Op-Ed: 1 in 4 adults is estranged from family

Search for “toxic parents” on Instagram and you will find 38,000+ posts primarily encouraging young adults to cut ties with their families. The idea is to protect your own mental health from abusive parents. However, as a psychoanalyst, I have seen this trend become a way of managing family conflict in recent years, and I have seen how much alienation is promoted on both sides of the divide. This is a self-help trend that does a lot of damage.

Research by Karl Pillemer, a family sociologist and professor of human development at Cornell University, shows that one in four American adults has become estranged from their families. I believe this is an undercount because others stopped completely disconnecting but effectively disconnected.

Your parent’s “termination” can be seen as an extension of a larger cultural trend aimed at correcting power imbalances and systemic inequality. Certainly the family is a system in which power has never been balanced. In 1933, the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi described this dynamic, warning that any asymmetry, even the simple indication that someone has more power than us, can potentially be traumatic.

Today’s values ​​of social justice correspond to this reality and urge us to rebuke oppressive and harmful personalities and to gain power over those who were powerless. But when adult children use the most effective tool they have – themselves – to gain a sense of security and remove their parents from their lives, roles are simply reversed and the trauma only deepens.

In some extreme cases it is certainly necessary to remove parents from life, even if there is a psychological cost involved in doing so. Much more often in my practice I see cases of misdirected family conflicts, power dynamics that are reversed rather than negotiated. I see the harrowing effect of this trend: scenarios with no winners, just isolated people who long to be known and to feel safe in the presence of the other.

Some of my patients are young adults who have decided or are considering ending their relationship with their parents. They try to process their parents’ harmful childhood actions, their limitlessness, and their narcissistic or intrusive behavior. These children struggle with anger, pain, and guilt, and often feel confused and lonely.

Other patients are parents on the other side of this dynamic, feeling betrayed and heartbroken. They find it difficult to acknowledge or even recognize their aggression. In my experience, baby boomer parents are particularly concerned. They see themselves as products of the social revolution of the 1960s; many of them rejected the authoritarian style of their own parents and took an approach to parenting that seemed to prioritize at least the needs of the children. These patients feel trapped in a cross-generational limbo, neglected by their own parents, who they did not fully know, and abandoned by their children, who do not want to know them.

The type of online counseling on “toxic parents” is a self-help therapy approach that aims to empower younger people to give up their parents and “re-educate” themselves. It encourages them to do the necessary emotional work on their own, and asks them to completely reject parenting figures and avoid any kind of dependence on another person.

In this cultural moment, and especially with the disruptions in young careers caused by COVID, adult children are either becoming more dependent on their parents or rejecting their dependency altogether. We are at a time when millennials are living in their parents’ basement, and also at a time when millennials are cutting their parents out of their lives.

The catch is that adult children don’t suddenly become less dependent after alienation. In fact, they feel abandoned and betrayed, because in the unconscious it does not matter who makes the abandonment; the feeling that remains is one of “abandonment”. They carry the ghosts of their childhood within them and face the emotional reality that no matter how hard we try, those who raised us can never really be left behind. They live in us, even without our permission. This is something that can never be undone.

What I’ve found is that most of these families need repair, not a permanent break. How else can you learn to negotiate needs, set limits, and trust? How else can we love others and ourselves if we do not accept the limitations that come with being human? Good relationships are not the result of perfect coordination, but rather successful adjustments.

Engaging in dialogue instead of alienation will be hard and painful work. It cannot be a lonely project of “self-help”, because at the end of the day real intimacy arises through mutual vulnerability and through the joint processing of the injuries of the past. In most cases of family conflict, repair is possible and preferable to alienation – and it’s well worth the work.

Galit Atlas is a psychoanalyst in her own practice in Manhattan. She is the author of the forthcoming Emotional Inheritance: A Therapist, Her Patients and the Legacy of Trauma.

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