Why do adult children estrange?
Could it be nature … or nurture?
By Sheri McGregor, M.A.
“Know when to hold ‘em; Know when to fold ‘em.” I used that line from the Kenny Rogers song, “The Gambler,” in a section of my book, Done With The Crying, that discusses playing the hand you’re dealt, and the fact that how kids turn out can be a crap shoot. Parents don’t have as much influence on their kids as they might think.
A 2015 meta-analysis of existing twin studies research over 50 years and in 39 countries makes it clear that the old nature-or-nurture inquiry isn’t a one-or-the other prospect. Both play a role, and in many instances, it’s roughly half and half. No wonder you can raise two kids in the same family, yet they can turn out so very differently from one another.
In some areas, the scales are weighted more heavily on the genetics side, and that may be important for parents of estranged adult children to consider. Sometimes, mental illness is part of the estrangement equation, whether diagnosed or speculated. Twins research reveals that the risk for bi-polar disorder is 70% due to genetics and 30% influenced by environment.1 Not all areas are so clear-cut, but twins research suggests heritability for Borderline Personality Disorder between 35% and 65% (with the highest heritability occurring in self-ratings).2,3,4 The role of genetics in schizophrenia could be as high as 79%.5
Genetics also more subtly influence mental, emotional, and behavioral traits. Many parents know that their children arrived with different temperaments. One baby’s nature is to be agreeable and always smiling. Another frequently fusses and is generally peevish. As a mother of five children, I know firsthand that this is true. My children were each uniquely themselves and different from one another. Even my pregnancies were not the same. I’m sure many of you can relate.
Have you been examining your history and looking for where you went wrong? That’s something most of us parents do. We immediately think that if our own child can disown us, then we must have done something wrong. And when we look for help, we hear that belief echoed across the Internet. We’re also told we’re making mistakes and probably going about trying to reconcile all wrong…. Ugh.
In general it’s common for parenting advice to give the message that our children’s behavior is a direct reflection of us—how we raise them and how we interact. That’s not actually true. We can do almost everything right, but sometimes, our nurturing takes a backseat to genetics.
If you have been a loving and caring parent, then you have most likely imagined stepping into your estranged adult child’s shoes. Most parents are good at perspective-taking. They try hard to see things through their child’s eyes—even when their children have become cruel. Parents want to understand, to help, and to keep the peace.
Parents, I hope you will take kind care of yourselves. Don’t give another adult control of your health and happiness. No matter what happens, you will be better off if you take care of yourself, stay happy, involved in living, and well. Think about it, even if you never reconcile, you will have enjoyed your life instead of wasting it. And, if you do reconcile, you will be much stronger and better able to enjoy the connection.
Don’t forget your own needs. You count. Your nature may be to get along, to try to understand, and to fix. But you may be like a lot of parents who are surprised that, when it comes to estrangement, your caring nature no longer works. You can continue to spin your wheels and get nowhere, or you can turn yourself around. You can throw off the “toxic parent” label, let go of an adult child’s negative assessment, and reclaim who you are and have always been. You can be Done With The Crying (and even then you can still hold out hope).
- Polderman TJC, Benyamin B, de Leeuw CA, Sullivan PF, van Bochoven A, Visscher PM, Posthuma D. Meta-Analysis of the Heritability of Human Traits based on Fifty Years of Twin Studies. Nature Genetics, 2015 Jul;47(7):702-9 doi:10.1038/ng.3285, published online May 18, 2015
- Distel, M. A., Willemsen, G., Ligthart, L., Derom, C. A., Martin, N. G., Neale, M. C., Trull, T. J., & Boomsma, D. I. (2010). Genetic covariance structure of the four main features of borderline personality disorder. Journal of personality disorders, 24(4), 427–444. https://doi.org/10.1521/pedi.2010.24.4.427
- Kendler, K. S., Myers, J., Reichborn-Kjennerud, T. (2011). Borderline personality disorder traits and their relationship with dimensions of normative personality: a web-based cohort and twin study. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 23: 349–359
- Reichborn-Kjennerud, T., Ystrom, E., Neale, M. C., Aggen, S. H., Mazzeo, S. E., Knudsen, G. P., Tambs, K., Czajkowski, N. O., & Kendler, K. S. (2013). Structure of genetic and environmental risk factors for symptoms of DSM-IV borderline personality disorder. JAMA psychiatry, 70(11), 1206–1214. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.1944
- (2017, October 5). Largest twin study pins nearly 80% of schizophrenia risk on heritability. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 29, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/10/171005103313.htm