Also, Coleman says, the high divorce rate means fewer children see themselves as part of an unbreakable family unit. Even the conveniences that help today's single-parent and two-earner households function — such as prepared foods and cleaning services — reduce family members' dependence on one another, making the parent-child bond more emotional than immutable.
And technologies that seem to draw families closer together may actually contribute to estrangements, Sichel says: "Now that texts and emails are replacing face-to-face conversation, misunderstandings are easier to have."
The boomer generation's child-rearing style may play a role as well. "A lot of boomers came from very restrictive families," Sichel says. "We didn't make the kinds of demands on our kids that our parents placed on us, and that fostered dependency and helplessness. So our kids never learned to exercise autonomy in a healthy way."
Elizabeth Vagnoni, 56, is a filmmaker who is estranged from her two adult sons. She runs the website Estranged Stories, where people post painful personal accounts they may not have shared with anyone — even close friends. "It's hard to admit that your children are no longer speaking to you," Vagnoni says.
In an ongoing survey that Vagnoni hosts on her website, nearly one in three parents estranged from their children reported having contemplated suicide. That's almost 10 times the annual average rate for suicidal thoughts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"There's a primal bond between a parent and a child," Vagnoni points out. "When that's broken, parents feel they've failed as human beings."
In Vagnoni's survey, 61 percent of alienated children said they would like to resume relationships with their parents, but only under specified conditions. Sixty percent wanted an apology. Nearly half of the young adults said they bore "no responsibility" for the estrangement.
Of course, some of those children are right. Manhattan therapist Irina Firstein says backing away from a parent is sometimes the best option: "When a grown child gets nothing but disapproval from an overpowering and controlling parent, he or she needs to separate to develop a healthy sense of self."