Children Estranged from Their Parents

The Atlantic recently published a feature article on increasing levels of estrangement between parents and children.

Both sides often fail to recognize how profoundly the rules of family life have changed over the past half century. “Never before have family relationships been seen as so interwoven with the search for personal growth, the pursuit of happiness, and the need to confront and overcome psychological obstacles,” the historian Stephanie Coontz, the director of education and research for the Council on Contemporary Families, told me in an email. “For most of history, family relationships were based on mutual obligations rather than on mutual understanding. Parents or children might reproach the other for failing to honor/acknowledge their duty, but the idea that a relative could be faulted for failing to honor/acknowledge one’s ‘identity’ would have been incomprehensible.”

The historian Steven Mintz, the author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, made a similar observation in an email: “Families in the past fought over tangible resources—land, inheritances, family property. They still do, but all this is aggravated and intensified by a mindset that does seem to be distinctive to our time. Our conflicts are often psychological rather than material—and therefore even harder to resolve.”

Deciding which people to keep in or out of one’s life has become an important strategy to achieve that happiness. While there’s nothing especially modern about family conflict or a desire to feel insulated from it, conceptualizing the estrangement of a family member as an expression of personal growth as it is commonly done today is almost certainly new.

In these and other studies, common reasons given by the estranged adult children were emotional, physical, or sexual abuse in childhood by the parent, “toxic” behaviors such as disrespect or hurtfulness, feeling unsupported, and clashes in values. Parents are more likely to blame the estrangement on their divorce, their child’s spouse, or what they perceive as their child’s “entitlement.”

While estrangement can occur for many reasons, divorce appears to heighten the risk for both mothers and fathers—especially fathers. Fathers are also at greater risk of being estranged from their kids if they were never married to the mother, and might have more distant relationships with their children if they remarry later in life. In my survey of more than 1,600 estranged parents summarized in my forthcoming book, Rules of Estrangement, more than 70 percent of respondents were divorced from the estranged child’s other biological parent.

It’s an interesting piece. I have certainly seen a number of people who do not have contact with their children and/or parents.

As this article suggests, divorce is a big factor in many of these cases. Divorcing parents often try to manipulate the child to favor them over the other spouse. Sometimes this works. Non-custodial parents, almost always fathers, are at particular risk for losing contact with children. This is especially the case when one party or another remarries. One scenario in which this happens is when a divorced (or never married), non-custodial father marries someone else and has children with her. These men sometimes radically favor the children of the new marriage (and even step-children) over their older children.

The article notes the apparent paradox that these rising levels of estrangement are happening at the same time parents are investing more than ever in their children. I definitely see that adult Millennial children often have an extremely negative view of their parents because they don’t like their parents’ politics. I don’t know any of them who have personally cut their parents off over this, but you sometimes do see messages to that effect on social media.

The article also doesn’t go into great detail about the inheritance implications of this. That suggests to me that the people they are looking at are either very young (i.e., aren’t even thinking about that stuff yet) are older (and so know they aren’t getting a lot of money).

In my view, the Biblical command to honor our father and mother means we should not cut off contact with our parents absent some extreme circumstances. But as the article notes, our ideas about family have changed to devaluate such ideas as filial responsibility. This only contributes to a further atomization of society and loss of social capital that weakens the individual and family at the expense of large, impersonal forces.

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