Many young U.S. adults are estranged from their parents, at least temporarily — with the father/child bond being especially fragile.
Those are among the findings of a new national study that tracked thousands of parent-child relationships from the 1990s to recent years.
Researchers found that one-quarter of young adults were estranged from their fathers at some point — four times the number who reported broken ties with their mother.
Often, those relationships got back on track to some degree, but reconciliation was less likely with fathers: Of adults who were estranged from their mother at some point, 81% got back in contact; that compared with 69% of people who were estranged from their father.
One of the messages from the findings is that family estrangement is common — and not a sign of failure, according to the researchers.
“There is a lot of shame and silence around family estrangement, but in my view estrangement isn’t inherently good or bad,” said Rin Reczek, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University.
Most often, Reczek said, it’s the adult child who breaks ties, rather than the parent. And there may be many reasons.
“As children grow up, they start making choices regarding independence for themselves, and sometimes this includes cutting off or significantly reducing contact with parents for their own healing,” Reczek said.
In other cases, someone cuts ties because the relationship has begun to “sour” and cause harm.
“I hope people understand that estrangement is fairly common in the U.S., especially between adult children and their dads,” Reczek said. “A relationship ending — even one with a parent or child — is not a moral failing, but instead a relatively usual occurrence.”
The findings, published recently in the Journal of Marriage and Family, are based on two national studies. One included Americans who were ages 14 to 22 in 1979, and were interviewed regularly through 2018. The other study involved the children of some of those participants; they were interviewed on a regular basis between 1994 and 2018.
That gave Reczek’s team years of data on more than 8,000 mother-child pairs and a similar number of father-child pairs.
Overall, 26% of adult children reported some period of estrangement from their father, while 6% were estranged from their mothers — typically starting in their early- to mid-20s.
There were differences according to demographics. Young Black adults, for example, were less likely than white adults to cut ties with their mother, but more likely to be estranged from their father.
Sexuality was a factor, too — but only in father/child relationships. Lesbian, gay and bisexual adults were more likely to be estranged from dad, versus heterosexual people, but not from mom. That’s in line with past research showing that fathers can react with more homophobia when their kids “come out.”
What’s not clear is whether parent-child estrangement is a recent phenomenon. There have been many studies on the topic in the past decade or so, but there is no good data from years ago to use for comparison.
However, there have been societal shifts that could be making family estrangement more likely, according to Joshua Coleman, a psychologist in the San Francisco Bay area and senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families.
He pointed to divorce, which can be a big factor in estrangement from fathers. When a father remarries and focuses on the “new” family, for instance, the children from his first marriage can be (or feel) left behind.
But just like divorce, “there is no single pathway to estrangement,” said Coleman, who is also author of the book “Rules of Estrangement.”
Adult children, he said, may break ties because they were abused, because of mental illness or substance abuse (their own or their parents’), or because they and their parents have diverged on basic values and beliefs.
Coleman pointed to another common scenario: Parents do not like their child’s choice of spouse or partner (or vice versa), and someone decides to cut ties.
Those breaks may be less likely, or shorter-lasting, with mothers for a number of reasons, according to Coleman. It’s a generalization, he said, but mothers are more likely to empathize with their kids and to keep working on the relationship than fathers are.
Society also puts more pressure on moms, Coleman noted. They’re expected to be the keeper of the family and, by extension, face more judgement when families have a falling out.
If estrangement is more common these days, there’s some irony there. Compared with past generations, Coleman said, Americans are more interested than ever in being “good” parents, turning to books and websites for advice on raising happy, well-adjusted kids.
But that also means that adult children today may have greater expectations of their parents as providers of emotional support, and not just food and shelter. In some cases, Coleman said, parents may develop such an “intensive, anxious” parenting style that their grown kids feel the need to separate from them.
In his clinical experience, Coleman has found that parents are often left confused when their kids break ties — in the vein of “I was a better parent than my parents were to me.”
As the new study suggests, estrangement is often temporary. But, Reczek said, that does not necessarily mean all is well.
That reconnection could be driven by things like family illness, adult children needing financial help, or shame over the estrangement, Reczek said. So tension and conflict could still be present.
More research, Reczek said, is needed to better understand the reasons behind “unestrangement.”
For any family reconnection to be healthy, Coleman said that a key ingredient is empathy — trying to understand the other person’s point of view.
“Focusing on who’s right or wrong,” he said, “doesn’t get you anywhere.”
AARP has advice on being a parent to adult children.
SOURCES: Rin Reczek, PhD, professor, sociology, Ohio State University, Columbus; Joshua Coleman, PhD, clinical psychologist, senior fellow, Council on Contemporary Families, Austin, Texas; Journal of Marriage and Family, Dec. 1, 2022, online
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