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Differentiation: “Normal” Estrangement From Parents?

young woman holding out her handDo you have an adult child under 30 who’s pulling away from you?

It could be part of a normal process of development called differentiation.

We all know that children eventually (or rapidly!) grow into adults, but not without going through some developmental stages.

It’s easy to see these stages in kids’ behavior when they’re young. For example, something they used to love is now boring, or vice versa.

But technically, all of us remain adolescents until we’re 25. And even after that, we continue to develop and change throughout our lives.

“Who Am I?”

Differentiation is one of the most important developmental tasks we face in life. As we grow, we form our own identities as adults, distinct from our families of origin.

This process generally doesn’t happen all at once. Most of us will work on it throughout our lives.

If you’ve ever felt inexplicably stressed out, or like a younger version of yourself, while visiting your own parents, you’ve felt the ache of unfinished differentiation business.

At some point their lives, most people leave their parents’ home either physically or psychologically in order to forge their own path in life.

Usually there’s some physical separation from family that occurs naturally, such as when young people go off to college or to travel when they come of age.

It’s psychological and emotional separation, however, that helps with the process of adult identity formation.

Parenting the Differentiating Young Adult

The mature parent-child relationship is different, but by no means less loving, than the early parent-child relationship.

Parents will always be parents. But the nature of the parent role changes from one of total responsibility to one of enjoying the fruits of those early parenting labors.

Parents of adult children take a loving interest in the activities of their now-independent offspring, but they’re no longer responsible for their welfare.

Mature parents can still hold a respected, though no longer necessarily central, position in their children’s lives.

The child’s role changes drastically, too, as she turns into an adult.

She has to navigate the gradual shift from being completely dependent to becoming a free agent, operating by her own internal guidance system.

This shift to adulthood means the child has to figure out who she is as an independent entity, and what her life is going to look like. How will it be the same as her parents’? How might it be different?

Parents give their young adults psychological space (e.g., by not being “in their business”), young adults work to consolidate their own personalities, and the relationship resumes.

Giving Them Space

Sometimes this necessary process of differentiation is hard for adult children because of an extremely close relationship with one or both parents.

The transition from childhood to adulthood can be impeded by parent, child or both sensing a change in the relationship that feels alarming to them. The status quo is comforting in its familiarity.

The young adult is, in some ways, still a child. But in important ways, he’s grown into an individual whose interests or desires are unique to him — no longer just a reflection of his parents’ values.

He needs psychological and emotional room to find out who he is, independently of his family.

The space young people take often ends up being physical, because that’s the easiest way to set boundaries.

It may be harder for him to say to his parents, “I don’t want to see you every week” than it is for him to move to Cincinnati.

That way, there’s no question of whether he’ll be home for dinner on Sunday (he won’t), and he can have some of the freedom he needs during this time of growth.

This can be a confusing and painful time for parents. What happened to the love? Where did the respect go? What did I do wrong?

Trust the Process

If your adult child is in his/her 20s, it’s likely that differentiation is at least partly, if not entirely, to blame for his or her apparent reluctance to stay in touch.

You know the saying, “If you love something, set it free… “?

Remember how the rest of it goes: “If it comes back to you, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”

If your child was ever yours, you’ve got a good basis for having her come back when she’s through with the upheaval of this task and more or less on the other side.

So take heart! … And maybe take up a hobby. See your friends. Do the things you never had time to do when they were young.

Inspire your children with your zest for life.

(See the follow-up post, Differentiation, Part 2)

See also Chapter 2 from the Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children.

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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20 Responses to "Differentiation: “Normal” Estrangement From Parents?"

  • jenny
    March 22, 2014 - 9:24 am Reply

    That’s lovey Tina… it is a pity we don’t know this when we set out on the path of parenting… learning to let go of my daughter was forced upon me by default.. I was too intrusive and close … , if I had known these things there would have been so much less pain for both of us..I have written my letter of apology and she is a little more communicative now.. we talk and she has invited me to see her .. it might only ever stay at that level. I hope your right though .. I hope she comes back… but I know she will be a different person if she does.. we all change and allowing people to change and accepting them for those changes is also a very important thing to be able to do if you want the other person to differentiate and be free. !!

  • Peggy
    March 23, 2014 - 1:31 pm Reply

    Letting go of children you’ve raised for many years is tough but if you know ahead of time what to expect it’s easier to let them go and grow into adults. Kind of like planting seeds in the ground then seeing the flowers. If you kept pulling it out of the ground to check the roots it wouldn’t do so well. As always thanks Tina.

  • Tina Gilbertson
    March 23, 2014 - 1:43 pm Reply

    Jenny, I’m really glad your letter of apology had a positive effect. I wish you and your daughter all the best.

    Peggy, I love your flower analogy. It’s really fitting.

    Thank you both for sharing your thoughts. I think it’s worth remembering that all of us are constantly working on differentiating ourselves. Sometimes being left behind (in a sense), while painful, can create opportunities for personal growth.

  • Audra
    March 25, 2014 - 8:15 am Reply

    Hi Tina,
    I am 23 and the oldest child of 4 in my family – the youngest is 10. I think that my parents and I have been going through this since I graduated from college about a year ago. For various reasons, I have lived at home and won’t leave until I get married in July. My parents are really worried about me trying things I didn’t want when I was younger and losing track of “who I am”, but I sometimes feel absolutely smothered. I wish there was a way for them to understand your post and not worry so much about me or act like I’m making terrible decisions and can’t be trusted. I appreciate knowing that I am not the only one who goes through this – thank you!

    • Tina Gilbertson
      March 25, 2014 - 9:54 am Reply

      Thanks for adding your perspective to the conversation, Audra. Good luck with this passage. It can be rocky.

      And by the way, figuring out how to be an individual while also being half of a couple is tricky, too! You’ve got your work cut out for you. But you can do it.

      Congrats on your upcoming nuptials and all the best to you and yours.

    • jenny
      March 25, 2014 - 2:23 pm Reply

      I think your post is so wise Audra…it sounds like your really aware of what’s going on….perhaps its the case that the child is more in tune than the parent.. I know I wasn’t at all prepared …the trouble was I just wanted to keep being the parent… no-one said” ok you did a good job its time to let her take flight” I am sure there’s lots of parents that understand it’s important to let go … but there’s lots of others that don’t quite realise it.. I think parents find it hard to let go of parenting and of course they never really do but they need to adapt to their children’s transformation into fully fledged capable individuals…. and don’t forget that parenting for most people is the most important job of their lives… that’s a big deal and a lot to let go of…, Good luck and congratulations on your upcoming marriage… you’ve a lot to juggle but you are great to be able to be worried about your folks and how they will handle things as well as deal with all that’s going on for you…I am sure they will cope and you will too … I guess try to be patient if you can !

      • Sarah
        March 29, 2014 - 8:03 pm Reply

        Congratulation on your upcoming wedding. These are tense time for you and your parents. Parents are not monsters any more then young adults are. I feel the more one loves and fears the more one smothers. I would rather have loving and smothering parents than parents that did not care. I am sure after your wedding is over you will be making your new boundaries…. Things will start to resolve on its own.
        In the mean time enjoy the moment of being single. No, one enjoys a monster bride.

  • Lulu
    March 29, 2014 - 8:12 pm Reply

    Tina, it’s always refreshing to read your blog. You are the few therapist who stay in middle wisely. Our daughter has Estrange us & it hurts bad. I don’t think she has any idea the pain she has caused. Is this all her fault. No. I did not understand that family genetic disorder would have such a big pull. The voices in her head tells her she was the parent from the time she was born we were the child & now she is tired of parenting & needs to cut us off. She has bonded with her Aunty who gave up the custody of her three children to the father, who she has accused in court of being abusive, insane, useless & does not take care of the kids. The other aunty also walked out on her 8 year old. Our only crime is we love our daughter dearly & yes we did advise her when she asked our for opinion.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      March 30, 2014 - 6:53 pm Reply

      I’m sorry to hear you’re estranged from your daughter, Lulu.

      It sounds like you believe her to be suffering from a genetic disorder that’s contributing to her estrangement. If that’s the case it’s a terribly sad situation and I’m very sorry to hear it.

      I like to think there’s always hope, though. To the extent that your daughter has any grip on reality you may be able to reach her with your compassion and understanding. Those are powerful tools for bonding; even people in the grip of full-blown schizophrenia have been known to respond to kindness and the will to understand.

      Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. I wish you and your family all the best.

  • jenny
    March 30, 2014 - 2:09 pm Reply

    Dear Tina , Its Mothers Day here in Ireland and I wish I could have sent you a big bunch of flowers to say thankyou !!. I trusted in your advice and followed it , having initially and for a long time endured absolute emotional devastation, my daughter contacted me today and said she was coming to visit despite me feeling our relationship had completely died…. I know its because I followed your advice….THANKYOU so so much Tina…. I know its me that has to show my daughter that I see her as a full grown adult now, and be alert to situations where she might feel I am trying to undermine her ( even though I am absolutely not) so I suppose in that sense I can still look after her without her feeling like I am on her case, but instead my job now is to be mindful and aware of her feelings.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      March 30, 2014 - 7:53 pm Reply

      What a lovely way to put that, Jenny (what you said in your last line). The selflessness inherent in your plan is exactly what makes parenting so difficult, and no doubt your generosity of spirit has contributed to your daughter’s desire to continue the relationship. Well done!

      Thanks for sharing the wonderful news, and a belated Happy Mothers Day to you.

  • gill
    April 1, 2014 - 1:43 am Reply

    I would like to know what qualification Tina Gilbertson has ? and what age her own children are ? I have read her blog on this heartbreaking situation and have reeled in astonishment at her portrial of all parents being self interested /quilty of some abuse emotionally that they inflicted. These “children” will be parents of adult children themselves one day and just come back here in 25 years time and tell me they have got it all right … I was truely shocked at the harm this could have inflicted on anyone looking for some support in a heartbreaking situation, myself included !

    • JJ
      November 10, 2014 - 12:27 pm Reply

      Gill: Absolutely. They are teaching their children how to teach them which means they may very well be estranged by their own children. Also the devastation to grandparents is enormous. It is actually abusive to use your children as pawns and withhold them from loving grandparents.
      No one can possibly be an expert in this area of estrangement as it is too new. It is clear which side of the fence Tina is on. Tina, you are harming when you categorically state that if there is estrangmement it is the parent’s fault, that they alone need to work on it, etc. Pathetic hogwash. Being a psychologist, MFP, or whatever you are does not make you wise nor an expert. Or of any help to anyone. Many so called “experts” in the field of psychology/psychiatry (which is not evidence based nor a science) do much harm anddamage. All you need to is look up the history of psychiatry in the united States to see the shameful and deplorable things that have been done in the name of a “pseudo-science”.

  • jenny
    April 5, 2014 - 9:38 am Reply

    It always sad to hear when someone has suffered from estrangement Gill, its a horrible experience, for me I felt utterly heartbroken and bereaved. I am not sure where you get the idea that Tina is painting parents as self interested or guilty of something awful, I understood her as suggesting we try to accept our share of the responsibility whenever we can but also allow our children the space and opportunity to say what it is they need to say … that might involve us holding back our own feelings about the situation or perhaps writing a letter of apology for anything we might have done to upset them … this is a salutary approach to a situation that might not be remedied by vehemently defending our own actions… I really hope you manage to work things out with your children Gill, I followed Tina’s advice and I have had some positive results… good luck !!!

  • Mila
    May 14, 2014 - 9:45 pm Reply

    Hi Tina,
    Son moved away and not responding to my phone calls or his father calls. Before he moved away he often told me he will move away and we are never see him. He is mad for something and me and my husband asked him several times but he does not want to talk. He will talk to our friends but not to us.
    Please give us an advice what can we do. We want him to have separate life but we want to see him once in a while and make sure he is ok.
    thank you

  • Deborah McLeod
    September 25, 2014 - 7:36 am Reply

    Dear Tina,
    Have you any advice for a 64 year old (me) whose mother believes she has every right to interfere and correct her “childrens'” behavior? She has virtually no life – no friends or interests – outside of her family of six offspring, and she drives some of us crazy with her incessant worry and efforts to manipulate our actions. It has created a situation where I really don’t even like being around her anymore.

  • Angela
    October 15, 2016 - 5:36 pm Reply

    I have a 23 year old son who will not speak to me. We are a large, blended family that lost a child 11 years ago to a drinking/driving accident. That forever changed us. When we saw our 23 year old son excessively drinking, coming home from college because his grades were terrible, we were concerned. He finished is Associates. He came home several nights at the point of black out. We didn’t think he would drive drunk because he would always get an Uber or taxi. He refused to acknowledge that he had a problem. One night he woke us at 4am after being in a single care accident near our home but he could not find his car; it was in the woods. He was belligerent. We called the police knowing that he would be arrested for a DWI. He blew a 0.17 and his blood alcohol level was 0.15. We also refused to by him a new car. He was using his Father’s truck until his license was taken away for failure to install a alcohol breathing device in his car. He has moved into his girlfriends apartment and does not hold steady job. He did re-enrol in school for which we helped him get loans but, after spending $40K on his previous 5 years of school, we are not paying any more. This is the child that I was the closest to growing up. He never challenged me or the rules in high school. He was a bright, happy child. I fear for his life and after losing another child, we had to get his attention. The things he says to me are horrific. I was a good Mother. He will now not speak to me and says that I am dead to him. I am heart broken. I miss him.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      October 22, 2016 - 10:08 am Reply

      Estrangement from one’s own child is always heartbreaking, and it’s surprising how often it happens with children who were once close. It’s easy to understand your concern about losing another child — I’m terribly sorry to hear of that loss — and it’s so hard to accept that one can’t keep them safe even when they’re kids, let alone once they’re out on their own.

      At 23, your son is still technically an adolescent, and likely going through separation and individuation from family. If you haven’t already done so, I recommend reading the section called “Dealing with Differentiation” in Chapter 2 of the Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children. I hope you find it helpful.

      Thank you for your comment, and take care.

  • Mary
    November 24, 2016 - 8:27 am Reply

    My only daughter who is my only child just turn 21, she decided to cut off communication with me and the rest of my family since 3weeks ago, she believes that my family all hates her, she also believed that I support my family, she left her daughter of 3yrs old with me and have not keep in touch since 3 weeks today, she don’t even find out about her own daughter, I feel so disturb inside, can anyone advice me on what to do pls.

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