A number of articles by Christian and secular counselors have brought attention to a heartbreaking, societal change in interpersonal, family relationships, the increase of parental estrangement by their adult children. There are factors which individually or collectively contribute to this growing phenomenon, according to the literature. One of the major contributing factors being ignored in the secular literature, though, is the decline in Christian commitment, values, and ideals, especially the exclusion of and dishonor of God in America in general, increasingly evident in the younger generation.

The sociological studies are showing a change in attitude toward traditional family relationships and previous forms of connecting bonds with parents. “Rin Reczek, a sociology professor at Ohio State University and lead author of the study found, at least one in four Americans will break things off with a parent.”[1]  Also, a “nationwide, Cornell University poll from 2019 by sociologist and gerontologist Karl Pillemer found one in four people over the age of 18 reported a current estrangement from a parent.”[2]

Is parental estrangement actually “becoming a kind of a silent epidemic” as described by Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families?[3] If you search parental estrangement online or on Facebook groups, you’ll find numerous articles and support groups. If you ask around, you’ll quickly hear heartbreaking stories like that of Sheri McGregor who wrote the book “Estrangement Doesn’t Just Happen to ‘Bad’ Moms – It Happened to Me” and was featured in a Good Housekeeping article in 2018.[4] If you believe you’re alone in your estrangement story, you’re not, and it’s not only becoming more prevalent in the non-church world but has become a concern among families that raised their children in a Christian home, also.

The church is beginning to notice because parental estrangement concerns have become the basis of common questions and issues among the church body, as well. Riley Taylor from Calvary Chapel recently addressed the issue. He is being approached with prayer requests from parents of adult children who have been cut off from a relationship with their adult children. He has noticed that conflicts aren’t resolved the same as they were in the past. He states, “Older generations may have been more likely to work through these conflicts. Younger people, in contrast, are more likely to cut relationships off, even family.”[5] Pastors and Christian counselors are receiving more questions from adult children regarding their relationship with their parents and parents are seeking answers to alienation and separation from their adult children. Parents are not sure at times what even caused the conflict and are having difficulty working out a resolution with their children. Some relationships are estranged for a short period and are resolved fairly quickly and other separations can go on for years. Some estrangements involve just one parent and others include both.

The circumstances that caused the estrangement can be simple or complicated and multifaceted. The first thing people often think of is a situation where the child was abused physically or emotionally during their childhood. While there are those painful circumstances which might justify estrangement, the majority of separations are due to a plethora of circumstances. These circumstances might involve parental divorce or the divorce of the adult child and their spouse which has disrupted family relationships. Other circumstances might include a misunderstanding in something that was said or done, a difference in lifestyles, different interests in career or hobbies, a difference in political views or worldview, a difference of opinion in religious beliefs or church choice, single parenting issues, and economic pressures, to name a few.

Psychologists explore parental estrangement strictly from a worldview of societal changes. Joshua Coleman sees that “rapid societal, cultural, and political shifts have also produced an increase in family tensions.”[6] He sees the response of young adults to separate and put up “boundaries” where there is any tension from disagreement. Young adults talk about “toxic” conditions that they have to eliminate from their life. There seems to be a need for what he calls “individuation” where one’s personal rights and concerns are of the utmost importance and working things out with others, especially parents, is outside their perspective of what is needed for personal health and happiness. Coleman states, “I feel like we have an impoverished language of connection and interdependence and compassion and forgiveness and I think it’s really tearing our society apart.”[7]

Actually, the underlying and unfortunate reason for the increase in estrangements between parents and adult children may have more to do with a declining respect, honor, and fear of God which has greatly impacted family values. “Only half of Millennials (49%) describe themselves as Christians; four-in-ten are religious ‘nones,’ and one-in-ten Millennials identify with non-Christian faiths.” This is quite a shift from the generations of the early 20th century, 1928 to 1945, (84% identified as Christian) through the Baby Boomer era where 76% identified as Christian.”[8] “Gallup reported that as of 2020, 47% of Americans regularly attended religious services (of any faith). That number is down 20% from 1999.”[9]

What does the decline in Christian commitment and values have to do with a declining respect for and fear of God? How does this decline contribute to parental estrangement? First of all, the fear of God is a commandment with a promise. “You shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God. Therefore, you shall do my statutes and keep my rules and perform them, and then you will dwell in the land securely” (Lev. 25:17-18, ESV). Secondly, one of the most important commandments found in the Ten Commandments is, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exod. 20:12). This is another commandment with a similar promise. These two are linked due to the natural order that God has ordained from the beginning. “Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the Lord your God disciplines you. So you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God by walking in his ways and by fearing Him” (Deut. 8:5-6). In a complementary Scripture, we find, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph. 6:1). Of course, one might say that this has nothing to do with adult children but there is, as John Piper puts it, “a natural relation that God has established, and gains its honorableness from his ordering of things – not just from the quality of the parents. Or you could add to that the honor that is due to age. Leviticus 19:32 ‘You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.’”[10]

Without the fear of God or reverence and respect for His commandments, there can be little godly respect or honor of parents as established by God’s natural order. You might argue, though, that you see those who are agnostic, atheist, or from non-Christian religions honoring and respecting their parents better than Christians. In some cases, that is true. There is a natural desire for mankind in general to follow godly principles because God has put it in their hearts to do the right thing. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” (Rom. 2:15). Also, examples of family relationships are found in the animal kingdom, established by God from the beginning, which could be seen as a natural guide for parenting.

Christians are people who may, at times, be struggling like anyone else with what they know to be right in family relationships. In general, though, committed Christians have reverence for God’s commandments and maintain a relationship of respect, honor, compassion, and forgiveness toward their parents. This may include overlooking or compensating for their weaknesses, failures, and personality differences. Of course, if parents are being physically or verbally abusive, the adult child may need to and should get help in dealing with their behavior while protecting themselves from it. Abusive parents possibly have emotional and mental conditions or may be suffering from dementia and need interventions from trained medical staff or biblical counselors. To just cut these parents out of your life and not show some concern and compassion would be dishonoring and disrespectful.

What is the fear of God from where we would draw the concepts of honor and respect? There have been volumes written about God’s nature and His characteristics. Above all, He is Spirit from whom there is no comparison. We cannot lower Him to our concepts or characteristics. Even though we are made in His image, there is no language capable of comparing us to Him. He transcends us far beyond one tiny grain of sand compared to all the sand on the entire earth.  People used to fear God and the consequences of not following His commandments. “This fear of God was more than a natural apprehension of danger; it was a non-rational dread, an acute feeling of personal insufficiency in the presence of God the Almighty.”[11] Even though we can go boldly into the throne of God because of grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, we are still expected to honor and respect God for who He is and His sovereign control of our life. Jesus did not come to “abolish the Law or the Prophets….but to fulfill them.” He said, “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:17-19).

Fearing God in honoring, respecting, and following His commandments is required as His created beings. Therefore, following all His commandments to the best of our ability includes one of the Ten Commandments, to honor your father and mother. How does one do this to the best of their ability? Regardless of the parent’s record of parental ability, the language when speaking about them should be one of respect, love, and honor. There should be a desire from adult children to spend some time with their parents and show gratitude for their care in raising them. As parents age, adult children need to show some concern for their parent’s physical needs and assist as much as needed in making sure the parents are safe and comfortable. Even though this may be difficult due to distance or the parent’s mental or behavioral status, effort should be made to show concern and assistance as able. If there is a disagreement or communication issue, every effort should be taken to access biblical counseling through the church or a mediator to help come to an amiable, peaceful relationship.

In conclusion, adult children, whether faith-believing or not, are not off the hook with their responsibility toward their parents just because some in today’s culture encourage “boundaries” for any difficult situation. We don’t set the rules. God is sovereign and if we ignore His natural law for family relationships, especially honoring parents, we will suffer in this life and possibly, eternally. How a person treats their parents says a lot about the level of their love, honor, and respect for God and His commandments.

References

[1] Daniel DeVise’, “One quarter of adult children estranged from a parent,” July 19,2023, accessed May 25, 2024, https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/.

[2] Joshua Coleman, hosted by Jonathan Bastian. “The Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict,” June 18, 2023, accessed June 3, 2024, https://www.kcrw.com/culture/shows/life-examined/Joshua-coleman-estrangement-parents-adult-children.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Ashley Edwards Walker, “Done With Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, December 21, 2018, accessed June 3,2024, https://goodhousekeeping.com/life/parenting/a46619/sheri-mcgregor-estrangement-mother-son/.

[5]Riley Taylor, “Estrangement Is Rising in America: A Christian Response,” September 12,2022, accessed June 4,2024, https://www.calvarychapel.com>posts/ChristianLiving,Culture/estrangement-is-rising-in-america-a-christian-response.

[6]Joshua Coleman, hosted by Jonathan Bastian, ”The Rules of Estrangement,” kcrw.com.

[7]Joshua Coleman, hosted by Jonathan Bastian, “The Rules of Estrangement,” kcrw.com

[8]Pew Research, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace’” October 17, 2019, accessed June 3, 2024, http://www.pewresearch/religion/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-at-rapid-pace/.

[9]Jon Austin, “How the Church Growth Movement has de-churched Christians,” May 1, 2023, accessed June 11, 2024, https://reformedjournal.com>how-the-church-growth-movement-has-dechurched-christians. Statistic from: https://news.gallup.com/poll341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx.

[10]“How Can I Honor My Parents If I Don’t Respect Them? Interview with John Piper, August 23, 2021, accessed May 21, 2024, http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/how-can-i-honor-my-parents-if-i-don’t-respect-them.

[11]A.W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1961), 71.

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