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5 Reasons Why Adult Children Estrange From Their Parents

Updated on February 21, 2017
Kim Bryan profile image

Tennessee-based freelance writer with a passion for true crime, a thirst for knowledge, and an obsession with lists.

For most people, it's unimaginable for a grown man or woman to choose to stop all contact with their parents. The people who provided food, clothes, and shelter, attended your dance recitals, volunteered at school, or cheered you on from the bleachers during every Friday night's football game don't deserve to be abandoned in their old age just because they didn't do everything right when they were young parents, right?


Dysfunction, especially that within which there is an abusive element, does not end once a child reaches the age of majority or because the abuser begins to age. By then, the abusive parent(s) is well-versed in the tactics s/he needs to use to make their adult child do the parental bidding. These behaviors are certain to continue right up until the parents' death unless someone, usually the abused, makes it stop.

I am one of those adult children who recognized what was happening to me. Sadly, I didn't realize it until these covert abuses were heaped upon my husband and children but when it became obvious, I demanded it stop. I tried discussing the matters only to find myself enmeshed in a bitter verbal arguments. I tried using parables - of sorts, pointing out other family dysfunctions and relating it our own. That too failed. I tried so many ways to rectify the situation but every time I was met with anger and resistance.

I didn't make the choice to "break up" with my parents overnight. I'm not happy I have no relationship with my parents. I'm sad my family is broken. I wish it were different but it isn't.

It could have been. If my parents, like so many others, were willing to really listen to what their adult child had to say, respect, and consider it, the outcome would have been entirely different. Yet as I've learned in my journey to understand and heal, I am not alone. Thread after thread on internet discussion forums are filled with the stories adult children who've gone no contact with their parents and their multiple attempts to repair these unhealthy relations. Alternatively, forums for parents of estranged children are frequented by those who claim their son or daughter never gave them a reason for walking away.

If you are estranged from your adult child, they have told you the reason. You choose to ignore it. And the chances are very good it was of these top five following reasons why adult children say they've ended the relationship with their parents.


The Top five Reasons Why Adult Children Say They've Ended the Relationship With Their Parents.

1. Disrespecting the In-Laws

Dysfunctional and disordered mothers, especially, make this the most common reason an adult child says goodbye to his/her family of origin forever.

Like me, many adult children consider their parents behaviors normal until they marry. Not having grown up under the manipulations of their new in-laws, the new daughter/son-in-law is often unwilling to perform with the same dysfunction so ingrained in his/her new spouse. The parent who has always controlled their child expects to control their spouse and when it fails to work that way, it's met with great contention. It often results in manipulations by the parent(s) between their child and spouse, smear campaigns, and petty complaints designed to either force in-law compliance or to get rid of them entirely though divorce.

Parents of adult children must respect their adult children and their spouses, regardless of whether you like them or not. You do not get to choose who your children love. Respecting your son/daughter-in-law does not mean condoning or agreeing. Whether you want to admit it or not, you are not nor can you ever be the most important person in your adult child's life at all times. He cares about other people just as much as he cares about you. The sooner you understand that, the better off you'll be.

2. Refusing to apologize

Refusing to apologize often goes hand-in-hand with disrespecting the in-laws but sadly, it's a top excuse even standing alone.

I've learned the refusal to apologize is a red flag for narcissistic personality disorder. While few are actual narcissists, having just this trait alone is indicative of an extremely unhealthy mind. It allows one to justify their actions and words and blurs their reality. Time and again, their children will try to make them understand a different perspective but over and over they fail. Many times these children are gaslighted into believing they are at fault and apologize to mend the family.

To paraphrase the late Albert Einstein, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Too many adult children realize this applies to the relationship they have with their parents and realize they have to get off the hamster wheel. They've been running on it for years and yet they're still at the exact spot they were as a child.

Parents of adult children must understand things you do or say, regardless of how you think someone should feel, hurt people and when we hurt people, we apologize without justifying. Just a simple "I'm sorry, please forgive me" is enough. Don't justify. As Dr. Phil once said, "'But' means forget everything I just said."

I confronted my mother... She gaslighted me, meaning she told me my perceptions were incorrect... My mother sneered, 'You have a very vivid imagination.'

— Misty Kiwak Jacobs, A Word

3. Overbearing and Undermining Grandparenting

A disordered parent sees their child as an extension of themselves, not as individuals, and grandchildren are but one more extension on the ladder of "me."

Have you ever insisted on participating in naming your grandchildren? Not okay. Have you ever said, "It's okay, Grandma will let you do it" when the parents have said no? Undermining, not okay. Have you ever demanded to have your grandchildren for certain events or visits? You wouldn't do that with anyone else's children; ask, don't demand. If you're told no, respect it.

Also... Stop giving the grandchildren sugar when the parents have a ban. How you did it then wasn't the way they did it before and certainly not the way they do it now. You're not smarter than the pediatrician. Sparing the rod does not always spoil the child. No, it's not okay to encourage your grandchild to love you more than his/her parents. Stop buying your grandchild's love by competing with his parents when it comes to gifts. You're not entitled to "alone time" with your grandchildren and your insistence on such is creepy. Quit taunting your grandchildren with scary stories and insulting "jokes." And last but not least, for the love of all that is good, quit buying the grandchildren pets without the parents permission!

Parents of adult children must learn the difference between parenting and grandparenting. Your days of making a child's decisions, unless they are in your sole care, are over. In this new chapter in your life, you are to be only a source of unconditional love and life guide to your grandchildren but it is a privilege not a right. A grandchild is not your prodigy nor are they your property. Be thankful for the time you are given rather than resentful over what you think you deserve. If you can't, again I suggest therapy.

4. Favoritism among siblings

Early in their childhood, siblings in disordered families are placed in roles of either the scapegoat or golden child. The golden child, or children, will suffer few consequences for misbehavior and is often spoken about favorably by the parents; where the scapegoated children will shoulder the blame for the family's dysfunction and suffer the brunt of the consequences.

Although the roles one plays can be fluid, those who were mostly scapegoats are often the first, and sometimes only ones, to see the disorder of their families and speaking up about it is to challenge the status quo and seldom does this go very well. The true loyalties of the golden child becomes obvious when s/he denies or underplays certain events. Eventually the scapegoat realizes they are alone even among family. Some will continue to try, many will just walk way.

Parents of adult children must get therapy if they have been accused of this. Even if you don't think you do it, talk to a therapist. Seriously, therapy.

5. Ignoring boundaries

Last but not least of the main reasons adult children choose to "break up" with their parents, is the refusal of the parents to respect the boundaries of the adult child/parent relationship. Because disordered minds struggled to understand boundaries, I believe this reason is better explained with examples.

  • Asking about your child's finances and/or offering unsolicited financial advice is overstepping.
  • Insisting on being present for the birth of a grandchild is wrong. Nobody but the mother-to-be and her birthing staff have the right to be in the room.
  • Purchasing undergarments and sex toys is inappropriate. Doing this is crossing more boundaries than I have time to list.
  • Stop insisting on spending all holidays with your adult child and behaving badly when they don't. You're an adult, for goodness sake, quit acting like a child.
  • Quit demanding "alone time" with your adult child after they have a significant other. Sure, it's nice but as I mentioned with grandchildren, your insistence on such is downright creepy and quite concerning.
  • Discussing your marital troubles with your adult child is wrong and crosses so many hill-to-die-on boundaries. Tell it to your best friend - or may I recommend a therapist? Whatever you do, don't discuss it with your child.
  • Criticizing clothing choices, hairstyles,, companions, careers, religion or lack thereof, parenting styles, and the likes is crossing boundaries. It is an utter and complete disrespect for their right to choose what they believe is best for themselves.

A majority of boundary crossing is rooted in a parents' inability to believe their child will make the choice they, the parent, believe is in their best interest. If such is your case, ask yourself, "If I was such a great parent, why would my child make a bad choice? Did I not teach him the tools needed to make good decisions?"

If you're immediate response to is to think, "I did teach them to make good decisions but they've made so many bad ones in the past," I beg you to seek therapy. You're inability to accept your role in their repeated bad decisions is having severely adverse effects on your relationship.

Parents of adult children must trust they have raised their child to make good decisions and respect said decisions. If you can't do this, you need to work out why with a therapist. In the meantime, keep your opinions to yourself and stop trying to "save them" or "fix" things. You're only making it worse, I promise you.

They had been maligning me my whole life...not in a way of telling people I was a horrible person...but making it seem as if I was a poor, befuddled soul, a hapless idiot, borderline mentally disturbed, a pathetic loser. None of this was true. It never was. Once I got away and clearly away, my life got so much better. Oh, so much.

— Anonymous, r/raisedbynarcissists,

In closing, I want to say I am very well aware those listed aren't the only reasons for estrangement nor will my advice apply in all situations. That said, adult children don't just walk away from families that are healthy. It's not to say those families never have their issues, but they talk about them, try to understand one another's perspective, apologize for any hurt they've caused or wrong they've done, and truly move forward, free of any suppressed anger or resentment.

The exact opposite of unhealthy, disordered families. I know. I lived in one for more than 40 years. Contrary to what they believe, I didn't estrange from them to punish them, I did so to protect myself and my children. I realized I had become just like them and I made a conscious choice to change myself and to bring to an end the generations of dysfunction in my family tree.

Sadly, our story doesn't end with happily ever after but I know I made the right decision. I know I'm not alone. Every day I read the stories and/or talk with people around the globe who felt they had no other choice but to walk away. Not a single one of us are happy about it. Relieved it's over, yes but certainly not happy with how or why.

Just as I read the stories of estranged children, I'm often privy to those of the rejected parents. One commonly stated complaint among parents who have no contact with their children is that their child's behavior toward them reminds him/her of how they were treated by his/her parents when they were themselves a child. For those parents. I want you to ask yourself, "If my parent was that way and my child is that way, isn't it just as possible I do sometimes as well?"

Those with a healthy mindset will read this and take it to heart, reconsidering the things they've said and done because they want to repair their relationship with their child and are willing to do whatever is necessary to do so. Unfortunately however, most will read this and be inclined to debate it and resort to writing paragraphs long comments about how horrendous his or her child is to a bunch of internet strangers.

I can't change everyone. I couldn't even change my own parents. Hopefully, however, I'll get someone's attention and sit in motion positive change for another dysfunctional family out there.

© 2017 Kim Bryan


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    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 5 days ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Wow Cheryle! What an incredibly awful thing to happen. Even w/o knowing details, this appears to be a very unforgivable thing for any family to do to a member of that anytime but far worse during the Christmas Season. Quite honestly, I cannot imagine ever doing such a cruel thing to a member of my family nor do I believe I could deal with the heartbreak of having it happen TO me. I am so sorry you had to endure this.

      Can't imagine what any of them were thinking. I fully understand your decision and your actions. Of course you are entitled to protect yourself and your family from such horrendous treatment. What a pathetic group of people. The good news is, they can't hurt you again and more importantly, one day they will meet head on with Karma....and she can be a real bitch. Peace, Paula

    • profile image

      Cheryle Tebor 5 days ago

      This is a topic that I'm afraid isn't talked about ENOUGH! I was completely blindsided by the betrayal and abandonment of my entire family on Christmas day in 2013. Then, the ensuing abuse, smears and blaming me for their horrendous behavior came next. I was the one who took care of every one. I was the one who was used up beyond all measure. And when they all chose to have Christmas without my family, just 15 minutes down the road, AFTER planning everything with me to be AT MY HOME for the 4 weeks prior, just like every year before that for as long as I can remember, and they all KNEW we were sitting there waiting all day, without ever having the decency to pick up the phone and tell us they weren't coming or to invite us to join them, I changed all our phone numbers and disappeared from all their lives. Just like they seemed to want it. But that wasn't even good enough. To all of them, without EVER being given a reason, that was all my own fault and when they were over whatever they had made up in their minds, I was to return a year later and resume my role as family scapegoat for everyone to continue using and abusing. When I FLAT refused, all hell reigned down. But, this time I couldn't have cared less. THIS was NOT family! THIS was NOT love!! THIS IS NOT HOW ANY ONE TREATS ANY ONE THEY LOVE AND CARE ABOUT! And just in case those of you out there who STILL think WE are the horrible ones for leaving, I would LOVE for you to go through one ounce of the pain and heartache I have been through over the last 4 years with "my family" then stand there and tell me I should be ashamed of myself!

      I left this sick disgusting "family" to save my life because they were killing me, mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. And I will NEVER EVER go back. It wasn't my idea to cut them out of my life but I'm sure DAMN glad they started it.

    • profile image

      Lora 3 weeks ago

      Thanks for writing this article, Kim! I know all of these points all too well and had to walk away from my family or origin. it was either that or continue to be their scapegoat. Sadly, I'm pretty sure my family hasn't even noticed I'm not longer around. They just simply never cared about me at all. I think I ceased to exist as far as my parents were concerned when my brother was born. I haven't regretted walking away. I only wish I had done so sooner and not wasted so much time and energy trying to gain their love and attention.

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      Missy Leigh 4 weeks ago

      Just went no contact with mine. Mom, dad brother and step dad.. those jerks constantly insisted I was a crazy bitch with emotional problems and lucky they put up with me. Ummm. NO. Was I ever surprised to find a community of fellow scapegoats!

      Y'all, (yes, from the South) this is happening to a lot of people right now and it will only continue to sweep across dysfunctional families.. so while it may seem very taxing as things heat up and you think the pain may kill you if the drama doesn't get you first, it will get better. Be a good friend to yourself. Be the parent you never had and know that you deserve the chance to discover who you are free of people who can't see your brilliance. I happen to know that scapegoats and black sheep are the members or each family who are empathic, often intuitive and insanely intelligent. We are the carriers and transmuters of our family karma and we're alchemizing it. Kim Bryan, you're the bomb dot com, lady. Thank you for this!

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      Panama Jack 7 weeks ago

      Kim, I stumbled across this article while searching Google for "unapologetic parents". I have to tell you - reading this article is pretty emotional for me. I want to thank you for putting this issue out there because you're absolutely right. There are tons of kids who deal with difficult parents, and a lot of times, no one is on our side. The parents are always the victims, because us kids are ungrateful, spoiled, rude, evil, or whatever other derogatory terms you can think of. I personally haven't disconnected from my mom and dad; I don't think the nuclear option is good for my mental health. However, my little brother did, and your rationale sounds exactly like his - which I've always understood, but haven't always agreed with. My other biological brother has one foot out the door - my mom guilt trips him a lot because he lives 300 miles away and doesn't call home enough. He actually told me recently that she makes him feel bad when she calls, and that's why he opts not to take the call sometimes. I'm the oldest, and yes - I feel obligated to be in contact with them, and be forgiving; especially since my wife's parents are the epitome of what great parents are. But it's difficult not hearing that apology you feel like you deserve, having your maternal family and other people who don't understand the dynamic criticize you, having to be the "bigger person" all of your life. I suffer mentally because of it. I know my parents aren't bad people; I think they are more headstrong than anything. A couple of West Indian folks who grew up poor, and didn't have the greatest role models themselves to parent with emotion. Being first generation Americans, looking at other familial relationships, we always knew something wasn't right. When we grew up, it just manifested into a situation that got out of control. We've tried to tell our parents how we feel, and they've always refused to listen. What's odd is, I think I had more fulfilling conversations with my grandmother than with my mom. And I hate that fact. All this to say... you are definitely not alone, and even though I can't detach like you or my baby brother, I understand what you've both gone through and are going through. Thanks for the article.

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      Kathleen 2 months ago

      I too have had to disconnect from my Mother and brothers. It is a sad situation. I love my family but I cannot fix them! My mother is disabled and widowed living alone and does not want anyone living with her yet she wants things done her way and right away not considering we have a life too. For the last time I told her to stop relying on me for everything! This year I have used all me sick time on her running to the doctors so they could just tell her there is nothing they can do for her eye disease nor her hearing nor her back. I'm sorry for her but I have to live my own life with my husband (no kids). My two brothers have familys and their own issues and can't be there all the time. I suggest assisted living but she can't afford it. She could live with my younger brother who is on disability himself but she refuses to leave her home of over 50 years. Me myself I'm done!!

    • Kim Bryan profile image

      Kim Bryan 2 months ago

      @Margaret, without all the details it's difficult to say who is correct. However, based on your own statements about your husband's stance in the matter leads me to believe that yes, you are wrong.

      Let me ask this: you say you've apologized, have you done so without explaining? If yes, you should know to apologize followed with a "but" is not an apology but an excuse. When one is truly apologetic they want to make things right, not justify their behaviors.

      You need to take a long, hard look at yourself. Scrutinize your and their behavior prior to the falling out. If you're honest with yourself, you'll focus on what you could have done differently rather than what you expected of them.

      Change your attitude, change your prospective, and you'll change your entire life for the better.

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      Andrea 5 months ago

      Reading this was like reading an outline of my husband's mother. Each point was more 'on point' than the next. this is woman that actually said to us that we are awful, terrible and ungrateful (among other things) because we didn't follow her control, I mean, her advice... she said "because I know the 'right'way to do things" ( meaning that we don't know how to do things so then she should be in charge? ) ...And sadly, she did not in any way see how inappropriate ( or weirdly funny) it was to say this to her 45 year old son. If I didn't know her I seriously would have thought it was a joke. Disordered personalities can create such emotional trauma for families. My long journey with my MIL whom I now have NC with has been a nothing short of a nightmare for both me and for my husband. It is very sad and all involved suffer- I try to keep in mind that she too is suffering, But it is hard to remain compassionate when her abusiv behavior creates so much pain that cannot be resolved through normal channels ( talking, apologies etc) with a disordered person. Thanks for writing such a succinct and helpful outline.

    • Kim Bryan profile image

      Kim Bryan 5 months ago

      Thank you, Paula. You're kindness and understanding means so much. It's not something society is equipped to understand. Heck, it even took me 40 years to realize it myself - ha! But sincerely, thank you for understanding. Thank you for not judging. And thank you for being there for all your friends who have endured the same. You mean more to them you'll ever know. :)

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 5 months ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Kim....Here you have brought attention to an issue I have always found so so sad. I'm afraid I know far too many adults who long ago had no choice but to choose estrangement from their parents for self-preservation and/or to get a grip on reality and accept the truth.

      I do know how fortunate I have been. Not until seeing the number of split families and becoming privy to the stories and reasons, have I been able to realize how rampant is the number of severely dysfunctional families.

      This does cause sadness and pain but people learn to have courage, accept the facts and move on as they must.

      In cases such as these families who become separated by choice, I realize I take somewhat of a Pollyanna attitude, always hoping, & continuing to believe that a "happy ending" is imminent. I'm more often wrong about that & it will always make me so sad for these people.....

      Great article Kim and done with diplomacy.