Blog Briefing Room

One quarter of adult children estranged from a parent

More than one-quarter of young adults are estranged from one or both parents, or have been, a finding that suggests a societal shift away from the traditional bonds of family. 

Several recent studies, articles and hot-selling books have hinted that young America is rejecting the biblical adage, “Honor thy father and mother,” along with the attendant concept of compulsory kinship. Instead, young adults are picking who will populate their families.  

One recent study, drawing on thousands of interviews with adult children, found that 26 percent reported estrangement from fathers. A much smaller share, 6 percent, had cut ties with mothers. The findings appeared in the April issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family. 

“I think it relates to this new desire to have healthy relationships,” said Rin Reczek, a sociology professor at the Ohio State University and lead author of the study. “There might be some cultural shifts around people being allowed to choose who is in your family. And that can include not choosing to have the person who raised you be in your family.” 

Popular culture has brimmed of late with narratives of Gen Z adults cutting off helicopter parents. Books with such titles as “Rules of Estrangement” and “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them” have flown off the shelves.   

Several surveys and studies have found pockets of young Americans who sever contact with parents. Perhaps 1 adult child in 10 is incommunicado with Mom or Dad at any given moment. Over the course of young adulthood, Reczek found, at least 1 in 4 Americans will break things off with a parent. Many rifts ultimately heal. 

In the pre-Internet era, cutting off a parent might have meant changing a telephone number and tearing up the occasional letter. It’s harder now, with Instagram and Twitter and text messaging. But estranged 20-somethings find a way. 

“They block or refuse any email messages. They refuse to engage in any social media. If gifts are offered, they are returned unopened,” said Karl Pillemer, a Cornell University sociologist and author of “Fault Lines.” 

Is parental estrangement on the rise? Probably. No one really knows. 

More from The Hill

“There are no longitudinal studies,” Pillemer said. “One of the biggest problems in this area is how little research has been done, even though it’s a problem that affects millions of people and causes a lot of psychological stress.” 

Estranged parents can still peer through a social media window to observe an adult child’s life from a distance — a scenario that, however reassuring, can make the separation feel “a little bit more painful,” Pillemer said.  

Joshua Coleman, author of “Rules of Estrangement,” theorizes that social media has fed the estrangement trend, chipping away at ancient societal norms about the primacy of family.  

Instagram influencers, joined by an army of therapists, have encouraged young adults toward the view that “you don’t owe your parents anything,” and that “your first obligation is to you, and your happiness,” Coleman said. 

Sign up for the latest from The Hill here

Guided by those voices, young adults increasingly view parents as a source of trauma, and estrangement as a path to healing. 

“And for a therapist, it’s a very rich narrative: ‘The reason I have these issues is because of failures in my parenting. And if I only had different parenting, I’d be this ideal person that I think I should be,’” Coleman said. 

From the adult child’s perspective, an aging parent may not be “on the same page about what a healthy relationship looks like in adulthood,” Reczek said. The parent-child relationship may fall well short “of the quality that the adult child really needs or wants.”  

In an odd role reversal, the adult child might ask an estranged parent to enter therapy. 

Fathers are far more frequent targets of estrangement than mothers, Reczek found. That statistic is partly about divorce, a split that generally leaves children in the care of their mothers. And it’s partly about the emotional chasm that often separates father and child. 

“A lot of the adult children I talk to, they don’t really know their fathers,” Reczek said. “They don’t have a really close relationship with them. And that leads to estrangement.” 

Estrangement touches mothers, too. One 2015 study found 11 percent of mothers estranged from their adult children. Mother and child often fell out after long-simmering feuds over values: conflicting religious beliefs, or questionable life choices.  

“It’s not usually one big, explosive episode,” said Megan Gilligan, an associate professor at Iowa State University and lead author of the 2015 paper. “There’s this tension, there’s these uneasy feelings that just accumulate to the point that one person just starts pulling away from the other.” 

Children are more likely than parents to sever family ties. Estrangement often leaves parents reeling. They may feel the adult child is rewriting family history, spinning mundane squabbles into episodes of emotional abuse, recasting timeouts as trauma. 

“What I hear from boomer and Gen X parents all the time is, ‘I would never have cut off my parents, and my parents were abusive,’” Coleman said. “‘And now we’re being cut off for things that are hard even to fathom.'”

Coleman wrote “Rules of Estrangement” after enduring years of estrangement from his own daughter. They have reconciled. 

If parent-child estrangement is on the rise, as many scholars believe, the growing disconnect may symptomize a broader unraveling of the American family.  

A record number of Americans are living alone. Adults are waiting longer to marry, if they marry at all. Birth rates are down

Long-held societal stigmas are falling away, liberating Americans to remain single and childless, to place aging parents in retirement homes and to forge a life apart from a dysfunctional family. 

“A couple of generations ago, you sucked it up and you went to your grandma’s for Christmas, whether you wanted to or not. It was part of filial responsibility,” said Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University and author of the book “You and Your Adult Child.”  

Members of Generation Z might be more apt to unfriend Grandma on Facebook.  

Researchers believe some young adults cut off parents with too little pretext. Parents may be partly to blame.  

Coleman believes today’s young adults grew up in an era of obsessive parenting. Parents “have become much more intensive, much more anxious, much more preoccupied,” he said. “In some ways, it’s given children too much focus on themselves. They’ve had so much attention to all of their feelings,” leaving them convinced “that all of those feelings are important. Some of those feelings are just noise.” 

 When those children cut off their parents, “I believe it’s in part because they’re desperate for some kind of boundary,” Coleman said. “I heard one adult daughter say, ‘I just need to get my mother’s voice out of my head.’” 

Estrangement may purge meddlesome parental voices. It also exacts an emotional cost, scholars say, because the parent-child relationship has real value.  

Parent and child “grow up with a biologically based attachment,” Pillemer said. When either party breaks the bond, “it wears on people’s minds.” 

Pillemer studied parents and children who had reconnected after a period of estrangement and found that almost none regretted the rapprochement. 

“Even after 10 or 20 years, virtually everyone who reconciled after a long estrangement was very glad they did, and almost all of them found it was a very powerful engine for growth,” he said.  

“Even if the resulting relationship wasn’t perfect, they were still glad they’d done it.” 


Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more