“When my daughter was in her early twenties, she cut off contact with me for several years. We have since reconciled but that was easily the most painful, awful experience I’ve ever been through.”
When California-based clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Coleman was looking for support, he found very little to guide him. The estrangement came after a divorce, remarriage, and his daughter’s feelings of being replaced by his second family. At the time, most of the professional advice he received made things worse. “I was kind of on my own to solve the enormous gulf between us.”
Dr. Coleman describes the journey to reconciliation as “a marathon” that required empathy and seeing things from his daughter’s perspective. This shift in attitude was key to mending their relationship and led him to write the book, When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along (2008).
Today, parental estrangement is at the core of Dr. Coleman’s practice. He believes his own experience has made him “much more empathic to the subtle ways a parent can feel hurt, ashamed, humiliated, and angry in ways I certainly didn’t understand before I became estranged.”
Parental estrangement from one’s adult children is not widely discussed but is becoming increasingly common among Millennials and their Baby Boomer parents. The reasons why are both complex and varied. There may have been physical or emotional abuse, a difference of values about things like sexuality or who they marry. But on a larger scale, “estrangement, unlike with prior generations, is considered in many ways an act of existential courage,” says Dr. Coleman. “It’s tied to individual narratives – deciding who to have in or out of your life”.
His latest book, Rules of Estrangement – When Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict (March 2, 2021) reveals the hidden logic of estrangement, explores its cultural causes, and offers practical advice for parents trying to re-establish contact with their adult children.
This includes taking responsibility, acknowledging you may have blind spots, and being committed to changing. If nothing seems to be working, parents may have to adopt what he calls ‘radical acceptance’, a Buddhist notion of finding serenity in the presence of intense pain and suffering. “When faced with a problem that we can not influence, we must accept and continue to find happiness,” says Coleman.