Many of the children raised in hovering, over-protective and over-functioning homes are now forcing the separation their claustrophobic families never allowed. According to Karl Pillemer, a professor at Cornell University and author of Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, in 2020 more than a quarter (27%) of Americans over the age of 18 were estranged from a family member. The actual number is likely higher, because many shy away from admitting the truth about a relational break in their family. Pillemer, a professor of gerontology, says: “It became clear that estrangement is a very widespread problem that was hiding in plain sight. I felt it was critically important to bring this problem out of the shadows and into the clear light of open discussion and dialogue.”
Pillemer says the reasons why young people make the choice to cut off contact with their parents or family members as they enter into adulthood are varied, but are most-often linked to “early experiences with harsh parenting, parental favoritism, and parental divorce.” Also, he says, “value differences and unrealistic expectations” are big contributors. All of this rolls up into a form of chronic stress characterized by hostile communication, and for many, the only relief is to cut off all contact—sometimes permanently. On TikTok, the social media site most popular with young people, the hashtag #ToxicFamily has 1.9 billion views. And in popular magazine articles and online blogs that target family estrangement, “rigid” religious environments are often cited as an underlying cause of the toxicity.
Vibrant Faith is in the midst of a new four-year grant project “Fourth-Soil Parenting,” a partnership with the Lilly Endowment and 20 diverse churches across the U.S. Our trained coaches are helping ministry leaders first assess the “faith health” of homes in their congregations, then plant new and innovative ways of connecting and equipping parents vertically (in their relationship with God) and horizontally (in their relationships with their kids). This axis of influence is suggested and highlighted in Dr. Christian Smith’s research for Handing Down the Faith: How Parents Pass Their Religion On to the Next Generation. In the book, he refers to this way of parenting as the “authoritative” style.
Smith’s work sources decades of research to conclude that parents who have a “warm, authoritative” relationship with their kids, and an intimate, authentic relationship with Jesus, tend to influence these children into a lifelong trajectory of faith. In the intersection between their intimacy with God and their warm but conviction-infused relationship with their children, kids experience a transformational force called love. It forms them—helping them maintain an ongoing relationship with both God and their parents through their challenging developmental seasons. “Authoritative parents tend to be demanding and hold high standards of their children,” says Smith, “but they also express high levels of warmth and communication with them.” These phrases characterize this approach to parenting: “I’m the authority here to help you mature” and “Let’s talk this out” and “Love holds expectations.”
These are important truths for parents to understand and embrace. This vertical/horizontal axis of intimacy offers the parent-child relationship a refuge from the toxicity that so many are trying to escape. In turn, Pillemer says almost all young people who are able to move past estrangement into reconciliation follow some version of this strategy:
“They abandoned a need for the estranged relative to accept their version of the past and to apologize. They instead focused on the present and future of the relationship, adopting more realistic expectations about the other person rather than trying to change them. Reconcilers came to understand, or at least considered, what role they played in the conflict, seeing it as a dynamic, two-way process. That didn’t necessarily mean accepting fault, but engaging in self-examination about their level of responsibility. Most eventually felt much better after the reconciliation, even if it wasn’t perfect. There was a sense that it might be difficult, but they weren’t carrying that backpack around anymore, they weren’t carrying that weight on their shoulders.”
Clearly, this path to reconciliation requires a version of “loving our enemies” that is possible only through our attachment to Jesus, who gives us the courage and humility to love even those who hurt us. As ministry leaders, we can offer parents a preemptive strike against the chronic stress that drives their kids away—a path into greater intimacy with Jesus, and help to develop warmth and conviction in their relationship with their kids. The fruits will have generational impact…
Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following Jesus. He’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. In 2024 his new book Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church will be published. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.