"When your only child tells you he doesn't want to see you anymore, it cuts straight to your heart, like a knife twisted and turned," says Deborah Jackson,* 61, a history professor in northern California.
See also: How do you cope with estrangement?
She's been there. Deborah and her son, Marcus, 26, were exceptionally close when he was a child, but became estranged after she and Marcus's father divorced in 2003. Around that time, Marcus left for college, and Deborah found it increasingly difficult to maintain her connection with her son.
For reasons she still doesn't fully understand, Marcus stayed with his father on school breaks and seemed to call his mother only to chastise her. "I'd be walking down the street with tears streaming down my face, cellphone to my ear, listening to Marcus telling me all the ways I'd failed him," she recalls. "I'd done the best I could with my son, and clearly it wasn't enough."
Despite her efforts, their relationship remained tense and distant. "Every day that goes by, I'm missing more of his life," Deborah told us last fall, her voice thick with grief. "I'm afraid I'll never see my only child again."
Experts say that Deborah's worry is more and more common. "In my therapy practice, I've seen a significant increase in parents whose adult children have cut them off," says Mark Sichel, author of Healing From Family Rifts and a licensed clinical social worker in Manhattan.
San Francisco psychologist Joshua Coleman, Ph.D., received so many requests for help with intergenerational conflict that he launched a six-session seminar, available via telephone or Web, for estranged parents. Coleman, author of When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don't Get Along, expected about 50 parents to sign up for the first series. Instead, he got 400.
What's behind such family fractures? Coleman blames them in part on a me-first mentality that he says is weakening parent-child relationships. Our culture prizes individual fulfillment, with couples uniting and splitting based on their emotional needs rather than a sense of tradition or duty. In the same way, he says, "little binds adult children to their parents these days, beyond whether the relationship feels good to them."
*Some names and identifying details have been changed.