America’s Families Are Not Okay
Inside the crisis of parent-child estrangement.
In today’s long read, Ann Bauer explores the phenomenon of adult children estranging from their parents. Drawing on personal experience and numerous interviews, she paints a nuanced and humane portrait of the causes and costs of the trend, ending with some words of wisdom for impacted parents. We hope you find it as powerful as we do!
– Luke, senior editor.
Some families are irretrievably broken, and nothing can repair the damage done.
April is 30 years old. She lives in New Hampshire, where she owns a small business with her brother. They have no family, other than a mother 3,000 miles away whom they never see.
Growing up in a religious community in Idaho, their home was chaos. April’s mother had bipolar disorder and her mood swings would cause fights—wild, physical brawls—with April’s father. They would scream and throw things. Sometimes, April’s mother would pull out a knife and hold it to her throat while telling the children she was going to kill herself in front of them. Then April’s father would tackle her and wrestle the knife away.
There were no grandparents or aunts or uncles to turn to; both April’s mother and her father were estranged from their own families. There were no friends or close neighbors either because April’s mother’s behavior, in particular, drove everyone off.
“I asked my mom about her family once,” April said. “She slammed my fingers in a drawer.”
When April was 15, her father left. He obtained a divorce and remarried, starting a new family within the year. April’s brother was 21 by then—long gone from home. So she stuck it out alone with her mother, determined not to end up in foster care, eventually graduating from high school and moving across the country to join her brother. Today, the siblings have no relationship with their mother. When their father died in 2022, they hadn’t heard from him in 13 years.
All of this has been a source of great sadness and embarrassment for April. For a decade, she avoided the topic altogether. But over the last couple of years something changed: When she confided in a few peers about her history, they were excited by it. Almost jealous.
“Writing off your parents used to be a big, shameful thing to do,” says April. “But lately, it’s almost like it’s bragging rights to estrange from your family. Now people want to talk to me because of it. Then they tell me about their parents and how terrible they were, how they’re going ‘no-contact,’ but they have these dumbass reasons. You find out they estranged because their dad denies climate change. I want to say, ‘Relationships take work. You actually have parents who love you. Don’t you care at all?’”
But family estrangement, once taboo, has become fashionable, a cause for both grief—as families mourn their missing loved ones—and celebration, with young adults seen as brave and empowered for casting off their elders.
Recent studies show more than one in four adult children in the United States are or have been estranged—defined as having no contact or a poor relationship with limited contact—from one or both parents. Over the summer, Cosmopolitan published a long article titled, “Why So Many Young People Are Cutting Off Their Parents.” Conversations about “going no contact” and estrangement are now mainstays on daytime talk shows and social media. Something is not only driving families apart but leading them to talk about it more openly.
Among Millennials and elder Gen Z (people aged roughly 20-38), estrangement has even become a banner of bravery in some circles. “Estranging Yourself from Family Can be Lifesaving,” proclaimed Men’s Health in October 2022. WikiHow has multiple entries with step-by-step, illustrated tutorials for going no-contact with family members. Literally thousands of YouTube and TikTok coaches offer advice for cutting “toxic” family out of your life. A Google search for “how to estrange from your parents” returns 370,000 results. Sociologist and researcher Karl Pillemar, author of Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, estimates that currently in the United States, about 67 million people are estranged.
This nags at April. How could she spend three decades yearning for a real family—for Sunday dinners and a dad she could call when her car broke down—while all around her people were walking away from exactly that?
She tried joining an online support group for estranged adult children but it didn’t help. Most of the people there had the option to return to their families. They weren’t unhappy about their estrangement; in fact, they seemed to see it as a triumph, a step toward empowerment in a black-and-white world.
“Today most estrangement is about ‘individuating,’ which sounds like propaganda to me,” April says. “I mean sure, maybe you have a period in young adulthood where you don’t have a ton of contact with your parents. But the idea that you fully estrange and never speak to them again because they’re too interested in your life, or because they think something that’s different from you? I just don’t buy that. It’s very painful to be estranged from your family. Believe me, I know.”
Few estrangements have the clear-cut logic of April’s. In fact, many children of abjectly abusive parents grow up and find a way to protect themselves but stay in touch. The sins of estranged parents are usually squishier and vague. Toxicity, emotional neglect, wrong values. These offenses—defined by the zeitgeist—appear clear to estrangers. But often parents keep searching for a reason for the estrangement, even after their adult children have told them what they’ve done wrong.
“There seems to be a generational shift in what constitutes abuse,” wrote David Brooks in his July 2021 New York Times column, “What’s Ripping American Families Apart?” “Practices that seemed like normal parenting to one generation are conceptualized as abusive, overbearing and traumatizing to another.”
In fairness to the estrangers, definitions of abuse do change over time: As recently as the 1970s, parents felt justified rejecting a child who was gay, whereas today that would be seen by nearly all of us as a bigoted, unloving stance. For many Americans, spanking a child is no longer seen as a reasonable punishment.
The question is whether society has swung too far the other way, in the direction of demonizing the benign. Today, irritating parental behaviors once seen as funny or ethnic—prying, overstepping, giving personal advice, meddling (think the stereotypical Greek or Italian moms of Y2K-era hits like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “Everybody Loves Raymond”)—are viewed as “toxic.”
“Suddenly everyone is ‘toxic,’” declared an August 2022 essay in The Atlantic by Kaitlyn Tiffany, exploring the sudden dramatic rise in people online prescribing estrangement as the remedy. “Maybe #toxic posts are popular because relationship drama is good entertainment, especially on TikTok—an app for teenagers whose literal role in society is to explore the full spectrum of irrational behavior,” Tiffany speculated. But if it had started as drama and entertainment, she worried, it might not stay that way: “At a time when our most intimate relationships really do seem to be becoming more brittle, it’s hard to laugh off the possibility that some people are taking all of this to heart.”
Some parents are working proactively to ensure their children won’t estrange. Cynthia is a 56-year-old mother of three who has sought therapy and learned to redefine and change her own behavior; she believes this was necessary to prevent her daughter, her middle child, from cutting off contact with her.
“I’m a full-on extrovert,” she explains, “but my daughter, Kiley, is very quiet, modest and methodical. She doesn’t share her emotions or tell me how she’s feeling. When she has conflict, she regresses and turns into herself.”
They live in a wealthy Connecticut suburb where social dynamics are complicated and Cynthia says “people will walk over your child’s dead body to advance their own kid.” During high school, Kiley was bookish and shy; her teachers adored her, but she had only a handful of friends. When the girls in her class formed a new clique during senior year, those remaining few friends finally abandoned her.
“Her longtime best friend just dropped her and was being really mean,” says Cynthia. “I ran into this girl in town and I told her she should shape up; they weren’t 13 any more. And that was it—my daughter was ostracized for the rest of the year. Because of me, she had nothing to do on graduation night.”
This began a period of near estrangement. Mother and daughter lived in the same house but did not speak. Cynthia was afraid Kiley would leave for college in the fall and that would be the end of their relationship. So she found a therapist who helped her examine her role in the situation and take responsibility for her “toxic” behavior. She wanted Kiley to get therapy as well, but the girl declined. So Cynthia’s husband stepped in as go-between, assuring their daughter that her mother would repair the situation on her own.
When Kiley moved away to college, Cynthia didn’t contact her by text or phone for a week, waiting until her daughter called to say she was the only girl on her dorm floor who hadn’t talked to her mom twice a day. The hands-off approach seemed to work. Their mother-daughter relationship was nearly healed by the time Kiley came home for Christmas break.
But they had a setback just a few days later when Cynthia suggested that Kiley use the library rather than buying all of her books.
“The fight that ensued over that was so huge,” Cynthia recalls. “She said ‘I don’t know if I can live with this family, we have very different value systems. I feel like I’m going through everything alone.’”
“But what you said, suggesting she go to the library, wasn’t so terrible,” I interrupt. “I can’t think of a mother who hasn’t said something similar.”
Cynthia disagrees politely. “No. I was trying to change her, instead of respecting her for who she is. So I apologized and told her I was still working to change how I interact with her. I’m the adult. I have to take ownership of what I did.”
These are the choices parents face, especially as they watch their friends lose adult children to estrangement. So far, the self-work approach is helping Cynthia maintain a connection with her daughter. But it threatens a sort of boomerang effect. One of the categories of parent that the Internet recommends cutting off is “emotionally immature”—including those that make their adult children feel lonely, responsible, or like they have to parent themselves. By choosing the path that defers to their child’s point of view, a parent risks being labeled weak or “codependent.” There’s just no clear way out.
Marilyn, a retired stock trader living in Dallas, has held firm as a strong parent with a point of view—and she’s paid a price.
As in the case with Cynthia, there’s a personality clash. Marilyn is brash and brave, a woman who didn’t flinch making million dollar buys. Her daughter Natalie, now 31, is extremely cautious and has tended since childhood toward hypochondria.
Marilyn describes the teenage Natalie as very charming and somewhat dramatic. “She ended up in acting school, which takes all the histrionic tendencies of an adolescent girl and balloons them,” Marilyn says.
After acting school, Natalie auditioned for a famous theater program and got in. “That’s when we started to see things like she’s a vegetarian, glucose-intolerant, going to the ER routinely for things like a sinus infection. Then she moved to San Francisco and things got bad.”
Once in California, Natalie realized she was the only person in her circle who wasn’t taking antidepressants, and carrying Xanax for panic attacks. In 2018, she told Marilyn she was going to a gynecologist for devastating PMS. “I told her to come back home and get a doctor who would diagnose, not just prescribe,” Marilyn recalls. “We fought.”
After switching doctors several times, Natalie was told she had a hormonal condition—and, unrelated, she also needed maxillofacial surgery for a dental problem that braces had failed to fix. Natalie moved back to Dallas, to prepare for a surgery that would saw through the bones of her face. The procedure was scheduled for June 2020.
“I was in her apartment one day in March,” says Marilyn. “She came out of her bedroom and told me Governor Abbott was locking down the state. I said, ‘Oh, that’s going to hurt a lot of people.’ She threw me out.”
Their relationship worsened during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Marilyn joined friends for dinner—outdoors—as soon as it was permitted. As a result, Natalie wore a mask when visiting her parents and would speak only to her father, but not her mother, on the grounds that Marilyn wasn’t taking appropriate precautions.
“What was the point if my husband was exposed to my germs at home?” Marilyn asks. “Everyone was playing along with this absolute bullshit that made no sense.”
Natalie’s surgery was rescheduled for September and the two women reconciled briefly. Marilyn made soft foods for her daughter’s recovery and trucked them over in freezer bags. Then an abrupt fight over quarantining turned explosive. “One minute we were fine, then she started screaming and cursing at me,” Marilyn says.
They were fully estranged—meaning no contact—for two and a half years. Then Natalie, who had moved back to California, broke up with her boyfriend and reached out. She sent her mother a text that said “Call if you want” and Marilyn did, with great hope. But since that time Natalie has remained aloof, refusing to visit, claiming she is now allergic to the family’s dog. She skipped both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Her brother is angry, lonely. And Marilyn is bewildered; they’re speaking, but she still feels estranged.
“The way I see it now, she wants our relationship to be superficial, only on her terms—so there’s still a hole in my heart,” says Marilyn. “My daughter had the world handed to her. She has gotten every single thing she needed. We’ve traveled with her to Europe. There were so many good things in her life growing up. I just don’t understand.”
Robert Shulman, chair of the department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Rush University Medical Center, believes that part of the problem comes down to the very thing Marilyn cites: that unstinting devotion.
“Millennials were never supposed to feel bad,” Shulman says. “Everyone got a participation trophy. The parent would help make the diorama for science. So the child was denied competence. When the child grows up and hits a barrier they lack the skills to cope with it, so they turn on the parent.”
Theories like Shulman’s explain some but not all of the no-contact trend. Like many estranged mothers, Marilyn has a close, loving relationship with her other adult child. She’s articulate and funny, willing to set clear boundaries and hold firm. She has never abused or exploited her daughter and sends occasional messages expressing unconditional love—which is what the therapeutic community recommends.
Joshua Coleman—arguably the country’s leading estrangement expert and author of Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Contact and How to Heal the Conflict—conducted a study that found divorce was a driving factor in two-thirds of parent/child estrangements. But Marilyn and her husband have worked hard on their sometimes difficult marriage—specifically to maintain an intact home for their kids.
For some children, especially those with means who don’t fear suffering financial hardship due to cutting off their parents, it seems estrangement is an option. Between three siblings, where one estranges and the other two do not, the outcome may have more to do with the children’s temperaments than any profound difference in how they were treated by their parents.
Given the sudden rise in “toxic” and “no contact” discourse, it’s tempting to imagine that something fundamental has changed in the nature of parents and children. But when you boil it down, it seems that what has really changed is the view of estrangement itself, with more people choosing it simply because it’s a socially-endorsed choice.
Last year, Hila Blum’s superb novel, How To Love Your Daughter, won the Sapir Prize—Israel’s most prestigious literary award. It was published in the United States in fall 2023.
The book begins with a middle-aged Israeli woman, Yoella, standing outside a home in Holland. It is night and she is looking in the windows at a beautiful family—mother, father and two grade-school age daughters—in a softly-lit dining room. The girls are sitting at the table, the parents “toiling over dinner.” At one point the young mother passes between rooms and is “crucified by the window frame.”
Quickly, the reader comes to learn that the couple inside the house is Yoella’s estranged adult daughter, Leah, and her husband. The girls are the granddaughters Yoella has never met. Leah left home a decade earlier, returning only once for her father’s funeral. The novel is structured like a mystery, with Yoella narrating—often in a self-critical way—and trying to locate the moment she erred so grievously that she lost Leah, her only child.
“As it becomes clear that Yoella has been an affectionate, kind, capable mother, the reader becomes something closer to a co-accused,” wrote Flynn Berry in a review for The New York Times. “If she is guilty of causing damage, then maybe we are too.”
Blum started writing How To Love Your Daughter, her second novel, almost a decade ago, when her own daughter was nine. She insists that she wasn’t thinking about estrangement; in fact, she knew nothing about the topic. She was only trying to answer a question in her own mind about the tight-rope walk that is parenting.
“I was at the time a relatively new parent,” says Blum. “And I was somehow overwhelmed with the infinite number of daily decisions that parenting demanded, some tiny and some enormous. What to eat, what not to eat, how to keep a schedule, which kindergarten to enroll into. Should I talk to the teacher or not? Wherever you put your finger as a parent you need to decide on something. And what if you’re wrong?” Over years, a story began to develop of a mistake that would cleave the relationship between mother and daughter. But even then, Blum did not know which one it was. Reading the book, it’s impossible to be sure.
How to Love Your Daughter became a hot book club pick and Blum attended several groups. She was unprepared, she says, for the fiery reader response. Every club she joined split more or less down the middle and debated—fiercely—who was to blame. There were readers who found Leah spoiled, petulant and ungrateful, others who said Yoella was toxic, domineering and narcissistic. There was little conversation about the form, story or themes of the novel; the discussion always centered around which woman was at fault.
This surprised Blum, who had grown to love and understand both of her main characters. She didn’t think in terms of blame, but rather of human error and redemption. To the author, nothing about the split between Yoella and Leah was black and white.
“Writing this novel, I was struck by the impossibility of predicting the long-term effects of small daily decisions,” Blum says. “We as parents are driven by emotions that we think of as love and intentions that we perceive to be good and well-meaning and reasons we think of as right, but we can still arrive at terrible decisions. So the broad theme of this novel was not so much estrangement but the damage that can be done to our children, even when we strive to do our best.”
In other words, every parent makes mistakes. But these days, it’s unclear which mistakes are forgivable and which will result in all but losing your child.
Jerry and Nancy, a couple living in Ohio, are facing this dilemma with their 25-year-old son, Seth, who started attending an Ivy League college in 2016 and has spoken to them only three times since.
They describe his childhood as normal. The couple was scrambling to build their careers and care for two baby girls when Seth was young; they wonder now if they didn’t impose consequences correctly, or keep a steady enough household routine. When their son was accepted into his first choice school, they were thrilled for him and helped him financially as much as they could. However, Seth cut off contact shortly after the winter holidays in his freshman year, saying he needed a break from family.
To this day, they’ve never been able to reconcile with him.
“Seth seemed to get angrier as time went on,” Nancy says. “Once, he sent us a long letter about the things he hated about his childhood: how he felt criticized and slighted, maybe less important in the family, because the girls came so much later and they had each other. We wrote back and apologized for making him feel that way. We said we loved him completely. Then… nothing.”
Eventually, Seth blocked Jerry and Nancy—as well as their parents and siblings and his own two sisters—on social media, email and phone. About two years ago, Nancy heard through a distant cousin that Seth was getting married to a woman he’d met at college, and that his fiancée was also estranged from her family.
Wild with a need to know what had happened, Nancy and Jerry tracked down the young woman’s parents and sent them a Facebook message, explaining who they were and asking if the four of them could talk.
“The answer was no,” Jerry says. “They told us the mother of our son’s fiancée was dying of ALS and she’d asked her daughter to visit one time, before she died. But the daughter said no. So they wrote her off. Their other daughter sent me a message later and said this has been too hard on her parents and we shouldn’t contact them again. Which, of course, we understood.”
Most researchers agree the numbers are rising, but estrangement, while increasingly seen as an acceptable option, is nothing new. It’s the way my own family has functioned for more than 50 years, walking away easily over minor disagreements and enforcing silence. Often forever. It’s how we live—and the reason this topic was of interest to me.
My father, 88, has not spoken to his brother, 82, in years. They were estranged through their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. Lore on my father’s side is that his brother borrowed money and didn’t pay it back; my uncle’s claim was that he cared for their widowed mother and frail, sickly aunt with zero help from my dad. Evidence says both things are true.
The two briefly made up around the time my dad turned 80, right after my uncle’s wife’s death. For a few months, they talked on the phone daily; each visited the other once. Then they had an argument (over Medicaid policy, I believe) and cut each other off again. Both men have instructed their children not to tell the other if they should die first.
My mother’s brother was killed in an accident in his 30s, leaving a wife and a son. His widow estranged from our entire family, refusing to let my grandparents see their grandson. That child, now an adult, grew up in the adjoining suburb. I emailed him once when cleaning my mother’s basement because I found a book of photos of his father and wanted to send it. He never messaged me back.
My mother and her older sister were at least on speaking terms, but their husbands didn’t mesh so I saw my cousins only a handful of times. I attended the funeral of one of their daughters recently—a pure tragedy, the girl only 34. A good friend of mine was at the service, too, which was a complete surprise. It turned out he’d been her employer. “How did you know Amy?” he asked, and I said, “She was my cousin.” The thing I didn’t say: We’d never met.
My sister and I are very different and instead of celebrating that fact, it became a source of conflict (one stoked by our parents). We had a couple months’ solidarity during COVID. This was glorious and gave me a sense of groundedness I’d never previously felt. But after a disagreement over our elderly mother’s diabetic care, my sister blocked my phone number and went silent. Six months later, when my son was in a serious accident, she declined to make contact—with either of us. Our parents gladly brokered information, calling me to check on their grandson’s condition then calling my sister to report. The family tradition of brokenness carries on. These are losses I feel in my bones.
I’ve taken a few planned pauses from my parents, the first when a psychotherapist advised me to get out “to save [my] life” and I left home at 15. But I’ve never had it in me to fully estrange, because no matter what their interference or criticisms, they were always there if I needed them. They bailed me out of a bad marriage and made sure my kids had enough to eat and that’s enough to earn my loyalty, however fractious our relationship may be. But I’ll admit, it can be tough to hang on.
In our family, apologies are seen as weakness. The first person to admit fault or flaw, no matter how small, owns the whole issue—and the blame. There is no situation where two parties take joint responsibility for a problem and move on. Since there is no incentive to apologize or forgive, everyone is at a stalemate, protecting the relationships they still maintain and trying to sway neutral parties to come over to their side. None of us knows the way out. It’s like we’re all stuck in separate third-story rooms with windows but no doors.
I was in my 40s when my husband and I moved to Boston. On a whim, I got in touch with the son of my father’s brother—my first cousin, who, again, I had never met. Talking to him was like hearing myself reflected in a different key. We knew each other immediately. Since then, we’ve been each other’s family, and loved each other’s children. But we’ve had to agree that we will never talk about the other to our respective fathers. Once, we slipped and gave them information that they used to brew a fight and divide us. We worked hard to mend that rift and have operated in a cone of silence ever since.
Is it any surprise, given this, that my own adult children have periods of silence and distance? My son is very close to us—his parents—but cool with the rest of the family. My daughter walked away from all of it. She joined the military, traveled the world, married for a few years and has now divorced, settling into a new and completely independent life. She has no relationship with my parents or sister but contacts me occasionally. Last summer she told me however her life unfolds, she’s determined not to end up in a family like mine. To which I said: Fair.
In March of 2023, Denver-based organizational psychologist Diva Moore, also known as @gradschoolgramma, lit up TikTok with a three-minute video about her estranged son. I was one of the people who made it a viral sensation; I must have watched that video 30 times.
“I have an oldest son who has chosen to go no contact with me and most of the family,” Moore tells her viewers. “Here’s where I differ from a lot of people: I honor his space.”
Now a recovering alcoholic, Moore explains that she was still drinking during his childhood—which may be why this adult child resents her, but her younger children do not. He has his reasons. His truth.
“I’m not going to sit here in front of my other kids or you guys and say, ‘Oh, he’s gone no-contact; I don’t understand,’” she says. “I understand completely. And I’m quite happy that I raised a grown-ass man who can stand up for his feelings.”
Like me, Diva Moore is a Gen Xer with Millennial children. She says this is part of the reason she understands her son’s position and takes responsibility for having messed him up. As a younger mom—less tied to the old rules of family than Boomers—she can acknowledge her faults and see both sides. She concludes her video with a prayer to the universe that in the future, her relationship with her son will change.
Something in me eased when I heard this woman speak. There is an option other than despair or resentment. It’s possible to acknowledge a broken situation, mourn it, and express love nonetheless. To my way of thinking, Moore charted the way to be a good parent—a proud parent, who takes some measure of joy in an estranged child’s radical autonomy and cheers them on in the world.
The miracle of Moore’s TikTok admission was that she alone—of everyone I interviewed, read or watched for this story—brought together the warring factions of estranged children and hurt, grieving parents. The estranged group overwhelmingly endorsed her approach. And the parent group—some, at least—took solace in being like her: flawed but devoted, dignified, without bitterness, and hoping for a reconciliation some day.
One thing seems certain: Estrangement is passed down through generations. A 2015 British study found that 54% of estranged respondents agreed with the statement “estrangement or relationship breakdown is common in our family.” I’ve heard from two momfluencers who claim they estranged from their own parents in order to have better, closer relationships with their kids. But rarely is this how it works out. The reality of family estrangement is that once you start, it spreads.
Like April, who also came from a generationally-estranged family, I do not recommend it. The losses are everywhere, running back through your history and down toward your legacy. Estrangement feels anchorless, and lonely. While everyone you know is attending backyard barbecues at their brother’s or baby showers for their nieces, your Sundays are empty. Holidays are dangerous and sad.
I’ve read all the estrangement experts, who have books and newsletters, webinars and sky-high consulting fees. But the greatest wisdom I’ve unearthed on this topic came in that three minutes from Diva Moore. So I’m not going to sit here and say I don’t understand why my daughter avoids our family. I understand. And I miss her like crazy. But I honor her space. And I pray to the universe that some day things will change.
Ann Bauer is an essayist and novelist. Follow her on X at @annbauerwriter.
Some names and locations in this essay have been changed.
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