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Family estrangement is on the rise. A psychologist offers ways to cope


The holidays are often thought of as a time when you're supposed to gather with family, but for a lot of folks, there may be certain family members that they don't want to see. In fact, YouGov conducted a national survey last year in which 1 in 4 people said they're estranged from a family member, be it a parent, child, sibling or grandparent. So joining us to talk about why that might be is Joshua Coleman. He's a psychologist and author of the book "Rules Of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties And How To Heal The Conflict." Joshua, thanks for being here.

JOSHUA COLEMAN: Thank you for having me.

MA: Is estrangement becoming more common than it used to be?

COLEMAN: I think it's becoming more common, and troublingly, I think it's becoming more acceptable and accepted. I think there's a kind of a social contagion that happens through Instagram and TikTok and Reddit where cutting out your toxic family member is becoming sort of an act of personal expression and identity, rather than what it often is, which is an expression more of avoidance. I'm not saying that there aren't places where, of course, there are. There are abusive, problematic parents or family members who, no matter how well you communicate with them, they're not going to change, and they can continue to be abusive and hurtful and destructive in one form or another.

But I and my colleagues are working with parents and families where that is not the case, where these are parents who would do anything, who are willing to do their own therapy, go to family therapy, take responsibility, and they're being told, no, my therapist says you're a narcissist or you're a gaslighter. And it's a huge problem in our society. We have a culture that's very rich in the language of separation and individuation and labeling and diagnosis but a completely impoverished culture around ideas of connectedness and interdependency and mutual reliance.

MA: You've been studying this for a while, but I'm interested in how you actually came to be interested in this subject. My understanding is it is partly because you were impacted by estrangement in your own family. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit.

COLEMAN: Yeah. Sure. I was married and divorced in my 20s and have an adult daughter who I'm very close to now, but there was a period of time in her early 20s where she cut off contact with me, in part as a result of my becoming remarried and having children from my second - my current marriage and her feeling somewhat displaced in many ways. And so when she was in her early 20s, she had stopped talking to me for really several years, which was easily the most painful, awful thing I've ever been through or hope to go through again.

MA: You talk about your own experience being rooted in separation and divorce, but you also talk about the different causes for family estrangement in the U.S. So could you explain more about that?

COLEMAN: So divorce is huge, but it's not the only cause. What many adult children say as well - it's the result of abuse, you know, childhood abuse or neglect. And that's - certainly in my practice, I see that as well. But here's where it gets complicated. In the past three or four decades, we've radically changed the notion of what we label harmful, abusive, neglectful, traumatizing behavior. And so often, you have the adult child talking about their childhoods as being traumatizing, hurtful, neglectful, et cetera, and the parent going, what are you talking about? You know, I gave you the best childhood imaginable. I would have killed for your childhood. And so they're often really talking past each other in ways. So a lot of my strategy with parents is helping them to learn how to blend these two concepts so that they're not so alienated.

MA: What are the biggest barriers to parents and their adult children repairing and reconnecting the relationship?

COLEMAN: Well, I think the biggest barrier on the parents' side is just not realizing how much the culture that they grew up with has changed, the idea that the adult child owes the parent something, that they're going to motivate their adult child through guilt or through feelings of obligation. So my mission has really been helping parents to learn how to use the language of the adult child, which is much more based around therapeutic concepts. And I think for those parents who can do that, they typically - not always, but often have a good deal of success in reconnecting.

MA: You know, some people may be listening and thinking like, hey, like, I know somebody in this situation. So, you know, for somebody who wants to support a friend or a loved one who's estranged from their parent or maybe another family member, what's the best way they can do that?

COLEMAN: Well, I think the main thing is not to give sort of stock Hallmark advice. Sometimes people, if they're talking to an estranged parent, will say, well, don't worry, they'll be back and they'll remember all the good things you did for them. And the truth is that you don't know that. They might not be back. I mean, the majority of estrangements do eventually reconcile, but they don't all reconcile. And sometimes it's a matter of years. And it isn't really very therapeutic for people to get false help. I think being willing to hear what they have to say and show compassion and empathy, that's an enormous source of support. And I think for the adult child, similarly, don't say to them, oh, call your mom or call your dad. You only have one family. It just will cause them to feel misunderstood.

MA: We've been speaking with psychologist and author Joshua Coleman. Joshua, thanks for joining us.

COLEMAN: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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