Due to conflict, many children cut off contact with their parents. It is less common for parents to cut ties with their children, but it does happen and can be extremely lonely.
Helen hasn’t talked to her son in over a year. He was in prison the last she heard. He’s been addicted to opioids for over a decade and is now 31 years old.
“He’s tried to call me, probably to ask for money, and I haven’t picked up,” Helen, who lives in England, explains. “Right now, that’s the best decision I can make for my safety and sanity.” Helen’s priority as the primary caregiver for her son’s young daughter is to provide a loving and secure environment for her to grow up in.
Helen recalls her son as a rambunctious and destructive child with a wicked sense of humour and a good heart. As a result, she was perplexed when, as a teenager, “his behaviour became hostile and he began locking himself in the toilet for hours at a time,” she recalls. “When I confronted him, he’d say I was the crazy one, the one on drugs. It was so ridiculous that I wanted to laugh at times.”
Helen was at a loss when she discovered he was using heroin. He’d go missing for days and then return with various injuries. He was difficult to be around when he was at home. “He never hit me, but he would frequently destroy the flat in rage – “Where he kneed it, there’s still a hole in the corridor,” she explains.
She was paid in cash at work, which she claims her son began taking from her wallet. She began keeping the money in a belt around her waist because she didn’t want to say anything in case he became violent. “I said my earnings would go straight into an account so I could improve my credit rating,” she explains. She eventually felt unsafe living with someone who was deep in addiction and cut contact with him.
A parent’s relationship with their child is expected to be lifelong – a fruitful, loving bond that can withstand any highs and lows. Maintaining this connection, however, can be difficult for some parents. Eventually, A parent may believe they have reached the point of no return and decide to step down from their role.
Conversations about children who stop speaking to their parents have become common in an increasingly polarised world. However, it also occurs in the opposite direction, albeit less frequently. This may be due, in part, to data indicating that parents severing ties with their children are more uncommon: a 2015 study conducted by the British estrangement charity Stand Alone found that 5% of estranged parents initiated the separation themselves.
The decision is already difficult and painful, and those who have experienced it say that its rarity makes it especially isolating, and can add to stigma for those who choose to pursue this path.
‘Unconditional love can be problematic’
“In both research and popular culture, we rarely hear from parents who estrange themselves from their children because it’s so taboo, and there are very few non-judgmental places to speak openly about the experience,” explains Lucy Blake, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England, Bristol, who specialises in estrangement.
According to Blake, the most common reasons parents end relationships with their children are family conflict, differences in personal values (such as religious beliefs), substance abuse, and other toxic behaviour. According to the Stand Alone study, issues related to divorce, in-laws, and marriage were the most commonly reported drivers of relationship breakdowns with sons. Mental-health issues and emotional abuse were more common in daughters.
However, the decision to divorce with children is far more difficult and ultimately difficult. Parents are socially expected to cherish and care for their children without exception. “We have very high, almost godlike expectations of a parent in terms of unconditional love,” Blake explains. “This can be problematic because it implies they should accept any kind of treatment, including psychological and financial abuse.”
We have almost godlike expectations of parents, expecting them to be unconditionally loving… It implies that they should accept any treatment, including psychological and financial abuse – Blake, Lucy
This may explain why, even when their children are causing them pain, parents find it difficult to let go. Jennifer Storey, a psychology lecturer at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom who specialises in interpersonal violence, discovers that in the majority of her interviews with victims of elder abuse, parents are still concerned and sad for their children. “I can’t think of a single parent who truly wanted to cut their child off – they almost always wanted the relationship to continue, but the abuse to stop,” she says.
It can also be difficult for them and those around them to accept the reality of what is going on. “Parents are assumed to have all the power,” says Amanda Holt, author of Adolescent-to-Parent Abuse: Current Understandings in Research, Policy, and Practice. “Another reason it’s so difficult to walk away is a lack of belief that child-parent abuse can occur, or that it can be so severe that a parent needs to leave.”
The “intergenerational stake hypothesis” could be at work as well. According to this theory, parents are typically more emotionally, financially, and physically invested in the parent-child relationship than their children. Greater positive ties with children are associated with a parent’s improved wellbeing, higher quality of life, and lower depressive symptoms; however, this does not guarantee the same benefits. This means that a parent’s decision to cut off contact with a child, whether abruptly or gradually, carries more than just the weight of failure.
“Parenthood is a respected and admired role and identity; it is also life-changing and lifelong,” Blake explains. “When a parent does not have an active relationship with their child, they may believe they have failed in this role, causing intense pain and shame and changing or challenging how parents think about themselves and who they are.”
Given these factors, it may be more difficult for parents to cut ties than it is for children. “It could certainly be a different kind of pain, because for parents, their life may seem emptier or less meaningful,” Blake says. As a result, many people will lose friendships and relationships with other family members. “The loss and pain that comes with estrangement affects many different aspects of people’s lives,” says Blake.