Why Adult Children Are Cutting Off Their Parents More Than Ever

Whether it's Meghan and Thomas Markle or Britney and her teen sons, celebrity family feuds are having a moment. Nevertheless, with roughly 10 percent of Americans estranged from a parent or child, you very likely know someone in your own life with parental problems.

Therapists and researchers believe that rifts in families are becoming more common, particularly with adult children stopping contact with one or both parents. A study in 1997 explored family relationships in later life and found that 7 percent of adult children had cut ties with their mother and 27 percent from their father. In 2020, research by sociologist Karl Pillemar showed that 1 in 4 Americans are estranged from their families—roughly 67 million people.

Simone Bose is a relationship therapist based in London. She deals with family issues every day in her practice, including estrangement, with her clients coming from a range of backgrounds and circumstances.

"It's never an easy decision," she told Newsweek. "It's the hardest thing in the world to separate yourself from your parents.

"They were your everything as a child, and no matter what age they are your parents can be huge in your life.

"I think people are becoming more aware about mental health and how being in touch with their parents can affect their life and self-esteem."

According to Bose, these are the top reasons why adult children cut off their parents:

  • Toxic behavior
  • Difference in values
  • A lack of support
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Failure to empathize
  • Changing times

Dealing With Toxic Behavior From Your Parents

Last year, researchers at Ohio State University asked over 1,000 estranged mothers the reasons they believed their adult children had cut contact. Almost 80 percent felt that a third party, such as the other parent, a relative or their child's partner, was to blame.

Studies suggest that parents and adult children rarely agree on the reasons for the rift, with children more likely to report toxic behavior—such as a lack of empathy, refusing to respect boundaries, and being highly critical or malicious—as the reason for cutting a parent out of their lives.

Bose said: "I had a client whose mother was very dominating and critical. Part of it was the cultural aspect and 'respecting your elders,' so he tolerated a lot from her.

"However, his brother has estranged himself from their mother, as she was getting so involved in his marriage."

Bose explained that the mother was demonstrating narcissistic behavior. Parental narcissism has been shown to greatly impact a child's self-esteem and personal development, leading to self-doubt or feeling unworthy or love as an adult.

"[Narcissistic parents] don't have healthy boundaries with their adult children and can be critical, needy or portray themselves as 'the victim,'" said Bose.

"Sometimes all you can do is restrict contact with this person."

Adult daughter giving mother the silent treatment
A stock photo of an adult daughter giving her mother the silent treatment, while her mother places her hand on her shoulder. Toxic and narcissistic behaviors are just one reason why adult children are distancing themselves from their parents. JackF/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Physically, Emotionally, or Sexually Abusive Parents

A 2015 study by the University of Cambridge revealed that past actions could be just as triggering for adult children as current behavior. Although few people would question someone's decision to cut off a parent due to physical or sexual abuse, researchers found that emotional abuse was the most common reason participants distanced themselves.

77 percent of those surveyed said said emotional abuse during childhood was the reason they stopped contacting their mother, as did 59 percent of those estranged from their fathers.

In comparison, only 26 percent of estranged parents blamed emotional abuse for a rift with their daughter, with no respondents believing emotional abuse caused an estrangement with their son.

Parents With Differences In Values To You

Mismatched expectations regarding roles and relationships can split families, as can personality clashes.

Bose said: "I've seen couples where a parent or in-law is very intrusive or whose values are offensive, and this starts to impact on their own parenting and the values they want to give their kids.

"They might start to see this person as toxic."

Politics can also cause familial rifts that can be difficult to overcome.

"I had a client who found it so painful to be in touch with his mother, who lived alone and followed a lot of conspiracy theory websites," Bose said.

"He's very political himself, and he found it hard to hear his mother distort her reality. He loved her, but he couldn't talk to her."

A father and son not talking
A stock photo of an older man and his adult son looking away from each other in different directions after an argument. Different values and political beliefs can cause children to cut contact with their parents, especially after having children of their own. Drazen Zigic/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Parents That Never Support You

It might not be as obvious as physical or sexual abuse, but neglect or failure to support their adult children's life choices—both in the past and present—can led to estrangement. Even if all of their basic needs were met during childhood, ignoring a child's emotional needs can lead to mental health issues, substance abuse, emotional trauma and difficulty coping as an adult.

"I had a client who was gender-fluid and exploring her sexuality," said Bose.

"She felt very judged by her parents when she first came out, and she couldn't quite get over it.

"In therapy, things kept coming up about childhood and how she felt so misunderstood. She became triggered whenever she talked to them about her life and found it really difficult to have a relationship with them.

"She lived in a different city, so she had become more independent and had her friends as a support system, she felt she could make that decision."

Parents That Fail To Empathize With You

They say there are two sides to every story, and it's not uncommon for adult children and parents to disagree on the past. However, failure to acknowledge how their child feels can lead to anger or resentment.

Only 18 percent of the mothers in the Ohio study believed the estrangement was their fault, while many parents taking part in a 2015 study by the University of Nebraska blamed their child's "entitlement" for the rift rather than their own actions.

"It can be hard for people to acknowledge that they haven't been a good parent," said Bose.

"But the situation [moving forward] often depends on how well the parent receives the information."

Parents That Struggle To Handle Changes In The Modern World

Not only has family life changed significantly over the past 50 years, but there is also greater awareness of different lifestyles, identities and the choices available, making it easier for adults to create their own tribe without their biological families.

"There's a lot more support out there now, a lot more information," said Bose.

"If someone feels something about their life, they look it up, they join forums, they follow accounts on Instagram of people sharing their experiences.

"When people are feeling this way, they now have support to validate their choices."

Newsweek have updated this article with new statistics.