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Family Alienation: Why Adults Separate Their Parents
Polarizing politics and a growing awareness of how difficult relationships can affect our mental health are fueling family alienation, psychologists say.
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It was a heated Skype conversation about race relations that led Scott to cut all ties with his parents in 2019. His mother was furious that he supported a civil rights activist on social media, he says; She said "a lot of really awful racist things" while her seven-year-old son was within earshot.
"There was a parental feeling like, 'You can't say that in front of my son, this is not how we raise our children,'" explains the father of two, who lives in northern Europe. Scott says the last straw came when his father tried to defend his mother's point of view in an email that included a link to a white supremacist video. He was perplexed that his parents could not understand that people were victims of victims because of their background, especially considering his own family history. "'This is crazy - you're a Jew,' I said. 'Many people in our family were killed in Auschwitz.'
It wasn't the first time Scott had experienced a conflict of values with his parents. But it was the last time he decided to see them or talk to them.
Despite the lack of hard data, there is a growing realization among therapists, psychologists and sociologists that this type of intentional "separation" between parents and children is increasing in Western countries.
Known formally as "alienation," definitions of the term vary somewhat among experts, but the term is used broadly for situations where someone cuts off all communication with one or more relatives, a situation that lasts a long time even if you try to disconnect. trying to reconnect.
"The statement of 'I'm done' with a family member is a powerful and distinctive phenomenon," explains Karl Andrew Pillemer, Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, USA. "It's different from family feuds, conflict situations and relationships that are emotionally distant but still involve contact."
Declaring "I'm done" with a family member is a powerful and distinct phenomenon - Karl Andrew Pillemer
After realizing that there were few important studies on alienation in the family, he conducted a national survey for his 2020 book Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them. The survey found that more than one in four Americans reported being estranged from another relative. Similar research for the British alienation organization Stand Alonesuggests that the phenomenon affects one in five households in the UK, while academic researchers and therapists inAustraliaeYou havethey also say they are witnessing a "silent epidemic" of family destruction.
There has been a boom on social media in online support groups for adult children who have chosen to alienate themselves, including one Scott is involved with that has thousands of members. "Our number in the group has steadily increased," he says. "I think this is becoming more and more common."
The fact that alienation between parents and adult children seems to be on the rise - or at least increasingly discussed - seems to be due to a complex web of cultural and psychological factors. And the trend raises many questions about its impact on individuals and society.
Past experiences and current values
Although research is limited, most separations between a parent and an adult child tend to be child-initiated, says Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and author of The Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict. One of the most common reasons for this is past or presentAbuseby parents, whether emotional, verbal, physical or sexual.Divorceis another common influence, with consequences ranging from the 'partisanship' of the adult child to new additions to the family, such as step-siblings or step-parents, which can fuel divisions over 'financial and emotional resources'.
Value conflicts, such as those experienced by Scott and his parents, are also playing an increasing role. A study published in October by Coleman and the University of Wisconsin, USA, showed that disagreements based on values were mentionedmore than one in three mothers of alienated children🇧🇷 Pillemer's recent research has this tooHighlighted value differencesas the "major factor" in alienation, with conflicts resulting from "issues such as same-sex preference, religious differences, or adoption of alternative lifestyles".
Both experts see at least some of the context for this in the growing political and cultural polarization of recent years. In the United States, an Ipsos survey found aIncreased family feudsafter the 2016 election, while research by Stanford University scientists in 2012 suggested that a greater proportion of parents might be unhappy if their children weremarried to someone who supported a rival political party, which was much less true a decade earlier. A recent British study found that one in 10 people had aargued with a relative about Brexit🇧🇷 "These studies make it clear that identity has become a much bigger factor in who we approach and who we let go," says Coleman.
Children can also be affected by severed ties, as they lose ties with grandparents (Credit: Getty Images)
This story is part of the BBCGenealogySeries that explores the issues and opportunities facing parents, children and families today - and how they will shape the world of tomorrow. The report continuesFuturo and BBC.
Scott says he never discussed his voting preferences with his parents. But his decision to cut them was influenced in part by him and his wife's growing awareness of social issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement and MeToo. He says other adult children in his online support group are at odds over values-based disagreements related to the pandemic, from aging parents refusing to get vaccinated to squabbling over conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus.
The mental health factor
Experts believe that our growing awareness of mental health and how toxic or abusive family relationships can affect our well-being is also having an impact on alienation.
"While family conflict or the desire to feel isolated from it is not particularly modern, conceptualizing the alienation of a family member as an expression of personal growth, as is now commonplace, is almost certainly new," says Coleman. "Deciding which people to keep in your life and which people to keep out of your life has become an important strategy."
Sam, who is in his 20s and lives in the UK, says he grew up in a troubled household where both parents were heavy drinkers. She stopped talking to her parents after leaving home to study and said she cut ties for good after seeing her father verbally abuse her six-year-old cousin at a funeral. Therapy helped her to recognize her own experiences as "more than just bad parenting" and to process their psychological effects. "I understood that 'abuse' and 'neglect' are words that describe my childhood. Just because I wasn't hit doesn't mean I wasn't hurt."
She agrees with Coleman that it is "becoming more socially acceptable" to cut ties with family members. “Mental health is being talked about more now, so it's easier to say, 'These people are bad for my mental health.' I also think people are becoming more and more confident about setting their own boundaries and saying 'no' to others."
The rise of individualism
Coleman argues that our increased focus on personal well-being has come in tandem with other broader trends, such as B. a shift to a "more individualistic culture." Many of us are far less dependent on relatives than previous generations.
"When you don't need a family member for support or because you plan on inheriting the family farm, who we spend time with is more about our identity and our growth aspirations than survival or necessity," he explains. "Today, nothing connects an adult child to a parent, except that adult child's desire for that relationship."
People are becoming more confident about setting their own boundaries and saying "no" to others - Sam
Greater opportunities to live and work in different cities or even countries from our adult families can also help ease parental separation simply by adding physical distance.
“It's been a lot easier for me to get around than it probably would have been 20 years ago,” agrees Faizah, who is British with South Asian roots and has avoided living in the same area as her family since 2014.
She says she severed ties with her parents because she "controlled" behaviors like stopping them from going to job interviews, trying to influence her friendships and pressuring them to get married right after college. "They didn't respect my boundaries," she says. "I just want to be in control of my own life and make my own decisions."
The Alienation Effect
There are strong positives for many alienated adult children who have broken with what they believe is harmful to parental relationships. "Research shows that most adult children say it's the best," says Coleman.
But while improved mental health and perceived greater freedom are common outcomes of alienation, Pillemer argues that the decision can also create feelings of instability, humiliation and stress.
"The conscious and active breaking of personal bonds differs from other types of loss", he explains. “People are also missing out on the practical benefits of being a member of the family: the material support, for example, and the feeling of belonging to a stable group of people who know each other well.”
Feelings of loneliness and stigma seem to have intensified for many alienated people during the pandemic. During"Zoom-Boom"allowed some families to feel closer and keep in touch more regularly, recent research from the UK suggests that adults with separate attachmentsI felt even more aware of losingabout family life during confinement. Other studies point to Christmas and religious festivalsParticularly challenging times for distant relatives.
“I have my own family and partner and close friends, but nothing replaces the traditions you have with your parents,” agrees Faizah. In her 30s, she still finds the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr particularly difficult, despite having distanced herself from her parents' religion. "This is so hard. It's so lonely... and I miss my mother's cooking."
While alienation is difficult to deal with, it may not be permanent as people can successfully reconcile (Image credit: Getty Images)
Choosing not to keep in touch with parents can also affect future family ties and traditions. "The biggest regret for me is that my kids are growing up without grandparents," says Scott. "It's better to tell [my parents] — wow, I don't know what — to them, [but] I feel like my kids are missing out."
All of this, of course, takes a toll on parents, who are often unwittingly cut out of their children's – and possibly grandchildren's – lives. "Most parents are unhappy about this," says Coleman. Not only do they lose balance in the traditional family unit, but they also "describe deep feelings of loss, shame and regret".
Scott says his mom tried calling him recently. But he messaged her and said he would only consider reconnecting with his children if she realized her comments were "horribly racist" and apologized. So far, he says, she hasn't. "Even if all these things happen, I would always limit what I tell them about my life and I would definitely monitor all visits with the kids. Unfortunately I don't see any of that."
Trying to fill in cracks?
As political divisions take center stage in many countries and individualism rises in cultures around the world, many experts believe that the trend of separation between parents and children will continue.
"My prediction is it's going to get worse or stay the same," says Coleman. "Family relationships will be based much more on the pursuit of happiness and personal growth and less on an emphasis on duty, obligation or responsibility."
Pillemer argues, however, that we should not dismiss attempts to bridge divisions, particularly those that result from opposing policies or values (as opposed to abusive or harmful behavior).
"If the previous relationship was relatively close (or at least non-conflicting), I think there is evidence that many family members can re-establish the relationship. However, it does include agreement on a 'demilitarized zone' where politics cannot be discussed ’ he says.
this is so hard It's so lonely... and I miss my mother's kitchen - Faizah
For his book, he interviewed over 100 distant people who had successfully reconciled and found that the process was actually referred to by many as a "personal growth engine." "Obviously it's not for everyone, but for a lot of people, bridging a gap, even when the relationship wasn't perfect, has been a source of self-esteem and personal pride."
He argues that more detailed longitudinal studies and clinical attention are needed to further bring the issue of alienation "out of the shadows and into the bright light of open discussion". "We need researchers who can find better solutions - both for people who want to reconcile and to help deal with people in permanent alienation."
Scott welcomes the growing interest in adult breakups. "I think it will help a lot of people," he says. “Alienation is still a big stigma. We often see these questions in the group: "What do you tell people?" or "How do you deal with it when you date?"
But he probably won't reconcile with his own parents unless they realize they were racist. "The whole 'blood is thicker than water' thing — I mean, that's great when you have a nice family, but when you're overwhelmed with toxic people, it's just not possible."
Scott, Sam and Faizah use one name to protect their privacy and that of their families