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 experiences1.
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.
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 members2.
There are two types of family rifts — continuous estrangement and chaotic disassociation3.
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 fathers4. 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 estrangement5.
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 estranged6, 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 parents6:
1. Intrapersonal issues – Personality characteristics of the estranged person
- mental illness
- self-centeredness, narcissism
- unsupported or unaccepted feelings or judgment
- differences in personal values7 such as sexual orientation8, gender identity, religious belief9
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
- 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 conflicts10
- enmeshment – enmeshed relationship between the child and the preferred parent11
- toxic behavior
- difficulties in managing anger and disappointment
- violation of societal norms such as crime, incarceration12
3. Interfamily issues – Issues outside of the family
- objectional relationship
- physical distance
- influence from a third party, such as a controlling or abusive spouse
Is Estrangement a Form of Abuse
Parental alienation resulting in family estrangement is a form of child emotional abuse13.
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 children14. 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 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.
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