Some families have the frictionless ease of unconditional love and understanding, but for many the stalemate of family tensions can be insurmountable.
In this episode of How to Start Over, we explore how to understand the dynamics in lifelong family relationships, find ways to manage our emotional response when tensions boil over, and analyze what it means to change a parent-child relationship as an adult.
This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and is hosted by Olga Khazan. Editing by A.C. Valdez and Claudine Ebeid. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Engineering by Matthew Simonson. Special thanks to Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic.
Music by FLYIN (“Being Nostalgic”), Mindme (“Anxiety [Instrumental Version]”), Sarah, the Illstrumentalist (“Building Character”), and Timothy Infinite (“Rapid Years”).
Olga Khazan: Hi, I’m Olga Khazan, staff writer at The Atlantic.
Rebecca Rashid: And I’m Rebecca Rashid, a producer at The Atlantic.
Khazan: This is How to Start Over. Today, we want to analyze why conflicts with the people who raised us can often reach a stalemate—and how to navigate family tensions when you have deep disagreements with your family.
Rashid: In the past few years, I’ve heard so many stories from adults who were forced to move back in with their parents or go back to wherever they grew up due to the pandemic. I think one of the unexpected harsh realities of spending time with the people who raised you, as an adult, is that some family tensions don’t magically go away with time.
Khazan: I think it’s the rare person who has no issues with their parent. But I think with the pandemic and just how stressful the past few years have been, all of that has gotten supercharged. You might have someone in your family who is an anti-vaxxer, and that affects their health potentially—whether you have to take care of them and pay their medical bills. That can be a really stressful thing to kind of tiptoe around. I think there have been a lot more opportunities lately for people to have these kinds of foundational fights.
Rashid: What do you think holds people back from acknowledging family strain or family tensions or potentially even estrangement as an issue? And what do you think holds people back from discussing it openly?
Khazan: People are very protective, I think, of their parents and their families. I think there’s a sense of: You don’t really know them like I know them. And also probably dueling impulses, right, of gratitude—you know, They did so much for me, and I have fond memories from the lake house, or whatever. But also, Lately, they’ve been driving me crazy! How do you draw a boundary with someone who gave birth to you? How do you change the nature of a relationship that’s been going on since you were a baby?
Khazan: Dr. Joshua Coleman is a clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and senior fellow on the Council on Contemporary Families. In 2021, Dr. Coleman published the book Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict. I spoke with him to figure out why people get estranged from their parents in the first place.
Dr. Joshua Coleman: I tend to think of estrangement as a complete cutoff or nearly complete cutoff, but other people think of it as a very distant relationship where conflicts [are] kind of at its center.
In my research and my experience, there’s a number of different pathways to estrangement. Certainly one is trauma and abuse in childhood by the parent, and the adult child isn’t really capable for a variety of reasons of—either because the parent can’t really do the healing work or the adult child just feels too hurt and wounded by the past to ever forgive the parent or reconcile.
In my survey of 1,600 estranged parents that I did through the University of Wisconsin Survey Center, one of the things that we found was about 70 percent of the estranged parents had a divorce in their past from the [other] biological parent.
Ironically, one of the causes of estrangement that I think isn’t discussed as much is sometimes estrangement happens because the adult child is in some ways too loved, too taken care of. And one of the consequences of a much more intensive, anxious, guilt-ridden, worried, involved parenting that has been going on in the past three or four decades is that sometimes adult children get too much of the parent, and they don’t know any other way to feel separate from the parent than to estrange themselves.
Khazan: What does estrangement look like? Does it look like just not talking? Do people send a long email saying, “You’ve wronged me in such-and-such way, and now I’m never speaking to you again”?
Coleman: Commonly, what I see from parents is they get a no-contact letter. Typically, it will list the complaints that the adult child has about the parent, the failures in parenting. So maybe it’s a parent who won’t accept the adult child’s gender identity or sexuality or political beliefs. Or they refuse to take responsibility for the ways that they’ve hurt the adult child.
Or another scenario would be that there was abuse—physical abuse, sexual abuse in childhood—and the parent has never been able to make amends and never been able to take responsibility, to show any kind of empathy for how destructive their behavior was. And so the adult child feels like, How can I possibly be around you or be close to you or want to be close to you, if you can’t do the basic amend-making that would make me feel like we even have a chance?
Khazan: Did kids in the, I don’t know, 1800s, grow up and become estranged from their parents? Or was it sort of like, Yeah, these are my parents—they’re not perfect, but, like, they’re my parents, so I have to continue a relationship with them? I’m wondering how the institution of the family has changed over the years so that people see estrangement as an option.
Coleman: In the mid-19th century, there began to be a turn. Our turn has been mostly towards individualism. So in the beginning/mid-19th century, we began to be much more interested in personal growth and happiness—and that has really continued to gather more and more steam into the present. Individualism meaning how we assign meaning to events, the emphasis on personal growth, happiness, individuality.
And parenting has radically changed as well. If you look at parenting surveys in the early 1900s, what you have parents saying is that they want their children to essentially be churchgoing—not conservative, necessarily—but people who conform to what is expected of them. In addition, the idea was that children should respect their parents, if not fear them. I assume there’s always been estrangements. I don’t think that there were estrangements nearly to the level of today.
If you just look at divorce—that alone radically increases the probability of an estrangement. Whereas it used to be Honor thy mother and thy father, and respect thy elders, today, it’s really: Does this relationship promote my happiness and my personal growth? Then I’m interested. But if it doesn’t, then I want nothing to do with this person. And that’s also viewed as being a kind of act of existential courage. Whereas in prior generations, I don’t think it was viewed in that way whatsoever.
Khazan: I follow all these TikTok accounts that are vaguely therapeutic. And they’re all: If a person makes you upset, even one time, cut them out of your life. The idea of honoring your mother and father is not anywhere on there. Have you had any personal experience with estrangement or tensions with your adult children, and how that impacted your research or your thinking on this issue?
Coleman: Well, yes, sadly I came to this topic through my own personal experience. I was married and divorced in my 20s. And my daughter—whom I’m now very close to—there was a period of time in her early 20s where she cut off contact with me for several years. She didn’t talk to me, didn’t want to spend time with me, and it was easily the most awful, painful, hurtful, disorienting, guilt-inducing thing I’ve ever been through. But slowly, over time, we were able to heal the relationship, and we’re close again. So once we’d reconciled, I decided to write about it.
Khazan: To what extent should adult children be accepting of their parents’ flaws, or should they be? And I’m wondering how parents can do the same for their adult children, because I feel like a lot of these tensions come out of expectations.
Coleman: I think it has to do with the way we think of identity at this point. Currently, it’s sort of what you were saying about TikTok and—not to trivialize adult children’s complaints about their parents—but we feel like if we dislike something in somebody’s personality and they’re not willing to change, then somehow the healthy thing to do is to cut them out.
Often there’s not enough due diligence on either side. I often tell parents to write a detailed amends letter where they do acknowledge the things that were problematic about their parenting, because in some ways, doing that is a really important path toward self-compassion. It allows them to sort of see it all on the paper and kind of tolerate that as a reality. The saying “What stays in the dark, grows in the dark” is often true of our relationships in terms of our own mistakes with our children.
Khazan: Much of Dr. Coleman’s research comes from data collected on Western populations, and it’s not necessarily representative of all cultures. What if you’re from a culture where children are supposed to respect their parents’ decisions, no matter what? For example, you might realize you need to set boundaries with your parents, but not know how to do it. Maybe your family doesn’t “do” boundaries.
I talked with Alex Ly, a therapist from Fremont, California, who focuses on therapy for Asian Americans dealing with challenging family relationships. He spoke with me about how to navigate that tricky middle ground with your parents and how family tensions can affect mental health.
Alex Ly: Every family needs to maintain, in therapy terms, what we call a sense of homeostasis: a sense of what is normal. Sometimes what is normal in a family could be potentially what’s not healthy. So you may have, say, a controlling parent who wants to do well for their kids, and so they maybe micromanage their kids. Or parents that are very absent, because both parents have to work. Also the parental mental-health issues come up if you know the parents struggle with a personality disorder or if they have extreme depression.
Khazan: So let’s say a client comes to you and says, “I can’t handle how controlling my family is,” or, you know, “I’m an adult, and the way my parents treat me—I need to change something about it.” How do you decide the best way forward for them?
Ly: As a therapist, I don’t necessarily tell them what to do. What I slowly try to pick up on is roles that you might play in the family. Have you ever seen a baby’s crib before, and you’ve seen a mobile? The way I describe it is, when you pull a piece of a mobile, the thing kind of shifts a little bit, right? And then when you let go of it, the mobile kind of just snaps back into place. Everything is all balanced. When you change one piece of this family system, it causes the whole thing to shift.
Khazan: I feel like a lot of people, when they are told to set boundaries with their parents, it’s like: “Hey, when you say stuff about that, it makes me feel really hurt.” “Well, what are you, the thought police? You’re going to tell me what to say in my own home? I’ll have you know, I bought this home, and I paid for it, and I raised you in this home.” Tell me what the step two of the boundary-setting is.
Ly: I teach clients how to empathize, reflect back what they’re saying, so that you can put feelings back on them. Sometimes if it gets too much, teaching the clients how to disengage. That’s the thing: There’s not necessarily a formula with this. You could leave the room. You could also keep reinforcing the boundary—saying, like, “Hey, I don’t really appreciate you talking to me like this.” It’s not about what to do. It’s more about: How do I take care of my internal world and then act in a way that honors myself?
Khazan: Why is it that setting boundaries with our parents can be so hard? For me, I’m one of those people who has no issue breezing past those people with clipboards on the sidewalk getting signatures. I completely ignore those people and feel no shame. But it’s very hard for me to set boundaries with my own parents. And I’ve always wondered why that is?
Ly: What’s the difference between your parents and the clipboard people?
Khazan: I mean, on some level, I want my parents to agree with my points of view and think that I’m smart and good—and I don’t really care what the clipboard people think.
Ly: Absolutely. You have a relationship with your parents, and the clipboard people, you don’t. And you care about what your parents think—you want their approval. That’s a natural, good thing to want. You want your parents to approve of you. I validate that experience is a good and healthy thing.
When there’s unconditional love in a family, that should come naturally right. How sometimes it works is that, Well, no. You don’t get that unconditional approval, right? I can’t unconditionally support you. And sometimes there’s a cultural survival element to that. If I think about a lot of immigrant families—“I can’t have you just do whatever you want, because you need to succeed in this country.”
Khazan: Would you ever tell someone to just detach from their family?
Ly: So one first thing: You’re not estranging. You’re making space for yourself. It’s more about you. I’m going to make space for myself. So I’m going to detach from my family. It may not always be permanent. I’ve run into this all the time with my clients. “I can’t just abandon my family—my parents need me; my parents don’t speak English! I can’t do that.” And it’s like, “Okay; well, that sounds like that’s not an option. We need to try something different.”
Khazan: I feel like a lot of people get trapped between “My parents are wonderful; they did everything for me” and then also resentment that they have to off-gas.
Ly: Yes, that is a very real thing. The truth is that most parents—unless they are all completely like 100 percent abusive, awful people, right?—parents are not all good and all bad. And part of that healing process is to have clients recognize that my parents did so much for me and they also damaged me. At some point there’s an invitation for my clients to kind of bring it together and kind of say your parents are both—they’re human!
Khazan: In the middle of making this episode, I put out a Twitter callout to hear from people who have a strained relationship with their families of origin. One person I heard from, Molly, had an especially poignant story:
Molly: The simple reason that my relationship with my parents is strained is because they’re devout evangelical Christians, and I’m an atheist. I felt like growing up, and still feel like to a large extent, they saw my adoption as an answer to prayer: as a mission, a pro-life statement. And then after all that, I end up not believing in what they see as the most important thing in life.
I stopped believing when I was 11, and it was something that I felt like I had to hide. I was afraid that it would endanger, I guess, my role in the family. It’s not exactly that I thought that they would stop loving me or not want me, per se, but that I would be a disappointment.
Khazan: As an adult, Molly has had years where she didn’t see her parents much because they disapproved of her life choices. She would call them, but the calls were mostly driven by a feeling of guilt and obligation. Still, she wouldn’t say she cut her parents off, or that she’s estranged from them. This is just what their relationship looks like: a little less open, a little different.
Molly: I think that in a lot of cases it’s a good thing for people in a family to not want to sever family ties. To continue to have a sense of commitment and obligation to other people in their family. If they reach a point where they’re able to have that relationship and not be actively hurt by it. Family is a hard thing to replace.
Khazan: Molly has a daughter, and for the most part, she’s raised her without religion. But she does wonder what might happen if her daughter goes the other way and becomes religious later.
Molly: If she became an extremely rule-based Christian, I wonder how I would deal with it if she started believing that I was going to hell. And I don’t really have an answer for that.
Khazan: So how do you deal with your parents as an adult? First, if you need to set a boundary, do it. Just say you won’t listen to hurtful comments about, say, your weight or your politics, and leave the room if they happen.
If the relationship is still difficult, you might have to have a heart-to-heart with them. Lead with the things you like about the relationship, and how you’d like to see it improve. Expect defensiveness, but also be open to the possibility of empathy.
Finally, remember that doing all this introspection might make you an even better parent to your own kids, and hopefully help you break the cycle—for good.