What Your Patients are Hearing

Family estrangement: Would mutual respect make a difference?


Families are the bedrock of the lives of many, but some people opt to separate permanently from family members. A recent episode of the NPR program “1A” explored why families sever ties.


For journalist Harriet Brown, author of “Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement,” (Da Capo Press, 2018), the decision to end her relationship with her mother came after she blamed Ms. Brown in “a blistering email” for the relapsed anorexia of Ms. Brown’s daughter.

“I was done with her,” Ms. Brown said on the program. “I told her I was done. That was it. And I never talked to her again. I think for both of us it felt final in some way.”

She said a lot of shame and stigma comes from having a bad relationship with a parent. “I really wanted to make it clear that ... sometimes walking away is really the best thing to do.”

Kristina M. Scharp, PhD, who has studied the estrangement phenomenon, said no national data exist on family estrangement. “About 12% of mothers and research would suggest even more fathers would report being estranged from one of their children,” said Dr. Scharp, who is with the University of Washington, Seattle. “It’s fairly common.”

Estrangement might be more common today because times have changed, said Joshua Coleman, PhD, author of “When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When you and Your Grown Child Don’t get Along” (HarperCollins, 2008). “Today’s adult children don’t view their relationships with their parents the way their folks did with their parents … the principles of obligation, duty, and respect that baby boomers and generations before them had for their elders aren’t necessarily there anymore,” Dr. Coleman said in a previous interview with the Chicago Tribune.

For her part, Ms. Brown said, the relationship with her mother – who is now deceased – might have been healed with respect. That respect would have looked like “acknowledging that we were different people,” she said. “Honestly, it was that basic with my mother.”

Phelps gets mental health advocacy award

In the pool, Michael Phelps was golden, with 28 Olympics medals, 23 of them gold, hanging around his neck by the end of his swimming career. But the release from the water to real life after the 2016 Summer Olympics left no outlet for troubles that had dogged him for years. Drunk driving convictions and a ban from competition during his competitive years had failed to stop his downward spiral of depression. His thoughts turned to suicide.

But his story has a bright ending. With his realization that he had hit rock bottom, and with the help of his wife and therapists, he accepted his depression and learned to live with the reality that his life is, for the most part, pretty good.

His openness about his struggles with depression has been influential. The latest recognition came in early January, when he received the Morton E. Ruderman Award in Inclusion from the Ruderman Family Foundation. As reported in the Boston Globe, Mr. Phelps was recognized for his advocacy for people with disabilities and “his own journey with mental health.”

“I do like who I am and I’m comfortable with who I am. I couldn’t say that a few years ago. So I’m in a very good place and just living life one day at a time,” Mr. Phelps remarked in an interview with CNN last year.

Mr. Phelps is now a paid spokesperson for TalkSpace, an online therapy company.

“I’d like to make a difference. I’d like to be able to save a life if I can. You know, for me that’s more important than winning a gold medal. The stuff that I’m doing now is very exciting. It’s hard, it’s challenging but it’s fun for me. That’s what drives me to get out of bed every morning,” he said.


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