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Unpacking the Epidemic of Parental Estrangement. The generation that was scared of their parents is now scared of their children

Updated: May 23

Original Post Posted May 19, 2024 by Psychology Today Avrum Weiss, Ph.D. Reviewed by Tyler Woods


KEY POINTS

  • Experts report that we may be in an epidemic of parental estrangement.

  • Millennials have mostly rejected using fear as a parenting strategy.

  • The generation who grew up afraid of their parents ended up afraid of being estranged from their children.


Experts are reporting that we may be in an epidemic of adult children cutting off contact with their parents. In one recent study, researchers found that 26 percent of young adults are estranged from their fathers, and six percent are estranged from their mothers. The parents report that these estrangements often happen without notice or explanation, leaving them feeling deeply hurt and in the dark.


Baby boomers were raised by parents of the “greatest generation,” the generation that lived through the great depression and fought in World War II. That generation, as a whole, tended to parent in fairly traditional, authoritarian ways, telling their offspring that “Children were meant to be seen and not heard.”


Corporal punishment was still an acceptable way of disciplining children, and children were often afraid of their parents, particularly of their fathers. Mothers frequently threatened their children to “wait until your father gets home.” Children being afraid of their parents was not only normalized, it was often regarded as an essential strategy to ensure good behavior in children.


When children misbehaved, it was commonly believed that the cause was insufficiently strict parenting. Many men of that generation have told me that being afraid of their parents was an essential part of becoming a disciplined adult of good character, and they frequently lament that their children are spoiled and lack ambition and resilience because they “had it too easy” and had no reason to fear their parents.


The children of those Boomer parents often parented their children in ways that were a reaction to their dissatisfaction with how they were parented. In contrast to what they experienced as their parent’s uninvolved, hands-off (some would even say neglectful) style of parenting, this newer generation of parents tend to be highly involved in their children’s lives, leading to the term “helicopter parenting.”


Fathers, in particular, are often determined to parent differently than the men who raised them, and they have pioneered the acceptance of fathering as an equal role in child-rearing.


These Millennial children of Boomers also strive to create more egalitarian relationships with their children and have rejected using fear as a parenting strategy. Rather than responding to bad behavior punitively with punishment, these younger generations are often averse to conflict with their children and hesitant to set firm limits they worry would risk rejection.


As a result, they are more likely to use talking and reasoning as their primary disciplinary strategy.


The children of Boomers have been largely successful in their efforts to raise children who are not afraid of them, but one consequence of this parenting style is that the generation who grew up afraid of their parents is often now afraid of rejection by their children.


Because of their parents' conflict-avoidant style, the children of Millennial parents have fewer opportunities to experience the kind of anger and disappointment with their parents that psychologists tell us is an important part of learning about healthy conflict resolution. In previous generations, the hierarchical, authoritarian relationship between parents and children served as a governor to suppress some of the expressions of anger and disappointment that children and young adults naturally have about their parents' inadequacies and failings.


In the absence of those prohibitions, children’s rage, with nothing to push back against, grew more expansive.


As the newer generations mature and individuate from their families, it may be that their inexperience with healthy anger, disappointment, and conflict resolution with their parents makes it more difficult for them to accept their normal feelings of anger and disappointment. Cutting off their parents may be a way of defending against the bad feelings they are having difficulty tolerating in themselves, blaming their parents for creating those feelings.


In extreme cases, particularly if they have not had many experiences of healthy conflict resolution in their families, they may take the extreme step of cutting off their families completely, in an effort to extrude the challenging emotions they are experiencing.


Exacerbating these generational dynamics, experts tell us that it is not unusual for estrangement to begin as the result of an adult child entering psychotherapy. Younger therapists, raised by Boomer parents themselves, may also be less comfortable with anger and less confident in their ability to tolerate strong feelings in their patients.


As a result, they may be more inclined to advise their patients to act out those feelings rather than being able to model embracing and containing those feelings in the interest of healthy conflict resolution. When these less-seasoned therapists work with parents who have been estranged, they may unintentionally compound their patients' feelings of helplessness and hopelessness by counseling them to fear their children, to bite their tongues, and not talk to their children about the impact of their cutoffs.


And so, we arrive at a situation where a generation who grew up afraid of their parents end up being afraid of being estranged from their children.


Excerpted, in part, from Hidden in Plain Sight: How Men’s Fears of Women Shape Their Intimate Relationships. Lasting Impact Press.


References

Coleman, J. (2021) Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties & How to Heal the Conflict. Sheldon Press.

Weiss, A. (2021) Hidden in Plain Sight: How Men’s Fears of Women Shape Their Intimate Relationships. Lasting Impact Press.


About the Author

Avrum Weiss, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist and speaker who writes about the internal lives of men and their intimate relationships.

Online: Avrum Weiss, Ph.D., Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter

 
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