A new year is upon us, and we are jumping with both feet into the upcoming pro-family/pro-life challenges ahead. We start out by sharing a troubling trend on social media, and in culture in general – that of young people (and some not so young) who conclude their lives are better if they cut off contact with their parents – and sometimes their entire family.
The “no-contact” movement has become a “thing” on TikTok and other platforms, supported by: #ToxicParents. Alexis Goodman brings us “up to speed” on this phenomenon and this unique challenge to families. Most importantly, she provides some thoughts on what we might do to protect and heal our families.
Toward a great new year for families,
Wendy Wixom, President
United Families International
Empty Chairs at Your Family’s Table?
by Alexis Goodman
A curious shift is happening in the family dynamic of our times and TikTok, the social media platform of choice for young people, highlights this trend in neon colors. Put bluntly, families are breaking. Young adults are walking away from their parents and their families at alarming rates and sometimes never returning.
The hashtag “toxic parents” has billions of views, and clips of our youth are popping up every day bragging about their cut off from family members—particularly parents. Below are some representative examples of these TikTok videos:
Some of the TikTok videos contain actual accounts of abusive households, but many crucify their parents with the “toxic” label for merely saying things such as, “My house, my rules.” These young adults mock their parents and utilize feeble excuses for why they have blocked their parents out of their lives.
A “No-Contact” Generation
Family estrangement is on the rise, especially parental estrangement. In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that roughly 67 million people are estranged from a family member (27%), and around 25 million people have cut off contact with a parent or child (10%). These numbers come a from a recent study looking at over a thousand different respondents and their completed surveys on estrangement.
The researcher stated, “…the actual prevalence of estrangement is likely higher, as some survey respondents may have not wished to admit the problem. Therefore, the 27 percent figure should be considered a low estimate of the scope of family rifts.”
In another study with over 800 people, 54% agreed that “estrangement or relationship breakdown is common in our family.” In the study, the most common estrangement was seen between the respondent and the respondent’s father, with the average time period being almost eight years. This finding is the same in many other studies, telling us that the father’s relationship with his children is the most vulnerable and susceptible to estrangement.
Outside of the U.S., we find that familial relationships are also breaking down, though not to the same extent. One study attributed this fact to the United States’ stronger insistence on individual rights. The study looked at relationships in six different countries and learned that of four of them, “amicable relations more common in England, detached relations more common in Germany, disharmonious relations more common in the LSOG (United States), and ambivalent relations more common in Israel.”
Defining Parental Estrangement
A good definition outlining the full scope of parental estrangement, for the purpose of this conversation, would be, “parental-estrangement is a process where at least one family member voluntarily and intentionally seeks to distance him or herself because of an ongoing negative relationship.”
This topic caught my attention on numerous social media platforms where the youth of today complain loudly about their ‘toxic’ parents, who are ‘total narcissists’, and with whom complete cutoff is encouraged. The comments for the videos are a plethora of similar sentiments, touting ideologies such as, “the relationship with your adult child is the performance review” and “I cut off family branches like I’m doing yard work!”
Dennis Prager communicated his frustrations on this trending social rejection of parents with his fireside, “Why You Should Honor Your Parents.” Such a title is controversial, as it insinuates a responsibility and obligation towards family, a concept no longer entertained by many in the United States. Rather, what we now honor is ourselves and our individualistic freedoms.
The Modern Family and Its Contribution to Estrangement
Joshua Coleman in his book, “Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict”, states, “…I have found that estrangements reflect a broader cultural transformation. Emphasis on loyalty to the family unit has been replaced with the pursuit of individual fulfillment. Honor thy mother and thy father has been replaced by the idea that family is who you make it.”
The family unit has changed. This is no secret but rather an observed occurrence. Parents are more involved than they were fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, it would not have been the priority of the parents to redirect their careers, hobbies, and social engagements for their children. Parents of that era merely sought to give their children the tools necessary to become successful adults and then release them to the world. Today’s parents seek to be their child’s best friend, they starve for their child’s love and will do anything to receive it, even if it means relinquishing their role as parents.
Coleman says, “…today’s parents live in a familial meritocracy where they’re required to be constantly attuned to the mood and needs of their adult children in order to earn a continued connection to them. This requires a level of psychological sophistication and communicative dexterity that would have been unheard of in any other generation of parents.”
If the parents can’t keep up with the child who plays ref, they are out of the game. In his book, Coleman explains how trauma, abuse, and neglect have taken on a whole other level of meaning in our day and age. Parental behaviors and actions that, today, could be considered one of the deadly three (trauma, abuse, and neglect), would have fifty years ago just been considered normal parenting.
He states, “Unlike the definitions of trauma that existed three decades ago, the bar for qualifying as trauma today is much lower. A qualifying event no longer has to involve serious threats to life or limb, nor does it need to exist outside of normal experience. It doesn’t have to create marked distress in almost everyone, nor does it need to produce obvious distress in the traumatized person. In other words, if I say that you abused, neglected, bullied, or traumatized me, then you did.” The child, and how he views his childhood, calls the shots for the continued relationship with the parents (if there will even be one).
Now of course there are parents who are genuinely abusive and dangerous to their children, but as Dennis Prager makes clear in his fireside, “Bad cases make bad laws.” We can’t allow a small percentage of actually abusive parents to justify the proliferation of estrangements being seen between a child and his or her parents.
What Are Some Causes of Estrangement?
Parental estrangement develops due to dysfunctional parent-child relationships and what is now considered ‘harsh parenting’. But other reported factors include clashing in values and personality, emotional, sexual, and/or physical abuse, parental divorce, mismatched expectations for the relationship, parental favoritism, lack of support, etc.
All of the above listed reasons are cited in much of the literature regarding parental estrangement. But there were two other reasons given by author Joshua Coleman that seem to be singular to his book: therapists and mental disorders. As a therapist himself, he writes, “Therapists can do a lot of damage…” He then continues with,
“Perhaps a more important problem than blind spots resulting from our inexperience, unexamined prejudices, or limited orientations, is that therapists’ perspectives often uncritically reflect the biases, vogues, and fads of the culture in which we live…With the exception of parenting small children, encouraging individuals to feel some sense of obligation or care for other family members is not typically on the agendas of most therapists. As a result, an adult child’s psychotherapy can sometimes increase family conflict and distance…In our culture of choice, self-expression, and—most important—rights, today’s individual psychotherapists operate much like attorneys in a litigious divorce; we believe our job is to bring power and authority to our clients but aren’t obligated to consider how those actions may affect the long-term well-being of the family member of our clients. We perpetuate a myth of self-actualization untethered to the obligations and benefits of the family, community, and social institutions.”
As for mental disorders, Coleman explains how the identified number of mental disorders in 1952 was 47, and now that number is pushing 300. Leading one to conclude the rising generation is being told their frustrations, failures, and flaws can all be attributed to a mental disorder, thereby alleviating responsibility and blame.
And as Coleman points out, “Studies show that expanding the list of mental disorders to incorporate more and more experiences can create a feeling of decreased agency, increased pessimism about the potential for recovery, and decreased confidence in one’s capacity to exert control over his or her challenges. This feeling of helplessness could make the bold move of estrangement look appealing as an act of empowerment.”
The Impact of Estrangement: Emotional Cutoff
In his book, “Family Therapy in Clinical Practice”, Murray Bowen pens his theory, ‘emotional cutoff.’ This theory suggests when an individual cuts off contact with one family member, this unresolved conflict will merely transfer to another relationship in the individual’s life. The cutoff, or estrangement, fixes nothing.
He states, “There has been an increase in the percentage of those who run away, and who become involved in living together arrangements and communal living situations. These substitute families are very unstable. They are made up of people who ran away from their own families; when tension builds up in the substitute family, they cut off from that and move on to another. Under the best conditions, the substitute family and outside relationships are poor substitutes for original families.”
While hand-selected family members are made to look attractive, it just results in more uncertainty in your life. Bowen confirms this with, “The more intense cutoff with the past, the more likely the individual to have an exaggerated version of his parental family problem in his own marriage, and the more likely his own children to do a more intense cutoff with him in the next generation.”
Another great researcher of parental estrangement is Karl Pillemer. He wrote a book titled, “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them,” where he identifies the impact estrangement can have on a person. After having interviewed thousands of people, Pillemer monitored the study participants’ estrangement over many years. He was able to confidently say estrangement did not benefit the majority of them in the long run. He discusses their deep sadness, tells of their longing for reconciliation, and reiterates their regret. Then, he delineates the four impacts of estrangement.
- “…estrangement meets the criteria for what researchers term “chronic stress”, a set of challenging circumstances that persist over a long period of time.”
- “…estrangement disrupts biologically based patterns of attachments, causing anxiety and insecurity.”
- “…family rifts involve social rejection, which research shows is extraordinarily damaging.”
- “…estrangement violates a basic psychological need for certainty, instead creating a situation that is disturbingly ambiguous. Estrangement disrupts what are still the most reliable ties available in our society: family relationships.”
Karl Pillemer’s book: “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them” is highly recommended reading.
Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother
As words like ‘toxic’ and ‘narcissist’ are flung at the opponent like a spear, they begin to lose their meaning. Parents are being denigrated with these abusive labels with all the care of a bull in a China shop. They are punished repeatedly through the loss of contact with the children into whom they poured all their love and energy. Then they are further punished through the loss of contact with current and future grandchildren.
When this type of treatment, often deemed as the acceptable solution, becomes a person’s first resort, destructive consequences are sure to follow. If you have initiated no-contact between yourself and a parent, now is the time to start re-considering that decision. As Karl Pillemer shares in the conclusion of his book, “Practicing the discipline of reconciliation is a small step we can take to create harmony in our own families while growing as human beings.”
Speaking with a family member that experienced eight years of estrangement with a sibling and parent, she said, “I forgave and tried not to talk bad or be angry… we moved on and I never received an apology. I chose to let it go, it was hard…but when they came back it was so nice to feel whole again, no pieces missing for me.”
Allow yourself to feel whole again and accept that although you might never receive the apology you feel you deserve, or they might never accept your view of the past, you will feel at peace once you reconnect. Pillemer stated, “Reconciliation brought about for many people a release from those emotions and a movement to a more peaceful state of mind and outlook on relationships.” This can be true for you, as well. Find a path to reconciliation, today, so that your family table is no longer absent of the family members you love and need in your life.
Alexis Goodman was raised on a ranch in Dadeville, Missouri. She loves spending time with her husband, reading, hiking mountains, and learning new hobbies. She is currently a student at Brigham Young University-Idaho, where she is working to get a degree in Political Science with an emphasis on American Government.