As parents lavish more attention on their kids, the kids may ditch mom and dad | Opinion

File this column under the Department of Delayed Reactions.

Apparently, I’d saved a magazine article on my laptop as fodder for a column — then promptly forgot about it. I stumbled across it recently while looking for something else and thought, “Hey, this is important. And still timely.”

It was an article by Joshua Coleman that appeared in a 2021 issue of The Atlantic. It’s also available, free, on Coleman’s website.

He’s a psychologist in California and a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families who argues that a shift in American family values has fueled a troubling increase in estrangements between parents and adult children. Usually the estrangement is chosen by the child, not the parents, who are left feeling bewildered, maligned and alone.

“Sometimes my work feels more like ministry than therapy,” he writes. “As a psychologist … my days are spent sitting with parents who are struggling with profound feelings of grief and uncertainty. ‘If I get sick during the pandemic, will my son break his four years of silence and contact me? Or will I just die alone?’ ‘How am I supposed to live with this kind of pain if I never see my daughter again?’ ‘My grandchildren and I were so close and this estrangement has nothing to do with them. Do they think I abandoned them?’”

Coleman cites various studies, including one that found 11 percent of mothers from 65 to 75 years old with at least two living adult children were estranged from a child, and that 62 percent reported contact less than once a month with at least one child.

There’s evidence fathers are likelier to be estranged from a child than mothers.

There was no word about how the current numbers compare with past generations, but it may be that in the past there weren’t enough estranged families for researchers to notice.

Of course some reasons for estrangement are obvious — if, say, a parent abandoned or sexually abused a child.

But oddly, Coleman argues, estrangement seems to have increased during an era when many parents have invested unprecedented financial and emotional resources in their kids.

“However, my recent research — and my clinical work over the past four decades — has shown me that you can be a conscientious parent and your kid may still want nothing to do with you when they’re older,” Coleman says.

There have always been generation gaps and family conflicts, but today adult children may view estrangement from their parents as an expression of personal growth. This is something new and reflects how family life has changed over the past half-century.

Family relationships have become interwoven with the search for individual happiness, historian Stephanie Coontz tells Coleman. Relationships used to be based on mutual obligations rather than mutual understanding.

“The idea that a relative could be faulted for failing to honor/acknowledge one’s ‘identity’ would have been incomprehensible,” Coontz tells Coleman.

But if children and parents now assume that the goal of parenting is to produce fulfilled, happy children — then, when those children grow up to feel neither fulfilled nor happy, it’s easy to assume their parents failed them.

Also, the same attention and affection modern parents shower on their offspring can come across as smothering and intrusive when those kids become adults.

Estranged parents and children often can’t even agree on what their rift is about, Coleman says:

In addition to the issue of overt abuse, common reasons given by adult children for rejecting their parents are “‘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.’”

If there’s good news, it’s that fractured relationships can be mended.

Here are tips I gleaned from the article that might help.

For parents:

Make the first step. Don’t wait for your child to come to you. Although the estrangement usually is initiated by the child, it falls on the parent to seek healing.

Listen. “However they arrive at estrangement, parents and adult children seem to be looking at the past and present through very different eyes,” Coleman says. Don’t try to prove that your version is right. Just listen. Apologize for your failures, show understanding of the child’s perspective and abide by the child’s boundaries.

For children:

Regard your parents not as just another burden, but as the people who gave you life and fed you.

“It can be hard to see their awkward attempts to care for us, the confounding nature of their struggles, and the history they carry stumbling into the present,” Coleman says, speaking of family members on all sides of a dispute. “It can be difficult to apologize to those we’ve hurt and hard to forgive those who have hurt us. But sometimes the benefits outweigh the costs.”

Develop self-awareness. “We are all flawed,” Coleman concludes. “We should have that at the forefront of our minds when deciding who to keep in or out of our lives — and how to respond to those who no longer want us in theirs.”

Paul Prather
Paul Prather

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at