Negatively stereotyping parents of estranged adults:
By Sheri McGregor, M.A.
Lately, there have been quite a few articles on the Internet about estrangement. As I say in my latest book, Beyond Done With The Crying: More Answers and Advice for Parents of Estranged Adult Children, what used to be a taboo subject is now more known. If you’ve read some of these articles though, you may have been disheartened to find them negatively stereotyping parents of estranged adults. They frequently depict rejected parents as racist, homophobic, abusive or toxic, often evidenced by some vague reference by the estranger—and sometimes backed by a therapist’s overreaching conclusion. One recent article at a site called “VOX” featured the latter, and it was brought to my attention by Tony, a rejected father whose adult child told of a similar “professional” judgment.
Tony loved and tried for many years to do right by his daughter, who had been 17 when he and his wife divorced. He knew she’d been shocked and suffered. So, he was patient and understanding of her mood swings toward him, even when they worsened (rather than improved) in her mid-twenties. Her behavior alternated between friendly, aloof, verbally abusive, and complete estrangement.
When Tony suffered a health crisis, he knew he had to make some changes for himself. He reevaluated his up-down and on-again-off-again relationship with his daughter and realized he couldn’t take the stress anymore. “I asked if we could show each other mutual respect,” he explains. “Instead, she cried foul to a therapist and called later to say the doctor had confirmed to her that I am an ‘emotionally distant’ dad. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
For this father, the article he says is another example of “negatively stereotyping parents of estranged adults,” confirms a general bias against rejected parents. “That we’re deadbeats, abusive, or just don’t care about our kids.”
I understand this father’s concern. When these messages are repeated time and again, people tend to believe them. The assumptions hurt. In the case of rejected parents, they confirm a bias that already exists., partially because people who love their children and do their best as parents don’t want to believe this could happen to them. The recognition that this can and does happen is growing because estrangement has become so common. When I talk about estrangement by one’s children, people will often know someone who is going through this horrific experience or have had a taste of it themselves.
Even so, the prevalence of such negative stereotyping of parents of estranged adult children confirms the bias still exists. Judging from all the recent material, it may even be increasing. And for supportive parents whose children turn on them anyway, the negative portrayals can cause distress. As I say in Beyond Done, when people feel judged and perceive discrimination, as many parents of estranged adult children do, their physical and mental health can suffer.
The dismissive phrase, “OK, Boomer,” came to mind when reading a recent L.A. Times op-ed written by a Manhattan psychoanalyst. In all honesty, her piece makes some true and sensible points. Among them are that adult children who cancel their families pay a psychological price, and that learning to adjust and to work things out is preferable to estrangement.
Too bad that buried between her sensible points is a descriptive massacre. She injures the already hurting parents of estranged adult children by generalizing them as “narcissistic” and “intrusive.” She asserts that “. . . baby boomer parents are especially troubled,” a generation for whom it’s difficult to “acknowledge or even recognize their aggression.” In a backhanded compliment, she states that Baby Boomers tried to raise their children in ways that “at least appeared to prioritize their children’s needs” (emphasis mine.)
That op-ed made its way into media outlets around the U.S. (and probably the globe). It’s among several recent writings that serve up a dangerous, misleading message that generalizes older people, the parents of estranged adult children, as nosy, unbending, and self-absorbed.
Tell that to the parents who have given their life savings to help their “kids,” some of whom have drained the Bank of Mom and Dad well into their middle age. Or the single parents who worked their fingers to the bone so their kids wouldn’t have to do without. And to the parent whose ex-spouse fed the children lies and alienated their affections.
Years of energy, love, kindness, patience, and support … for eventual estrangement.
These opinionated pieces, which are sometimes billed as “news,” trudge right past—or even trample—all the good the parents ever did. They bolster estrangers’ assertions that Mom and Dad are emotionally immature, have unmet needs, or that their motives were selfish (<—–read that as narcissistic, toxic, or both).
Negatively stereotyping parents of estranged adults isn’t always done in such a blatant way either. Even in books and articles that are a bit fairer to the older generation, the negative bias exists in the set-in their-ways, know-it-all, overbearing cliches that are routinely slipped into the writing. More subtle maybe, but still there. Online, you’ll find that even material aimed at the senior citizen suffering a difficult relationship with an adult child, purportedly to help, is often accompanied by photographs of a bossy older person, haranguing a frustrated young adult.
The reality is that most parents zip their lips and try to get along. They walk on eggshells, sometimes for many years, to avoid another put-down, explosion, or a cutting off—sometimes just to see the grandchildren. The acronym for walking on eggshells is fitting: WOE. Walking. On. Eggshells. Woe! The reality is that when we’re so busy trying to please another adult, we can miss out on the beauty that surrounds us and fail to be present to enjoy our lives.
Stereotyping Baby Boomers may be prevalent these days, but that doesn’t make it right. The negative grouping is just another “ism,” at a time when other isms are not tolerated. It’s also irresponsible. This is perhaps especially true now, when our society is suffering from increased polarization, hate, and even violence. That so many in the helping field appear to believe the stereotypes, and that venues spread these negative messages, is worrisome and maybe even reprehensible. Right now, the aged population is growing exponentially around the globe. What’s known as the “Silver Tsunami” is underway. The negative classification of older people may be providing an excuse for more intolerance.
Besides, negatively stereotyping parents of estranged adults, and depicting older people as rigid, unbending, or rife with “narcissistic” and “intrusive behaviors” doesn’t ring true. Research reveals that older people crave peaceful interactions and will often go out of their way to try and achieve social harmony. That the adult children who have rejected their parents based on differing opinions or worldviews can’t “live and let live”—like the Baby Boomers and those even older learned to do—is a shame, and is increasingly asserted as the cause of estrangement. As I say in Beyond Done, if we can try on our adult children’s perspectives (and we do), they can afford us the same courtesy.
Does anxious parenting beget anxious parenting?
I’ve been hearing more about a social theory that Baby Boomers engaged in what’s being termed by psychologists as “anxious parenting.” They’re saying it’s s at the root of adult children so vehemently rejecting their parents. The thinking is that adult children must draw a line in the sand and not allow their parents past it, so that they can steer their own lives.
Like many ideas that get bandied about in our world, this is just another theory. Maybe there’s even truth in it. As I have written in the past, my husband and I gave our kids a lot of freedom, so for me personally, the theory doesn’t hold and sounds like more negative bias. You know if this is more true for you. History does reveal that a shift in our society capitalized on parents’ fears and replaced the tried-and-true methods and advice of family elders with parenting “experts.” As discussed in my first book, these experts partnered with commercial marketers. Loud messaging does have influence.
To me, it’s interesting that if these adult children estrange from their parents because they must to become independent, their self-awareness is pretty limited. It doesn’t expand to raising their own children when they engage in anxious parenting themselves. As one recent BBC article several parents told me about highlighted, kids are cutting parents off because their values don’t match. That they don’t agree with their parents’ values is a big duh to me, as stated in a previous article, but my point here is that they sometimes cut off parents to keep their kids from being exposed to their beliefs. The article mentions racism, albeit without detail. As the LA Times op-ed said, engaging in dialogue would take work but perhaps have better outcomes. Such discourse, though painful and tough, could even pave the way for these adult children to engage in discussions with their own children. This could be a “teaching moment” about differing values, how society evolves, and how we might compromise.
A skewed view
As I was preparing to write about the flux of negative stereotyping of parents of estranged adult children, several rejected moms and dads also shared their thoughts. Among them were parents like me, who (thankfully) also have good relationships with some of their adult children. We may suffer estrangements, but we’re not all grouchy tyrants, growing old alone.
In those relationships, the adult children see their folks as human beings, raised in a different era and holding onto some of those beautiful values, yet also learning new things and adjusting to modern life. We’re not a bunch of crotchety codgers, stuck in the past, barking orders, and demanding that our kids fall in line as we intrude on their lives. Like everyone, we disagree at times, just as all people do. Yet, for the most part, we see our adult children as whole beings, too. Not as stereotypes. We get along. And as I say in Beyond Done, “We can treat each other kindly.”
As always, my message in my books and in this blog is for the hurting parents to learn to let go of the adult children who don’t want them. Reach out sometimes if it feels right, but don’t let their rejection forever rule or ruin your life. You can learn to move forward and be happy, even while holding out hope.
According to that L.A. Times op-ed, the children who reject their parents only flip the pain of abandonment onto themselves. I know how this sometimes plays out: Exhibiting blatant projection, the “children” may accuse their parents of abandoning them. It’s something I hear about frequently and have experienced myself. The parents may also buy into it, feeling as if a “good” parent should forever keep trying, no matter how much it hurts (and the idea is bolstered by plenty of supposed experts).
Parents sometimes express that letting their children go feels like abandoning them. But after trying repeatedly, suffering cyclical rejection and even abuse, many parents come to realize that in all their futile efforts, they have abandoned themselves.
You may not actually be “done with the crying” yet, but my books can help you be on your way. Done With The Crying provides a way forward. The next book, Beyond Done, tackles the grittier details you won’t find in in op-eds that talk down to baby boomers, or even in the popular advice that Beyond Done debunks. It offers plain talk and solutions to a variety of complex realities that often plague parents and other family members in the wake of an adult child’s heartbreaking exit.
Don’t be among the parents who wait so long that they become physically ill from the stress as Tony did. Some parents suffer trauma to the level of PTSD, withdraw from people who care about them, and find themselves aging more rapidly. Learn from these parents of estranged adult children who wish they hadn’t waited so long to recognize they must let go to hang on—to their own identity and self-worth. It’s never too late to reclaim confidence, well-being, and a zest for life.
Negatively stereotyping parents of estranged adults or older people in general is wrong. Seeing that negativity in the media can be unsettling, but if you work toward your own well-being, you’ll be better prepared to debunk those stereotypes by your very presence. You’ll feel more self-confident and even happy. In time, you may find, as I have, that talking openly about estrangement is a part of your healing.
The strength of a tsunami
They don’t call the aging population a silver tsunami for nothing. We’re a force to be reckoned with—and no amount of negative stereotyping or “OK Boomer” put-downs can hold us back.
Birditt, K.S. & Fingerman, K.L. (2003). Age and gender differences in adults’ description of emotional reactions to interpersonal problems. The Journal of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 58, 237-245.
Birditt, K.S. & Fingerman, K.L. (2005). Do we get better at picking our battles? Age group differences in description of behavioral reactions to interpersonal tensions. The Journal of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 60, 121-128.
Birditt, K.S., Fingerman, K.L. & Almeida, D.M. (2005). Age differences in exposure and reactions to interpersonal tension: A daily diary study. Psychology and Aging, 20, 330-340.
Blanchard-Fields, F. (2007). Everyday problem solving and emotion: An adult developmental perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 26-31.
Levenson, R.W., Carstensen, L.L. & Gottman, J.M. (1994). The influence of age and gender on affect, physiology, and their interrelations: A study of long-term marriages. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 56-68.
Pascoe, E.A. & Smart Richman, L. (2009). Perceived discrimination and health: a meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 135(4), 531-554.
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