Ep 135: Prevent Fractured Families

Episode Summary

Dr. Karl Pillemer, author of Fault Lines, reveals to us what his massive survey into estranged family members tells us about the importance of relationships, forgiveness, and thinking twice about cutting ties.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

We have arguments with our teens about little things everyday–what to have for dinner, whether they can take the car out, what they’re wearing to school that day, et, etc. And although these skirmishes can seem small, they tend to add up. Suddenly, you tell your teen to put away their shoes one day, and they’re screaming at you, saying you’re ruining their life. It’s not the shoes that have them hysterical, it’s the cumulative effect of all the little disagreements over time!

Most of the time when these fights erupt, no one wants to apologize first. Distance can grow between the two of you. You become more and more certain that YOU were right and the OTHER person was acting crazy. You find other people who agree with you, and you stop questioning yourself. Then things just get worse until you find your relationship permanently damaged. In serious cases, you might even find yourself estranged from your kid. 

To understand how we can handle these Earth-shaking arguments with grace and prevent a deep rift from forming, we’re talking to Karl Pillemer, author of Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them.  Karl’s a sociologist who’s been researching estrangement between family members for years. He’s become acutely aware of how seemingly small disagreements can grow to jeopardize relationships.

In our interview, Karl and I break down what parents of teens should know about patching up arguments and preventing permanent damage. We dive into what you should do when you and your teen have disputes over values or lifestyle choices. We also talk about what leads family members to become alienated from one another, and how you can keep your teen from shutting you out.

When Values Don’t Align

One of the most rewarding things about being a parent is passing down values, customs, traditions, and life lessons. We might hope kids will practice the same religion that we do. We may want them to share our political sentiments, or even just be guided by hard work and kindness, just like we taught them. However, as kids grow, they start to become their own individual units, with ideas and opinions born from their own experiences. When we see that they’ve turned their back on the ideals we raised them with, it can really hurt.

As frustrating as it is, Karl says that it’s unwise to risk ruining your relationship over these kinds of things. He explains a phenomenon he calls the “intergenerational stake.” Research has shown that as kids and parents both age, parents become more and more invested in their kid’s life, while their offspring only grow less involved. In his work, Karl has interviewed a great many older parents whose biggest regret is pushing their kids away over lifestyle choices.

Karl stresses the importance of tolerance and flexibility when it comes to differences in opinion or values. If you find yourself getting worked up over your teen’s refusal to accept the values you hoped to pass on to them, ask yourself if this is a hill you want to stand on forever. It might cause your kid to cut off ties with you, leaving you wishing for them later in life. In the episode, Karl and I talk about why kids are able to distance themselves emotionally from parents, and how to keep a valley of disagreement from deepening.

Different values aren’t the only force that pushes parents and kids apart. Karl and I talk about many others, and how they cause serious wounds that are difficult to mend.

6 Pathways to Estrangement

Karl outlines six different causes of estrangement, to shine light on how parents and kids find themselves in this painful situation. We go through all six in the episode, but two of the most important for parents of teens to be aware of are “long arm of the past” and “unmet expectations.”

Long arm of the past refers to the many disputes and disagreements that may have occurred between you and your teen over the years. Although they might not have seemed significant at the time, Karl explains how they accumulate, and lead to resentment that ultimately results in a fall out between the two of you. 

Unmet expectations are another cause of serious strain in parent-child relationships. Parents and teens often expect a lot out of each other, maybe more than they should, says Karl. Parents expect kids to always dutifully stand by them, even though modern day kids tend to be more individualistic and independent. Karl gets into the expectations kids have for parents in the episode, and how they are often impossible to meet. 

So how can we keep these forces from creating a divide in our relationship with our kids? And what can we do when the distance between us and them feels incredibly wide and impossible to cross? 

Keeping the Peace

Reconciling with someone after a falling out is no easy task. Karl says the key is understanding that you will probably never receive an apology. That can be a tough pill to swallow, especially when you feel you’ve really been wronged. However, there’s little chance that you and your kid are going to come to a consensus about who was at fault and who was the victim. 

Karl suggests taking a step back and recognizing where you may have possibly been a part of the problem. If you do so, it’s likely your teen will too. Although you’ll probably never find yourself totally agreeing on what happened, you’ll be able to grow from the incident and initiate a truce. Offering this olive branch might be hard, but Karl believes this is how you can show your kid you truly care.

If you want to prevent this divide from forming in the first place, Karl recommends treating your kid like a friend, not just a son or daughter. He makes several distinctions between our relationship with our relatives and our friends. We choose our friends based on similar interests, while family is something we’re born into. We treat our friends with civility in kindness, while we say whatever we want to those we’re related to, with the expectation that they won’t go away.Throughout our interview, Karl and I discuss how you can choose to treat your kid like your friend, and give them more respect and consideration than you might currently be giving.

In addition, Karl stresses how valuable it can be to create a bank of positive memories with your kid. Even when times are tough, making time for bonding moments can do wonders for your relationship and help the two of you make it through whatever life throws your way.

In the Episode:

Karl’s expertise on parent-child conflict makes for a very informative episode this week. In addition to the topics mentioned above we talk about:

  • How things like divorce and money cause conflict in families
  • Why some families have a history of estrangement over generations
  • How to avoid “defensive ignorance” when attempting to reconcile with a teen
  • Why patching up problems with teens can be life-changing

Despite the difficulties you may be facing with your kid, Karl reminds us that there is a path to finding peace again. Thanks for listening, and don’t forget to subscribe and share! See you next week.

Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: The book is Fault Lines, Fractured Families, and How to Mend Them, and it is all about this research that you did. You surveyed over 1,600 people and did all kinds of interviews to study estrangement and why people cut off their family members and what goes right in families that are able to mend and come back together again. And there’s some really, really fascinating work that you’ve done and some really insightful tips in here, I think for all kinds of families. So talk to me about where this came from and what inspired you to get into this?

Karl: Well, sure. Well, thanks and thanks for having me on. It’s great to be on a podcast that is really focused on teens. A lot of the work I did in this book really relates to families as a whole, but I will say there was a component that involved interviewing around three or four dozen college students, a number of whom were still in their teens, and they also reported how estrangement affected their families when they were younger teens. So I think there is some of the work that my colleagues and I did that really does relate specifically to your audience, but we also learned in this study, and I’ll give a preview, that kids can often be collateral damage, as I call them in the book, to family estrangement. So people need to think very broadly about the whole system when it comes to rifts, because there are not only those people who are directly involved, but there are also some people who are silent victims and that can certainly be teenage kids in a family.

Karl: So I think it is … At first when you invited me on this show, Andy, it got me thinking all right, how does it really relate to this particular work? And I think it really does. Also yeah, I began maybe five or six years ago. I’ve spent a lot of my life studying, or at least a lot of my work life studying, various kinds of problems in families, so stress, I’ve looked at conflict, aggression of different kinds. Maybe one topic that we might want to get back to is I’ve studied parental favoritism and its effect on kids.

Karl: But all that led me to a point where I felt I was reading in the media, I was interviewing people for other studies where they would raise issues of estrangement, and I began to say well, what’s going on here? How can this be a problem that’s so big and have had so little studies done, because there had been very few research studies. So that’s sent me off on a very interesting five year adventure to some of the darkest recesses of family life, but also to some really inspiring stories of how families managed to unfracture themselves after a rift.

Andy: Yeah, it’s strange that there’s so little that’s been written about this and so little work that’s been done about this. You said in this book that there’s maybe around a dozen studies even that exist on this phenomenon, even though it affects millions and millions of people in our country alone.

Karl: Yeah, it’s very strange. I mean, that aspect of it, and I often get asked why do I think it is? I think in part it’s because people have seen estrangement as just part of a continuum of family problems.

Andy: Okay.

Karl: So there’s conflict, there’s people distancing, but I found the standpoint that my research comes from is that it’s really different when in this hyper-connected world someone says and is able to stick it to a parent child or sibling, “I’m done. I never want to speak to you or hear from you again.”

Karl: That’s different, and I think finally research is catching up to that, but there’s something different about these situations where someone stonewalls completely from the family or is completely rejected by them. So I think it’s a good topic to study.

Andy: Yeah, I think so. And I think there’s going to be more stuff coming out. It’s needed.

Karl: Yeah, I’ll add to that. My viewpoint, and it’s one I hope that your listeners will also resonate to, but when it comes to child rearing, when it comes to our relationships in families, I’m an incredibly strong proponent of using scientific evidence whenever you can find it. But when in a case like this there isn’t much good scientific evidence, I think that the next best thing is to go to the people who’ve experienced a problem and ask them for their advice, how did they get through it.

Karl: How did they cope with estrangement or effect a reconciliation. So that was the idea, was to get the people who’ve been through this, find out what they know about estrangement and reconciliation that the rest of us don’t, and try to distill it down so people could use their advice.

Andy: One of the things that you did is you identified, you call it the pathways to estrangement. You found these six situations that kind of tend to lead to that moment where someone says, “I’m done. I don’t want to deal with you anymore.” And these were on page 31, the long arm of the past, the legacy of divorce, the problematic in-law, money and inheritance, unmet expectations, value, and lifestyle differences. Can you talk a little bit about what causes estrangement or anything these moments all kind of have in common or what you had noticed about these sort of six situations?

Karl: Oh, well that’s a great question, and I think it actually … The answer to that question is very relevant to say parents of teens or emerging adults.

Andy: Yeah, how do we stay off these pathways?

Karl: Exactly. I mean really, how can we avoid the pathway?

Karl: And so the first one is perhaps the most obvious, it’s what I call the long arm of the past, so it’s a full legacy of harsh parenting, a really extreme rivalry amongst siblings or violence, very difficult family situations. Even if things get better after childhood and people become more reasonable, there are some people who can’t get over that long arm of the past, and it’s also tied to the second factor. As far as the second factor of divorce, that legacy also helps to promote estrangement in later life, especially as children become alienated from the non-custodial parent.

Karl: So we had very often individuals who there was divorce in childhood and they had just lost enough contact that it was hard to reconnect. In terms of more immediate things that go on, and these are clearly more among adults and parents of teens, are one is what I call the problematic in-law. Namely when someone, to put it simply, marries the wrong person from the family’s viewpoint or a spouse who purposely distances somebody, or they just don’t get along.

Karl: And the other area that really emerges that really can fracture families is money, and money may not be the root of all evil but it is the root of a lot of family estrangements. Business problems within a family business, problems over inheritance in particular come out really strongly. And let me relate this too to families with teenagers. One problem with inheritance when that grandparental generation dies and leaves things to the middle generation, they may say that they’re going to divide everything equally, but you can’t divide that grandfather clock that came over from the old country or the chip platter that served Thanksgiving turkey. Or a house or a business where the only way that you can divide it is to sell it. Those kinds of zero sum problems hit the middle generation.

Karl: And one thing we saw was when brothers and sisters in middle-age have a rift, it very often has ripple effects down to their children and those cousins who could be having a warm and healthy relationship also become estranged. So money gets into a lot of this. And honestly, a lot of people wish that they had sought out a mediator early or hadn’t made money such a huge issue because they later regretted the rift.

Karl: One kind of larger issue that seemed to really lead to estrangement, one is the overwhelmingly strong expectations we have for our families. Often summed up, children should always love and respect their parents or my siblings should always have my back. There’s a meme around the internet saying that estrangements are disappointments waiting to happen and that really is true in this case. A lot of people found they were only able to reconcile after they gave up the idea that they were going to expect something the other person couldn’t give or change them.

Karl: And the other issue along those lines for parents to really think about with their children, especially when they’re emerging adults, is this issue of values. Conflicts over core values become very intense, especially between parents and children, and there needs to be a lot of tolerance and flexibility or parents can risk distance and estrangement from their kids. So that was something that you noticed often. Conflicts over politics, worldview, religion, how kids want to live their lives. Those can really snowball into a full-blown estrangement if parents, in particular, aren’t aware of the need for more openness and tolerance.

Andy: That’s huge because it feels like A. I’ve raised my kid in this one way and this is one of the most important things to us, and now it feels like they’re turning their back on that or rejecting this value that we thought was … We taught them that this was the most important thing.

Karl: Yeah, totally.

Andy: Yeah. I mean, so what do you recommend for parents who feel like they’re experiencing that, where they have a teenager who is sort of rejecting some of the basic things that they hold dear as a family?

Karl: Well, there is one message I would really like to get across to parents, contemporary parents, so people who are now entering middle age, who would have teenagers or young adults, kids, and it’s a hard message for parents to hear, but here’s one thing that we know, not just from my studies, but from 50 or more years of research, and I can sum it up simply. As time goes on parents care more about this relationship than their children do. It’s got a name that people can go ahead and drop at cocktail parties if they want to. It’s called the intergenerational stake. As a parent, you have more of a stake in your kids than your kids have in you. Now your kids will love you and they probably are going to want to be around you and be supportive, but when push comes to shove, all the research shows parents care more.

Karl: So it’s, if you measure it by items like “how important is this relationship to you?” “How valuable is it?” Both parents and kids say they’re important, but they’re more important to parents. And so the one thing that I want parents to think about is when you draw a line in the sand, when you say that you’re going to reject your child or be harsh on your child because of a lifestyle choice or politics or sexual orientation, you bear a much greater risk that that relationship is going to end. Many of us grew up with this idea that family relationships will always be there and we can behave however we want to around our family members and they’ll still be there. If you interview adult children, their view is I love my parents, I care about them, but I have other things in my life, I have other things going on and if this relationship is too difficult I can drop out.

Karl: So I think parents, when they go down this road of snowballing tension and anger, they really should stop and ask, “Do I want this kid to be around when I’m 70?” Because I’ve talked to plenty of people in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, whose major regret in life is actions or steps they took and now their kids aren’t there when they most need them. It sounds a little harsh and it doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t stick to their guns, but your child is going to be able to exit this relationship as an adult more easily than you can. I don’t know if that resonates to you, Andy, in terms of other parenting things, but I think it’s something that they ought to think about.

Andy: Actually, and it’s something that I was talking to Dr. Coleman about as well, because he feels like this is a trend that’s getting sharper and sharper because this later … Newer generations, millennials, kids who are teenagers now even, are feeling more and more like there’s an emphasis on self-care and setting boundaries for yourself and individual freedom and less on tradition and loyalty and doing your duty and kind of going through the motions, even if something isn’t fulfilling you.

Andy: And so part of that is because that’s how we’ve raised our kids. We’ve told them since they were little, “Hey, stand up for yourself, take care of yourself.” We have raised a generation of kids who are getting better and better at doing that and not saying, “Hey, no, I’m not going to take this anymore.” And so that’s maybe the other side of the coin here is that we then have to be aware that we are not excluded from that.

Karl: I think you’re right. I think the one thing that we’re learning about families is in some ways they’re similar to the other kinds of relationships people have in general, and one thing we know about all human relationships for example, is people like other people who they’re generally similar to. Even though we say opposites attract, most of our friendships are with people who we’re pretty similar to in opinions, values, attitudes, even in personality, and we’re careful about those relationships. So we’re tactful and we’re civil to other people.

Karl: One problem that happens in families is sort of anything goes, that people start to feel either to their siblings, to their parents, or especially their children, that they can behave in inappropriate or harsh or angry ways, and that’s just the way families are. And I agree, I think that’s to some extent where things have changed and I don’t think that’s a bad thing necessarily. I think that for parents, especially when their children become adults, to accept their decisions and try to develop a friendship as well as a parent/child relationship, especially after kids have left the home.

Karl: I mean, actually one thing I would say, Andy, that people forget, the modal period of parent child relationships now, by that I mean the longest period of parent child relationships, is after your kids leave the home.

Andy: Yeah, right.

Karl: Because of the increased lifespan, most of us are going to have 30 or 40 or even more years of shared lifetime with our kids after they become adults. So you do have to ask yourself, what do I want that relationship to be like. It’s going to be a long term, lifelong relationship, only a smaller portion of which is while they’re here in my house. And I think that considering actions and implications for what life is going to be like after kids leave, building up a bank of positive, shared experiences, making sure that even if a kid is being really difficult, there’s positive things going on.

Karl: Building up this kind of bank of positive memories and emotions in the midst of all the negatives if there are these periods in adolescence, which most of us experience. I think that can really help later on. So I just think it’s an awareness. It’s not being afraid of it or thinking God, if I discipline my kid, they’re never going to want to see me again, but it’s thinking about our actions and making sure they’re in the child’s best interest and humane and so forth.

Andy: So one thing I found really interesting in your book is this idea of volcanic events. You point out that there are in all of these stories of the people that you interviewed about estrangement there’s some event that occurred that was the final straw where the person said, “I’m done. I’ve got to cut off ties.” It’s interesting because we talked earlier about the six pathways to estrangement and the first one was the long arm of the past, and you point out in here that these volcanic events, a lot of times they seem like they’re not even that big of a deal, or just kind of like, “How? Well hey, what? You cut off communication over that?”

Andy: But really what it seems like is that they’re just kind of like the straw that broke the camel’s back, that there’s this history of some sort of problem in the relationship and at some point the pot boils over that creates this Rubicon crossing, I guess. There’s this moment where you then can’t go back. So where do volcanic events come from? What do they look like? And is there any way to sort of avoid them or spot them before it’s too late?

Karl: The way that you worded it is really, really accurate. And you’re absolutely right, almost anyone who’s talked to a friend who is explaining an estrangement has the moment where they express some surprise at how trivial one specific event seemed to be. That started the estrangement and the majority of people I interviewed can point to this kind of transformational or signature event. In the book I use the term ‘volcanic event’ because one of my interviewees worded it that way. He said, “Imagine a volcano that wants to blow, but its top is plugged up and then suddenly for no apparent reason all the lava begins to gush out the side.” He said that that was what it was like for him and his mother, that there was just this moment.

Karl: So this is often true. Often it can occur at a family event where someone is really disappointed, point to an argument, somebody who’s supposed to show up to do something and doesn’t, or who shows up and is just awful. So I went through the literature on this and I actually found that there’s a considerable psychological literature on what psychologists call transformational events.

Karl: And let me give you an example, even though it’s going to sound trivial. You may have loved a particular coffee shop. You loved this little restaurant, and you go in there one day and the person’s rude to you and you get kind of sick after what you ate. That may be an isolated event, but it transforms your customer relationship with that place and you always think about it and you tell your friends about it and you ruminate about it. Well, this is certainly true in human relationships. It also occurs in marriages where things can build up, but there is a transformational event that starts things into super-powered action.

Karl: And I can think of many. I mean, the one case in the book, just to give listeners an example, was a guy had remarried and his stepson was being discussed and he asked his mother whether she planned to help that stepson through college as she had his other children. And she said, “No, because it wasn’t a stepson.” They had a violent argument. He exited the car. He had been visiting her, went home and they didn’t speak for over five years. Now you’re right, that comes from a long history, but I think we can learn a lot from these events.

About Karl Pillemer

Karl Pillemer, Ph.D., is the author of Fault Lines, 30 Lessons for Living, and 30 Lessons for Loving. He is one of America’s leading family sociologists and researchers on aging. Dr. Pillemer is Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and Professor of Gerontology in Medicine at the Weill Cornell Medical College.

Throughout his career, Dr. Pillemer’s research has focused on how family relationships develop and change throughout people’s lives. His research takes place in the real world of families and professionals who work with them. 

Fifteen years ago, he realized that he had spent most of his career focusing on the problems of families, rather than solutions: “It suddenly hit me that for life’s major challenges, I should go to people who have lived through them and tap their wisdom. So I began a quest to gather the practical advice of real people who surmounted difficulties, survived, and eventually thrived. By distilling and sharing their strategies for success, I could help create a path for everyone in similar situations.”

Karl Pillemer lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife, Clare McMillan. He is the father of two daughters, Hannah and Sarah, and the grandfather of (scientifically and objectively speaking) the most adorable grandchildren in the world, Clare and Tommy. When not writing, you may find him running, biking, and playing the guitar (badly).

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