February 18, 2024

Estranged Parents: An Epidemic of Entitlement

Photoshopped images of Diane Cohn of EstrangedParents.

Imagine yourself as the adult child of two seemingly good parents. They provided for you, you never wanted for the necessities, and they claim to love and care about you. From the outside, people might imagine your life as perfect, but your experience was one of being devalued if you expressed a boundary, degraded or flat out told you are wrong if you showed a normal emotional reaction to a hurtful behavior by one or both of your parents, guilt-tripped if you expressed discomfort in a parent’s actions, and manipulated into providing emotional or physical labor. Furthermore, your actions are twisted to suit the narrative of the parent in conversations with friends, family, and sometimes even online to a larger audience which garners you more criticism and shame for being an entitled, mean, and downright terrible child.

After years of trying to set healthy boundaries, express your feelings about aspects of your childhood that make you feel hurt or insecure in your interactions with your parents, and trying to set the foundation for a healthier and more respectful relationship on both sides, you see that your mental and physical health are starting to decline and it’s time to set a harder boundary. You decide to go no-contact with your parents with the desire to put your effort into healing yourself instead of trying to repair a relationship with people who don’t want to see your concerns as valid. You voluntarily orphan yourself and inadvertently open the floodgates of criticism from people who assume you are in the wrong. After all, what kind of heartless monster ghosts their own parents?

Table of Contents

Meet the Parents

We are taught from an early age to respect and honor our parents so much so that when adult children express being estranged from one or more members of their immediate family they can expect to hear the same advice over and over: “be the bigger person and forgive them, they won’t be alive forever and you will regret cutting contact.” There seems to be no similar shame heaped onto the estranged parents.

It’s a really heavy topic to return to YouTube with, I know, but I was feeling really uninspired to contribute anything until I came upon a video made by Diane from the YouTube channel EstrangedParents about her experience in coming to terms with her adult daughter’s desire to go no-contact with her parents.

Imma be real here, the video borders on being a smear campaign directed at her daughter. The production includes literal sad violin background music and shows her regularly smirking at the audacity of her child, saying she is sad while her expression paints her as contemptuous. All of this would be bad enough, but this creator seems to also want to create a pay-for-play community of like-minded estranged parents to coach them through the experience which I fear will only lead to more parents facing permanent estrangement from their children instead of a temporary distancing that could be reconciled with time.

As a quick aside, I have noticed people calling this woman a narcissist but I would discourage anyone from throwing that term around. For one, it doesn’t matter if she is diagnosable, you aren’t diagnosing her and even if she doesn’t meet the criteria she still clearly hurt her daughter enough to result in estrangement. Second, I frankly don’t see NPD as being a useful diagnosis for most people. To have a diagnosis create real change, you have to be willing to see a problem with your behavior and a lot of people who may have NPD have zero desire to reflect on their actions to any reasonable degree. Third, the term “narcissist” is losing its meaning because people are tossing it around too much. We are all narcissistic to some degree, so I’d rather focus on the specific behaviors in her video that could be a problem for her reconciliation with her daughter instead of some arm-chair diagnosis. The purpose of this video essay isn’t to send negativity her way, but to urge parents who might be facing the same issues with their children to think of it in a different way.

She read very little of the letter’s content in this clip which implies how little she wants to engage with her daughter’s feelings. I also think the voice-over of the semi-snotty sounding young woman was a deliberate choice to degrade her child while showing herself as the victim. Painting her daughter as a petulant young adult while intimating any further delving into the letter would be a violation of her privacy is strange considering how much information and video documentation is included in this. While her daughter’s face is blurred in the clips of her as an older child, it isn’t blurred enough, in my opinion. Furthermore, she left the clips of her as a baby unedited, which to me indicates a sense of ownership of a person with no voice…but I could be reading into it. She wants to be seen as both protecting her child while disparaging and even semi-doxxing her. The viewer is left to assume the worst of her daughter; that she is behaving irrationally, that she is spoiled and only wants her way, that she hasn’t tried to behave in a mature manner and put effort towards reconciliation with her parents. I find it difficult to believe this humiliating behavior is a new development.

The mother’s disregard of her daughter’s feelings betray something she refuses to admit, she doesn’t respect her child enough to reflect on the contents of her letter nor does she love her in a way that would allow her to drop her ego and consider ways in which she may have harmed the parent-child relationship. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe she loves her, but love comes in all shapes, and her love doesn’t include room for her parenting being viewed as unhealthy.

Diane repeatedly states that “they did their best”, which very well could be true, but there is no attempt to admit that their best maybe wasn’t good enough. It is not important to her that her previous behavior harmed her child, whether it was intentional or not; she wants her child to comply with the narrative of the parents and will act in a vindictive and punitive manner if that expectation isn’t met. In the limited information we are given about the letter, her daughter said she was given love with strings attached and I have no difficulty believing that based on this video.

The mother expresses that the daughter was always kind, was the person that remembered family birthdays and events, and a person who could be relied on to show up. Despite going no-contact, when her father was ill, she still called to help boost his spirits but even this was met with derision about how she behaved “like an automaton” without considering that she hadn’t at that point received any accountability or consideration for the things she shared in her letter about actions that harmed her. While she goes out of her way to imply her daughter is fake, only interested in online “fans”, and bratty, she obviously was deeply caring and considerate despite the “faults” the mother lays out. It seems this daughter might very well have been shown love and support AS LONG AS she was meeting the familial needs and acting as an emotional caregiver. This is obviously just speculation, but I would imagine, based on how the parents speak about her, the daughter didn’t feel supported in differentiating from the family unit in terms of needs, interests, and emotional response.

What is it that makes parents feel entitled to a relationship with their adult children at the expense of the child’s mental, emotional, and physical health? Is it a sense of ownership?

The History of Children as Property

For most of history children were largely consigned to the status of parental property or chattel (primarily the father's chattel). Absolute parental control of the child, unfettered by the state, was in part a reflection of the agrarian society and the family itself as a work unit. Even where a child became orphaned or was so severely mistreated by parents or guardians that courts sentenced the abusers to prison, the child would often be indentured into the service of a new parent-master. This concept of children having an economic value was often matched with even sterner religious views, in which children were seen as inherently evil and needing a strict, punitive upbringing. Lawrence Wrightsman (1994) suggests that a basic tension still exists between the circumstances in which the state should be permitted to take action for the child against the parents and the idea of the sanctity of family privacy and parental control. Even as late as the early twentieth century most children in the world had no legal status separate from their parents.

Our relationship as parents to children is often bound to a pattern of dominance and authority, with many parents thinking of their children as property in every way but title. “I am the adult and you are the child, I tell you what to do and you do it or I mete out punishment. You believe what I say you believe, you follow the path I set for you.” Not only is this authoritarian parenting style a recipe for conflict as your child gets older, but it negates their ability to form healthy attachments with their caregivers while exploring their preferences, interests, and natural inclinations. It seems many parents believe you bring a child into the world and then fill them with your beliefs, tell them who to be, and dictate how they live their lives, but all children are born with an early version of their personality. Your child may be easy going or fussy as infants, quick to make friends or slow to warm up, naturally focused or easily distractible. A large part of our personality is based in our genetics, but relationships, experiences, education, and societal pressures help mold what is already there.

When a parent chooses to dominate and control their child, whether through physical punishment or psychological manipulation, everyone suffers. The child suffers because they are at odds with their parent from day one and aren’t supported in developing themselves as individuals while learning to be cooperative in relationships. The parent suffers because they are working in a manner that is at-odds with the true intimacy of a healthy relationship and long-term familial care. Instead of mutual respect, cooperation, empathy, and affection, these parents rely on coercion, punishment, and obligation to get the child to comply. In many ways these domineering parents hint at what estranged children know to be true, they don’t want love, they want submission.

Obedience was the primary virtue to develop in children. Disobedience often carried significant fines; even older children were subject to such rules. An 1854 Massachusetts law stated, If any children above sixteen years old and of sufficient understanding shall curse or smite their natural father or mother, they shall be put to death, unless it can be sufficiently testified that the parents have been unchristianly negligent in the education of such children or so provoked them by extreme and cruel correction that they have been forced thereunto to preserve themselves from death or maiming. (Bremner, 1970, p. 68)

I can only talk about what I know to be true in parenting styles that are prevalent in the U.S., so take this with a grain of salt, but I think the colonial attitude of having human chattel as a right infected American parents’ ability to think of their children as separate beings, whole unto themselves, and that sense of ownership has been passed down through the generations. Children are regularly dehumanized, discredited, disbelieved, and used to satisfy the egos and needs of the adults around them. Parents are encouraged to make the child fit into their life, relegating the child to the same status as a pet. I have a lot of philosophical and moral concerns about keeping pets, too, but I’ll let y’all tell me if you want to go down that depressing rabbit hole with me at a later time.

While the rights of children have come a long way in the past 100 years, many countries still drag their feet when it comes to codifying rights that would see children as distinct entities from their parents or guardians. The US, in particular, has been slow to adopt the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child treaty due to Article 12, which would allow children to have a weighted say in the decision-making processes that affect their lives, obtaining a more balanced role in relationships with adults. If codified, this would mandate courts everywhere to allow a child to express their views freely with those views being given more weight based on their age or level of maturity.

That children are vul­nerable and therefore deserve special protection makes intuitive sense; but that children are members of society—that is, individuals with rights of their own—comes as an afterthought, if at all. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is an ambitious interna­tional human rights treaty that strives to balance the two contrasting points of view by giving fresh attention to the latter. Shifting away from a traditionalist conception of children as purely passive objects of the authority of parents and governments, the CRC paints a modern, com­plex vision of children as in need of protection but also as individuals with rights. The CRC is both a legal and a normative document. As a legally binding document, the CRC has been ratified by every United Nations member state (UN) but for a notable exception: the United States. […]

Physical Abuse Isn't the Only Abuse

To parents with fearful and controlling tendencies, the world is a threatening place. They overanalyze everything and assume people have ulterior motives. As a result, they misperceive reality and assume hostility from others when there is none. Under stress, controlling parents with fearful and paranoid tendencies psychologically regress to a black-and-white mode of thinking. The world is split into the good camp and the bad camp; people are divided between the tyrants and the tormented, the blamers and the blamed, the persecutors and the persecuted. You, as their child, are forced into either an ‘it’s me and you against the world’ dynamic, or ‘it’s you against me’.

Control is the primary driver for abuse of any kind, but child abuse takes the control an adult inherently has over a child and inflates it. Controlling behavior can usually fall into two categories: overt and covert. Overt hits all the marks of what people usually imagine when they think of abuse: hitting, threatening, confining, yelling, and invasion of privacy. Covert is subtle; it’s the guilt tripping, shaming, the parent playing the victim, coercion, reversing the parent and child roles, the expectation of being subordinate to the parent or other adults, stonewalling, and the silent treatment. The result is usually the same, the child is either forced or manipulated into giving into the demands of the parent. Many of the stories from estranged parents said things like “I know what abuse is, I lived it, and I still didn’t cut my parents off. I don’t know why my child did that to me when she had a much better childhood than I did.” Covert abuse is not less damaging than overt, they are two sides of the same coin.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (APA), psychological maltreatment of a child is “the most challenging and prevalent form of child abuse and neglect” (Hibbard et al. 2012, p. 372) because it is more subtle to detect. Emotional abuse can be allusive, and its very nature allows it to hide in plain sight (Hart and Glaser 2011). Emotional abuse is often a misunderstood form of trauma, perhaps the most damaging type of abuse, that leads to long-term consequences for adults (Heim et al. 2013). […] Emotional abuse may be the most damaging form of maltreatment due to causing damage to a child’s developing brain affecting their emotional and physical health as well as their social and cognitive development (Heim et al. 2013). According to Barnett et al. (1993), emotional abuse is “persistent or extreme thwarting of the child’s basic emotional needs [such as] parental acts that are harmful because they are insensitive to the child’s development level” (p. 67). The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC; Myers et al. 2002) defines emotional abuse as “a repeated pattern of caregiver behavior or a serious incident(s) that convey to children that they are worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value in meeting another’s needs” (p. 81).

Controlling people may appear outwardly confident, happy, and even successful in life and career, but they harbor immense shame under a thick layer of denial. Any disturbance to their facade leads to reactionary defenses which can include hostility, threats, passive aggression, and cold discard. They require constant praise, unwavering loyalty, and complete submission. Any choices they allow you to make usually come at a cost later, as they typically engage in transactional relationships. Their inability to be honest with themselves about their actions, intentions, and beliefs tend to shutter them off from true intimacy and connection to the people around them.

People with a high need for control often run purely on impulse to the degree that even they don’t fully understand why they act the way they do, and their lack of awareness means they can’t acknowledge the effects their behaviors have on the people around them. In fact, highly controlling people often rely on facade so heavily it can border on a complete break from reality.  They project their actions or feelings onto the people around them, blame shift to indicate that if you would just xyz they wouldn’t be abusive, yell or using intimidation to gain compliance, have outbursts of unpredictable anger, conveniently forget their abusive behavior, deny what they said or did, accuse you of blowing things out of proportion, or twist your words to suit their victim narrative. Going through years of this kind of abuse doesn’t just break a person’s spirit, it makes them question what they remember, who they believe themselves to be, and leaves them feeling incompetent. Often, the abuser will play the victim so convincingly that the real victim will feel like they are the one in the wrong. Now, imagine the effect this kind of behavior could have on a brain that is still developing.

According to Heim et al. (2013), emotional abuse not only causes low self-esteem but also impacts the nervous system. These authors report emotional abuse causes changes in the brain, specifically in regions associated with understating and controlling emotions and recognizing and responding to the feelings of others. Their study found thinning in the tissue of the brain that helps with self-awareness and emotional regulation, particularly in the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe. Individuals who report a history of emotional abuse often have memories of the abuse which elicits negative feelings and tense physical sensations that are difficult to regulate and control due to the nervous system and brain changes. Those who report emotional abuse suffer with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, moodiness, and extreme or dulled emotional responses (Heim et al. 2013).

Authoritarian parenting is often characterized by strict enforcement of rules, emotional unavailability, one-way communication, demanding unrealistic expectations, and low sensitivity to the child’s feelings. Permissive parents are openly communicative but low in responsiveness, lack of consistency and follow-through with rules and expectations, teach minimal direction and guidance, avoid conflict at all costs, and give in to their child’s demands. Neglectful parents are neglectful, emotionally unavailable, or unresponsive; do not provide guidance or nurturance; let kids “fend for themselves,” often causing them to grow up too soon or miss out on childhood; and are unaware of important details in their kids’ lives, such as who their teachers and friends are.

According to this article on PsychCentral, there are a three styles of “Negative Parenting” styles that don’t necessarily meet the legal expectations many people have for abuse, but definitely ride the line: Authoritarian, Permissive, and Neglectful Parenting.

Negative parenting styles can affect children far into adulthood, where they will likely experience low self-esteem, low resilience, difficulty forming healthy relationships, inability to process emotions around negative experiences, antisocial behaviors, and mental illness.  In particular, long-term negativity, criticism, and psychological/emotional abuse can lead to complex PTSD, which not only affects your brain function but the chronic stress from PTSD can lead to chronic illnesses, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and lung disease (What Does PTSD From Emotional Abuse Look Like? | Nobu Blog’, Nobu). Oftentimes, the person who suffered abuse will feel the same anxiety and fear around their abuser regardless of if they are being nice or mean, they are primed to be ready for attack.

In a response to the authoritarian parenting styles a lot of millennial and Gen Z parents endured as children, many new parents are attempting to adopt a method of gentle parenting with very little experience in having that modeled for them. How can you expect to learn to parent based around a child’s cognitive ability and emotional needs when you were primarily taught through fear and coercion or, perhaps, left alone with no one to guide you? As a result, you have a lot of parents fully neglecting to give their children appropriate boundaries, lessons in civility, and teaching them to work with their natural temperament, instead relying on excuses for the child’s negative behaviors and denial of their ability to help their child learn to understand and regulate their emotions ahead of a negative behavior. In this parenting style, children are also harmed. Gentle parenting is not permissive. Gentle parenting involves learning about and respecting boundaries, naming emotions, learning empathy and coping strategies, developing cognitive skills and problem solving, and learning to work within community so that all people have a healthy and safe place to be.

A recurring theme in a lot of the stories told by estranged children was feeling like they weren’t permitted or supported in being their own person. If their beliefs or actions didn’t align with what the parents thought to be either religiously moral or in keeping with how they were raised, they were demeaned, ostracized, or otherwise treated poorly. Children have to be allowed to differentiate in a supportive and loving family dynamic, and the fact that so many feel unable to express their true selves in front of their parents shows that this issue is generational.

People with a poorly differentiated “self” depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others that they either quickly adjust what they think, say, and do to please others or they dogmatically proclaim what others should be like and pressure them to conform. Bullies depend on approval and acceptance as much as chameleons, but bullies push others to agree with them instead of with others. Disagreement threatens a bully as much as it threatens a chameleon. An extreme rebel is a poorly differentiated person too, but she pretends to be a “self” by routinely opposing the positions of others. A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality. Thoughtfully acquired principles help guide decision-making about important family and social issues, making her less at the mercy of the feelings of the moment. What she decides and what she says match what she does. He can act selflessly, but his acting in the best interests of the group is a thoughtful choice, not a response to relationship pressures. Confident in his thinking, he can support others’ views without being a disciple or reject others’ views without polarizing the differences. He defines himself without being pushy and deals with pressure to yield without being wishy-washy.

In discussing estrangement, I think it’s important to bring up the all too common stories of gay and trans children being kicked out of their homes for coming out. There is also a long and sad history of pregnant teens being kicked out of the family home long before high school is over. While it’s convenient to paint this as a modern problem, it’s disingenuous and manipulative. Controlling parents typically have the idea of the family home as something you earn through compliance and a common theme for a lot of parents is “as soon as they are 18/out of high school/not in school, they are out.” Ignoring what I think about the housing crisis (shelter and food are human rights, end capitalism pls) even squatters have rights after a certain amount of time on a property, but children are not thought of as having rights to any portion of the home they spend their life in.

Don’t get me wrong, I think all members of the household should contribute to the health and safety of the home, including children in an age appropriate way (picking up their toys, helping the parents clean common areas, assisting in errands in the effort to eventually learn how to do things by themselves as adults), but the idea that you no longer have a place to be because you are technically an adult is ethically, ummm, fucked. People raised in controlling households typically don’t have practice advocating for themselves, they aren’t compassionately taught how to approach the basic tasks of being an adult in the world so something as simple as doing laundry or paying a bill can lead to a trauma response in the brain, and they haven’t been treated as though they have a right to information. When controlled children become adults, they have to grow up again without any support.

Even with abusive parents, all children are hardwired as social mammals to look toward their caregivers for love, support, and protection including adults; so why are so many cutting off contact with their parents?

Why Choose Estrangement?

I’m gonna say something that will likely make you sad, mad, or maybe even check out mentally, but I beg you to just stick with me here. I promise, if you can get down with this idea, it will help you connect with your child as a person. You do not have children with the expectation that they will choose to be your family forever. You do not create a child or take on the guardianship of a child in order to get a return on your investment. If that statement makes you bristle, you are engaging in a transactional relationship. If a child is born with that as the expectation, you are less likely to treat them as an individual with their own rights, desires, and beliefs. If a child is born to forever serve you in some way, even if that’s just being available to spend time with you, that child is not truly a person in your eyes, they are your property.

There are a lot of ways that parents betray their children’s humanity, including but not limited to forcing them to eat/wear/participate in things that don’t align with their reasonable preferences or interests, forcing them to engage socially with people who are not respectful or kind to them, not supporting their safety/privacy needs and boundaries around friends and family, and expecting them to always choose to be around you and show you love regardless of their feelings about your behavior towards them.  Before you try any “gotcha” shit here, I’m talking about REASONABLE preferences and desires, all children will need to find some veggies they can tolerate and all children need to brush their teeth and clean their bodies and the homes they share, but there are so many ways we can cooperate with their preferences and support their self-advocacy within those guidelines.

A big part of being an adult is recognizing that not everyone will like you and you will not like everyone, and that’s ok. You find your people in life and try to be the kindest person you can be by practicing empathy even when you don’t like someone. When your child grows up, they may not like you. THAT IS OK. You are not owed their presence as a payment for caring for them; that was the very least you were required to do. They were a child, you chose to raise them, they didn’t have a choice then but they will when they grow up. When you don’t feel entitled to your child’s affection and time, you will try harder to be a caring and considerate parent.

Furthermore, around the ages of 20-30, there is a natural period of detachment that is completely developmentally normal. Your child has to figure out what it means to be an adult outside of your influence, they have to have room to grow as an individual and figure out where they want their parent to fit into their lives now that the parent isn’t “needed” anymore. You may even want to ask them how often they feel comfortable with you checking in and make sure you ask them if they are open to advice or help, don’t force it on them or assume that what works for you is what is best for them. Basically, behave as though they are any other adult in your life, it’s not your job to “raise” them anymore. If you willingly give them this room to breathe they will know that you see them as an adult now, that you’re available if they need you, and you will respect their boundaries and privacy otherwise. If you had a strong relationship before they left the nest, they will come back around when they figure themselves out.

[…] 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.”

It is not unusual to become defensive when confronted with the idea that you have made a mistake, it’s literally wired into our brain to avoid anything “unsafe” including situations in which we might lose social status, community, and sense of self. We are social species that only fairly recently could survive independent of tribes, our brain hasn’t caught up to our social and technological advances so it is hardwired in our brains that losing community will result in death. The problem is not that immediate defensiveness, but the overall lack of desire to acknowledge the issues these adult children bring to their parents even after a cooldown period.  The overall vibe is very much “the belief that I am a good person, a good parent, and owed connection is more important than my child’s safety, security, and sense of belonging.” It’s a lack of emotional maturity.

What I find troubling about this video from Diane of EstrangedParents isn’t that she was initially hurt and defensive, I find it troubling that she was able to go two years into estrangement still seeming to harbor a lot of anger and resentment about her lack of access without seeming to arrive to a place where she understood some accountability was necessary and healthy for them to be able to make repairs to the relationship. Both she and her husband seem to feel entitled to a level of care from their children that reverses their roles. Ted talks about how Haley “doesn’t care if they are struggling with her no-contact, doesn’t care if they are alive or dead, etc,” which indicates that she was expected to support her parents’ emotional needs and now that they have the opportunity to do the same, they feel betrayed. Let’s just forget about the fact that when Ted was sick and in the hospital, she did call even though she had cut contact, so she has already shown that she cares if they are alive or dead. Children who grow up under the weight of their parents’ emotional needs tend to care to a crippling and codependent degree, which is why she had to cut contact to focus on her own healing.

Over and over in my interviews I heard estranged people say, “I have no idea why this occurred”—and then they’d list a lifelong history of conflict, unmet expectations, and criticism of the other person. People are so disturbed by the estrangement that they become extraordinarily defensive, and it becomes an almost insurmountable barrier to reconciliation. The people who reconciled worked their way through that and were able to understand the role they played in the estrangement.

She clung so fiercely to her sense of betrayal and entitlement that even after that initial video was up, she posted another talking about how children are entitled and addicted to the internet, toxically woke and intolerant, and that is what is driving estrangement…the desire to have fans instead of family.

One of the consistent talking points in Diane’s video is that her daughter is an “exotic cosplayer” on TikTok and her insistence that her family was replaced by fans. She repeatedly intimates in both passive-aggressive and overt ways that her daughter is fake and looking for social media fame. What I find fascinating about this, in particular, is Diane herself has been trying to build a social media following for many years, with three separate YouTube channels and at least one blog under her belt. It seems there is a bit of competitive hostility towards what she perceives as her daughter succeeding where maybe Diane doesn’t feel as confident. I’ve watched some of her videos, and I do find her other content to be engaging and interesting. She is clearly a brave person, ready to take on any new challenge that comes her way, and she has had some modest success in YouTube, so I hope she doesn’t continue to behave as though her daughter is in competition with her; they are playing in entirely different arenas.

I also don’t want to suggest that I think it’s a bad idea for her to talk about her feelings or struggles with being an estranged parent. I think there’s a lot of useful dialogue to be had here, and Ted has even taken the lead in doing some interviews with other parents that are enlightening in some ways and kind of infuriating in others, but they are still worth poking through to get an idea of some of the struggles of being the estranged parent or even maybe figuring out the mistakes others made if you are at the beginning of your estrangement. My issue with this video, in particular, is that it is incredibly short sighted in how it paints the situation as almost a moral failing of their daughter instead of taking the opportunity to do some real soul-searching. I don’t think it was a particularly brave approach from a woman who camps solo and isn’t afraid to travel the world. Like, she seems to be a badass in a lot of ways, and I can see how much consideration she puts into her work, I think that effort would have been better served diving into herself.

So, I do find some hypocrisy in Diane’s soapboxing about social media, but I can acknowledge that there is an amount of division between generations that can seemingly be exacerbated by social media use. I don’t, however, think social media addiction is a specific problem, but a symptom of a larger set of issues having absolutely nothing to do with internet use. Capitalism has privatized a lot of our social services, making it prohibitively expensive to travel without a car, to congregate at third places, or even to have the time to relax because we are always focused on making enough money to survive while CEOs rake in record profits. The system is the problem, internet addiction is just an easy way for humans to zone out from their anxious and lonely lives. This system, coincidentally, makes hustle culture more of a necessity than a weird social trend. We have to constantly think about that next paycheck to survive, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time to spend with family and friends. Eventually I might do a video on how humans biologically were not built to work to the degree we do now and how this insanity is at the center of our societal collapse, but that will have to wait because it’s just a long damn story and I’ll have to unpack a couple thousand years of brainwashing.

Here are some concessions I will make, media literacy is shockingly poor. People do fall for propaganda really easily and that can create more division in an already fraught family dynamic. Where I think the argument fails is “woke culture” nonsense. Yeah, there will be bad actors in every movement, but what you are seeing here is people having information about the behaviors that harm the parent-child relationship in a way they never have before. You can look up “why does my parent guilt trip me all the time” and see 30 articles describing in great detail how that is a harmful and abusive thing to do. A hit dog will holler…or whatever. If you don’t want people clinically describing what you are doing to them, maybe you should consider just not doing it.

Furthermore, a difference in political or religious values that negates your adult child’s human rights is absolutely grounds for estrangement. It’s weird that I have to specify that. If the beliefs that you hold so dear make your child feel unsafe to be themselves around you, they are under no obligation to practice tolerance with regards to your opinions or to entertain your presence in their lives.  That becomes a ‘you’ problem, not a ‘them’ problem.

The Impact of Estrangement

"There definitely seems to be consequences of estrangement psychologically, but maybe the consequence is the stigma,” Gilligan says. In other words, cutting off contact with a family member might be most painful because of the way society misunderstands and attaches shame to it.

There’s no doubt that estrangement is painful regardless which side you’re on. It usually involves years and years of suffering and trying to find a way to repair the relationship before adult children decide the situation is hopeless.  Furthermore, you may see a pattern of lesser estrangement as the child attempt to assert boundaries and express to you things that make them uncomfortable or unsafe in your presence.

According to ‘Levels of Estrangement | Together Estranged’, there are usually four levels of estrangement:

“Cordial contact” is often more of an internal process that takes place as someone questions the authenticity of the relationship, typically when they don’t feel safe enough to communicate their concerns to their family member. 

When someone chooses to go “low contact” with a family member, they seem to become more conscious of their efforts to distance themselves from that person and the relationship. They may purposefully call less often, may stop coming over or may avoid holiday events because they don’t feel safe (be it emotionally, physically, sexually, etc.) around this person anymore. For many people who go “low contact”, this is a stage with a lot of conflicting emotions: guilt, confusion, frustration, anger, exhaustion, sleepless nights, freedom, sighs of relief, questioning and anxiety may be present, along with other symptoms.  

No contact” is another stage of estrangement and occurs when a person no longer makes an effort to communicate with their family member(s) for a period of time. This could last weeks, months or years depending on the nature of the situation. 

Complete estrangement” occurs when a relationship with a family member (which can extend to the entire family) no longer exists. When a person is completely estranged from family, they no longer feel emotionally connected to them. Conversations surrounding the birth of a new baby, marriage, a promotion at a job, moving, or otherwise life-changing news is not shared with these family members anymore. Someone may change their phone number, to not be contacted by their family member again.

Overwhelmingly, adult children will tell stories of attempting to bring up things they are uncomfortable with, memories they have of traumatic incidents in their childhood, or specific incidents of abuse or negligence only to be met with defensive and dismissive reactions from their parents and even outright denial. Over time, it becomes clear that the parent will not try to repair the relationship, refusing any accountability or responsibility of care. Most estranged children describe feeling heartbroken and lost, the person who was supposed to be your safe space can’t make room for your feelings and won’t treat you with respect and consideration. Pair with that societies obsession with the destructive ‘nuclear family’ instead of multigenerational cohabitation, almost seeing parents as a deity to forever serve and revere, and you have a child that is already in a rough place knowing they have voluntarily orphaned themselves as a way of protecting their health while having to sidestep questions every holiday, every first date, and even from well-meaning acquaintances.

Everyone wants to have a “home”…a safe space with people who truly see you and love you unconditionally, but when the very essence of who you are as a person and your value in the family is dependent upon whether or not you will parrot the party line no matter how it hurts you, home is not safe.

A close family member told Holly, “She’s your mother—you should love her,” which Holly finds grating. “We would never tell a woman who’s been abused [by a partner], ‘You should go back to him, to the person who hurt you and will continue to hurt you.’ But we do for people with abusive parents, and it makes me very mad. If I wanted to be miserable and anxious all the time, I’d go back to my mother.”

One online article aimed at pensioners blames individualism, divorce culture, psychotherapy, and “a child’s immaturity” for estrangement. Even therapists commonly blame, dismiss or disbelieve their patients who are describing estrangement. Women are especially likely to be stigmatised. Some people limit their social interactions to avoid discussing family.

Even with our smaller and more fragile family units, extended family will still resist further fracturing by attempting to repair rifts for the estranged. Triangulation is not, in and of itself, a damaging behavior. If all parties are working in good faith, that dynamic of mediation can help two people reach a common ground. The problem with triangulation in an estrangement is that the victim is likely to hide the reality because estranging is stigmatized, and the perpetrator will reach out to third parties to break the no-contact request and gain sympathizers. So, not only does the victim feel unsafe around the perpetrator, they also feel unsafe around the helpful “rescuers”. After all, if you had been abused and your family told you to just let it go while pushing you to maintain contact with your abuser, would that seem in any way to be a loving familial situation?

I do have sympathy for parents that have been estranged. The feeling of being ostracized, even temporarily, can linger and cause activations in the same area of the brain that registers physical pain. It’s not an easy thing to experience that and I don’t take it lightly when I say regardless of the pain it causes you, you very likely caused equal or more pain to your child. If you are an adult with an adult’s ability to regulate yourself, think about your actions, and contextualize your situation, you should be able to understand that repeated boundary violations, lack of emotional support, and attempting to force your will on a child while they are developing is far more damaging than the pain you are experiencing upon realizing your child does not feel safe to continue a relationship with you.

When someone is shunned—even by a stranger, even only briefly—[psychologist Kipling D. Williams of Purdue University] found that he or she experiences a strong, harmful reaction, activating the same area of the brain that registers physical pain. The difference is that social injuries linger: In studying more than 5,000 people, Williams used a computer game to reveal how just two or three minutes of ostracism can produce ongoing negative feelings. “Our studies indicate that the initial reaction to ostracism is pain,” he explains, “which is similarly felt by all individuals regardless of personality or social/situational factors. Ostracism then instigates actions aimed at recovering thwarted needs of belonging, self‐esteem, control, and meaningful existence.”

Is it Possible to Reconcile?

A lot of estranged parents talk about forgiveness or grace when expressing how hurt they are by their child’s actions. They talk about empathy as though their children haven’t expressed themselves repeatedly with no resolution. Expecting someone to let you continue to hurt them in the same way over and over is not kind, it is also not an act of grace on their part. Forgiveness is not a blank slate, forgiveness is not the same as pretending it never happened or making excuses for it.  Forgiveness and grace are internal processes, you can have both of those things because you don’t want to continue to live with anger and pain while also not wanting anything to do with the person you are forgiving because they repeatedly prove they cannot be trusted.

Many people also misunderstand what forgiveness is. “I don't want to equate forgiveness with you now have an all-access pass back into my heart,” says John Delony, author most recently of Building a Non-Anxious Life. “That's not the way forgiveness works. That’s not a healthy version of forgiveness.”

There’s good news in all of this! There is evidence to say the majority of estrangements are temporary. While it takes both sides being able to work together toward the common goal of a better relationship, there is still hope even after your child tells you they don’t want you in their life. If you want the best chance at reconciliation, it’s time to work on you. It’s tempting to go to a therapist to talk about what’s wrong in your relationship with your child, but that’s just a symptom of the bigger issue. What experiences in your childhood impacted how you parented? You can love your parents and still see that they hurt you, those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. Once you figure out how to unpack the shame, guilt, and hurt from what you experienced growing up, you will be able to truly make amends for how you brought those issues into your parenting. All it takes is one person to start to heal that generational trauma. You still won’t be perfect, nobody is, but if you show your child you love them enough to work on yourself, you will have a better chance.

Sometimes, however, the situation can’t, or shouldn’t, be fixed. Abuse, addiction, and mental illness are real and loved ones can be dangerous, or unable to be in a relationship. While some experts say there's almost always a path back, especially if all parties go to therapy together, others say there comes a point where the relationship cannot be salvaged. “If it does finally get to that place, and someone says, ‘I don't want you in my life,’ and they've put up a boundary, then your attempt to jump over that boundary and track them down and say, ‘What did I do? What can I do?’ is a violation of their boundary,” says Delony. “They've told you what they want out of this relationship, and it's not you right now.” The border between that and stalking starts to get very narrow. “At the end of the day, the choice left is to grieve that deep loss,” he says. “And continue to work on yourself.” 

Now, the last bit…the part that is the most difficult for both parties. Even if you become mortally ill, your child might not want to reconnect.  Even if you get to your death-bed, even if you reach out in your final moments to try to make those amends, to make that process of moving to the great beyond a bit easier both for you both, they might reject you. The truth is they’ve probably thought about this eventuality a lot more than you have. They’ve had to accept that anything could happen after they choose to go no-contact. They’ve already decided that the pain of you dying before reconciliation is preferable to the pain of living with you as you are now. So use your time wisely. Make yourself the healthiest person you can be so you can make those amends really count if you get a second chance. I believe in you.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Skip to content