Ep 127: How to Heal a Broken Bond

Episode Summary

Dr. Joshua Coleman, author of Rules of Estrangement and When Parents Hurt, offers insight on how to repair fractured relationships. Plus, why parental estrangement is becoming increasingly common and what we can do to prevent it in the first place.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

After all the blood, sweat, and tears of raising a kid, any parent would want a good relationship with a son or daughter that’s reached adulthood. But sometimes, conflicts that start small during the teenage years grow more intense, and parent-child relationships are ruined by resentment. Many parents find themselves painfully estranged from their grown children after they’ve left the nest. The sad part is, these rifts could have been mended before teens grew into adults, if only parents knew the right approach.

Oftentimes, parents do attempt to remedy deep conflicts with teens, but they go about it in the wrong way. Although they have the kid’s best interest at heart, they find themselves using defensive language, or fail to truly empathize with their children. If you want to keep your kids from distancing themselves as adults, you’ll have to really connect and hash things out from the heart.

To teach us how to overcome bad blood between ourselves and our teens, we’re talking to Joshua Coleman, author of Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict.  Joshua became estranged from his own daughter when he went through a difficult divorce. It became worse when he remarried and had kids with his new wife.

He was eventually able to reconnect with his daughter, but the pain of the experience was unforgettable. He decided to dedicate his efforts to researching parent-child estrangement, becoming an expert. He now hosts weekly Q&A’s and writes a regular newsletter on the subject, along with publishing several books about it. 

So what can Joshua teach us about healing our relationships with our teens? In our interview, he talks about how part of the reason why kids distance themselves is a change in culture. We also talk about how your co-parent can push kids away from you, and how you can begin to breach the divide even when it seems like you’ll never get your kid back.

The Significance of Cultural Changes

Many of us think that kids should always remain grateful and loyal to their parents, because that’s the way we were raised. We were taught that family is an indispensable part of life, a duty that follows you forever. However, with millennials and generation z facing a more troubled economy, a tougher job market and a higher price of living,  they’ve had to become more focused on their own survival. Jonathan and I discuss how this has led to an overall shift towards an individualistic mindset instead of a collective, family based lifestyle.

There’s been a stronger focus on mental health in recent years as well, with more people than ever before entering into  psychotherapy. Young folks are significantly more likely than older generations to think deeply and critically about the effects of  their upbringing on their wellbeing. This leads to more young adults justifying anger towards the ones who raised them.

As a mother or father, this can be incredibly frustrating. It’s not as if parents have become less attentive or careful. In fact, Joshua has found that parents nowadays are more doting towards kids than ever before. However, this can actually lead kids to want to distance themselves even more. If kids have always felt as though they were under a microscope, they’re likely to strive more intensely for individualism, pushing parents away in the process.

Joshua and I talk further in the episode about cultural changes that have led to more conflict between kids and parents. In addition to cultural changes, this alienation can also be caused by one parent poisoning the image of the other in the child’s mind. 

When Parents Put Each Other Down

For some kids, especially when divorce is involved, a kid’s anger towards a parent might be fueled by the other parent. When things are complicated between co-parents, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of dissing the other person when the kid is in earshot. Even when a parent isn’t actively trying to paint the other as a bad person, it can happen as a result of a fight or feud between the two of you.

Joshua stresses the importance of remaining grounded and affectionate toward your co-parent, at least in front of your child. Talking bad about the other person isn’t going to help your relationship with your kid. Even if your co-parent is constantly throwing you under the bus, kids need at least one parent to remain stable and keep things collected.

So if your co-parent is rocking the boat by filling your child’s mind with bad notions about you, what can you do to keep your kid from turning against you? Joshua suggests challenging your kid to think critically about the comments being made in an attempt to tarnish your image. He also suggests listening to the concerns your kid may have now that you’ve been criticized, and empathize with them to understand where you might be misstepping as a parent.

Empathy actually plays a big role in reconnecting with a kid. Joshua and I get into this in the episode.

Listening and Empathizing

When your kid is pushing you away, citing every choice of yours as a reason for distancing themselves, it’s pretty darn tempting to get defensive. It’s incredibly frustrating when kids don’t understand that you’re trying your best. Despite the frustration, however, Joshua emphasizes the value of coming from a place of understanding when trying to bridge the gap with your kid.

Joshua uses a story about his work with paranoid schizophrenics to explain how you should speak to a teen who’s hurt. Joshua found that if he made schizophrenic patients feel as if their delusions were ridiculous, he couldn’t get through to them at all. In order to truly help them, he had to validate their beliefs, and understand where they were coming from. Only then was he able to prompt them to question their illogical beliefs.

Even if you think your kid is throwing baseless accusations at you, Joshua believes it’s imperative that you find a kernel of truth in what they’re saying. Making kids feel selfish or mean will simply turn them off from working towards unity. Using phrases like, “I’m open to hearing your thoughts and feelings” or “I want to be better going forward” can help you make progress towards finding peace with one another.

In  the episode, Joshua goes over two examples of letters from parents trying to make amends. Although the two examples are similar, one comes off as defensive and blames the child, while the other conveys understanding and respect for the child’s feelings. We discuss this empathetic approach in depth, explaining how you can lead with kindness instead of bitterness when patching up broken bonds with your teenager.

In the Episode….

Joshua speaks from the heart in this week’s episode, making for a moving interview and great advice for parents who might be grappling with reconnecting to teens. In addition to the topics discussed above, we talk about:

  • Why parents and kids get into a toxic “pursuer/distancer” dynamic
  • How to talk to kids about college majors you don’t approve of
  • Why your adult kids’ spouse might be turning them against you 
  • How to tell a kid that you don’t like their new significant other

Although it can be painful when kids push you away, Joshua tells us there’s ways to bring back the harmony. I’m grateful to Dr. Coleman for sharing his insight into this topic so that parents can prevent estrangement before it begins! See you next week!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Empathize with your teen without giving in to their demands:  

“Well, I guess I could see how you would experience me as controlling. I mean, it’s true. I do have very clear ideas–very strong ideas–about what I think you should do or not do. So I could see how that could feel controlling to you. I could see why you would even like it or hate it. Those are the rules of the household, so I’m not saying I’m going to change per se, I’m open to hearing your thoughts and feelings about it. But, I could totally get why you wouldn’t like that.”

-Dr. Joshua Coleman

2. Start with empathy to show your teen you’re on their side: (1 of 2)

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3. Start with empathy to show your teen you’re on their side: (2 of 2) 

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4. When your teen accuses you of a behavior you aren’t sure you’re doing: (1 of 2)

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5. When your teen accuses you of a behavior you aren’t sure you’re doing: (2 of 2)

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6. Avoid an argument about college majors and instead open up a conversation:

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7. Call out concerning behavior without being confrontational: (1 of 2)

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8. Call out concerning behavior without being confrontational: (2 of 2)

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9. Empathize with your teen’s accusations: (1 of 2)

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10. Empathize with your teen’s accusations: (2 of 2)

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11. Show your teen you are seeking to understand:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: This is an interesting area, as you kind of write here in this book, that’s not something that you really thought you’d be dealing with when you first started your career. So how is it that you kind of found yourself in this unique specialty of helping parents kind of reconnect with children who are not talking to them?

Dr. Coleman: Well, I mean, I got interested in the topic, unfortunately through personal experience. I was married and divorced in my twenties and have a daughter from that marriage, who’s in her thirties, I’m very close to, but there was a period of time in her early twenties where she had cut off contact for several years, in some ways, exploring the ways that she had felt very hurt and displaced when I had remarried and had kids from my current marriage, and all of the things that can happen after a divorce and marriage. But going through the estrangement myself was a terribly wounding and disorienting experience, kind of terrifying to feel like I’d lost my daughter, who I dearly loved and that I might never see her again. So eventually I was able to kind of find my way back to her and reconnect to her, and we’re close again.

Dr. Coleman: But at the time, there was nothing really written on the topic and the guidance that I got, I sought out therapists and the advice I got was generally terrible and counterproductive, because people just didn’t know anything about it at the time. So it really sort of made matters was worse rather than better. So I eventually kind of found my own way back to her and learned a lot in that process. And so I thought, well, so many other people are probably dealing with this. So I wrote my last book, When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along about that.

Dr. Coleman: And that was 12 years ago, and so as a result of that, I developed a large following of estranged parents or parents who just weren’t getting along with their adult children. And so I’ve learned a lot in the 12 years, I’ve also done my own research through the University of Wisconsin, a 1600 estranged parents survey, and done a lot of reading in economics and history and sociology, just to really understand kind of why this happens, why it seems to be happening more frequently and those kinds of things. So that’s sort of the big picture background.

Andy: Cool. That’s a really great segue into one of the first things that I found really interesting was, why is this happening? And you talk about, it’s kind of a theme in the book, is that there’s been this cultural shift. You say, “Emphasis on loyalty to the family unit has been replaced with the pursuit of individual fulfillment. The belief that one should respect his or her elders has been replaced with the truism that respect isn’t given it’s earned.” So there’s kind of a different attitude that young people have towards their parents today or towards just life in general, I guess, that you think is behind this trend.

Dr. Coleman: Yeah, I think, really starting since the 1960s. There’s been much more of an orientation towards the individual, and in many ways it’s been a positive thing. People can leave abusive marriages. People aren’t obligated to stay with parents who were truly abusive and hurtful. There’s been much more of an emphasis on not only personal rights, but social rights, civil rights, gay, lesbian, and LGBT rights, Black Lives Matter. All of these things are very kind of oriented towards individual happiness and fulfillment, which is largely a good thing. But as in so many things that are driven history, there’s a good news and bad news to it. So that’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s not necessarily a good thing that we don’t have a sense of sort of loyalty to people who’ve given us life, that there’s no longer a sense of obligation, that there’s no longer a sense of caring as much about elders.

Dr. Coleman: We have a huge crisis of loneliness in our culture, particularly for the elderly. And the emphasis on personal fulfillment is often a very individual pursuit, and the research shows that in cultures where happiness is pursued in a much more social way, meaning happiness is pursued more in terms of one’s relationships to others, more caring about others, more helping others, people tend to be much more fulfilled and happy. In cultures like ours, generally in Western societies, but more true in the United States than probably any other society, because we rank higher on rates of individualism than any other society. Individualism is measured by emphasis on self fulfillment, happiness, personal growth, personal fulfillment, that kind of thing, that if emphasis is much more purely on that, you actually don’t have higher rates of happiness, you have more higher rates of anxiety and loneliness and that kind of thing.

Dr. Coleman: So what does this have to do with estrangement? Well, just to summarize on the good side, there are people that aren’t obligated to stay with abusive parents and stay in connection with them. But on the bad side, the emphasis on personal fulfillment and growth and happiness means that all relationships are basically based on whether or not the relationship makes them happy. So it’s much more based on the ties of affection than anything else, and historically, that’s new, that’s an expression of life in post-modernity. So where historically, we were involved in relationships much more based on kind of roles and that kind of thing, now it’s much more based on how the relationship makes us feel and that just makes relationships more fragile. So it’s an interesting dilemma.

Andy: And you have a lot of great stories in this book of patients that you’ve worked with and really specific situations that people are going through. And one thing that was a theme, I think, was seeing parents feeling like, hey, my parent wasn’t a great parent to me, but I still stuck by them. I still did my duties as they got older and never blew up the relationship or said, “I don’t want to talk to you anymore,” because that’s just not what you do to your parent, but then here I am in this situation now and I feel like I’ve been a way better parent to my kid than my parent ever was to me. And yet now my kid is not even talking to me anymore, and it feels so unfair. And I think at the heart of that is what you’re talking about, is this sort of shift in values, that this new new generations are not feeling that same sense of guilt or obligation, I guess.

Dr. Coleman: Yeah, no, I think that’s exactly right. Yeah. And I think you’re summarizing that really well, that a lot of today’s parents actually provided their children with a life far richer, not only materially but more psychological, more attentive. And that kind of thing.

Andy: Just more engaged, totally.

Dr. Coleman: Yeah, much More engaged.

Andy: Didn’t use corporal punishment, even.

Dr. Coleman: Right, right, exactly. Corporal punishment, at least in United States, has been largely taken off the table. It still exists, but in far more common countries like France and Italy than it is here. Right. Everything has become much more psychological, much more sensitive, much more empathic, so a lot of parents are like, “Come on, you want to know who had a bad childhood? I did.”

Andy: Stop whining, come on. You don’t know how good you’ve got it.

Dr. Coleman: Exactly. But from the adult child’s perspective… I mean millennials and generation Z, the generation younger than millennials. I mean, they realistically do have a harder time, they are having a harder time, they have low rates of employment, they have a lot more reason to be focused on their happiness and fulfillment because life actually is harder for them. You and I were talking before the recording that you’re now living in the part of San Francisco that I used to live in, and I bet the rent that I paid when I was there some… I’ve been in the Bay area for 40 years, but when I moved there, I think I paid $600 for a full house on 12th Avenue in Judah! And today that would easily $5000 to $7,000.

Dr. Coleman: So it’s true that millennials actually have more stress, more strain, more job insecurity, more anxiety in an uncertain world. So on the one hand, it’s reasonable that they would be very tuned into what is going to make for a happy life. And so, one of the other things that has changed over the past few decades, there’s been an increasing emphasis on the psychological. So many more young people are going to therapy, they’re much more introspective. They’re much more tuned in to the way their parents might’ve affected them.

Andy: That sounds very millennial. Yeah.

Dr. Coleman: No, but on the one hand, that’s a good thing. It’s good to be self-aware and to be kind of tuned into the subtle ways that your parents may have affected you. The problematic part is that I think, and it’s my fields fault, my field of psychology and psychotherapy, that we’ve made it too much about parents. In fact, parents are important in a certain way in terms of the child outcome, adult outcome, but more important in many ways is genetics, social class. I mean, I can tell you what kind of a life you’re likely going to have purely based on your zip code in terms of how wealthy you’re going to be, your level of health. These things are predictive even before parents have children. So the idea that parents themselves have so much responsibility for child outcomes, particularly prejudicial for poor and working class parents.

Andy: So you talk about something that is referred to as the pursuer distance dynamic, and it’s this feedback loop that happens. And I think just teenagers in general and parents exhibit this a lot, where as a teenager, you’re trying to pull away, especially as you leave the home and try and create your own life, you’re trying to create distance. You’re trying to individuate yourself and distance yourself from your parents and go out on your own, whereas, to the parent that feels hurtful and it feels like maybe a rejection sometimes. And so you then kind of pursue, and then that creates this feedback loop. So how does that play out in your work?

Dr. Coleman: I think you’re using a really important point in terms of the teen audience, because one of the things that you and I were just talking about was kind of the way that parenting has become much more intensified over the past four decades, parents are much more anxious, but they’re also spending much more time with their children and just used doing–

Andy: They’re working a lot harder at this whole thing than ever before.

Dr. Coleman: Exactly. Today, a career mother spends more time raising her children with her children than a stay at home mother did in the 1960s, in the way that they give up their time. The way they give up that time is not having to have as much time for social life.

Andy: A life. Yeah.

Dr. Coleman: Not having much time for sleeping, with friends, with hobbies, etc. And on the one hand, that can be good and it can be in some ways necessary to produce a child these days, given how little social supports there are for parents or for adults when those young children become adults. So the fact that they’re going to have to figure out how to pay for college and healthcare, and insurance and all these things strains, not only the parents, but also the children. So there’s been this enormous intensification of parenting on the one hand that can be really useful because those children are much more likely to do better if they’ve had this intense parenting.

Dr. Coleman: On the other hand, to your point, it does sort of heat up the home in a way that may make the child feel like they’ve gotten too much of the parent. So a certain percentage of estrangements that I see is really an attempt at individuation. It’s kind of like, okay, I’ve kind of had enough of you, mom and dad. I’ve had enough of your involvement, your anxiety, your worry, your guilt, your anticipation of the future. The only way I know how to kind of reclaim a sense of self is to really push hard against you, and sometimes that results in an estrangement. So it’s an important thing to be thinking about for parents of teenagers.

Andy: So kind of the heart of this whole thing is that a lot of times the kid feels wronged by the parent or feels like the parent just doesn’t get it, and that the parent has been doing something that is not allowing the kid to thrive in some way. And as a parent, of course, often you disagree because you have a totally different perspective and you know how hard you’ve been trying, and you look at all the stuff that you have done and say, “Well, come on. That’s crazy.” But I like where you go with this, which you even talk about working with schizophrenics when you were at Kettering, Ohio.

Andy: You were working with paranoid schizophrenics there, and same kind of thing, they, in their mind feel like the CIA is trying to plant listening devices all over the place and the government is after them and all of this, which of course to you sounds a little crazy maybe, but you point out that you can’t come at them saying, “Well, that’s crazy.” Or trying to talk them out of it. First, you have to agree with them and you have to make them feel like you understand them and like you hear them.

Andy: And so you say, without a shred of patronizing, “That sounds terrifying. Why are they pursuing you? How are they doing it? What do you think they’re trying to achieve?” And once you can show them that you feel what they’re feeling, then that puts you in a lot better position to start to ask, “Okay, well, are there any other possible explanations? What are the chances that, that’s not really what’s happening?” And I think that’s just so smart and such a great metaphor for what parents need to do when your kid feels wronged by you, or feels like you need to make amends somehow, starting from a position of, okay, they might be completely wrong, it might be totally all in their head, but you can’t come at them and try to convince them of that first, you need to make them feel like you hear and like you understand.

Dr. Coleman: Right. No, that’s exactly right. It isn’t really even agreeing, it’s just empathizing. It’s trying to find the kernel of truth. Let’s say your kid says, “Oh, you’re just so controlling all the time.” You might want to find a kernel of truth in that before you turn to what the reality is, from your perspective. So you might say, “Well, I guess I could see how you would experience me as controlling. I mean, it’s true. I do have very clear ideas, very strong ideas about what I think you should do or not do. So I could see how that could feel controlling to you. I could see why you would even like it or hate it. Those are the rules of the household, so I’m not saying I’m going to change per se, I’m open to hearing your thoughts and feelings about it. But yeah, I could totally get why you wouldn’t like that.”

Dr. Coleman: But in the space of estrangement, once a kid has actually cut off contact in some ways you have to do a deeper dive. So the reason that I included that example when I was working with schizophrenics was that, you first have to get onto the same page as the other person, whether it’s a schizophrenic or it’s an estranged adult child, or your spouse, or that kind of thing, you have to show them that you care about their experience and you can see how they got there. And if you don’t see how they got there, for example, some of the estranged parents in my practice, the kid will either from the parent’s perspective, rewrite history, or they’ll say, “Well, you emotionally abused them.” That kind of thing.

Dr. Coleman: And what I tell parents is to say, “Well, I didn’t know that you felt that way, it’s clear that I have my blind spots that that behavior caused you to feel emotionally abused. I’m really sorry about that. Hearing how you’re describing, I could see how that could have felt that way, and I’m committed to doing better going forward.” So there just has to be kind of a way to empathize, to show that you care, to show that you’re willing to change going forward, to get on the same page with your child of any age, basically. I mean, the name difference between parenting teens and parenting and an estranged adult child is that with teens, you actually do have some…. Assuming you’re not divorced and you only have them part time, and they blow up the relationship by saying, “I’m just going to go to moms or dads,” but routines, you still actually do have to set limits and that kind of thing.

Andy: You talk about a dynamic called parental alienation. Then you talk about five different categories of it. So what do we need to know about parental alienation?

Dr. Coleman: Yeah, it’s a very serious problem. Parental alienation typically happens after a divorce and it’s when one parent consciously or unconsciously really poisons the child against the other parent. And it can happen with parents who have grown children as well, a lot of parents feel like, well, I’ll wait until my kids are in college and then I’ll divorce their mom or their dad. And I’ve been a good parent, we know that, and everything will be fine. It doesn’t always work out that way. So if one parent is really motivated to poison the child’s heart and mind against the other parent, it’s far easier to do than one would think. And it’s not only terrible for that parent who’s basically being rejected by their own child, which is a nightmarish thing for the parent, but it’s also bad for the child, it has long-term negative implications for the child. So it’s really something that there has to be increased social awareness about.

Andy: I think it shows up so much in divorce and on both sides, especially. You talk about kind of the Disneyland parent or when you have less custody, then you want to become the fun parent and you only have your kids for a few days out of the month, so that’s all have dessert, let’s stay up late, let’s watch R rated movies, that’s all good. And kind of putting down the other parent as a stick in the mud who’s always stressing out about stuff, because you want to have that bond with your kid and it’s easy to kind of fall into that, I think, and you’re a pissed off spouse as well. And so it’s easy to let that slip into kind of your language and stuff, but in both directions too, or if you’re the parent who has more custody, you’re in more of a powerful position there too. And so it’s easy to frame the other one as kind of clueless or aloof, or not having it together or anything like that.

Dr. Coleman: Right. Or to restrict the visitation or interfere with therapy. And yeah, there’s a lot of powers the custodial parent has in terms of blocking contact with the other parent or vilifying them, that kind of thing.

Andy: So I mean, what do you do if you find yourself on the receiving end of that? And you realize your kids are kind of parroting back to you things that are clearly things that they were told or that they’re being brainwashed by the other parent, kind of against you or turned against you.

Dr. Coleman: Yeah. No, it’s an important question. I mean, the main thing is just because the other parent is throwing you under the bus, don’t throw that parent. Your kids need one same parent, and you’re not going to get their affection or their trust by blaming the other parent, you shouldn’t call them a liar.

Andy: “Your dad’s a liar.”

Dr. Coleman: And that’s terrible for children. You have to stay grounded and affectionate, and if you hear something, again, sort of like with a paranoid schizophrenic, you still have to get on their same page. So if your kid is saying something that you know is kind of coached by other parent, lets say its something like, “Well, you were always so critical of us,” and you know that you weren’t a particularly critical parent, you can’t just say, “No, I wasn’t.” Or you can’t just say, “That’s coming from your mom because that’s what she always said,” or, “She felt like I was too critical of her.”

Dr. Coleman: You have to say, “Oh, I didn’t know that you felt like that, what are some examples of that?” One of the signs of alienation is that they either can’t come up with the examples, or the examples are so kind of nonsensical, they’re so thin that if they’re inquired into at all, they kind of crumble in your hands. So you want to kind of teach your kids to be investigative of these accusations, but you do that through empathy and interest and kind of go, “Oh, I didn’t know that you felt like I was so critical. What are some examples?” And you’re not saying what are some examples, so you can prove them wrong, You just want to encourage them to… You’re showing them that you’re open to self-examination and to hearing their perspective, it’s just a different way to show your affection and commitment. So, “Oh, I didn’t realize you felt so criticized. That’s terrible. I’m really sorry that you-“

Andy: “I never want to make you feel that way.” Yeah.

Dr. Coleman: Yeah. Exactly. The next time I do that, I definitely want you to tell me. So again, you hold onto your parental affectionate position without throwing the other parent under the bus, because a brainwashed child, they still believe it, right? The fact is, they don’t know that they’re brainwashed and you can’t tell a child that they’re brainwashed, so you have to kind of enter their world…

Andy: Especially a teenager. Yeah. Wow. That is not going to go over well.

Dr. Coleman: Right. Because with a teenager then it’s tied into their needs to individuate, develop their own feelings of authority and power and control, so it’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax.

About Dr. Joshua Coleman

Dr. Joshua Coleman  is the author of numerous articles and chapters and has written four books, including Rules of Estrangement and When Parents Hurt. A frequent guest on NPR and Today, his advice has also appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Chicago Tribune and other publications. A popular conference speaker, he has given talks to the faculties at Harvard, the Weill Cornell Department of Psychiatry and other academic institutions.

Dr. Coleman is co-editor with historian Stephanie Coontz of seven online volumes of Unconventional Wisdom: News You Can Use: a compendium of noteworthy research on the contemporary family. He is also co-founder with researcher Dr. Becca Bland of Standing Together, a center for advancing awareness of family estrangement.

In a completely different vein, Dr. Coleman writes music for television which has appeared on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Lethal Weapon, Chicago Fire, Chicago PD, Longmire, Shameless, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and many other shows. 

He is the father of three adult children, has a teenage grandson, and lives with his wife in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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