Estrangement: What do parents need to know when adult children cut them off?
Nine years, average. Five-plus years for mothers, seven-plus for fathers. Less than five years, in most cases. All of these timelines have appeared in various research studies on estrangement between parents and adult children. None is definitive.
How long your estrangement from your child lasts will depend on several factors.
And while only one of these is within your control, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Factor 1: Your child
Your child’s temperament and circumstances will affect the length of estrangement. Let’s look at each of these.
If your child is particularly soft-hearted or family-oriented, she’s more likely to look for reasons to reconcile. If he’s particularly stubborn, independent, or apt to hold grudges, he’s a harder case.
How well your child’s personality meshes with yours is another element that appears in the “temperament” column.
Your child’s circumstances play a larger role than you might think in how long the estrangement will last.
Busy young adults can easily put troubled relationships with parents on the back burner. They don’t have extra time or energy to spend working through things with people who remind them of the past. They’re naturally oriented towards the future—new relationships, careers, living situations, opportunities, etc.
What might have taken a good, long conversation or two to work through could take months or years to resolve. This is because of the fact that adults’ priorities typically don’t include moving “backwards,” i.e., closer to parents. Even if they love you, building an independent life takes precedence for most healthy young people.
Factor 2: Pressure
You may be surprised to hear this, but estranged adult children experience near-constant pressure to reconcile with their parents. There are two separate types of pressure on your child.
Your child lives in a society that values family. Socially speaking, it will never be “comfortable” for your child to be estranged from you. Pressure to reconcile may come from your child’s spouse, in-laws, friends, coworkers, and even casual acquaintances.
When people find out your child doesn’t talk to you, many will encourage them to reconcile. It’s common for people to be uncomfortable when others cut off their parents. These folks will often make your child feel judged as ungrateful or unfeeling.
There’s often uncertainty around estrangement, even in those who initiate it. “Am I a bad daughter?” “Was I asking too much of my parents?” “Am I right to stay away?” Far from being on a power trip, estrangers are often plagued by insecurity surrounding their decision.
For many, it would be easier to reconcile and not have to struggle with these thoughts. The longer it goes on, the more exhausting this can be.
Factor 3: Time
The passage of time changes everything. Time can heal, or at least soothe, old wounds. It can usher in perspective as circumstances change and tables turn. There are dozens of wise old sayings about this. Suffice it to say, it’s impossible to step into the same river twice.
You and your child will both be different tomorrow than you were yesterday. And the more tomorrows pass, the more room there is for change.
Anger may have flared between you and your child in the past. But in time, memories will start to fade around the edges. Anger will ease off and reveal the hurt feelings beneath. Again: Perspectives can and do shift.
All of this happens only as time passes. You can go ahead and curse time for being a thief. But also remember to celebrate it as a helpful friend.
I’ve heard of estrangements finally ending after more than 30 years. Time can work miracles.