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3 Common Causes of Family Estrangement & How to Deal With It

What is family estrangement?

Family estrangement is a separation within a family, often involving one or more family members choosing to withdraw from one another. It often happens between adult children and their parents, but estrangements between parents also exist. Completely cutting off contact and communication is one of the most common ways people distance themselves from their family or certain family members​1​.

A father stands in front of his adult son, who is blurred in the background.

How common is family estrangement?

Family estrangement is quite common in the United States. According to a 1997 study on intergenerational relationships, 7% of adult children are estranged from mothers and 27% from fathers.​2​ In another study conducted in four northeastern universities in 2015, 44% of the 354 undergraduate and graduate students experienced an estrangement​3​

How long does family estrangement last?

The mean length of estrangement was 59.4 months or roughly 5 years in the same 2015 study by Richard P. Conti at Kean University in New Jersey. The duration ranged from 1 to 300 months among the 354 participants in the study.​3​

What causes family estrangement?

Family estrangement is caused by the following three types of reasons, according to a large study involving 898 estranged parent-child pairs​4​:

Personality characteristics

Family estrangement can be caused by the personality characteristics of the estranged person, including the following.

  • mental illness
  • self-centeredness, narcissism
  • unsupported or unaccepted feelings or judgment
  • immaturity
  • differences in personal values​5​ such as sexual orientation​6​, gender identity, religious belief​7​

Negative behavior

Negative behavior can cause rifts in parent-child relationships.

  • abuse in childhood, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, abuse by siblings
  • serious neglect or insensitivity
  • rigid, controlling, or harsh parenting
  • distant parenting style
  • family conflict or rivalry
  • existence or perception of parental favoritism
  • lying or manipulation
  • ambivalent about the parent-child relationship
  • entitlement
  • drug or alcohol abuse
  • parental alienation – a child’s relationship with a parent is undermined or damaged by input from the alienating parent in intense marital conflicts​​8​
  • enmeshment​​9​
  • toxic behavior
  • difficulties in managing anger and disappointment
  • violation of social norms such as crime or incarceration​10​

Issues outside of the family

External issues can cause disconnections among family members.

  • objectable relationships
  • physical distance
  • influence from a third party, such as a controlling or abusive spouse

Do parents and children attribute the same causes to their estrangement?

No, parents and children often attribute their estrangement to different causes. The primary causes reported by parents are the parents’ divorce, children’s objectable relationships, or children’s sense of entitlement. The leading causes of family estrangement reported by adult children are parents’ toxic behavior, maltreatment, child abuse, neglect, or feeling unsupported and/or unaccepted.

What is the most common reason for family estrangement?

The most common reason for family estrangement is children’s objectionable relationships outside the family from the parents’ perspective and parents’ toxic behavior from the children’s perspective.

What type of interactions or events lead to familial estrangement?

Studies show that no one type of interaction, parenting style, or significant event leads to estrangement, although the disconnection often occurs after traumatic incidents. The adverse event usually serves as a trigger rather than the leading cause.

Who started family estrangement?

Children are more likely than parents to initiate the separation of relationships. More estranged parents than children do not know why they are estranged​4​.

Is estrangement a form of abuse?

Yes, family estrangement due to parental alienation is a form of child emotional abuse​11​. A child in this situation is manipulated by the malicious parent to falsely believe the other parent has abandoned or done something bad to the child. Such rifts are usually the results of bitter divorce or custody disputes in dysfunctional families.

What are the psychological effects of family estrangement?

The estranged member can suffer from shame, rejection, helplessness, abandonment, anger, embarrassment, and a loss of self-esteem. The estranged is at risk of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues due to the stress of estrangement.

The instigating member can feel pressured to reconcile due to societal expectations. A child manipulated to alienate their parent can feel rejected and abandoned, resulting in lower self-esteem.

However, if the family member has estranged another member to get away from a toxic or abusive relationship, their quality of life and mental health can improve from the estrangement. Physical health can also benefit due to the removal of chronic stress.​12​.

How to fix family estrangement?

To fix family estrangement, follow these 4 steps.

  1. Identify the underlying cause: Knowing why you are being estranged is essential to repairing the relationship. It involves being self-reflective, being honest with yourself, and seeking genuine feedback from others. If the person who instigated the cut-off is willing to communicate, ask them directly.
  2. Acknowledge the cause: No one enjoys finding themselves in the wrong. You may feel the urge to tell your side of the story, but please resist. Accept the responsibility for making them feel that way, whether you agree with their feelings.
  3. Commit to change: To repair the relationship, change must occur. Since you’re the one seeking reconciliation, you must initiate this change.
  4. Enroll in family therapy: Professional help is valuable if you cannot agree on what needs to be changed or how to do it. An experienced therapist can facilitate the healing process.

How do you move on from family estrangement as a parent?

To move on from being estranged as the parent, follow these 6 tips.

  • Grieve the loss: Allow yourself to experience and process the emotions associated with the estrangement, acknowledging the pain and sorrow as a natural part of the healing journey.
  • Forgive others and yourself: It’s natural to experience anger, shame, or a sense of injustice. To truly move on and heal, forgive others and yourself to nurture your inner peace.
  • Do not ruminate: Instead of dwelling on the past or overanalyzing the situation, accept what has happened and focus on the present.
  • Connect with Friends: Relationships are essential aspects of human life. When you lose a close relationship, reaching out and strengthening your bonds with others is essential.
  • Engage in self-care: Prioritize activities and habits that nurture your physical, emotional, and mental health, creating a routine that supports personal growth and resilience.
  • Seek professional help: If you have trouble healing, an experienced mental health provider can help you move forward healthily.


  1. 1.
    Titelman P. Emotional Cutoff. Routledge; 2014. doi:10.4324/9781315809144
  2. 2.
    Agllias K. No Longer on Speaking Terms: The Losses Associated with Family Estrangement at the End of Life. Families in Society. Published online January 2011:107-113. doi:10.1606/1044-3894.4055
  3. 3.
    Conti RP. Family Estrangement: Establishing a Prevalence Rate. JPBS. Published online 2015. doi:10.15640/jpbs.v3n2a4
  4. 4.
    Carr K, Holman A, Abetz J, Kellas JK, Vagnoni E. Giving Voice to the Silence of Family Estrangement: Comparing Reasons of Estranged Parents and Adult Children in a Nonmatched Sample. Journal of Family Communication. Published online April 2, 2015:130-140. doi:10.1080/15267431.2015.1013106
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    Gilligan M, Suitor JJ, Pillemer K. Estrangement Between Mothers and Adult Children: The Role of Norms and Values. Fam Relat. Published online May 14, 2015:908-920. doi:10.1111/jomf.12207
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    Kurdek LA, Schmitt JP. Perceived Emotional Support from Family and Friends in Members of Homosexual, Married, and Heterosexual Cohabiting Couples. Journal of Homosexuality. Published online December 16, 1987:57-68. doi:10.1300/j082v14n03_04
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    Walsh F. Spiritual Resources in Family Therapy. 2nd ed. Guilford Press; 2009.
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    Kelly JB, Johnston JR. THE ALIENATED CHILD:A Reformulation of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Family Court Review. Published online March 15, 2005:249-266. doi:10.1111/j.174-1617.2001.tb00609.x
  9. 9.
    Friedlander S, Walters MG. WHEN A CHILD REJECTS A PARENT: TAILORING THE INTERVENTION TO FIT THE PROBLEM. Family Court Review. Published online January 2010:98-111. doi:10.1111/j.1744-1617.2009.01291.x
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    Condry R. Families Shamed. Willan; 2013. doi:10.4324/9781843926061
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    Reay KM. Family Reflections: A Promising Therapeutic Program Designed to Treat Severely Alienated Children and Their Family System. The American Journal of Family Therapy. Published online February 26, 2015:197-207. doi:10.1080/01926187.2015.1007769
  12. 12.
    Franke H. Toxic Stress: Effects, Prevention and Treatment. Children. Published online November 3, 2014:390-402. doi:10.3390/children1030390


    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *