Guest Post: Book Review By M. Dolon Hickmon

Note: My friend recently read a book that is on the side of the abuser. It is triggering but I feel that survivors need to be aware that there are psychologists who minimize our abuse.

Parents Who Spank Face ‘Epidemic’ of Estrangement
Dr. Joshua Coleman’s latest book offers caution, comfort to cut-off parents

By M. Dolon Hickmon

Content warning: This is a review of a book written by a psychologist who specializes in
treating the grief of parents who have been divorced by their adult children, often over
allegations of abuse or neglect. Although this book contains valuable insights, the
author’s frequent minimization of child abuse may be upsetting to trauma survivors.

According to a 2021 book by psychologist and formerly estranged parent Dr. Joshua
Coleman, mental health professionals are facing a new crisis: generations of older parents
cut-off by their adult children over allegations of child abuse. Importantly, Dr. Coleman
says that what constitutes adequate reason to end contact has changed: “It doesn’t have to
create marked distress in almost everyone,” Coleman writes in chapter two; “nor does it
need to produce obvious distress in the traumatized person.” Rather, evaluations are
based on the child’s perception: “if I say that you abused, neglected, bullied or
traumatized me,” Coleman writes, “then you did.”

Coleman compares the wounds of estranged parents to life imprisonment in a purgatory
of guilt and sorrow where only their children can commute their sentences: “Speaking of
pain, what are you doing for the holidays, your birthday, your child’s wedding, the birth
of your new grandchild, your child’s graduation? These are all events that you never in
your wildest dreams thought you’d be excluded from. If you’re like almost every
estranged parent, you feel a sense of morbid dread when these days approach.”

Adding salt to these wounds is the fact that estrangement often feels completely unfair to
the cut-off parent: “There are plenty of dedicated parents whose children choose to end
the relationship. The fact that so many dedicated parents are estranged today shows that
this is part of a larger social phenomenon, more than the problem of any one parent.”

Among other relevant social trends, Coleman identifies shifting attitudes about what
constitutes physical child abuse as a driving factor: “However loving, dedicated, or
invested you were, your adult children have their own scale to weigh your behavior as a
parent, one calibrated in a way far different from the one you brought into the nursery.”

Part of that different scale is reflected in modern attitudes about the inappropriateness of
whipping, switching, smacking, or paddling. “A common thread in the perspective of
estranged children are allegations of harm committed by the parent. This is challenging
terrain for today’s parents of adult children because much of what younger generations
consider hurtful or neglectful parental acts, would barely be on the radar for parents of
almost any generation before.” In fact, despite estrangement being roughly as common as
spousal divorce, examples lifted from Coleman’s estrangement-focused psychology
practice feature a telling number of physical abuse allegations. Coleman claims that many
are based on conduct that previous generations would have considered reasonable and
even responsible parenting.

“There’s been a generational change,” says Dr. Robert Sege, lead author of the American
Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement against corporal punishment. “As we’ve woken
up to the issues of domestic violence and intimate partner violence there’s been a
growing rejection of any sort of violence within the home, including spanking.”

Global approval for physical punishment has been in decline for more than a century.
New Jersey banned paddling from public schools in the 1870s, and similar laws have
expanded to cover more than 90% of American public school children. Dozens of
countries including America’s closest allies list physical punishment of children as a
criminal offense. In the U.S., it is against the law to spank children in group homes or
foster care, and tales of parents heading to prison for whipping or paddling their kids
appear in the news every day. Such developments are cheered by all but a fringe of
secular experts, who broadly agree that spanking carries serious risks of physical,
emotional and psychiatric harm not offset by any potential benefit.

In contrast to prior generations, the majority of today’s parents have taken to heart the
global consensus on physical discipline. According to a Monitoring the Future study of
25 consecutive groups of graduating high school seniors, among adults with children
aged 2 to 12 years old, the proportion who said they spanked their child dropped from 50
percent in 1993 to 35 percent in 2017. As a consequence, younger adults may feel a
moral responsibility to deny both sympathy and affection to a parent who they consider a
serious criminal for inflicting emotional injuries while willfully ignoring widely
publicized and accepted scientific evidence.

Coleman points out that the decision to estrange from such a parent is now also likely to
be met with considerable support, particularly on social media. “The current model of
how we become who we are puts adults on a path of self-discovery where the quest is to
hunt down and eliminate — not only those traits that stand in the way of happiness, but
the individuals they believe to have put those problems there in the first place.” So while
there’s nothing new about ending family relationships, “conceptualizing the estrangement
[…] as an expression of personal growth and achievement is almost certainly new.”

Coleman’s heart is clearly for healing estranged parents — so much so that I, as a
survivor of child abuse, spent an hour crying in the shower after reading this book, which
is filled with Coleman seeming to minimize crimes like child torture and rape
statements like: “however small or great your mistakes as parents, those mistakes don’t
mean that living the rest of your lives without your children or grandchildren is a just
punishment for whatever complaints they have about what you did or didn’t do.”

Ultimately, Coleman is forced to admit that most of the estranged children he contacts
demonstrate little interest in relating to their parents. By his own estimates, nearly two-
thirds of estranged adult children he approaches either ignore or openly rebuff his guided
attempts at reconciliation. “Many” use mediation sessions as a platform to verbally berate
their abusers for as long as the therapist allows it. “It’s one thing for an adult child to say, ‘I resent that you weren’t there for me more, that you were critical, self-absorbed, whatever.’ But it’s another to scream insults and tell them they should die.”

When reconciliation fails, Coleman’s task is to help parents come to grips with the
heartaches of being permanently exiled. He offers advice on what to do with the estate
that your adult children do not want, how to respond when your son or daughter files for
a restraining order, and how you might excuse yourself for a cry when your dinner
companions start sharing photos of their grandchildren. “The message of estrangement,”
Coleman writes, “is that you can have your most treasured person torn from you and
there’s nothing — or seemingly nothing — that you can do about it.”

Supported by case-studies lifted from Dr. Coleman’s psychology practice, the author’s
latest, titled Rules of Estrangement, (Harmony Books, Releasing 2021) is a brisk read that
packs valuable insights into a few well-thought-out pages. Coleman clearly has little
empathy for victims or survivors of child abuse, but his work is a harbinger, making it
clearer than ever that the debate over legally sanctioned family violence has already
ended. For a while longer, America’s governing generation will deny children legal
protection, but nothing protects parents from their children’s moral outrage: “some
parents have been so destructive when the child was young that there is little left to build
a foundation upon, even if the parent is able and willing, later in life, to make amends.”

M. Dolon Hickmon explores the intersections of religion and child abuse in essays
published around the web, as well as in the pages of his critically acclaimed
13:24 – A Story of Faith and Obsession.

I highly recommend Hickman’s work.