Search “toxic parents” on Instagram, and you’ll find more than 38,000 posts, largely urging young adults to cut ties with their families. The idea is to protect one’s mental health from abusive parents. However, as a psychoanalyst, I’ve seen that trend in recent years become a way to manage conflicts in the family, and I have seen the steep toll estrangement takes on both sides of the divide. This is a self-help trend that creates much harm.
Research by Karl Pillemer, a family sociologist and professor of human development at Cornell University, indicates that 1 in 4 American adults have become estranged from their families. I believe that’s an undercount, because others have stopped short of completely cutting off contact but have effectively severed the ties.
“Canceling” your parent can be seen as an extension of a larger cultural trend aimed at correcting imbalances in power and systemic inequality. Certainly the family is one system in which power has never been balanced. In 1933, the Hungarian psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi described this dynamic, warning that any asymmetry, even the simple indication that someone has more power than we do, can potentially be traumatic.
Today’s social justice values respond to this reality, calling on us to censure oppressive and harmful figures and to gain power for those who have been powerless. But when adult children use the most effective tool they have — themselves — to gain a sense of security and ban their parents from their lives, the roles are simply flipped, and the trauma only costs.
Certainly some extreme cases call for cutting parents out of one’s life, even if doing so comes at a psychological cost. Far more often, what I see in my practice are cases of family conflict mismanaged, power dynamics inverted rather than negotiated. I see the shattering effect of that trend: scenarios with no winners, only isolated humans who long to be known and feel safe in the presence of the other.
Some of my patients are young adults who decided to end, or are considering ending, their relationships with their parents. They try to process their parents’ harmful actions in their childhood, their lack of boundaries, and their narcissistic or intrusive behaviors. Those children struggle with anger, pain and guilt and are often feeling confused and lonely.
Other patients are parents on the other side of that dynamic, who feel betrayed and heartbroken. It’s hard for them to acknowledge or even recognize their aggression. In my experience, baby boomer parents are especially troubled. They perceive themselves as products of the 1960s social revolution; many of them rejected their own parents’ authoritarian style and followed a parenting approach that at least appeared to prioritize the children’s needs. Those patients feel trapped in generational limbo, neglected by their own parents who didn’t fully know them and abandoned by their children who don’t want to know them.
The vein of online advice about “toxic parents” is a self-help therapy approach that aims to empower younger people to give up on their parents and “re-parent” themselves. It encourages them to do the needed emotional work on their own and urges them to reject parental figures altogether, avoiding any kind of dependency on another person.
In this cultural moment, and especially because of COVID disruptions to young careers, adult kids are either becoming more dependent on their parents or are rejecting their dependency altogether. We’re in the era of millennials living in their parents’ bases, and also in the era of millennials cutting their parents out of their lives.
The catch is that after estrangement, adult children are not suddenly less dependent. In fact, they feel abandoned and betrayed, because in the unconscious, it doesn’t matter who is doing the leaving; the feeling that lingers is one of “being left.” They carry the ghosts of their childhood, confronting the emotional reality that those who raised us can never truly be left behind, no matter how hard we try. They live inside us, even without our permission. This is something that can never be canceled.
What I have found is that most of these families need repair, not permanent rupture. How else can one learn how to negotiate needs, to create boundaries and to trust? How else can we love others, and ourselves, if not through accepting the limitations that come with being human? Good relationships are the result not of a perfect level of attunement but rather of successful adjustments.
To pursue dialogue instead of estrangement will be hard and painful work. It can’t be a solitary project of “self-help,” because at the end of the day, real intimacy is achieved through mutual vulnerability and by working through the injuries of the past together. In most cases of family conflict, repair is possible and preferable to estrangement — and it’s worth the work.
Galit Atlas is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan. She is the author of the forthcoming “Emotional Inheritance: A Therapist, Her Patients and the Legacy of Trauma.”