Poorak Mody grew up with parents who were, he says, “kind of emotionally not present.” As an adult, he was never close with them. When Poorak’s wife, Manasi, became pregnant with their first child, however, it was like seeing his relationship with his parents under a magnifying glass. And before too long, the glass cracked.
“We noticed a huge shift in their behavior when Manasi got pregnant,” says Mody, a certified relationship coach and now father of two in Milwaukee. “The way my mom was behaving was like how a sibling would feel left out about a new baby.”
Poorak’s parents visited when the baby was 10 days old, and things got tense enough that Poorak and Manasi didn’t talk to them for a while afterward. The Modys made a few subsequent attempts to reconcile, partly due to pressure from Poorak’s extended family, but they failed. Ultimately, he and his wife cut ties with Poorak’s toxic parents altogether.
“We’re Indian, and from a cultural standpoint, there’s a lot of duty there,” he says. “There’s a lot of emphasis on the idea that no matter what, the parent is right. But I decided I wouldn’t like their toxicity to spill into my kids’ lives.”
Psychiatrist Murray Bowen coined a term for severing a relationship with a close family member: “emotional cutoff,” which he defined as people “managing their unresolved issues with parents … by reducing or totally cutting off contact with them.” Most scientific exploration of family estrangement has focused on the perspective of the parent who’s estranged from a child; there’s less research of the effects on adult children who choose to cut ties with their parents.
The lack of study isn’t because the situation appears to be uncommon. A 2015 study shows that in the U.K., for instance, one in five families have experienced estrangement. The paper’s author, Lucy Blake, Ph.D., also noted that 68 percent of respondents to her survey felt there’s a social stigma and general lack of understanding about estrangement, and that they felt judged about it.
That’s just one reason many who feel the need to stop communicating with their parents feel alone. People often will congratulate someone for cutting a toxic romantic partner or friend out of their life, but when it’s a parent, a lot of people get uncomfortable. Others might say to keep trying or that one day, they’ll regret being so stubborn. They might insist that a person’s kids will miss out not having the grandparent(s) in their lives.
As the Modys found, it’s not unusual for new parenthood to push your relationship with your own parents into focus and force your hand in regards to severing ties with them. One might resent seeing their parents behave like nurturing, sane caregivers once they become grandparents, for example, when the way they parented you was inadequate for whatever reason.
“People I know have cut off ties when they notice how much their own child needs them emotionally and how important it is for them to be there for their kids,” says Elizabeth Cohen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City. “It can make you think about how little your father was there for you.”
A lot of parents, she says, can’t fathom treating their own children the way they were treated growing up. They think, Why did I deserve that?
“That can cause a rift with your own parents,” Cohen says. “It’s funny that we hear so often when we’re growing up, ‘You’ll see what it’s like when you have your own kids.’ But for many people, it’s the opposite, like, ‘How could they do that or be so insensitive?’ once they become parents themselves.”
Or, as the Modys also found, parents can sometimes become intrusive and opinionated as grandparents. The child might also become more aware of these behaviors, says Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Troy, Michigan.
Once you become a parent, the stakes are just higher — behavior one might have been willing to deal with once or twice a year at holiday gatherings might suddenly seem too damaging for their own children to see and experience.
“In the cases of abuse, neglect, or other hostility or safety issues, it makes sense to draw a firm boundary of no contact,” Krawiec says.
A parent unwilling or unable to stay sober around a child, for example, is a common last straw for parents, she says. “When requests have been made and are repeatedly ignored, it may also be necessary to sever ties with the family of origin.”
No matter what reasons someone has for cutting ties with parent figures, doing so nevertheless affects that person and their children. For someone dealing with such a decision, here are some things to keep in mind to make sure they’re dealing with it in a healthy way and not paving the path for another generation of dysfunction.
Judgment Can Come From Inside and Out
Although she wasn’t judgmental about it, it took Manasi Mody a while to understand why her husband wasn’t close with his parents because she’s so close with hers, Poorak says. Those with healthy relationships with their parents have a hard time imagining why anyone would feel ambivalent or hostile toward a parent, which can feel alienating to those who didn’t have good relationships with their mothers or fathers.
“A lot of people believe that everyone should love their parents and want them around,” says Racine R. Henry, Ph.D., a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York City. “When that’s not the case, people on the outside often don’t know how to handle it. They don’t know if they should be supportive and happy for you, or if they should help you reconcile with the parent.”
People might even think someone is ungrateful or disrespectful for cutting ties with their parents. But if a person made a thoughtful and healthy decision that improved rather than hurt their mental health, they don’t have anything to be ashamed of. Nor do they owe anyone endless justifications for their decision.
A Severed Parent Relationship Affects How You Parent
Many people cut ties with parents without going through the process of healing from their own issues about the relationship. One consequence of doing that is that it influences their parenting style.
“What happens is that we all either repeat what happens to us when we become parents, or we do the opposite,” she explains. “As the child becomes a parent themselves, they’ll have to make an effort to parent differently. That could be even more difficult if both people come from an unhealthy background, which could keep the cycle going.”
Determination not to parent like your parents raised you can backfire, no matter how well intentioned the individual. An “opposite” parenting style is what Krawiec calls “over-adequate parenting.”
“A dad who had a disappointing or even abusive relationship with his own parents may long for a magical relationship with his children, causing him to be over-involved, intrusive, or overanxious” with them, Krawiec says.
Under-adequate parenting, on the other hand, can happen when a father raised in an unhealthy home has insufficient tools to draw upon when he becomes a parent himself, she continues. This could cause him to be overwhelmed, confused, or shut down as a parent.
To heal from trauma someone caused, it helps to try to figure out what factors shaped the behavior of the person who did the harming. In other words, someone must try to see their parents as men and women, not parents, and what influenced how they behaved. No easy task, certainly, but in addition to helping a person heal and be happy, it’s part of helping them identify patterns that they don’t want to repeat as a parent, Henry says.
Grief Is Natural
Even if a person has healthy and legitimate reasons for cutting off contact with one or both of their parents, they might grieve the loss of not only the person but the kind of caring relationship they should have had, Henry says. It’s also common to grieve the loss of the hope that things could be different.
“You have to come to terms with your life story, whether it was the one you wanted or not,” she says. “It’s never going to be cool that they weren’t there [for example], and they might never admit that anything was ever their fault.”
Bitterness Might Occur. That’s Okay.
Cutting off communication with one or both parents might have been the most sane and healthy thing for someone to do. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll feel 100 percent comfortable about it 100 percent of the time.
“It’s okay if bitterness is a part of it; hurt hurts,” Henry says. “To say you must heal in a non-bitter way isn’t realistic. Some are bitter forever, but where I would get concerned as a therapist is if bitterness holds you back or doesn’t allow you to parent your own children. That’s where it becomes unhealthy.”
The point of working through trauma – which might or might not end with you cutting off communication with your parents — is not to get around emotions but to see emotions more clearly, Cohen says. If someone was abused by his or her stepfather, for example, they might learn that he was abused himself as a child and work through those feelings. But they still might not want to talk to him ever again.
“Consciousness is the antidote to trauma,” Cohen says. “If you know why you’re cutting off ties, that to me is the crux of understanding your behavior.”
In many dysfunctional families, it won’t help to continually ask for apologies or ask the parent to make things better, Henry says. What’s more likely to bring peace is to be okay with where it is and not letting the troubled relationship be a source of pain.
It’s Crucial to Be Honest About the Situation
Sure, it would be nice if kids had perfect grandparents. But for a lot of families, that’s just not the reality. But don’t worry too much that they’re missing out, Cohen says. Kids, per nearly all research, are shown to need supportive adults in their lives but who they are isn’t as important. In an estrangement situation, what matters more is whether things are explained to them. In other words, don’t lie to them that their grandparents are dead, she says.
It might be difficult and uncomfortable to explain why they won’t be seeing Grandma and Grandpa anymore if they have good memories of them, but kids are resilient. “Use your judgment about how much to say and explain it in ways they’ll understand,” says Cohen.
And, as it’s good to remember, consistency is always key with children. “It’s about normalcy; kids won’t be harmed by those boundaries, but we have to be willing to maintain them,” she says.
Don’t Think of It as a “Forever” Situation
Although parents don’t want to flip-flop, for the sake of the kids, it might help to take severing a relationship with parent(s) one day at a time, Cohen says.
“Thinking of it as permanent makes you more rigidly connected to the desire to be cut off,” she says. “You also want the person to be open to shifting and changing in the future.”
If it does turn out to be permanent, however, that’s okay, too.
“We do miss the support, or really, the idea of supportive grandparents,” Mody says. “We coped by first of all having a deeply connected relationship in our marriage. We were each other’s number one support system and created one by going to therapy, reading, through our faith, and in the certainty that our kids deserve a better emotional environment.”