Why Do Adult Children Estrange?: The Parents' Take
One of the more intriguing things about estranged parents' forums is how they handle the question of why adult children become estranged. It's THE question, the subject of all the members' ruminations; it comes up in every new member's introduction, and members return to it again and again. Some members say that having no answer is what's stopping them from getting past the estrangement. And yet, forum veterans discourage analysis, breaking up discussions with statements like "There's no understanding the irrational" and "It doesn't matter why they did it, the important thing is that you were a good mother and they threw you away."
You gave three "excuses" for your daughter's recent behavior: your imperfect parenting, her medical condition, and her toxic boyfriend. Throw those out the window. There is one reason your daughter has turned on you: she has chosen to. She knows better, too. Don't think for a minute she's not acting on her own free will. This is how people like your daughter and mine choose to deal with difficult situations: they flee, they deflect. There's nothing you or I, or anyone else on this site, can do about it.
This can happen even when a member gives clear, obvious reasons for the estrangement, and most especially when she takes partial responsibility. The other members rush to soothe her, telling her that whatever she did, she did her best and she doesn't deserve this punishment. In fact, she was a great mother, and her children should be grateful to her. It's incomprehensible that they can't appreciate the sacrifices she's made and see her for the loving, caring parent she is.
But this deflection doesn't answer the "why." Soon it pops up on another thread: Whyever do our children do this cruel, irrational, unconscionable thing to us?
...At which point a member tosses out a reason: "This generation is narcissistic." And everyone jumps on it: Yes, yes, this generation is narcissistic!
Members get swept up in this even when they come to the forum for help with children who, say, have several failed stints in drug rehab. Or who refuse medication for their bipolar disorder. Or whose husbands leave visible bruises on them. They're still happy to wipe the slate clean with "estrangement is incomprehensible," then substitute some other, less actionable cause for the estrangement.
"Actionable" is an important word to remember when reading the list of reasons parents prefer. The reasons remove all blame from the parent, except possibly the blame of being too good and spoiling the child; they place all of the responsibility and agency upon the child or interfering third parties; and there's nothing the parent can do about it except wait.
These "soft" reasons usually stop one step short of an actual reason for estrangement. For example, if your child cut you off because she has poor conflict-resolution skills and solves problems by running, what was the conflict that made her feel she had to run? If your child is punishing you for things he imagines you did to him, why does he imagine you did those things? Is he delusional? Is he lying? If he's lying, what's driving him to lie? If he's delusional, what's causing his delusions? Behind every soft reason is a hard reason, a piece of psychological bedrock, but members actively avoid digging for it.
Soft Reasons for Estrangement
Here's a list of the most common soft reasons that members of estranged parents' forums default to to explain estrangement:
- We were too good to them.
- Their generation is narcissistic.
- They expect perfection and reject us for being human.
- They're immature.
- They have no conflict resolution or communication skills, so they have to run away.
- We taught them to estrange when we were estranged from our own parents.
- Estrangement is genetic.
- They're ashamed of themselves.
- They made bad choices, and now they're ashamed to face us.
- They're doing something they know we don't approve of, and they don't want to face our disapproval.
- It's trendy to ditch your parents./They're doing it for the attention.
- They lied about us, and now they don't see a way out.
- They're punishing us for imagined crimes.
- It's a power play./They want to control us.
- They want us to chase them because it forces us to give them attention.
- We're scapegoats for everything that's wrong in their lives./They have psychological problems that they can't work out, so they attack us instead.
- My son-/daughter-in-law wanted them all to themselves.
- My son-/daughter-in-law has a bad relationship with their own family, so they can't bear to let my child have a good relationship with his/her own family.
- Their in-laws are wealthy and we're not, so they're ashamed of us.
- They estrange because they can.
- I don't think even they know why they're mad at us.
Not all discussions of the whys of estrangement focus on soft reasons. Forum members also discuss an array of "hard reasons," reasons that are a near-complete explanation of estrangement: mental illness, personality disorders, parental alienation, drug and alcohol addiction, spousal abuse.
However, these discussions have the same mushy, unfocused quality as the members' discussions of soft reasons. Members resist categorizing their children by disorder, so there's no community recognition that children in the thrall of controlling spouses need to be handled differently than, say, children in the thrall of cocaine. Without community recognition acting to hold members' observations in the forum's collective memory, any insights members have disappear as soon as the comment thread ends, so every successive conversation has to start at the same rock-bottom level. At the same time, members don't seem interested in the facts. They don't really want to know how parental alienation happens or what it's like to be a teenager in the custody of an alienating parent. They want to feel better about having been targeted by their ex and rejected by their children. The result is that discussions of hard reasons turn into discussions about how it feels to be the parent of a child who's mentally ill, addicted, personality disordered, etc., which turn into discussion of the members' grief and rage, which they soothe with a liberal application of soft reasons for estrangement.
Members of estranged parents' forums are simultaneously obsessed with learning why their children are estranged, and resistant to analysis of their children's reasons for estrangement. Members not only reject the reasons their children give them, they ignore hard reasons like their children's addiction or mental illness. Their preferred explanations are designed to soothe the parent's pain: "This generation is narcissistic." (It's the culture's fault. My child turned out like this despite my best efforts.) "My child expects me to be perfect." (The things he accuses me of are little mistakes that any human being would make.) "Estrangement is genetic." (And the genes are probably from her other parent's side. Even if they're from mine, I'm not responsible for the DNA I gave her. She's responsible for what she chooses to do with it.)
The result is that estranged parents' communities lack community wisdom about dealing with adult children who are mentally ill, addicted, abused by their spouses, etc., all problems that by the members' own accounts contributed to a substantial number of estrangements. In place of the missing knowledge is a rich and varied body of knowledge about how to self-soothe: how to stop obsessing over the estranged child, and how to feel less guilty, rejected, and worthless.
Don't get me wrong, estranged parents need this knowledge. They need it like clean water and pure air. But their approach relies on a false dichotomy: Feel better about yourself OR develop a better understanding of the estrangement. Undermine your child's reasons for estranging so you don't have to take their criticism to heart, OR suffer the pain of seeing yourself as flawed and your actions as hurtful so you can figure out what you need to do to heal the estrangement.
This dichotomy is at the heart of estrangement. If a parent was at fault and she could truly hear her child's reasons, she wouldn't be estranged. If the fault lay with the child and the parent could approach the problem from a perspective other than, "How does this make me feel?", her understanding of the problem would be so different that she wouldn't need the kind of support estrangement forums provide. And until a parent can see the relationship in different terms, she's going to keep insisting that her children won't talk to her because she was such a good mother to them that they're spoiled, entitled brats who can't handle conflict, expect perfection, and tell lies to their rich in-laws.
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The analyses on this page are my own opinions and should not be construed as medical advice or statements of absolute fact.