Grown Children Who Ignore Their Parents (and Vice Versa): Handling Estrangement
Nobody likes to feel ignored. We all want strong connections to our loved ones, particularly during the senior years when healthy family relationships are vital to our well-being. So 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.
But the old adage that there are two sides to every story is particularly true when it comes to these kinds of relationship issues in families. 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.
As you may already know, 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.
This article explores situations that can lead to family members feeling ignored. You'll learn about some common causes of family estrangement and what to do if you experience an estranged relationship with a parent or child. As well, you'll learn how to take action and cope with the aftermath if you feel that you should cut off contact with a family member in order to protect yourself. Plus, you'll find a list of resources that can help with these difficult circumstances.
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
So for many seniors, it's all about the expectations that have been created. In other words, a mother whose son usually calls every day might complain "My grown son ignores me!" if he goes a week without calling. But a parent who is used to getting a call once a month might be surprised by weekly calls.
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. Sometimes, parents imagine their adult children muttering "I hate my parents" when the simple reality is that those children haven't been in touch because they have a lot of other things happening in their lives.
That fact can be hard to accept. After all, you were once the center of your child's universe. And as a parent, you may feel that your relationship with your child is the most important bond in your life. But as your child grows, he or she forms other bonds, some of which may become more important than the bond with you.
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
As a result, you might have to be proactive in order to ensure that you have 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.
Also, investigate tools that can help you stay in touch with family members. Your children likely rely on their digital devices to manage their lives. So if you don't have a cellphone yet, check out the best cellphones for seniors and talk to your family about how other technologies, such as a computer or tablet, can be integrated into your communication plans.
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.
What Is 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
That's a pretty clinical definition for an experience that can feel devastating. And those tough emotions are often felt by all of the people involved.
Simply put, making the decision to break off contact with a family member can be a very tough process. (Estrangement isn't just something that happens when your family hates you. It's usually far more complex than that.)
Yet, many people feel that family bonds are becoming more fragile than they used to be. Check out these facts:
Why Do Family Members Become Estranged From Each Other?
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. (This was the most cited reason for 77 percent of people estranged from their mothers and 59 percent of people estranged from their fathers.5)
The other reasons named were:5
- Conflicting expectations regarding family roles
- Differences in values
- 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
Interestingly, those last two reasons were only associated with sons who reject their mothers and fathers.
Many other factors can lead to estrangement within families, including:
- Disagreements over politics
- Disapproval of a family member's sexuality or religion
- Judgments about a relative's life choices in areas such as careers or relationships
- Difficulties caused by substance abuse
- Tensions caused by financial issues, such as arguments about the terms of a will
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
"How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." William Shakespeare wrote those famous words centuries ago. Yet, for many seniors today, they still ring true. After devoting years to raising a family, feeling like you have ungrateful adult children who won't talk to you can seem strikingly unfair.
Family tensions can take a toll on older or elderly parents. Consider these facts on the impact of estrangement:
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 So losing contact with family members can increase a senior's risk of depression.
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 with many unanswered questions, such as:
- "Why does my son hate me?"
- "Why does my daughter hate me?"
- "What did I do wrong?"
- "What should you do when your grown child breaks your heart?"
- "How do you respond when your child says they don't love you?"
When you're faced with questions like these, you want clear resolutions. Understandably, you want a loving, normal parent/adult-child relationship like you might see on TV. However, one of the biggest steps you can take to restore a sense of normalcy is to accept that you can't control the situation.
Here's why: Your adult child has a right to make his or her own decisions regarding your relationship. In fact, it's part of being an adult. Even if you are profoundly hurt, acknowledging that fact is important if you want to work toward reconciliation.
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. (But always remember that every family is different. Often, the best plan is to talk to a mental health counselor or family mediator.)
1. Don't push too much.
This may feel counterintuitive. After all, it's important to let your estranged child know that you love him or her and will always be available. But you should also respect your 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.
If your child tells you why he or she is cutting off contact, you may not agree with the reasons. You may want to defend yourself. And that's a perfectly normal reaction. However, don't deny how your child is feeling. The hard truth is that those feelings are very real to him or her. Saying "But I didn't do that" can just push your child further away. Instead, listen carefully.
3. Say you're sorry when needed.
Always keep this mind: Apologizing 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.
Even if you don't feel that you did anything wrong, you can apologize to your grown daughter or son by simply saying "I'm sorry that you feel that way" or "I'm sorry if you were hurt by my actions" and listening carefully to any response.
Also, remind yourself that societal expectations around parenting have changed. As parents, most of us did the best we could with what we knew at the time. But your child may now view the world through a different lens.
That can lead to hurt feelings and misunderstandings. In other words, your adult child can be hurt by something that may have seemed like perfectly normal parenting to you.
4. Ease back on any guilt trips.
Yes, you may have given up a lot to raise your child. But telling a son or daughter that he or she owes you for those sacrifices isn't going to help to ease any tension. In fact, feelings of guilt can make adult children less likely to want to engage with their parents.8
At the same time, try not to get dragged down by feeling guilty yourself. A lot of different factors can lead to family estrangement. Causes can be completely out of your control. But talking with a mental health counselor can help you come to terms with possible reasons for the situation. In the meantime, don't beat yourself up.
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.
Also, when it feels like your adult child breaks your heart, you have to ensure that your health doesn't suffer. Although it might not seem very important now (compared to the heartbreak you're experiencing), in the long run, you don't want your health to be affected by family estrangement. Depression, in particular, is something to watch out for.
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.
This is always a key part of knowing how to parent adult children, but it's particularly important when your relationship is in jeopardy: Don't judge.
Unless you're specifically asked to give an opinion, there is no need to comment on things like a child's sexual orientation, appearance, parenting, finances, or any of the countless other areas which your child is now responsible for. After all, what a mother may see as "helpful advice" may lead to her grown child wondering, "Why does she hate me so much?"
If that sounds like an exaggeration, remember that your adult children may be struggling to deal with certain things in their lives, making them extra sensitive. 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.
Do you feel as if your son only calls when he wants money? Does your daughter only visit when she needs something?
Some adult children put financial conditions on contact with their parents. For example, they might tell their parents that they can only see their grandchildren if they provide a certain amount of cash or buy the grandkids presents. This is elder abuse. And you should not agree to terms like these.
However, many adult children still depend on their parents financially. In fact, 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
One survey found that the most common age at which parents feel they should stop having to support their kids financially is 25. (Perhaps not surprisingly, adult kids feel the correct age at which your parents should stop supporting you is a bit older, at 27.)9
But this type of financial support should not be connected to the amount of contact that your children have with you. Don't feel obligated to continue supporting your children (particularly abusive adult children) in order to keep them in your life. If you feel like your son wants nothing to do with you, the solution is not to give him money.
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:
You could also be left wondering what is wrong with you, asking questions like:
- "Why do my parents hate me?"
- "Why am I not worth my family member’s attention?"
- "What should you do when your family rejects you?"
Here are some tips that can help. (But a mental health counselor can provide the best feedback on your specific situation.)
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:
- Problems caused by substance abuse
- Physical abuse or threats
- Feeling unsafe around a particular person
- Being taken advantage of financially
- Problems caused by mental health conditions
- Wanting to avoid the emotional roller coaster or 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 the estrangement 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.
So, for example, if you're wondering how to deal with disrespectful parents, you don't necessarily have to stop talking to them. The solution may be as simple as making it clear that you won't accept any disrespect.
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.
If you feel that a family member is being rude or hurtful, try to leave the situation. Don't engage with them. For example, you deal with a disrespectful grown daughter during a phone call by calmly telling her that you won't listen to insults and then hanging up the phone.
However, if you're overwhelmed by family tensions and having thoughts like "I hate my father" or "I hate my kids," you probably need a break from contact, at least for a little while. 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.
When you're at the end of your rope in dealing with a relative, you may wonder how to disown your family member. You may not know whether you're even "allowed" to do so.
But it's OK to disown your mother or father if continuing the relationship hurts your own well-being. An adult child can disown his or her parents.
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:
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.
A Google search of "family estrangement support groups" can help you find online options. (You may need to register for a free account or be a Facebook user in order to view or participate in certain online groups.) You might even find in-person groups in your area. 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
This book, by the founder of a popular estranged parents forum, is also useful for fathers who are experiencing estrangement.
2. Healing from Family Rifts by Mark Sichel
This book has helped many parents and adult children who have experienced family breakdowns.
This well-respected book is a good resource for parents to turn to when grown children disrespect their feelings.
4. But It's Your Family…: Cutting Ties with Toxic Family Members and Loving Yourself in the Aftermath by Dr. Sherrie Campbell
If you're wondering how to disown your family while reducing the stress in your life, this book is a good place to start.
Parents of adult children who are experiencing difficulties often have a tough time letting go of the need to solve their children's problems. This book can help.
If your parents weren't perfect, you should read this important advice on how to move on from resenting your parents and take charge of your own life.
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.
- 1 CBS News, "CBS News asks: How often should you call your mother?," website last visited on October 30, 2019.
- 2 Psychology and Aging, "Tensions in the Parent and Adult Child Relationship: Links to Solidarity and Ambivalence," website last visited on October 30, 2019.
- 3 Journal of Marriage and Family, "Estrangement Between Mothers and Adult Children: The Role of Norms and Values," website last visited on October 30, 2019.
- 4 Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science, "Family Estrangement: Establishing a Prevalence Rate," website last visited on October 30, 2019.
- 5 Stand Alone and the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement In Adulthood, website last visited on October 30, 2019.
- 6 AARP, "When Your Child Won't Talk to You," website last visited on October 30, 2019.
- 7 Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, "Does Mode of Contact with Different Types of Social Relationships Predict Depression in Older Adults? Evidence from a Nationally Representative Survey," website last visited on October 30, 2019.
- 8 The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, "Middle-Aged Children's Coping Strategies With Tensions in the Aging Parent-Child Tie," website last visited on October 30, 2019.
- 9 Money, "How to Avoid Paying for Your Kids Forever," website last visited on December 9, 2019.