We Are Witnessing The Great Parental Estrangement Of The 2020s

As more and more adult children cut contact with family, parents wonder why.

Cutting out toxic parents, the great unparenting Anton Watman | Shutterstock, Alexan2008 | Canva

It’s no secret that family life has taken a nosedive in the United States in recent years. Not only are people not looking for a spouse and eschewing children, but families are no longer as tight-knit as they once were. Most families in the United States remember when eating Sunday dinner was a bare minimum for interaction. Today, we’re lucky if we sit down for a meal at all — even with immediate family members like our parents. But that’s not the only thing happening.


Throughout the United States, a growing number of people are estranging themselves from their parents.

Some simply go no-contact and refuse to speak to them again. Others go so far as to get legal documentation to sever their ties with their parents — a move often done to shield themselves from financial obligations related to caretaking or burial. 

Most of the movement to cut ties with parents stems from Millennials and older Gen Z. It’s a trend that flies in the face of traditional values, an act that would have been entirely taboo in the '80s and '90s. And yet, it’s increasingly common today.


RELATED: 27 Percent Of All People Are Estranged From A Parent — But Why?

It’s hard to explain how taboo parental estrangement used to be in our society.

As a person who’s almost 40, I remember the way things were as late as the '90s. If you had a bad relationship with your parents, there were a couple of remarks you would hear when you considered estrangement:

  • But they’re family!” In other words, you might not like them, but you still have to stick by their side. You can’t just not talk to them, right?
  • “Well, they're your parents. They have to love you.” This was often said as a way to guilt-trip victims of abuse or neglect. Sometimes, the script was flipped to something along the lines of, “Don’t you love your parents? How can you do that to them?”
  • “I wonder how you would react if your kids did that to you.” This was another remark that people would get.
  • “Nah, just punish them by buying them a slot in a nursing home.” Uh, since when can millennials buy hospice care? We’re all broke!

If a person openly admitted that they were estranged from their parents, people would give them the side-eye. It was a reason to distance yourself from others and even a reason to get passed up for jobs. Simply put, if you cut ties with your parents, people wouldn’t be okay. Some would even go so far as to “reunite” you with them, even when you told people that you don’t want them in your life.

The problems families faced yesterday are the same as today's, but the solutions are different.

In the past, parents who were entitled, narcissistic, or neglectful were still able to count on their adult children for support. Society’s social contract had a lot more control over adults, which meant they’d grin and bear it, because “they’re family.”

In the past decade or two, something unique happened. Online advice columns, psychologists, and social workers started to voice their opinions on the matter. They began to encourage people to go no-contact with people who don’t offer a positive contribution to life. Admittedly, this is healthy advice. Most of us Millennials have been encouraged to set ourselves on fire to keep others warm. The mass advice helped millions of people break off toxic friendships and even end toxic marriages.


RELATED: 4 Common Myths About Adult Child-Parent Estrangement, According To Experts

Most people didn’t expect that same “leave what doesn’t serve you” advice to affect families.

When relationship advisors talk about breaking up with people who treat you poorly, it’s advice usually geared toward dating or friendships. Few of us expected that attitude to bleed into the realm of parents and kids. Yet, here we are.

Our society is much more accepting of adult children who are estranged from their parents. It seems like the messaging helped normalize it and also helped others see that some parents just aren’t worth staying in contact with. The paradigm shift toward saving yourself over saving the family image was a powerful one — and yet, it’s one few people discuss. It’s a sign of broader change in America, a change that is geared toward individualism rather than collectivism.


Is the Great Unparenting a good thing?

Well, there are two schools of thought on this:

Old School

One school of thought sees the severing of ties with parents to be a negative regardless of the reasons why. In the past, family was everything because your family was who you could always count on. Most Boomers and older folks have the old school thought of family comes first. It’s not negotiable. These are the people who will say, “But it’s family! You can’t choose your family!”

New School

The New School of thought is pretty clear-cut and simple. It goes as follows:

  • You can choose your family. This is true in both the legal and spiritual sense. How close you become, though, can vary.
  • Abusers only stop abusing when you leave. It’s a true statement for the vast majority of abusers — and that includes narcissistic parents as well as psychopathic lovers.
  • You don’t owe your parents anything. This is generally true. You never asked to be born. A parent’s job is to raise you into a happy, healthy, functional adult. Their job is to love you. That’s what they are supposed to do. The idea of having kids just to support you later on is morally wrong at best and abusive at worst.
  • If your parents treated you badly, cutting ties is a valid way to make them accountable. Truth be told, most (but not all) parents who get cut off by their kids do some terrible things to make their kids decide to cut ties. Being a parent does not give anyone the right to expect loving treatment when you aren’t loving to your kids. Actions have consequences.
  • You have to protect your peace. Honestly, the older I get, the more I love being away from drama. There’s a lot of wisdom to this.

RELATED: Why Having 'No Contact' With Family Members Is Perfectly OK


Children are beginning to hold parents accountable for their behavior.

This might be the first time in human history that adult children are starting to hold their parents accountable for their behavior as a collective. For many older parents, this new movement acts like a day of reckoning. Most of them never thought they would see the day when they might have to explain to others why their children never call. Many of them assumed their kids would be the ones to financially support them in their old age.

So, what happens when their plans fall through? What happens when they wake up one day and realize, “Oh man, I can’t pretend I’m Mr. Huxtable. My kid will call me out!”? Well, we’re about to find out. Not all parents are handling their estrangement well. Moreover, many people who would have had kids only to rely on them in the future are rethinking their plans.


Millennials have seen the reactions from estranged parents, and they are a real spectrum.

To be fair, I’ve seen parents who were genuine saints have their kids turn their backs on them. I feel for them because most people who get estranged are terrible and they just get lumped in with them despite doing everything they could to be good parents. They’re heartbroken and betrayed — and rightfully so.

But I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the parents who abused, neglected, berated, and otherwise isolated their kids from reality. I’m discussing the ones who chose ideology over family or stomped all over boundaries. The most common way they react is by behaving like wronged parents, followed up with a convenient history rewrite. If they were blocked due to Q-adjacent ideologies, then they also might mention their kids being “brainwashed.”

Others tend to act like they don’t understand what they did wrong, even when their estranged relatives spell it out for them. Some, I believe, don’t think they did anything wrong, even when professionals tell them they’re abusive. Regardless of how they react, they can’t change the fact that we’re in the middle of a large movement. The youth is angry, and they’re not going to take it anymore.


RELATED: 9 Low-Key Signs That You Dealt With Narcissistic Abuse As A Kid

Ossiana Tepfenhart is a writer whose work has been featured in Yahoo, BRIDES, Your Daily Dish, Newtheory Magazine, and others.