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3 Causes of Family Estrangement

| What is family estrangement | Statistics | Causes | Is Estrangement a Form of Abuse | Effects | How to deal with |

It’s painful and isolating to be apart from your family. Family estrangement is a difficult situation 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 cut off their parents and what parents can do about it.

estranged father son back facing each other wondering is estrangement a form of abuse

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 their 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.

Statistics on 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% of these young adults experienced an estrangement​5​.

mother estranged from entire family estrangment

Family Estrangement Causes

There are many reasons why people instigate estrangement from their families.

Since it often occurs after a major event or incident, there is a common misconception that certain types of events can cause a rupture. However, 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.

In many cases, parents and children believe the issues were caused by drastically different reasons. They interpret the problem or event in different ways from each other.

While parents reported their primary reason for becoming estranged stemmed from their own divorce, their children’s objectionable relationships, or their children’s 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 the separation of difficult relationships.

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

1. Intrapersonal issues – Personality characteristics of the estranged person

  • mental illness
  • self-centeredness, narcissism
  • unsupported or unaccepted feelings or judgment
  • immaturity
  • differences in personal values​7​ such as sexual orientation​8​, gender identity, religious belief​9​

2. Intrafamily issues – resulted from Negative behavior from an estranged family member or among them

  • 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 the parent-child relationship
  • entitlement
  • drug or alcohol abuse
  • parental alienation – child’s relationship with a parent is undermined or damaged by input from the alienating parent in intense marital conflicts​​10​
  • enmeshment – enmeshed relationship between the child and the preferred parent​​11​
  • toxic behavior
  • difficulties in managing anger and disappointment
  • violation of societal norms such as crime, incarceration​12​

3. Interfamily issues – Issues outside of the family

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

Is Estrangement a Form of Abuse

Parental alienation resulting in family estrangement is a form of child emotional abuse​13​.

The bitterness of a divorce or custody dispute often results in parental alienation, especially in dysfunctional families.

Alienation occurs when children are taught or led to reject a parent without a valid reason.

The Effects of Family Estrangement

The negative effect can be devastating to some members. It may create substantial distress for the estranged family member.

A general belief in society is that the kind of relationship between parents and children is 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 their abusive family is necessary to obtain a better quality of life. Recent “individualistic culture” has afforded these people the courage to break free from toxic relationships.

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 negative relationship to protect their own mental health.

When this happens, the person estranged from family often experiences difficult feelings of loss, abandonment, rejection, and helplessness.

For some adult children, their social network or close relative may pressure them constantly to reconcile, which results in a cycle of on-again/off-again relationships and tension.

However, chronic stress caused by toxic parenting can lead to a range of physical and mental health problems for adult children​14​. A vast majority of adult children make this decision to improve the quality of their adult lives.

mother and daughter reconciliate  enstrangement

How to deal with estrangement from your children

Also See: Why Adult Children Are Cutting Off Their Parents

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 anyone’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 anyone. All you have to do is to provide everyone with new information or experiences.

However, if you are estranged from your adult children due to intrapersonal reasons, e.g. your child or 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 role 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, a clinical psychologist, or other mental health professionals. They can provide different perspectives 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 unexpected ways.

Find out if parentification or enmeshment could be the cause of your situation.

References

  1. 1.
    Suitor JJ, Sechrist J, Plikuhn M, Pardo ST, Pillemer K. Within-Family Differences in Parent–Child Relations Across the Life Course. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. Published online October 2008:334-338. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00601.x
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    Titelman P. Emotional Cutoff. Routledge; 2014. doi:10.4324/9781315809144
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    Scharp KM, Thomas LJ, Paxman CG. “It Was the Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back”: Exploring the Distancing Processes Communicatively Constructed in Parent-Child Estrangement Backstories. Journal of Family Communication. Published online October 2, 2015:330-348. doi:10.1080/15267431.2015.1076422
  4. 4.
    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
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    Conti RP. Family Estrangement: Establishing a Prevalence Rate. JPBS. Published online 2015. doi:10.15640/jpbs.v3n2a4
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    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
  7. 7.
    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
  8. 8.
    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
  9. 9.
    Walsh F. Spiritual Resources in Family Therapy. 2nd ed. Guilford Press; 2009. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2008-19118-000
  10. 10.
    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
  11. 11.
    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
  12. 12.
    Condry R. Families Shamed. Willan; 2013. doi:10.4324/9781843926061
  13. 13.
    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
  14. 14.
    Franke H. Toxic Stress: Effects, Prevention and Treatment. Children. Published online November 3, 2014:390-402. doi:10.3390/children1030390

About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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