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Grown Children Who Ignore Their Parents: Seniors and Family Estrangement

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Grown children who ignore their parents can provoke a great deal of emotional distress and even physical health problems in elder loved ones. And adult children whose older or elderly parents don't communicate with them can undergo similar feelings of loss and bewilderment.

Although some seniors struggle with feeling abandoned, others face the opposite problem—realizing that cutting off contact with a family member is the best course of action to protect their own well-being.

These topics can be hard to talk about. Whether you're feeling ignored or dealing with family estrangement, the emotions can take a toll. And many people feel too ashamed to seek help. If you’re experiencing an estranged relationship with a parent or child, the following information can help you explore why there is a division, and how to handle it.


This article is not intended to replace the professional advice and support of a licensed counselor, therapist, psychiatrist, or psychologist.

When You Feel Ignored

Many seniors experience feelings of chronic loneliness. And one common complaint among lonely seniors is that their adult children ignore them.

Of course, everyone has different criteria for what being ignored actually means. Consider the results of a study that asked Americans how often grown children should call their parents. Almost one quarter of those surveyed said that grown children should call their parents at least once a day, while 12 percent thought once a month or less was adequate.1

Simply put, your perception may not match the reality of your loved one's feelings and intentions. So if you feel like you want more contact with certain family members, talk to them about it. They likely won't know that you want to talk or visit more often unless you tell them.

After all, in today's busy world, it's easy for people to get caught up in their own lives and as a result, spend less time with other friends and family. That fact can be hard to accept for a parent especially. In fact, psychologists say that the parent-child relationship is typically more important to the parent—and that's a perfectly normal part of human psychological development. But it also means that absence is often felt more strongly by the parents than by the adult children.2

So, you might have to be proactive when it comes to having more contact with your children. Some families find that it helps to have a set schedule for calls or visits. That way, staying in touch becomes part of everyone's routine. So if your child is not always there when you call, ask about a good time to call and try to stick to that time.

Of course, adult children should also listen carefully to parents who express concerns about feeling ignored. After all, loneliness can lead to many physical and mental health problems in seniors. Taking some time to reach out to older parents can help your family avoid more serious issues later on.

Family Estrangement

Family estrangement goes well beyond one person feeling ignored. When a family member is estranged, those bad feelings are magnified, often to a degree that can seem almost unbearable.

What does "estranged" mean? Here's a short explanation: You are estranged from a family member when one person in the relationship feels that something about the other person justifies cutting off all contact. In other words, you don't communicate with each other, and any communication that does happen is tense, without any trust or intimacy.

Estrangement is usually a conscious decision. If you're simply too busy to keep in touch, that's not necessarily estrangement. A person initiating an estrangement could contact the other person but chooses not to.

One study used the following criteria to determine if a mother was estranged from an adult child:3

  • The pair hadn't had any contact (in person or by phone) for at least a year;
  • Or the pair was in contact less than once a month, and the mother rated the quality of the relationship as less than a four on a scale of one to seven.

Additionally, many people feel that family bonds are becoming more fragile than they used to be. Check out these facts:

  • One study found that more than 40 percent of surveyed college students (ranging in age from 18 to 56) had experienced some kind of family estrangement during their lives.4
  • Another study found that 10 percent of participating mothers were estranged from at least one of their children at the time of the study.3

Why Do Family Members Become Estranged From Each Other?

Frowning older woman sitting and resting her chin on one hand, with an older man in the background

Why do children abandon their parents? And why do parents stop talking to their grown children? Ask a dozen families these questions and you'll likely get a dozen different answers. After all, each family is unique, and relationships can break down in countless different ways.

But you may be surprised to learn that many people don't know why a family member has stopped talking to them. They have no idea what has caused the child or parental estrangement. So it can be particularly heartbreaking for anyone who has felt secure in a family relationship to suddenly have to ask, "Why does my family hate me?"

But here's an interesting fact: In a British survey, a significant percentage of estranged parents and children weren't even sure who had initiated the estrangement.5 In other words, the path to an estranged relationship isn't always clear.

The same survey found that emotional abuse is the most common reason given by people who are estranged from their parents. The other reasons named were:5

  • Conflicting expectations regarding family roles
  • Differences in values
  • Neglect
  • Problems related to mental health issues
  • A traumatic family event

Parents who said they had estranged relationships with their children named divorce as the top reason. (For example, a child may not have approved of a parent's decision to get divorced.) Other reasons include:5

  • Mismatched expectations about family roles
  • Traumatic events
  • Mental health issues
  • Emotional abuse
  • Issues related to in-laws
  • Issues related to marriage

Many other factors can lead to estrangement within families, including:

  • Political disagreements
  • Disapproval of sexuality or religion
  • Judgments about career and relationship
  • Substance abuse
  • Financial stress

As well, many people blame general societal changes for the increase in the number of families experiencing estrangement. In a lot of cases, we simply don't need to rely on family members the way we used to. That's partly because, in general, we're a lot more mobile than we once were. (For example, it's a lot easier to ignore a family member who lives across the country than to ignore a relative who works and lives on the same farm.)

In addition, some seniors feel that recent years have seen an increase in entitled adult children who stop talking to their parents for selfish reasons. But many adult children disagree with this sentiment and present a counterargument: Older parents don't recognize that their adult children have their own busy lives and that life has changed since those parents were their children's age.

When Grown Children Stop Talking to Their Parents

If you've devoted years to raising a family, feeling like you have ungrateful adult children who won't talk to you can seem strikingly unfair.

Consequences

Family tensions can take a toll on older or elderly parents. Consider these facts on the impact of estrangement:

  • Almost one-third of parents who are estranged from their offspring have considered suicide.6
  • 90 percent of people with estranged family members find the holidays difficult.5
  • 68 percent of people with estranged family members feel judged by others.5

One study found that social contact with family members helps seniors who are over 70 years old avoid depression. (Prior to the age of 70, social contact with friends may help prevent depression, but family ties become more important with age.)7

Many people who've experienced estrangement say that the feelings are similar to experiencing a death in the family. After all, you're mourning what feels like the end of a relationship. But the stress of estrangement often lacks resolution because the relationship remains uncertain. That can make the healing process difficult. (Grief counselors call this type of loss an "ambiguous loss.")

And one complicating factor for abandoned parents is that many seniors rely on family members for at least some elements of their caregiving. When family relationships break down, seniors can experience difficulties in arranging the care they need.

Coping with estrangement

Parents whose children stop talking to them are often left wondering what they did wrong, or if their children hate them. Most people truly just want a normal parent/adult-child relationship. However, one of the biggest steps you can take toward a more functional relationship is to accept that you can't control the situation.

So, what can you do? In simple terms, you deal with rejection from a child by keeping the lines of communication open and respecting his or her autonomy.

Here are some additional tips that might apply to your situation.

1. Don't push too much.

You should respect your estranged child's boundaries, even if you may not think that those boundaries are very fair. Don't keep reaching out if he or she has told you not to. (Being repeatedly rejected can be harmful to your own mental well-being.)

2. Try not to be defensive.

Wanting to defend yourself a perfectly normal reaction. However, if your child tells you why they no longer want to be in contact, don't deny how they are feeling—listen carefully.

3. Apologize when needed.

Saying you’re sorry isn't necessarily an admission of guilt. Rather, it can be the first step toward reconciliation. Sometimes, it helps just to acknowledge that your child is hurting and that you're sorry if you played a role in that pain—even if you never intended to hurt anyone.

Also, remind yourself that societal expectations around parenting have changed. Your child may view the world through a different lens than you did when you were raising them.

4. Ease back on any guilt trips.

Guilt can make adult children less likely to want to engage with their parents.8

5. Look after yourself.

You're a valuable person in your own right, and in your senior years it's important to have a fulfilling life that doesn't center around your children. So try to develop interests of your own.

Talk to your healthcare provider about what you're going through and be alert to symptoms of mental health issues, such as trouble sleeping or unexplained fatigue.

6. Watch your judgment.

Unless you're specifically asked, there is no need to comment on things like your child's sexual orientation, appearance, parenting, finances, or any of the countless other areas which your child is now responsible for.

Parents who don't respect boundaries can add more stress to their adult children's day-to-day experiences.

7. Don't try to buy your child's attention.

About two-thirds of Americans over the age of 50 provide at least some financial support to a child who is older than 21.9 But this type of financial support should not be connected to the amount of contact that your children have with you.

8. Stay positive and seek help when needed.

Admittedly, this can be difficult. But the stress of family estrangement can affect your physical health. Talking to a counselor or to your doctor can help relieve any negative feelings. Seeking professional support can also help you gain a new perspective on the relationship, which might make reconciliation more likely.

When Parents Ignore Their Grown Children

We're often raised to think that it's our parents' job to look after us, even as we grow older. So parents walking away from adult children can feel like a violation of the natural order of things.

Parents who ignore their child or choose not to make contact can provoke a lot of difficult feelings. If you're an adult child in this type of situation, your emotions may be all over place. Estranged children can feel:

  • Hurt
  • Isolated
  • Guilty
  • Insecure
  • Sad
  • Worried
  • Angry
  • Anxious
  • Forgotten

Here are some tips that can help.

1. Don't be ashamed.

Remember, family estrangement is surprisingly common. It doesn't mean that you're not worth loving or that you're not capable of having loving relationships. So try not to take it personally. Your parents may have experienced trauma in their own lives that affects the way they treat you.

2. Talk to others.

If a parent suddenly stops communicating with you without giving an explanation, consider talking to other people, such as relatives or caregivers, to determine a reason. (For example, it's possible that your parent is experiencing early signs of dementia.)

3. Get support.

Even when you're an adult, strained relationships with your parents can hurt. So don't hesitate to seek counseling if you feel overwhelmed. Also, tell other people close to you how you feel. (Up to 73 percent of married people experiencing estrangement find that talking to a spouse is helpful.5)

Deciding to Cut Off Contact With a Family Member

As an adult, particularly as a senior, you have earned the right to control your own relationships. Sometimes that means taking steps toward protecting your own physical and mental health by cutting off contact with family members who harm your well-being.

People choose to stop talking to family members for many different reasons, including:

  • Substance abuse
  • Physical abuse or threats
  • Feeling unsafe
  • Being used financially
  • Mental health conditions
  • Wanting to avoid unnecessary drama that some people create

Even so, this is usually not an easy decision. After all, we're supposed to love our family members unconditionally. But choosing not to have contact with someone doesn't necessarily mean that you don't love that person. Sometimes, it's the best course of action for everyone involved. (In fact, one study found that 80 percent of people who are estranged from at least one family member said it had some positive aspects.5)

Making the decision to cut off contact is best done with the help of a mental health professional. Also, keep in mind that it doesn't have to be a sudden or dramatic split. If you're not sure whether you want a family member in your life, it's OK to just cut back on the amount of contact you have.

Here's the most important word when it comes to learning how to deal with a disrespectful grown child or disrespectful parents: Boundaries. It means not putting up with being treated poorly or without consideration.

Feeling as if you don't love your child anymore is also a signal that it's time to talk with a counselor.

And always remember this: If someone is hurting you physically or emotionally, you should not be alone with them.

And if you're an older parent, disowning a child is sometimes the best decision if your own health or financial welfare is being harmed.

How can you disown a father, mother, son, or daughter? Here are some actions that might work for you:

  • Tell the person in writing (such as through a letter sent by certified mail) that you wish to sever your connection and will no longer accept any contact with them.
  • Stop contact by refusing to accept calls, mail, or emails from the person.
  • Obtain a restraining order or peace bond if you are being harassed or stalked or experiencing abuse.
  • Change your will to ensure that the person doesn't receive any inheritance from you. (If you have young children and want to disown your older parents, ensure that your will makes it clear that someone else will be your children's guardian if you die.)
  • Block the person on all social media.
  • Stay active socially. Holidays, in particular, can be difficult when you're estranged from a family member, even if you're the one who initiated it. Creating a "family of choice" composed of friends and other relatives can give you opportunities to feel the close connections you need.
  • Be open and honest with other family members. It's common to want to cut ties with one family member while staying in contact with others. But that can sometimes feel awkward for the rest of the family, so keep the lines of communication open.

Helpful Resources

You don't have to experience family relationship problems alone. Plenty of assistance is available.

If you're over 60 and need someone to talk to right away, the Institute on Aging offers a Friendship Line for seniors in crisis. Call 1-800-971-0016.

Family estrangement support groups exist online and in-person. However, keep in mind that feelings about family breakdowns can be very intense, so consider observing a group for a while before sharing your own experiences.

As well, here are some books that have helped others:

1. Done With the Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children by Sheri McGregor

2. Healing from Family Rifts by Mark Sichel

3. When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along by Joshua Coleman

4. But It's Your Family…: Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members and Loving Yourself in the Aftermath by Dr. Sherrie Campbell

5. When Our Grown Kids Disappoint Us: Letting Go of Their Problems, Loving Them Anyway, and Getting on with Our Lives by Jane Adams

6. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson

You Deserve Healthy Relationships

Family problems are stressful, whether you're feeling ignored or struggling with estranged relationships. But looking after your own well-being and seeking help when needed can help you overcome (or just cope better) with these common challenges.

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