Family Feud: When Kids Break Up With Their ParentsS

In our modern-day narrative of helicopter parenting and "extended adolescence," one experience is often overlooked: that of parents who are totally cut off from their grown kids. But one expert believes this is a growing problem.

Tara Parker-Pope of the Times Well blog mentions Angelina Jolie and skier Lindsey Vonn as celebrities who have been estranged from their parents (Lindsay Lohan and her dad Michael didn't make the list), but psychologist Joshua Coleman says such estrangement is rising among ordinary people as well. Parker-Pope explains that it's not limited to families riven by addiction or abuse, but that "parents often report that a once-close relationship has deteriorated after a conflict over money, a boyfriend or built-up resentments about a parent's divorce or remarriage."

In recent years we've heard a lot about adults who talk to their parents every day, and parents who obsessively check up on their kids not only in college but at work. I even wrote a post last year about my own and my generation's closeness with our progenitors. But Parker-Pope writes about families where the opposite is true — sometimes despite parents' efforts. Says one mom whose relationship with her daughter fell apart while the younger woman was at grad school,

I've done a lot of crying. I'm very depressed. All the holidays are sad, and we don't have any closure on this. She was so wanted. She was so loved. She still is loved. We want her in our life.

And Coleman himself has been through estrangement, though his relationship with his daughter has recovered. He says, "Don't just assume if your child is rejecting you that that's the end of the conversation. Parents have to be on a campaign to let the child know that they're in it for the long haul." The trauma he describes echoes one expressed — albeit in less severe form — by a Slate letter writer this week. In advice column Dear Prudence, she wrote,

My son and daughter-in-law invited me to visit them this summer at their home to meet my new grandson and spend time with my 3-year-old granddaughter. The last time I visited them at home was nearly two years ago. I need to purchase my ticket soon and e-mailed to ask which dates were convenient for them. To my surprise, they responded with a request for me to fly in on July 13 and fly out on July 15. I'm traveling a great distance, at significant expense (I'm on a small, fixed income), and considering flight layovers, this schedule will result in my visit lasting all of two nights and one full day. While I certainly don't want to overstay my welcome, I can't help but be hurt that I'll only have one whole day to spend with them.

Prudence responded, "you were invited to meet your new grandson several months after his birth, and the last time you were there was two years ago, so you have a distant, strangely formal relationship with your son and daughter-in-law." The connection between "distant" and "formal" may be no accident. Though some parents may be emotionally closer to their children than was the norm in generations past, many are geographically farther from them. This literal distance makes staying in contact an effort — and that effort may seem less worthwhile if the relationship is strained. And while families living in close proximity may have had an incentive to resolve their differences, they may now be able to simply lapse into silence. Coleman argues that parents should take the initiative to break this silence, but once they're adults, don't children bear some responsibility too? And are there parent-child relationships that, even if they don't involve outright abuse, simply don't merit saving? One thing that's clear from both Parker-Pope's post and the long-distance grandmother's letter is that economic, cultural, and geographical realities are changing the way families operate — and not every family easily adapts to those changes.

When The Ties That Bind Unravel [NYT Well Blog]
Clothing's Not Optional [Slate]

Earlier: On Mennonites, Identities, And Moving In With Mom & Dad