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When I wrote the post that became Down the Rabbit Hole, I speculated that normal parents whose children were estranged filtered away to groups that addressed the reason their children were estranged--parents of alcoholics went to groups about alcoholism, etc. But I never followed up on it.

Recently I started reading the forums at Out of the Fog, a site for people dealing with personality-disordered relatives. It's been a revelation. There are plenty of parents of personality-disordered teens and young adults there, a demographic with significant representation in the estranged parents' groups. And yes, some of the parents do sound like they walked out of an estranged parents' group. But on average, the parents...

  • Tend to have children with a long history of trouble: problems in school, hospitalizations, even convictions. No one says, "We were so close until her terrible boyfriend came between us." A sizable minority of members of estranged parents' forums have children whose troubles started early in life, but most members who claim their children are personality disordered didn't have trouble until the children were old enough to start claiming some independence.

  • Tend to have younger children (preschool through very early 20's, with an uptick in the early teens), although a significant minority have children who are established adults.

  • Tend to have problems with just one child. It's uncommon for all the children in the family to have issues. A sizable minority of members of estranged parents' forums have problems with just one child, but it's more common for them to have problems with all their children, or all but one.

  • Are more likely to have an official diagnosis for their children.

  • If they have no official diagnosis, they're more likely to have narrowed down the possibilities to a couple of similar diagnoses. Members of estranged parents' forums tend to hit on personality disorders as one of several possibilities, and are easily distracted by new explanations for their children's behavior.

  • Are well educated in the traits of various disorders and the distinctions between disorders, or are working to become educated. Members of estranged parents' forums tend to rely on vague descriptions relayed by other members, make mistakes like confusing borderline personality disorder with bipolar, and do shallow, tentative research with haphazardly chosen resources.

  • Describe their children's behavior clearly and concisely, with illustrative examples, good timelines, and precise details.

  • Focus accounts of their children's behavior on what their children did, not on how it made the parents feel.

  • Use current psychological vocabulary (i.e., emotionally abusive alcoholic vs. mean drunk).

  • Tend not to take their children's behavior personally. They're less likely to feel judged as parents or invalidated as people because of their children's behavior, even though their children's behavior does hurt them and they sometimes struggle with guilt.

  • Don't feel defined by their roles as parents.

  • Don't resort to authoritarian standbys--"You must respect me because I'm the parent," etc. Don't frame encounters with their children as a struggle for control, assume that everything their children does is designed to hurt them, or express a desire to punish their children and make their children hurt as much as the parents are hurting. Don't use "respect" as an all-purpose goal or "disrespect" as an all-purpose label for their children's behavior.

  • Are more likely to be the estranger than the estrangee. A significant proportion cut contact with their adult children for the parents' own health and safety.

There are also similarities with members of estranged parents' groups:

  • Parents talk about their feelings of guilt and struggle with their desire to contact their children.

  • Many parents were married to abusive spouses, and they sometimes talk about a pervasive pattern of personality disorders in their ex-spouse's family. Some parents are married to spouses whose ex-spouse was personality disordered, and they're now dealing with personality disorders in their stepchildren. Abused people tend to be attracted to other abused people or abusers, so this is a red flag for abuse in the members' own families of origin.

  • The children often accuse the parents of abuse. Members of Out of the Fog are moe likely to give detailed accounts of the children's accusations.

  • Parents accuse their adult children of using the grandchildren as a weapon.

  • Parents stay in touch with their adult children only for the grandchildren's sake.

I'm still reading forums, sifting through the data, testing hypotheses. One of the complicating factors is forum culture: Does the Out of the Fog forum draw in people who are less emotional, more analytical? (Counterweight: The type of person who becomes a member of estranged parents' forums is not a great observer of forum culture, and posts the same kind of weepy, vague, emotion-saturated accounts in a vast variety of contexts.) Another is the children's age: Are parents more likely to be collected when their children are younger, and more likely to fall apart as their children age out of their malleable period? (Counterweight: A notable minority of members of estranged parents' forums are dealing with children in their teens and early 20's.)

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