PSA: Sometimes people really do hate you for no good reason and through no actions of your own. But if those people are your children, it's probably worth trying to figure out what really happened. Or, you could be like Elizabeth Vagnoni, who excels at digging into all facts except the most relevant.
Rather than really investigate why her adult children refuse to speak to her, Vagnoni, a documentary filmmaker, has researched just about every topic in relation to estrangement, including presenting and conferences and co-authoring papers about the rampant problem of narcissism in the young, which she has decided is the real culprit here. Vagnoni explores all this in an article titled "Why Some Grown Kids Cut Off Their Parents," which I seriously had to re-read a few times because at first I thought was a satirical counterpoint op-ed in The Onion at first.
But no. It is sadly real. Vagnoni starts out sympathetically enough in her piece at Next Avenue, which begins:
The truth is — I am estranged from my two adult sons.
The truth is — I love my sons and I miss them every day.
The truth is — I can't understand how in the world this has happened.
The truth is — saying you love them and miss them is not enough. There is much more to say, but you need a conversation — you need actual interaction, not just silence.
There's definitely much more to say—directly to her sons, and not, say, conference attendees or Internet audiences, but, you know, quibble. But from here, let's just say "the truth" appears to take a flying leap out of the realm of the knowable, possible, or believable for the rest of the article, where Vagnoni spends at best a few lines on any of the details that would help the average person even understand why her two adult sons won't speak to her. Those include a reference to having been "met with silence when trying to understand" their point of view, and this little gem buried at the end:
My sons consistently refuse to reply to my emails and let my calls go to voicemail, or barely speak if they do answer. They accuse me of being a terrible person, but won't elaborate about exactly what I've done. Well, sometimes they do, but it doesn't make sense, at least to me. For example, it's hard to be part of the birth of my grandchild if I didn't know that I was going to have one!
All this started because of a personal email they felt entitled to read on my computer.
Whoa whoa whoa hold the phones, grandma. WTF WAS IN THE EMAIL? Surely it wasn't a letter to your gardening club about how excited you are to look over the latest Victorian Trading Co. catalog? Ann Taylor coupons? Maybe it… revealed something really horrible, like a secret family or a plan to murder your adult children, or literally any number of things too personal for us to know or guess that could feasibly make two grown children decide they've had enough? I think we can all assume that cutting off one's parents is not a decision entered into lightly, and even grown kids who have every reason in the world to do so for their own emotional health still struggle enormously with it. As Emily Yoffe wrote in a piece examining the reasons people cut off contact:
In an essay in the New York Times, psychiatrist Richard Friedman writes that the relationship of adults to their abusive parents "gets little, if any, attention in standard textbooks or in the psychiatric literature." But Rochelle is not alone. I have been hearing from people in her position for years, adult children weighing whether to reconnect with parents who nearly ruined their lives. Sometimes it's a letter writer such as "Comfortably Numb" who has cut off contact with a parent but is now being pressured by family members, and even a spouse, to reconcile and forgive. Sometimes a correspondent, like "Her Son," has hung on to a thread of a relationship, but is now fearful of being further yoked emotionally or financially to a declining parent.
One hallmark of growing up in a frightening home is for the children to think they are the only ones in such circumstances. Even when they reach adulthood and come to understand that many others have had dire childhoods, they might not reveal the details of their abuse to anyone. "The profound isolation that's imposed on people is a very painful and destructive thing," says Dr. Vincent Felitti, co-principal investigator of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 3.3 million cases of abuse or neglect were reported to child protective service agencies in 2010. This vastly undercounts the actual number of horrific and painful childhoods, as most never make it into any official record. The CDC notes that some studies estimate that 20 percent of children will be the victims of such maltreatment. That means a lot of people are wrestling with this legacy.
Loved ones and friends—sometimes even therapists—who urge reconnecting with a parent often speak as if forgiveness will be a psychic aloe vera, a balm that will heal the wounds of the past. They warn of the guilt that will dog the victim if the perpetrator dies estranged. What these people fail to take into account is the potential psychological cost of reconnecting, of dredging up painful memories and reviving destructive patterns.
And what Elizabeth Vagnoni's article fails to account for is *cough* thecontentsofthatemail *cough* and the fact that in cases where people are going to reconcile, that such reconciliations are predicated upon knowing what you did, and being sorry, not accusations of narcissism.
But that is not even the best part of this very sad, misguided article. It's that the bulk of the word count is devoted to a shell game of appearing as if she's done everything she can, and must now throw up her hands:
Parents tell stories of ill-spoken words, of misunderstanding, of unhelpful interference from others. Much of what they describe, while conflict-laden and uncomfortable, doesn't seem bad enough to have caused estrangement. The scenarios don't appear to warrant a total cutoff. At least not according to the way I was raised. I hear that phrase a lot, too. Most of the parents I talk to are boomers, who share similar values and beliefs, including thoughts on how parents should be treated. The similarities I've seen in stories about how they lost contact with their children created a new direction for my research — our culture.
Ah yes. Back in the olden days, parents were treated with respect forever no matter what they put in personal emails. Hell, they didn't even have emails back then to be misunderstood, just poorly worded faxes I guess.
Vagnoni does eventually stumble onto a straw to grasp at as to why her children disowned her: She gave them too much self-esteem.
Specifically, I have directed my focus to the rise of narcissism among younger people. The topic is hot right now. The book, The Narcissist Next Door, was released just last month by Jeffrey Kluger, science editor of Time magazine. Kluger writes: "Parents spend a lot of time ensuring their children have high self-esteem. You need a healthy ego to climb to the top of your profession. But when does self-regard become narcissism?" Narcissism has been long been associated with the notion of entitlement, which typically suggests a lack of empathy, a feeling of superiority and a tendency to overreact to criticism.
So I wonder.
Yeah, so do we, ma'am—about that dang-blasted email. The one that made your kids hate you? WHAT DID IT SAY? Any ideas?
So maybe the seed of children cutting off their parents started with us. We boomers were the first generation with parents who were ultra-concerned about making sure their children had a "better" childhood than they had.
No, seriously, lady, it's definitely not because you gave them such a great childhood, and c'mon, what was in the email?
A common story among parents who have estranged adult children is how much they had focused on their children, how much they did to make sure their children had all the best advantages, made them the center of the family universe — and often how they treated them more like an equal or an adult than a child.
Just like, a hint or whatever? Like, even one or two lines? Maybe? Anything? It's probably still in your sent folder!
I believe that a culture of "self-esteem" — give everybody an award, change dress sizes so larger people feel smaller, allow teens to be disrespectful to those in authority — has set the tone and created a possible outcome I don't think anyone expected: the idea that it's OK to cut off contact with your parents. When something, or more specifically, someone, no longer supports the view you have of yourself — get rid of them!
The only way to move forward is to get to resolution. To talk. To find common ground. To forgive.
Uh-huh, fer sure. And also to take another, good long look at that email.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby, Source images via shutterstock.