Parental estrangement: A 'silent epidemic' of cut-off kids

Repairing relationships with adult children

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By Lisa Flam

No parent wants to imagine a day when your child would refuse to speak to you. But estrangements between parents and adult children may be more common than you think. One expert calls it a "silent epidemic."

In TODAY’s “On the Brink” series that began Monday, a mom and her grown son shared their experience of being incommunicado for 3 1/2 years.

It began, Susan Nitahara said, when her son Christopher was about 18 or 19, and she and his dad differed on parenting styles.

“I tried to set parameters and set rules and that very much annoyed my son and at the same time, he was trying to exert his independence and find his way,” Susan said. “And that caused a lot of friction in our relationship. There was a disagreement on behavior. He and I had a big falling out over it.”

Christopher Nitahara had a different interpretation of events: “At this one point in time, she wasn’t there to help me in the situation that I needed her.”

Those years she spent without hearing from her son were brutal for Susan.

“Not having communication with my son or seeing him was probably the most painful thing I have ever experienced,” she said.

Joshua Coleman, a psychologist who wrote “When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along,” called estrangements between adults and their parents “a silent epidemic.”

“It’s sadly very common,” he told TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie. “I work with parents in my practice who have had estrangements for 10 years, permanent estrangements.”

The problem is silent because people are too embarrassed to discuss it.

“So many parents who are going through this don’t want to talk about it,” Coleman said. “They feel ashamed. They feel humiliated. And the kids as well, they don’t want to talk about it either.

“Nobody wants to admit it,” Coleman said, “but it’s a huge problem in our culture.”

Divorce can often cause a breakdown in the relationship between grown children and their parents.

“Divorce is probably the single most common cause that I see,” Coleman said. With divorce, children may see one parent as a winner, the other as a loser. “Somebody got hurt more, somebody got left,” he added.

Divorce can sometimes lead to parental alienation, where one parent negatively influences a child against the other parent so the child no longer trusts that parent or feel hateful toward them.

“Divorce is a very, very common cause of estrangement,” Coleman said.

For parents who find themselves dealing with an estranged child, Coleman offers these tips:

Accept responsibility

“I wouldn’t say take the blame, but if your child has been estranged from you, something is very wrong there,” he said. “You have to start from the perspective of really trying to understand and making yourself vulnerable. Typically in our children’s complaints about us, there’s a kernel of truth."

Don’t defend yourself

“It’s about your kid, it’s not about you,” Coleman said. “If you defend yourself you get into the right and wrong, it’s just going to escalate.”

It’s important to remember that all families are different. “You could be a good parent and feel like you did everything right and your kid could reasonably feel you missed something important about them,” he said.

Have empathy and don’t give up

Coleman said parents should keep trying to work on the relationship, with some exceptions. “Unless you’re getting restraining orders or the kid is sending back gifts, then I don’t think you should,” he said.