A primary cause of estrangement is something called “anxious parenting.” There are so many things for good parents to legitimately be concerned about in the lives of their child – drugs, sex, gender identity, kidnappings, terrorism, school shootings, pandemics, bullying, school quality, socialization, moral and character development – as well as challenges to faith in the context of secular culture. All of these concerns may result in parents being protective, intense and even controlling in the way they parent. Parents naturally try to closely orchestrate or micro-manage the experiences of their children, hence the term “helicopter parent”.
God Understands Estrangement
A few years back, our friend’s daughter, a young woman who was raised in a conservative Christian homeschooling family, cut her parents out of her life. She stopped all communication with her mother and moved to another part of the country. Recently, her father told me with great sadness in his voice that his daughter decided she would also be stopping all communication with him. The rest has been silence.
It turns out that adult estrangement from parents is a current phenomenon. A common theme is children who have been raised in fairly typical households move away from home and find a relationship with their parents too stressful or troublesome to maintain. Most parents work hard to make their children’s lives successful and instill in them a sense of independence – and that independence apparently includes the freedom from ongoing communication with their parents. The research on this topic suggests that the adult estrangement typically begins when the adult children are in their mid- twenties. The average length of estrangement being five to seven years in length.
Joshua Coleman, writing in The Atlantic points out that the causes of estrangement are complex, but factors that may influence estrangement are divorce, lack of filial and community bonds that were common in past generations, and anxious parenting. Coleman also makes a strong case that parents of young adults simply underestimate and misunderstand the value their own children place on feelings and emotional capital.
The experience of my friends and recent clients with the same struggle caused me to reflect on whether the Bible had anything to say regarding estrangement. Typically, the story of prodigal son does not apply. The adult children I have encountered are not addicts and have not run off to spend the family fortune recklessly. The children who choose estrangement from parents are often doing relatively well which makes the cut off all the more painful for parents to comprehend. Again, unlike the parodical son story where the father waits for the child to “come to their senses,” waiting may not be the best message.
For Biblical metaphors we have to dig a little deeper into the Old Testament. Israel, often referred to as Ephraim, was God’s chosen people and clearly viewed by God collectively as a parent would a child. Ephraim had already willfully become estranged from God when Jeremiah makes this statement from God, “Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him;” (Jeremiah 31:20, ESV). Note the feelings of God as parent. He calls his son dear, darling and yearns for him. This is the heart of the estranged parent.
The depiction of God’s estrangement from His own children is heightened in the book of Hosea. Hosea makes this statement for God, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away;…Yet it was I who taught Ephraim how to walk, I took them up by their arms,…” (Hosea 11:1,2, ESV). This passage has all the markings of parental estrangement. The tender memories of raising the child and ultimately the rejection despite repeated attempts to connect.
God knows about estrangement. This new phenomenon is not new to Him. God personally relates to this heart sickness. Take it to Him. Pray for your children and talk honestly to God about your feelings, and dig a little deeper for insight into what is happening in your relationship with your adult children.
In order to dig deeper let’s look at one cause of estrangement and one hopeful solution. A primary cause of estrangement is something called “anxious parenting.” There are so many things for good parents to legitimately be concerned about in the lives of their child – drugs, sex, gender identity, kidnappings, terrorism, school shootings, pandemics, bullying, school quality, socialization, moral and character development – as well as challenges to faith in the context of secular culture. All of these concerns may result in parents being protective, intense and even controlling in the way they parent. Parents naturally try to closely orchestrate or micro-manage the experiences of their children, hence the term “helicopter parent”. Helicopter parenting has even given way to “lawn mower parenting” – where the parent “mows down” all the obstacles in their child’s life. In such a situation, the child feels no sense of control and empowerment for him or herself. If the parent directs everything there is a lack of self- sufficiency on the part of the child. The parent is always telling the child what to do and eventually the child just wants to get distance from the over intensity of the anxious parent. Note that the intentions of the parent are completely loving and sincere; however, the child’s perception can be that the parents are being smothering. Kate Julian writing in The Atlantic states, “Despite more than a decade’s evidence that helicopter parenting is counterproductive, kids today are perhaps more overprotected, more leery of adulthood, more in need of therapy.” In summary, many children in this generation suffer from an epidemic of anxiety, and the anxious parent only makes children feel greater anxiety. That is why some therapists will advise adult children to distance themselves from their parents for the sake of their mental health.
Once again, God has been similarly mis-perceived. In the Book of Hosea, the prophet speaking for God says, “Though I were to write out for him ten thousand points of My instruction, they would be regarded as something strange” (Hosea 8:12, Holman Bible). Here we see God as parent trying to direct his children; the response is to regard that direction as “something strange”. Close parenting and the response of estrangement are not far from one another. Fortunately, the Bible also has a very practical solution.
Joshua Coleman, writing in his seminal book, Rules of Estrangement, says the solution to this problem is “Hard, Hard, Hard”. That is because the solution not only requires tremendous humility; in fact, humility IS the solution. Often the estranged adult child has not been in contact with their parents for months or years, yet the parent (with a therapist’s help) must extend the olive branch in an attempted reconciliation. This situation is indeed unusual and counter-intuitive. The parents are the jilted parties because the adult child has made it clear they want no contact with the parent. However, the reality is that the adult child does not want contact with the “parents as they have always perceived them” – but they may be interested in some gradual contact with parents who will not make them feel anxious, or with parents who will see things from and validate the adult child’s perspective. Usually, the adult child has expressed their concerns to the parents and those concerns have previously been dismissed. This is where humility becomes THE solution. If the parents want a relationship with their adult child, the parents will have to find some merit or understanding in their adult child’s narrative. This step is extremely difficult because from the parent’s perspective, the adult child is saying something completely or partially false. The adult child often has an accusatory and negative perception of childhood events that completely baffle the parents whose intentions have always in their mind been loving and caring.
Listening and trying to find understanding and a level of agreement with a perceived false narrative is certainly humbling, but how is this Biblical? Being misperceived is part of living in this fallen world.
Attempting to live a life of unity despite misperceptions is a key indicator of the existence of Biblical faith. The Bible teaches, perhaps surprisingly, that we should “keep no record of wrongs” (I Corinthians 13:5, NIV), that “in humility” we consider others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3, NIV), and sometimes it is preferable to be wronged (I Corinthians 6:7, NIV). The adult child will make claims and have a narrative that may be very difficult to hear. However, parents can listen in all patience and humility as they don’t need to keep a record of wrongs, parents can consider the child’s version better than their own, and finally parents may even agree to suffer wrong (not the first Christians to do so). In past encounters, the parents tried to correct or manage the narrative and even responded defensively. In the new “humble mode” – the parents listen patiently and humbly and respond not with correction but with expressions of love.
Josh Coleman says this is HARD and for Christians it IS difficult; nonetheless, it should also be familiar territory in our Christian walk. The Bible presents multiple examples of His children deliberately seeking to jettison the heavenly father from their lives and the Bible even expresses God’s own anguish at rejection. Speaking of Jesus, the apostle John says “He came to his own people, and even they rejected him” (John 1:11, NLT). Estrangement is familiar territory for both God many Christians. Now, I would like to provide some suggestions for parents to avoid getting into this situation in the first place.
My first thought as a psychologist is to develop some insight into your own anxiety. Christian parents often mask irrational or even sinful anxiety as a good thing. Pious Christians really believe they need to worry about their kids. In reality, they don’t need to worry: What they need to do is trust that our loving Heavenly Father cares for all His children (including yours) more than they ever could. Anxiety itself is not the sin, but the misplaced trust is the problem. We say we have faith and trust in God but then we try to control everything that happens to our children. We are driven by anxiety. The anxiety is passed on to our children consciously and unconsciously and eventually becomes a worse fate than expected.
We keep our children safe and protected right into successful adulthood by controlling everything in their lives. They grow up into decent human beings, but our anxiety coupled with their inherited anxiety propels them to stay away from us. This is why I say we must develop insight into our anxiety. It is not okay. Anxiety teaches our children to not actually trust God. So often, the adult child rejects not only the parent, but the faith in which they were raised. And why wouldn’t they? That faith did not seem to conquer the anxiety! Anxiety is not piety.
A dad came to see me because his son, the apple of his eye, was dropping out his private college to live with his girlfriend. This was painful on many levels. The dad had lived vicariously through his son’s athletics. The son was on a sports scholarship which he no longer had any interest in maintaining. The son was living with his girlfriend which was against the dad’s values. Finally, from several objective indicators, the girlfriend suffered from emotional issues and appeared to be unhealthily manipulating the son. Of course, the parents sprang into action and tried to control the situation. What else could the parents do? This resulted in the son and the girlfriend moving to a distant state far from his parents and their direction. Eventually, the son came to realize on his own accord that the relationship with the girlfriend was not healthy and they split up, but the son still resented how his dad handled the situation and they became estranged. Although the dad felt he was doing everything for the son, the son perceived the same behavior as lack of personal support when he needed his dad the most.
Longtime homeschool convention speaker, Reb Bradley, wrote on the blind spots of homeschool parents: mistakes he observed in his own parenting and in other homeschool parents. The list he identified is pretty much a list of the pathway to estrangement. Here are six items on that list: (1) Having self-centered dreams (or making your kids’ life trajectory all about you); (2) Making your family your idol (this item often creates the anxiety addressed above); (3) Focusing on outward appearances; (4) Tending to judge (parents end up being judged and found wanting by the expert judges they created); (5) Over-depending on authority and control (which adult children just want to escape from); (6) Over-relying on sheltering (which does not prepare for dealing with the “real” world and also creates a desire for that from that which was withheld). The six items on this list are often the very approaches taken by conservative Christians. These items have played a significant role in the development of estrangement; hence they need to be confessed and avoided in the future.
So, what’s a parent to do? What if you are presently dealing with adult child estrangement? Then some Bible verses in the old school language of the King James Version may provide some direction. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). It should be noted that our (all Christians) ministry is one of reconciliation. We need to try to make it right with our adult children, despite the hurt and pain they may have caused through their actions. The next step is stated by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift (Matthew 5:23,24) Agree with thy adversary quickly…(Matthew 5:25). Here we see something God naturally anticipated. In this life there will be estrangement, but quick, carefree, and even careless agreement with our adult children IS the first step.
Dr. Don McCulloch a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, is a member of Truth Point PCA in West Palm Beach, FL, and a licensed psychologist. He is the head of the Department of Psychology at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
Coleman, Joshua (January 10, 2020). A shift in American family values is fueling estrangement. https://www.theatlantic.com
Coleman, Joshua (2020). Rules of Estrangement. Harmony Books.
Julian, Kate (May 15, 2020). What happened to the American childhood? https://www.theatlantic.com