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Family Estrangement – What Causes It & How To Deal With

What it is | How common | Causes | Effects | How to deal with

It’s painful and isolating to be apart from your family. Family estrangement is a difficult thing to deal with.

In a nuclear family, parent-child relationships are some of the most long-lasting and close relationships one experiences​1​. However, not all parent-child communication is positive. When family members choose to withdraw from one another, it can be upsetting.

Sometimes, it’s hard to understand why a family member would want to cut another member out of their life. Find out why some grown children choose to abandon their parents and what parents can do about it.

father son back facing each other

What is family estrangement

Family estrangement is a separation within a family, often involving one or more members of the family choosing to withdraw from one another. It often happens between adult children and their parents, but estrangements between parents also exist.

Cutting off contact and communication is one of the most common ways people use to distance themselves from the family or certain family members​2​.

There are two types of family rifts — continuous estrangement and chaotic disassociation​3​.

A continuous estrangement happens when adult children are able to communicate effectively with their parents and maintain distance from them in spite of social or cultural pressures to reconcile.

In chaotic disassociation, adult children succumb to pressure and engage in an on-and-off relationship until they can finally cut off all family ties.

How common is family estrangement

A 1997 study on later-life intergenerational relationships shows that 7% of adult children are estranged from mothers and 27% from fathers​4​. In 2015, a survey conducted with 354 undergraduate and graduate students at universities in the northeastern US found that 44% experienced an estrangement​5​.

What Causes Family Estrangement

There are many reasons why people may experience or instigate estrangement from their families. Often, estrangement occurs after a major event or incident, but the event usually serves as a trigger rather than the main cause.

Studies show that there is no one type of interaction, one parenting style, or one significant family conflict that leads to estrangement. However, one common theme researchers have noticed is that parents and children’s reasons for estrangement differ significantly from each other.

While parents reported their primary reason for becoming estranged stemmed from their own divorce, their children’s objectionable relationships, or their sense of entitlement, adult children most frequently attributed their estrangement to their parents’ toxic behavior, maltreatment, child abuse, neglect, or feeling unsupported and/or unaccepted.

Additionally, a higher proportion of estranged parents than estranged children do not know exactly why they are estranged​6​, which means children are more likely to initiate estrangement than parents.

A large study involving 898 estranged parent-child pairs discovered that there are three categories of reasons why adult children seek distance from their parents​6​:

1. Intrapersonal issues – Personality characteristic of the involved members

  • mental illness
  • self-centeredness, narcissism
  • unsupported or unaccepted feelings or judgment
  • immaturity
  • differences in personal values​10​ such as sexual orientation​11​, religious belief​12​

2. Intrafamily issues – resulted from Negative behavior between estranged family members

  • abuse in childhood, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, abuse by siblings
  • serious neglect or insensitivities
  • rigid, controlling or harsh parenting
  • distant parenting style
  • family conflict or rivalry
  • existence or perception of parental favoritism
  • lying or manipulation
  • ambivalent about parent-child relationship
  • entitlement
  • drug or alcohol abuse
  • alienation – child’s relationship with a parent is undermined or damaged by input from the alienating parent in intense marital conflicts​7​
  • enmeshment – enmeshed relationship between the child and the preferred parent​8​
  • toxic behavior
  • difficulties in managing anger and disappointment
  • violation of societal norm such as crime, incarceration​9​

3. Interfamily issues – Issues outside of the family

  • objectional relationship
  • physical distance
  • influence from third party, such as a controlling or abusive spouse
daughter argues with angry mother

The Effects of Family Estrangement

The effects of estrangement between family members can be devastating to some members. It may create substantial distress for the estranged individuals.

A general belief in society is that relationships between parents and children are deeply meaningful, lifelong, and highly rewarding. The adage “blood is thicker than water” is deeply ingrained in American family values. Despite whatever hardship, many believe that family relationships bound by blood can survive insurmountable odds. Therefore, any breach of that closeness is discouraged.

On one hand, the involuntary nature of family relationships coupled with their ‘staying power’ creates great distress for those who struggle to understand why estrangement has happened. On the other hand, individuals who believe they have no viable choice but to maintain such relationships will be greatly distressed.

For an abuse survivor, breaking the rules of family life and estranging from the abusive family is necessary to obtain a better quality of life. Recent “individualistic culture” has afforded these people the courage to break free from harm.

In other cases, for family estrangement to occur, communication must break down or the family situation must be so intolerable that those initiating the separation feel the need to end the difficult relationship to protect their own mental health. When this happens, the rejected parent often experiences the difficult feelings of loss, abandonment, rejection, and helplessness.

For some adult children, their social network or extended family members may pressure them constantly to reconcile, which results in a cycle of on-again/off-again relationships and estranged family tension. However, chronic stress caused by toxic parenting can lead to a range of physical and mental health problems for adult children​13​. A vast majority of adult children make this decision to improve the quality of their adult lives.

How to deal with estrangement from your children

In studies, although grief of family estrangement created profound feelings in parents, they often cited intra- and interfamily stressors significantly more than children. These parents believe that situational or external stressors play a greater role than their children’s character or personality in creating the rupture. That means, if those external circumstances are absent, the broken family ties would likely be repaired.

If you believe this is the case in your situation, it is a relatively easier problem to fix because you don’t have to change your child. All you have to do is to provide them with new information or experiences.

However, if you are estranged from your adult children due to intrapersonal reasons, e.g. your personality or differences in values, then estrangement may be inevitable unless significant changes can occur in you or your child.

It is hard for any person to identify and accept their own flaws. When asked by researchers in the study, parents often cannot reflect on their own roles in creating hurtful feelings in their children.

Therefore, to overcome the estrangement and get your relationship back on track, it is advisable to seek help from family counseling, a family therapist, or other mental health professionals. They will likely have a different perspective on the situation.

Asking your children for their honest feedback is another way. But keep in mind that the truth may hurt and may change the family dynamic in unexcepted ways.


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