Grown Children and Estranged Parents

A recent headline caught my eye:

Why Some Grown Kids Cut Off Their Parents

Could their estrangement be caused by how we raised them?

My immediate response was, wow, you think? Like, you abuse and mistreat your kids and then wonder why they don’t want you in their lives when they grow up? Really? But as I read the article itself, I realized that this wasn’t what the author meant. And as I read, I was increasingly horrified.

The Rise Of Narcissism In The Young

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. 

The author claims that parents have been too nice to their kids, and that the result is narcissistic kids who are the center of their own universes, and that these narcissistic kids go on to hurt or abuse or reject their parents.

The amount of tone-deafness in the article is astounding.

Look, I know numerous young adults who have cut their parents off. They tend to do so because their parents are narcissists, not because they are narcissists. The stories I’ve heard are horrifying—stories of parents who abuse, threaten, and manipulate, who withhold contact from siblings and even who speak before legislatures alleging that their adult children are being abused by their therapists.

And you know what’s interesting? These young adults’ parents talk a good story. They convince relatives, family friends, and neighbors that they are the victims and that their children are the aggressors. And so when the author of the above article says that her two adult sons have unfairly cut her out of their lives over a misunderstanding, I get the feeling that she’s not telling the full story.

My own parents were initially unwilling to let me grow up and make my own decisions. They tried to control me, laying the emotional manipulation on thick. My early adulthood years were very difficult as a result, and at one point I made the decision not to visit home. Visiting home only meant pain. That decision was one of the best decisions I made during those years. Over time, my parents gradually mellowed, although I think my marriage had a lot to do with it—after I had married, they stopped trying to control me. Yes, there are still problems from time to time, and guilt or manipulation, but they’ve gradually learned how to let go.

But the young adults I know who have cut their parents off entirely? Their parents were not like my parents. Their parents were not able to loosen up or let go. Their parents were not able to listen, or to grow. I think sometimes it can be hard to imagine what it is like to have an abusive and manipulative parent if you don’t have one. The truth is that my friends who have cut off their parents are acting as the adults in their relationships. They are the ones who are being mature.

Now, I don’t know the details of the above author’s estrangement with her sons. I suppose it’s technically possible that both of her sons have treated her badly, but I think that’s unlikely. I think it’s more likely that she—like too many other parents in her same situation—is not telling the full story. Too many parents end up unable to let go, and to treat their children like the adults they are.

Positive and healthy parent/adult child relationships are possible. My husband’s parents, for example, are amazing. They were able to let go, to treat my husband and his siblings like the adults they were, to support their children and to give advice when asked without trying to control or guilt them. The result was that their children trust them and come to them for advice, and to celebrate life events. That is the kind of parent I aspire to be when my own children are grown.

But I know too many young adults who are estranged from their parents to assume that these sorts of estrangements are the result of adult children’s narcissism rather than that of their parents’.

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