parent-child estrangements: Whose life is it, anyway?
Ultimatums to adult children can backfire
When parents and newly adult children disagree about life choices, experts advise parents to shift to a "consulting" role to maintain the relationship, since other choices (like issuing ultimatums) can result in estrangement. (Illustration by Donna Grethen)
When parents and newly adult children disagree about life choices, experts advise parents to shift to a “consulting” role to maintain the relationship, since other choices (like issuing ultimatums) can result in estrangement. (Illustration by Donna Grethen) more >
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By Lois M. Collins – Deseret News – Saturday, February 7, 2015
Life in Dick and Liz Diamond’s home followed a pretty straightforward trajectory until recently.
Their oldest, a daughter, went to college, then got married. The middle child, a son, went to college after completing a Christian mission. They assumed their younger son, Alex, would do the same, wondering only which would come first, college or mission.
It turns out Alex, 19, had his own ideas about the path he’d follow as an adult.
One night while he was still in high school, after mentally rehearsing it often because he really hates conflict, the youngest Diamond told his stunned parents he would not go on a church mission and he isn’t sure about God.
“You try to not be living through your children and you try to let them make their choices, but this was something that sort of blindsided us,” Liz Diamond said.
They are in good company.
It is not uncommon for older children, from teens through fully grown adults, to abandon at least portions of their parents’ planned trajectory. Mothers and fathers snuggle their babies and picture how those babies’ lives will unfold. But contrary to parental wishes, those offspring may grow into people who change faiths or drop God. They may bypass marriage or live with partners who haven’t won parental approval. They may drink, do drugs, drop out of school, have no babies or have them too soon.
Numbers are hard to come by, but based on surveys in Great Britain, Australia and the United States, it’s believed about one-fifth of families have disagreements serious enough to result in estrangement, though not always parent-child.
A survey of 2,082 adults by a Great Britain group called Stand Alone found 8 percent had cut off contact with a family member, while 19 percent said they or another family member had done so. Similar numbers were reported in Australia and it’s believed that might be true in the United States, as well. In each case, an undercount was suspected.
The future of an older child-parent relationship often rests on how parents handle such conflict, experts say. It is, perhaps, the most tricky segment of the entire parent-child journey.
“Typically, older kids care somewhat about what you think, but they care more about what they think,” said Joshua Coleman, a San Francisco psychologist and co-chairman of the Council on Contemporary Families. “If you pose them with an ultimatum that they can’t have a close relationship with you unless they make their lives conform to what your ideals are at the expense of their own ideals, you’re probably not going to have a relationship with them.”
Mr. Coleman, 60, starts a conversation about parent-child conflict with a brief history lesson.
Families have only been egalitarian for about 50 years, with children moving from “seen but not heard” to “the axis on which the family revolves,” at least in the upper and middle class.
Working-class folks more often emphasize behaviors like respect for elders, while leaving the children to experience childhood, he said. That group is less apt to hover over children, a habit popularly referred to as “hothouse” or “helicopter” parenting.
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