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A time to sever parental ties Add to ...

The grown-up child who won't leave the house - it's become all too common water-cooler chat. But what about the child who can't wait to escape - and cut all ties?

I am, admittedly, one of those few adult children who have cut the cord with a parent. The seed of cutting her off germinated when she left me at eight years old because she had tired of motherhood. Six years later we reunited, but the dynamics of our relationship were soured and we never established a mother-daughter bond again. Conversations tasted like vinegar and visits were stiff and stranger-like. A cut-off seemed like a natural move.

Laurel, a 24-year-old B.C. social worker, did things a bit differently. She instigated a cut-off with her mother during childhood and then again in adulthood. She first cut the cord when she was only 12. She chose to live with her father instead.

"I don't know how I knew it was the right choice, just child intuition that something wasn't right," says Laurel, who did not want her last name used. "[After]my parents split up, my mom got a boyfriend who had been in jail, and there was a lot of lying on my mom's behalf and a lot of belittling. Finally, I didn't want to deal with her any more."

"About 2 to 5 per cent of my patients have probably had a cut-off with a parent," says Ellis Nicolson, a family therapist in Mississauga, Ont. "Some are permanent, some last five to 10 years, and some aren't complete cut-offs but include very infrequent and meaningless contact with a parent."

Reasons for a break include a parent competing with a child's spouse for affection; trying to control the adult child, and harassment of an adult child by a substance-abusing parent.

Another key reason for separation is abuse - physical, emotional or sexual - past or present.

Sometimes the reasons spring from deep in the past. "Even if nothing bad has gone on in the relationship for the last 15 years, some people can't bring themselves to let go of things that happened in their childhood, especially when their parent hasn't admitted to treating their child badly or asked for forgiveness for the way they behaved," says Dianna Campbell-Smith, a psychologist at the Calgary Counselling Centre. "It's like the big elephant in the room and no one's talking about it."

Most therapists counsel boundary-setting before taking the step of cutting off a parent. If that doesn't work, some adult children simply withdraw, either through physical distance or avoidance of emotional subjects.

"Adult children who move somewhere far away cut off in a way that looks normal," says Christine Kutzner, a family counsellor in North Vancouver. "For some, distance feels safer."

For those who want to make a conscious break, it should be planned. "It's not something that should be done flippantly or reactively; they should want to do it because it's the healthiest thing for them," says Kyle Killian, a family therapist in Toronto and an associate professor in the faculty of health at York University. "They need to explain the reason for the cut-off to the parent, not just simply do a disappearing act that seems like a confusing and random act of punishment," Dr. Killian says.

Mr. Nicholson agrees. "If done too abruptly without having a conversation of why it's being done, the adult child may have feelings of guilt, remorse, aloneness or depression."

He makes an exception for cases of serious abuse. "In the case of trauma, however, talking to the parent about it is akin to being re-traumatized."

In most instances, though, counsellors don't believe a cut-off should be permanent.

"By closing the book, one becomes entrenched in a story of victimhood which can neither abate nor resolve," says Stephen Douglas, a family counsellor in Toronto. "Significant energy then goes into perpetuating that story, maintaining the justification for the banishing, and prohibiting real healing - which I believe can often occur with time and perspective - from taking place."

Dr. Killian agrees there can be problems related to a permanent cut-off.

"The problem is, sometimes people who deny their relationship to their family and are emotionally cut off, are in danger of recreating their original family system in their current one, because the issues remain unresolved."

When Laurel was 21, nine years after she went to live with her dad, she decided to pursue a reconnection with her mother.

"I missed having a mother, I wanted that mother piece," she says. But the problems were still there. "She hadn't changed. She was very inappropriate in social situations, she would say mean things, or become involved in odd situations," says Laurel. "The year we reconnected, I invited her for Christmas at my partner's parents' house and she kept hiding out and calling long-distance from their phones."

A year after they had reconnected, Laurel ended the relationship with her mother once again. Despite this, she doesn't entirely rule out another attempt to reconnect - in the far future and with very specific conditions.

"It's also important to establish criteria for re-entry - and under what circumstances would that person be willing to re-establish contact," says Dr. Killian. "If a parent receives treatment for violence or substance abuse and is now sober or truly remorseful about abusive or neglectful acts and has made a qualitative shift, the adult child needs to decide whether to buy it, and whether they're in a place to risk being in a relationship with that parent again."

As for Laurel, she feels a relationship break is healthiest at the moment.

"When I think about reconnecting, I think about how much work it would be, not how enjoyable it would be," she says. "Accepting someone, regardless of their faults, can be extremely difficult, especially when all you want is the mother you once knew."

Therapists agree that adult children will often reconnect with a parent when they have children of their own. Or, they'll allow their children to establish a relationship with the cut-off parent.

According to Ms. Campbell-Smith, "Oftentimes ... the children get along fine with the grandparent, which can be hurtful for the parent."

Laurel says she'll consider crossing the grandparent bridge when she gets to it.

As for me, the freeze on my relationship with my mother is continuously on-again, off-again. The cord between us is in shreds but we still try, from time to time, to mend it. I think we both wonder whether our cord has simply become irreparable and whether it's a waste of emotional energy to even try to fix it.

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