Table of Contents
It’s painful and isolating to be apart from your family. Family estrangement is a difficult thing to deal with.
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 abandon 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. Cutting off contact and communication is one of the most common ways people use to distance themselves from the 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.
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 cause of estrangement.
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 estranged4, 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:
1. Intrapersonal issues – Personality characteristic of the involved members such as self-centeredness, narcissism, or mental illness.
2. Intrafamily issues – Negative behavior such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, toxicity or harsh parenting.
3. Interfamily issues – Issues outside of the family such as objectional relationship or physical distance.
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 relationship bound by blood can survive insurmountable odds. Therefore, any breach of that closeness is discouraged.
On the 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 and, individuals who believe they have no viable choice but to maintain such relationships will be greatly distressed when estranged.
Therefore, 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 feelings of loss, abandonment, rejection, and helplessness.
For 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 relationship and family tension. Chronic stress caused by toxic parenting can lead to a range of physical and mental health problems for the adult children5.
How to deal with estrangement from your children
In studies, parents cited intra- and interfamily stressors significantly more than children. They 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 rift would likely be repaired.
This 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, 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 counselling or family therapist. 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.
- 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
- 2.Titelman P. Emotional Cutoff. Routledge; 2014. doi:10.4324/9781315809144
- 3.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.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
- 5.Franke H. Toxic Stress: Effects, Prevention and Treatment. Children. Published online November 3, 2014:390-402. doi:10.3390/children1030390