Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Adult Children Who Cut Off Their Parents: an Interesting Variation on This Theme.

My posts on this blog (May, 27,2014) and on my Psychology Today blog (November 17, 2014), Are Parents Who are Cut Off by Their Adult Children Really That Clueless, generated more comments than almost any of my other post (37 and 163 respectively). Additionally, the post itself on this blog has had more hits than any of the others.

In the posts, I reproduced letters to newspaper advice columnists from parents who had been cut off by their adult children, and who claimed to have no idea why their adult children felt the need to do this. I also printed one letter from the adult child of one of those letter writers telling the other side of the story. Without addressing the issue of who's "fault" it was that the cutoff took place, or who was "wrong" and who was "right," I opined that the apparent cluelessness of the parents was in most instances feigned. They usually knew to a greater or lesser extent exactly why what had happened had taken place.

Well the comments from readers came fast and furiously from family members on both sides of this divide, and they were very predictable. Adult children who had cut off a parent generally wrote about all the bad things their parent had done to them and how the parent would never admit to any of it. Parents came back with a vengeance saying, in so many words, "I didn't do anything wrong," and they accused me of parent bashing.

Here's a typical exchange:

Anonymous: Yes, you are correct. Virtually all of the time, when people cut off parents, or anyone else in their immediate family, you can bet there's a damn good reason. The parents will act like the poor victims. Don't believe them. There's actually a forum on the Internet where they can all get together. At first they maintain their innocent victim stance, but you will soon see their vicious hatred expressed toward their children.

Emelu: Not so. I have done nothing wrong. I've been in counseling. Been open to understand if I did wrong. Been totally honest with myself. And there is nothing I've done wrong.

I always find it interesting that whenever I write posts - particularly on the family dynamics of borderline personality disorder - adult children with the disorder who make comments often seem to accuse me of blaming them, while the parents of such children often accuse me of exactly the opposite: blaming the parents.

In most of these cases, I think the reason for these opposite reactions has to do with selective reading of the posts. This, in turn, is triggered by guilt and defensiveness. Or, occasionally, some of these folks just hate it when I give away their secrets.

In general, both of the positions "It's all my fault" and "I had nothing whatsoever to do with this" are, equally, both irrational and cowardly for any of the involved parties. 

In cutoffs, however, can it sometimes be that the parents really are completely clueless about why their children are avoiding them? That they are absolutely at a loss to understand what has happened? Some commenters said their cut-off children even accused them of things that they know they did not in fact do. Is that always denial?

As everyone was taught in school about true-false tests, beware of any question containing the words "always" or "never." I do think that, in a very limited proportion of these cases, the letter-writing parents are indeed genuinely flabbergasted at their adult children's negative responses to them and the phony accusations. In these cases, IMO the adult children are hiding their real reasons for the cutoff.

So why would a child cut off a parent who was not guilty of any significant abuse, neglect, or invalidation?

One common reason occurs in situations in which the parents feel tremendously overburdened and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of child care, or feel that the child's needs are preventing them from doing other things that they really badly want to do. They feel guilty when they admit this, even to themselves, and they always take care of their children when they are supposed to, and do so appropriately for the most part. They do not usually take their internal frustrations over being exhausted directly out on the children to a major extent, and genuinely love them.

They think that somehow their children are not aware of how tired and frustrated they are, but they are kidding themselves. The attachment theorist John Bowlby theorized that children observe their parents very carefully, without attracting too much attention when they do, and become experts on what their parents are all about and what motivates them by the time the children are just two years old.

In videotapes of family therapy sessions with small children in the room that I have seen, as the therapist speaks with the parents, one may observe the child playing with a toy in the corner. The child seems to be oblivious to the adult conversation. But then, when something concerning them comes up in the conversation, the child suddenly makes a comment about it. Without even looking up. Clearly, they are listening the whole time.

Parents in the situation under discussion in this post do in fact give a lot of clues as to how burdened they feel. They might for instance constantly and compulsively complain to their friends and anyone else who might listen, saying something along the lines of, "I'm always there for my kids! They're my #1 priority. I respond to everything they need, even though I have to work full time. I so wish my boss would understand this better. There's just never enough time. And I'm sooooo tired. I used to have hobbies I really enjoyed, but I've had to put them aside. I sure do miss those days!"

Even after their children reach adulthood, parents like this may have a very hard time trying to not cater to their adult child's every need - or even his or her every whim. While still complaining about it to everyone else.

In such cases, children may get the impression that the parent really wants to be free of them, but just cannot admit it. In response, they sacrifice their own desires for a good relationship and make themselves scarce. They cannot tell their parent the real reason for their doing that, because they know that this will make the parent even more miserable than he or she already seems to be. 

A truthful statement would make the parent feel even guiltier for wanting to be free of any family burdens. The parent would probably deny these feelings anyway, because the parent is under the mistaken impression that admitting this would drive their children even further away.

In order to avoid causing their parent to feel this way, the adult child may in difficult cases volunteer to be the villain in the piece. They may purposely make it look like they are cutting off the parents because they are selfish or narcissistic. If that does not work, they can escalate. They up the ante by making what they know are false accusations about parental misdeeds. That way, the parent can easily maintain the belief that he or she had nothing to do with the cut off. 

As an alternate strategy, or in addition, they may influence their spouse to make it look like the spouse has taken control over them and is domineering and purposely creating trouble with the parent and enforcing the cut off. For more on this, see the post, Your Spouse's Secret Mission.

Anything to help parents avoid looking at their own conflicts!

This is a sad state of affairs because, ironically, if the parents could admit to their ambivalence and negative feelings, any problematic resultant family conflicts can in most of the cases be fairly easily resolved through metacommunication and negotiation. The children's efforts to "help" the parents to deal with their guilt backfires and prevents a solution.

I know that many readers react to these kinds of formulations by thinking I am giving people too much credit, and that most of them do not operate with this level of sophistication. When it comes to fitting in with one's kin, church, or ethnic group, I strongly believe that they not only can, but they do. 


  1. I think there's no limit to the levels of sophistication that can be developed over a lifetime of manipulation and counter manipulation. It's like that old trope - "But does she know that I know that she knows that I know?" You can make an amazing variety of dishes with just a few simple ingredients. I'm currrently dealing with a family who are doing their utmost to pathologise me because they think it will get them off the hook. When I point out to them that it will actually have the opposite effect, they cannot compute such a simple chain of cause and effect.

  2. Dear David, my parents did what they could, but too many kids and too few dollars, gets real old real fast. At a very young age, I knew quite well, my parents felt STUCK!!! Who wouldn't - ugh!

  3. Generalized psychobabble. We have judges in a court to hear and rule on individual cases, not broad rushed opinions.

    1. Hi Bob,

      Not sure what you're even talking about here. This pattern is not going to end up being an issue in court. Of course one has to evaluate each case individually, and not rush to judgment based on the first thing people say.

  4. The view of burdened parents may be openly presented - or parents who have a need to have their sense of self-importance fed and stroked by their child. Both parent species may constantly harangue their child with laundry lists of the benefits they believe they've given the child, or berate them for ingratitude. "You owe us" can get old really quick. Ditto for the parent who expects their child to excel in everything because the parent believes, or even has, done all that's possible to set their child up for success only to have the child fail to perform to expectations or fail entirely. Some of this parent type engage others in reinforcing the "after all I've done for you" or "can't you see how much I/they have given you?" This can result in the child's anger, guilt or damaged esteem, or all three.

  5. I disagree, it is not always the parent who is at fault. Some of us make huge mistakes, we can take hearing it and will apologize. But, still are left behind.
    Our son is 33 years old and we have not seen him in 2 years. The last time I talked to him, all he wanted to do was tell me how everyone else is doing him wrong and how broke he is. He has not seen his 4 children in 2 years even tho he lived in the same town as 2 of them. He has a young girlfriend and she does not want to be a mother. I have constantly asked him "why". Why he has not called or made the effort to see his children. All they want is to know that their daddy loves them. It is heartbreaking. Hus youngest child is 6 and his oldest is 14. His family is trying to step in and make sure all his kids have everything they need and make sure that we all spend time with them.
    He cut me off the last time he asked me for money and I told him that I did not have anymore to give to him. Now, you tell me what we have done to deserve the treatment that he is giving his children and family.
    I miss him so much, but i no longer know what to do. So, you are the expert, tell me what to do.

    1. Hi Ms. Henry,

      The point is not to point fingers or to assign blame, but to understand and change dysfunctional patterns.

      Unfortunately, I need to take a lot of time uncovering and evaluating the specifics of a family situation (and in person) to give any specific psychiatric advice, since each family is different and complex.

      Your statement "I did not have any more to give him" might possibly be a good starting point to gather more information that would explain what is going on.

  6. Hi, David,

    Do you think parents are morally obliged to bail out their grown children especially if and when money is all they want from their parents?

    1. Hi polyglot,

      It's not my job to say what is or isn't a moral obligation, but helping out a relative in trouble is very different from enabling relatives who repeatedly get themselves in trouble, or giving money to grown children who just use their parents as a piggy bank. The later two have very negative consequences for all concerned.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Hi Ramona,

      Thanks for your description of your experience illustrating the points I was making with such detail.

      I unfortunately can't answer your question about your mother in particular without evaluating you in person and in great detail, as every family is different.

      The answer to the question in general can be found in my post

      Sorry I can't be of more help.

  8. I cannot disagree more with the implication that children cut off their parents because the parents did something wrong, or because of unhealthy dynamics. I find this way of thinking justifies and normalises the act of cutting off parents and even entire families. What it does not take into account is that there is no 'perfect' family, and every (dare I say 'every'?) family has unhelpful or unhealthy dynamics of some kind. That doesn't make it normal for children to cut parents and family off. If it was simply down to cutting people off because of family dynamics or parents doing something wrong, every family should have a child or few cut them off, including yours, if you have children.

    This whole idea does not take into account controlling outside influences, vulnerabilities, people who will lie to children and people very cleverly, insecurities, gangs, influential groups, even child trafficking, or other situations and people who could have a profound and negative influence on a child cutting off their family. It is actually very scary what can be done to a child's thinking. Blaming so much on parents and family dynamics is very narrow. While there may be times that is the case, there are plenty where it is not. Putting blame on parents that is unjustified is incredibly damaging to parents who may already be traumatised by the 'loss' of a child. It is time this thinking changed.