Parent-Adult Child Estrangement: A Growing Phenomenon

Mirah Riben, author and activist
13 min readMay 4, 2023

Being one of several of my friends who has one or more adult children who don’t speak to us, or with whom we have a strained relationship, I was drawn to read Matthew Maniaci’s “Why Are Young People So Messed Up?” which deals with parental estrangement and explains why some adult children resort to cutting ties.

Maniaci’s exploration of the under 40 generation is enlightening. He says they are “messed up” because they have inherited a lot of crap both literally in terms of plastic water bottles destroying the ecosystem and less visibly in terms of intergenerational trauma. I hope you’ll read it, whichever generation you are from, and even if you have to invest one dollar a week to access Medium. It’s well worth it.

Maniaci says of his generation:

“It seems like we’re all depressed, burnt-out former gifted kids with ADHD, piles of trauma, and at least one kink. I don’t think I know a single person in my age bracket who could be defined as ‘well-adjusted’.”

It also seems the mantra of this mal-adjusted generation is:

“You are allowed to terminate your relationship with toxic family members. You are allowed to walk away from people who hurt you. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for taking care of yourself.” Unknown

My friends, parents of these “messed up” children, seek to understand why our kids hate us. We tried to be loving parents — more loving we believe than our parents had been. We tried our best to give them everything they needed to grow into healthy, independent adults with a secure self-esteem. We beat ourselves up wondering where we went wrong, how we failed to pass onto our children one good thing our parents taught us: respect. They seem to have none for us or for anyone. They seem, so many of our kids’ generation, to be overwhelmingly mired in anger, much of it directed at us.

Joshua Coleman, PhD, psychologist in private practice and senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families specializing in family estrangement sees both the parents and the adult children. In “A Shift in American Family Values Is Fueling Estrangement,” The Atlanta, 2021 writes:

“A survey of mothers from 65 to 75 years old with at least two living adult children found that about 11 percent were estranged from a child. Of those, 62 percent reported contact less than once a month with at least one child, and the remaining 38 percent reported zero contact in the past year. . .

“you can be a conscientious parent and your kid may still want nothing to do with you when they’re older.”

A baffled mother posts:

“I’m starting to think that the old adage, ‘Familiarity Breeds Contempt’ may play a role in estrangement . . . Maybe [our daughters] knew us too well, the good, the bad, and the ugly? Something triggered their contempt for us. Was it really things we did and said or was it the suggestions by social media that if we did or said anything that made them upset, than we are less than them. We are inferior to them. My daughters’ disrespect and disdain began once they were on social media.”

Maniaci believes that our kids’ generation (those who are employed in jobs with benefits and can afford it) seek therapy perhaps more readily than their parents have (though I myself have been in and out therapy since I was 17). Our kids, of course, use different lingo than we did. Different labels; same shit. We call the layers of the onion of our lives, and the crap we need to overcome from our parents, PTSD. They call it: intergenerational trauma. Samo samo. Trauma being the key factor in both terminologies. One basic trauma for all us is learning that our parents are human beings with flaws that often unintentionally (mostly) inflict pain on our children’s forming self-identities. Therapy can help adult children with the classic age-old struggle of moving from child to adult. This job of becoming an adult which involves separating. Therapy can help one cut the cord or “the apron strings” as it used to be called, and carve a path to make their own independent lives as adults.

Yet, I believe the major cause of rifts between our generation and theirs — what used to be called the “generation gap” — is often therapy. “Huh?” you ask? Therapy is helpful, insightful and healing. How is it causing or widening the gap? Here’s how:

A therapist is not a mediator and unless engaging in couples or family counseling, the therapist has just one client and hears just one side of a story — their clients’. The adult child client comes to vent their list of complaints and accusations. Their parents are overbearing, too controlling, or too aloof and uncaring. Toxic. They don’t understand. They don’t “get it.” Echoes of our complaints about our parents. Therapists hear their point of view, their perspective of what sounds very much like an emotionally abusive relationship. The therapist then helps their clients — our children — label our “abusive” behavior as “gaslighting” and their parents as narcissists.

Coleman agrees that therapy can sometime be more hamful than not, in fractured relationships. In “When Therapists Encourage Family Cutoffs. Are We Helping or Harming?” for Psychology Today, Coleman writes:

“an adult child’s psycho­therapy can sometimes increase family conflict and distance. Unless a client requests help in having a better relationship with the parent, sibling, grandparent, or in-laws, most therapists worry that too much emphasis on the needs or feelings of the person outside of the room will be antithetical to helping their client focus on their own needs — which is, after all, the point of much therapy today.”

They diagnose us without ever meeting us. No assumption of innocence. Guilty as charged. I know that some therapists cast these judgments because my therapist diagnosed my ex-husband with those very same labels (abusive, narcissistic) based solely on my perspective of him. She likely was dead on correct and in the case of a former spouse there’s little harm in reassuring the client it’s not them who is crazy, it’s their ex who is exhibiting crazy-making behavior. This might also be appropriate for someone in an emotionally abusive marriage or romantic relationship who needs encouragement to extricate themselves from it.

Is the same technique appropriate, however, when dealing with parent-adult child relationships? Is it fair to demonize parents based solely on viewing them through their adult child’s lens and description, their recall of events? We know that negative memories form more vivid, more permanent and deeper imprints than happy ones. Thus, one could have an idyllic, loving childhood and recall to their therapist isolated moments when their parents fouled up, “lost it,” and said or did inappropriate things. Is it fair for us to be judged by our mistakes? Fair or not, therapists hear the worst of us or at least our children’s interpretations of it. And what they prescribe to remedy their clients’ issues is establishing “boundaries.”

Our estranged children — millennials and Gen Xers — however, fail to hear, learn, discern, and understand the difference between healthy boundaries and impenetrable walls.

Coleman notes:

Therapists can do a lot of damage. We can encourage a divorce from a spouse who’s more amenable to change than we realize, harming the lives of the client and her children. We can encourage someone to stay in a marriage that creates ongoing depression for him or his kids. We can support a parent who cuts an adult child out of a will, without confronting how much he has contributed to the child’s negative behavior. We can support an adult child’s decision to end a relationship with a parent without being sensitive to how that decision may affect the client, his children, and the parent who’s being cut off.”

Jacquelyn Tenaglia, L.M.H.C., writing in the NY Times, May, 2023 said:

“….Young people are hearing a lot of messaging around everything being ‘trauma.’ I think that is really dicey. I am not in favor of widening the clinical definition of trauma, because of the potential to look for trauma in places where it may not exist. And I feel people are also becoming more boundaried, shifting to this kind of cancel culture. Sometimes people think that cutting other people off is self-care, and they may be right. But sometimes you can have a conversation with someone and let them know they upset you, and work through it to have a stronger relationship as a result. I think people are losing those social skills involved in rupture and repair.”

For those who cannot afford therapy or just don’t want to be therapized, there are even worse options, such as taking advice from Dr Google. Online descriptions abound on how to recognize emotional abuse, gaslighting, and narcissism and support groups feed group (aka mob) mentality to “not take it.”

Contributing factors include economics and distance. Today, people marry later, if at all. Marriage is declining and the divorce rates remain high. That means more singles trying to support themselves. Many of our adult children move wherever they can earn a decent living, which often means moving out-of-state, cross county and even out of the country. Away from family.

In my day, grown adult kids called their parents regularly, if not out of love and true concern, at least out of a sense of duty. Not so today for many of us. Today, many adult children are choosing to remove and isolate themselves from their parent or parents and even from siblings

The process of separating from parents is as old as the human race. But it has become extremely complicated and difficult today because of financial constraints. In my day, kids cut ties and got out of their parent’s home by marrying. My husband managed to support a family of five with just a high school diploma and a blue collar municipal job in the 1970s. We owned a very modest home purchased with V.A. loan (my husband being a veteran). It was a fixer-upper, but it was ours and we were able play at being adults out from under the grips of our parents. Not so today. Our kids are lucky if they can afford a shared apartment, ala Chandler Bing and Joey; Rachel and Monica. In New York city? Two people sharing an apartment each with their own bedrooms? No way today!

Yes, our kids inherited a mess. Our parents thought Elvis’ hip gyrations were lewd. In the 60’s guys’ hair was too long. Pot smoking was demonized as “Reefer Madness.” These are the things that parents and kids fought over. The stakes seem higher today. Opinions are shared more publicly and are more starkly divided on issues that used to be private, such as sexual and gender preference and reproductive health.

Despite our best efforts we left our kids a mess. A legacy of college debt and a planet on the brink of destruction, despite our best intentions. Why wouldn’t they have “issues”? Why wouldn’t they be angry? And who is there to blame but us, their parents, because we failed to stop endless wars and the climate disaster. We tried but we failed. Integration and affirmative action did not end racism.

Why wouldn’t our children hate having to raise their children in a gun-crazed nation afraid to go to school, the movies, church, or even ring a neighbor’s doorbell without fear of being shot to death? We did our very best but it just wasn’t enough to protect our children and grandchildren who deal with righteous indignation and who are very justifiably pissed about it and at us.

Maniaci says his generation got “a raw deal.”

“We have looked back at all of the trauma that we could’ve gone through and decided that we don’t want that for ourselves or our kids. Having looked at all of the poison that our parents dumped into the world for public consumption (both literally, such as carbon emissions, and metaphorically, such as racism and emotional abuse), we decided that it was time for that trauma to stop.”

I concur. I do not agree, however, that:

“ . . . our parents seem to have wanted us to go through those traumas.”

“We are all fighting horrible battles against unspeakable traumas and awful mental illness . . . So many of us are going through hell to cope with our many issues and escape the cycle of abuse and trauma, and as a result, we tend to look like a generation that is just a big-ass clusterfuck of a mess.

“Ultimately, though, we’re trying.”

So are your parents, dude. How can you recognize that your traumas are intergenerational and not recognize, or have a bit of compassion, that we too had our traumas?

Negotiate Terms

Disconnect from truly abusive parents, by all means. No one should tolerate abuse. Step back, take a break, and create healthy protective boundaries, but not walls.

Feel your anger. Sit with it. Own it. If you’ve been hurt or feel you’ve been abused, you are quite naturally angry. Your anger is yours and it’s valid. You have every right to it. Allow yourself a reasonable time period to feel your anger. Vent it online and to friends and/or to a therapist. Scream. Punch walls. Facing your anger is healthy. Much healthier than trying to push it down to squelch it. But living with anger for extended periods of time in counterproductive and unhealthy. Try to take care of yourself in a gentle way, without punitive anger. Recognize and try to control a need to hurt those who have hurt you.

Parents need to recognize that anger is always rooted in hurt. Own any hurt you inflicted, albeit unintentionally. Apologize. And own, too, societal obstacles — the messed up world — are children were born into.

When you are ready, try to negotiate a truce. If you have built a wall of silence and allow no communication whatsoever, consider allolwing a way — perhaps through a mediator — to allow mutally acceptable terms of contact to be negotiated.

You might, for example, request/accept email or text but no personal contact. Maybe just holiday and birthday cards send via USPS. Compromise on acceptable intervals. A parent who might have been in a habit of calling or texting several times a day might, for instance, have to accept once a day. Hear each other needs. Another might want no phone calls or visits if it’s not too uncomfortable or triggering, but might allow grandchild visitation. Find spaces that don’t feel threatening. When ready to meet, do so in a public place so you don’t feel trapped. Compromising contact that is tolerable, provides your parent(s) the comfort of knowing you are alive and well without exposing you to disquieting, upsetting, or triggering contact. Both sides need to negotite with respect.

The final step if and when you are ready is having the hard conversations with your parents. Allow them an opportunity to hear your grievances and to apologize. Parents need to listen without interruption and without defending. Just listen. Understand that this is how your child feels even if you think their version of events is untrue, try to apologize. My daughter once told me that I had slapped her. I could not in my wildest dream ever imagine that occurring. It felt totally out of the realm of possibility. I told her, “I do not remember doing that can cannot imagine it, but if you remember it, I believe you and I sincerely apologize.” I believed that she believed it happened.

Give us a break. We tried. But we are human and as such are imperfect. We made mistakes. We reduced, reused, and recycled. There is not a sole who is not appalled by the gun violence in this country. We just need to agree on a solution. Many of us fully support the LGBT community and women’s reproductive rights. But we battle those who don’t.

I see it the parent/adult child dichotomy as more of a political/ideological divide than a generational one. Our parents thought Elvis’ hip gyrations were lewd, young men wore their air too long, and smoking pots created “reefer madness.” Each generation of grown children has their differences with their parents. But even Maniaci found allies among those younger than him as well as among some among some elder “old fogies.”

Parental estrangement is hurtful. It cuts like a knife, because . . .


Step back. Take a break. By all means move out of your parents’ basements. Create healthy boundaries. But total silent estrangement with some children going as far as threatening their parents with restraining orders for leaving a voicemail or text saying: “I love you” or “I’m thinking about you” or “I hope you are well” is seldom to never necessary. If world peace is a shared goal, and I believe it is, remember that creating peace begins with each of us. The first step is to see our perceived enemies as human beings, flaws and all.

Try to give your old-timey parents the benefit of the doubt that the hurts we caused you were unintentional.

Break the cycle.

Let intergenerational trauma end with you. Instead, pass a legacy of peace, tolerance and co-exsistence onto the next generation.

Additional reading: