Family estrangement and modern parenting

Photo: The Guardian

I caught 1A with Joshua Johnson the other day, and was happy to hear my friend Joshua Coleman featured. The discussion was about family estrangement, which is Joshua’s clinical specialty (he’s a psychologist), and the subject of his book, When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along. Joshua works with a lot of parents who have been estranged by their adult children, which in the social media era doesn’t necessarily mean being cut off, like it might have once upon a time — now it might mean being subjected to constant reminders of children’s social and family lives that deliberately exclude parents.

Of course, the freedom to estrange oneself from a family is very important, and a great thing about modern family life. But it’s also often awful. And it highlights the intense and rapid generational changes we’re going through as well. So this is something to wrestle with, which is what the show did.

I took the liberty of transcribing a few of Joshua’s comments, which I then ran by him for permission and a quick edit, and present here more or less in their original form. Joshua said:

One of the things that’s confusing for so many of the estranged parents I work with is that what gets called abusive or traumatizing behavior today would not have been considered abusive or traumatizing in their generation. This relates to what [Nick] Haslam refers to as “concept creep”: the process of expanding the definition of what is considered harmful behavior. From my perspective as a psychologist this causes some adult children to justify their estrangements or negative evaluations of their parents’ actions.

Much of what gets labeled as abusive or traumatizing today on the part of the parent, does not strike me as genuine abuse or trauma. For example, being controlling, manipulative, intrusive, even critical at times is not necessarily abuse. At the very least, not abusive enough to alter the trajectory of a life in the way that it’s commonly portrayed. But part of the problem is that we live in a culture that’s very much dominated by a kind of  psychological narrative where people are led to believe that the way that their lives turn out are almost exclusively explained by their childhoods, while contemporary research doesn’t really show that to be case. In fact, parents play a relatively small role in adult outcome while genetics, social class, economics, peer group, and random good or bad luck can all be considered equal if not more powerful determinants of outcome. [Post-show addition: As Jennifer Silva wrote in her book Coming Up Short: Working Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty: “Family pathology is invoked both to explain (to themselves and to others) why they have not achieved traditional adult milestones and to map meaning, order, and progress onto their experiences of stagnation in the present.”]

We also live in a society, and at a time where so much is being put onto parents’ shoulders, that other cultures have the wisdom to not put onto the parents’ shoulders. For example, in most Western industrialized nations there is free or highly subsidized childcare, free or highly subsidized college, free or highly subsidized insurance – while in America this is all up to the parent. So there’s a reason that today’s parents are deeply worried and over-involved and concerned about their children’s safety and well-being because it’s all on them. Not only are their adult children sometimes accusing them of not doing enough or doing it well, but so is everyone else including self-help authors and politicians.

When host Joshua Johnson asked for clarification, Joshua Coleman added:

There is of course real abuse and trauma that occurs at the hands of parents; I’m not saying it never occurs, I’m just saying the concept has been so greatly expanded that it’s becoming more of a problem than an asset.

8 thoughts on “Family estrangement and modern parenting

  1. Joshua Coleman has been a great advocate for parents who have adult children who have chosen estrangement. The hurt that these parents endure is heartbreaking. Having these less then perfect but non-abusive parents lumped in with truly abusive parents is a great injustice. It also supports the unhealthy narrative children who have cut themselves off from their parents often use to justify their actions. I am a clinical psychologist who for many years specialized in child maltreatment. There is a stark difference between the true adult victims of clinically significant child maltreatment and the allegations made by adult children who do not want to have contact with their parents, while at the same time not wanting to take responsibility for the hurt they have caused.

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  2. Joshua Coleman’s work has been invaluable in helping me deal with the ongoing heart break of my son’s estrangement from me (now over 5 years). One of the biggest questions I struggle to understand is what I did to cause the rift between us. I am not aware of what I would call any overt abuse but this post has helped me move past my own definition of abuse and think about how he may define that. This is most helpful, thank you for posting


  3. FWIW I was aware of a young adult who cut themselves off from their family, who as far as I know were not physically abusive, and the crux of the reason was that the family (who seemed like very nice people when you met them) was strongly conservative religious & rigid and a very tight multi-generational system dominated by the grandmothers (who had been friends since childhood and whose children had married each other). My impression is that the family was very loving, but the young person had felt very unsafe in the extended family growing up for reasons that were unclear to me, until after the split the young person came to realize that they were trans. The young adult was sure the family would never accept them, even feared being kidnapped and sent into reprogramming, and absolutely refused to let the family know what was going on. I knew the parents were suffering but I did not break the confidence. I know of several other cases where a young adult disappeared from their family for several years and then reappeared with a new gender. Lots of gay people have separated from families for the same basic reason. Many heterosexuals used to cut off from their parents because they were involved with someone they were not married to and knew their parents would have a fit.

    And non-gay people may also have issues that are not apparent to somebody talking only to the parents. Parents can love their children and try their best and still do thing that really hurt their children. I am not estranged from my children, we have quite warm relations, but I learned recently that my failure to respond appropriately to my now-adult child’s ADD and depression caused them unnecessary pain that I just failed to recognize and respond to appropriately. The now-adult child still has some anger over that. We can be close because on both sides we can live in the world of mixed feelings and an acceptance of imperfection. But the child felt cast as lazy when they felt they just could not do certain things, and if I had stuck with blaming the child for not achieving what I wanted them to achieve, we could have been estranged.

    Another class of reasons for estrangement is a spouse/partner who rejects or is rejected by the parents. We stayed in relation through one period by being willing to be civil and accommodating to a child’s partner who was really controlling and destructive and biting our tongues until the relation finally (thank goodness) ended.

    And another is that they one way or another managed to raise a selfish person who is cutting of the parents because the parents have needs or desires and the young person just has more interesting people to spend time with. Or maybe the parents’ expectations are out of line about how much time is enough, and complain about being neglected when they are visited, instead of just acting happy to see the offspring on whatever terms they can get.

    BTW I am not disputing that there is a difference between child mistreatment and imperfection. And I didn’t click through, maybe Joshua Coleman has talked to the adult children and knows their side of it and that the young people really are just blaming their parents for being imperfect. But the story line as you told it just sounded too superficial about what could be going on with the young adults in its implied assumption that if you were not abused, you must not have any good reason to avoid a parent.

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  4. I wake up most nights after nightmares of being chased by my parents. To anybody who only spoke with them, or viewed our family from the outside, I would definitely be cast as The Bad Seed. Because nobody else outside ever saw my father threaten to send me to a mental hospital when I was 10 and crying. Nobody ever saw my father and his religious abuse painting himself as the perfect christ-like figure, and me as the devil. Nobody outside ever saw my lack of dating as the physical threats my father made against any male who might want to date me. They would not see my marrying an older man in an elopement as my trying to escape my father with a defender strong enough protect me. They would never see my mother who was his quiet conspirator who deliberately ruined my hair every Sunday to make me look unkempt in front of the Church and prove to them I wasn’t even trying to be clean and neat and who would not listen to my protests. None of this would rise to the level of actual abuse by most people except for the once that he slapped me in the face. But then my little sister never talks about the fact that he used to beat her with a belt until she threatened to call Child Protective Services on him as the beatings continued into her teenage years. They never see how my brother married an older woman who came from a well-to-do family as a method of escaping my father who used finances as a way to ensure our obedience. Far more estrangements happen because of this kind of thing that is never considered to be abuse by the parent, or is lied to cover up, and is never seen by the outside world because there aren’t any visible bruises to show. I can’t explain how much happier I am now that I have gone no contact with them and gotten some therapy. So before you support these abusive parents who just hide it better, think about what you’re not seeing. I have a master’s degree, an MBA, a degree in engineering, and I paid for it all myself because I refused to go to the all women’s religious finishing school college that my father insisted I attend, the one that was only a mile from the Seminary he attended, the one with the chaplain who was his mentee who had been charged to watch me closely and report back to him in case I happen to do anything he considered Unholy. Where if I did not return his phone calls within a few hours, he threatened to call the police as I was obviously a missing child and have me dragged back to his control. Take a cold hard look at who you’re supporting when it doesn’t seem like there’s any of yous but the child cuts off contact as if it were. Because it is, the abusers are just sneakier because they know what you’re looking for now.

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  5. It is disappointing and analytically irresponsible to treat a contemporary view of abuse as “concept creep” vs civil and social evolution. Even if it took a whoopin’ or worse to qualify as abuse in the olden days, that’s not a good or right standard for always. This part of the article invites disbelief of or even blaming victims.


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