencing an “estrangement epidemic.” Now more than ever before adult children are making the decision to sever ties with one or more of their parents, and to say it’s got a lot of not-yet-estranged parents on pins and needles is quite an understatement.
The million-dollar question parents are asking of course is “How can I avoid becoming estranged from my kid?!?” The answer is actually not all that complicated. We parents, it turns out, just need to quiet our egos and shut up long enough to listen. And who do we need to be listening to? The real experts on parent-child estrangement—estranged adult children themselves.
As a counselor specializing in strained parent-adult child relationships, I sit every day with adult children (and often their parents as well) who are on all sides of the parent-child estrangement coin. Some of my clients are considering estrangement. Some are currently estranged. And some are reconciling after estrangement. What my adult child clients have taught me about estrangement is more valuable than anything I read about it while in graduate school.
While each individual client’s story is unique, something I’ve learned by listening to estranged adult children for a decade now is that the parents who find themselves cut off by their adult children all make the same predictable mistakes. “It’s like they all have this “How to Become Estranged from Your Adult Child” guide that they read from,” a 24-year old client, estranged from both her parents, recently said to me.
In that vein, I present to you “4 Ways to Become Estranged From Your Adult Child.” If you’re an estranged adult child, I hope you’ll feel less alone by reading what I’ve had the privilege of learning from hundreds of other estranged adult children just like you. If you’re a parent, I hope you’ll have the courage to humble yourself and listen to what’s being said here. None of us can ever be perfect parents, but we can be imperfect parents who are willing to listen.
1. Believe you’re owed a relationship
Want to have a relationship with your adult child? Don’t think of yourself as automatically entitled to a relationship with your adult child.
While it might seem paradoxical initially, one of the biggest mistakes parents can make is to cling to the belief that our adult children owe us a relationship.
When we can remind ourselves that relationships—even parent-child ones—are built on mutual respect and understanding, not entitlement, we lower our risk of becoming estranged from our adult children (and also check our egos in the process).
2. Think you're entitled to their children
Another misstep parents frequently make that paves the way for future estrangement is thinking of ourselves as entitled to relationships with our grandchildren. “But they’re MY GRANDCHILDREN!” too many parents these days shout indignantly.
It’s as if we parents see our adult children as dairy cows and ourselves as the farmers who own the newborn calves because we also own their mothers. Needless to say, we’ve really gotten ahead of ourselves.
All the word grandchild means anyway is “your child’s child.”
Still, the same parents who couldn’t be more thrilled about not having possession when it comes to their children’s student loan debt are the parents who are most convinced that their children’s children are somehow their rightful property. What’s that saying about people who like to pick and choose?
3. Say offensive things about their partner
Want to fast-track your way to an estrangement? Say insulting, judgmental, or belittling things about your child's partner. As many estranged parents can tell you from experience, despising the very person your child adores is not a good hill to die on.
As a counselor who specializes in parent-adult child relationships, I spend a lot of my time with parents who reach out to me hoping to avoid an estrangement. Thankfully, I’m able to help the vast majority of parents do exactly this, but I’ll never forget this one mother who was convinced that her adult daughter owed her (the mother) a marriage she agreed with. This mother said to me, “Stephi, my daughter’s correct about me not liking the man she married. I can’t stand the guy, and I’ve told her so! What sort of man doesn’t bring in more money than the woman? Am I not allowed to have my own opinions anymore?!”
Unfortunately, the remaining 5 minutes in the session were not enough time to help this woman understand that while she was entitled to her own hateful opinions, her daughter (and her son-in-law) weren’t obligated to hang around for them. Needless to say, she never returned for a second session.
4. Say offensive things about their sexuality
This one should really go without saying. But here we are so I’ll just be blunt: Respecting our children’s sexuality is an absolute must, estrangement or not. There’s simply nothing negotiable about it.
Parents who think they’re somehow “doing the right thing” by holding hateful beliefs (no, religion is not a valid excuse for bigotry) about their children’s sexual orientation are 100% out of line and entirely in the wrong.
Can’t respect your child for who they are? What made you think you had any business becoming a parent?
5. Play armchair psychologist
If your goal is to speed-run your own kid cutting you off, another option is to up your ableism by armchair diagnosing them with a mental illness and then weaponizing that mental illness against them. The more stigmatized the mental illness—think borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder—the quicker you’ll get that estrangement you’re after.
Cruel parents who weaponize mental illness against their own children can sound like:
“You don’t really think I was an abusive mother. That’s just your mental illness talking.”
“Your borderline makes you unable to see things clearly. Your perspective on your own life can’t be taken seriously.”
“Your dad and I told the family about your personality disorder and now everyone sees that you’re the one causing all the problems.
“Why would anyone believe you? You’re mental/crazy!”
A diagnosis of mental illness (real or armchair) is not a valid reason to bully your child. Full stop. And beyond this, even if it were somehow okay, adult children these days just aren’t here for it anymore. If you have a difference of opinion or conflict with your child, do your child and yourself a solid and leave mental health labels (and jargon) out of it. Your holiday plans will thank you.
6. Think you know their childhood better than they do
Maybe you can help me out here. Why is it that the parents who get cut off are always the parents who possess the supernatural ability to know their grown children’s past better than the children themselves? These know-it-all parents say things like:
“I’m your mother and I was there! I know for a FACT that your father never abused you! You’re just making it up for attention!”
“Mother wound? What on earth? You had an amazing childhood. I remember it vividly.”
“There was nothing traumatic about your childhood. I’m not just forgetting things either!”
Are the adult children who estrange themselves just not grateful enough for the superiority of these clairvoyant parents they’ve been blessed to behold or what? Kids these days, I tell you!
All jokes aside, please don’t be that parent who’s conceited enough to think you’re somehow more of an expert on your child’s childhood than they are. The expert on your child’s childhood is your child. Now there is a childhood that you in fact are the expert on. Your own.