Many families experience estrangement. Sometimes an estrangement lasts a lifetime and other times family members reconcile and either put aside their differences or forge a stronger relationship.
An estrangement can be a complete cutoff of all communication (no contact) or a partial cutoff where one person makes a consistent effort to limit contact or emotional closeness by setting firm boundaries. An estrangement can be ongoing or have an “on-again/off-again” quality with periods of distance and periods of more connection.
Although this article focuses on parent-child estrangement, an estrangement can happen in any relationship, including among siblings or extended family members. In addition, estrangements between two family members frequently grow to include additional family members as some feel pressured to choose sides.
If you’ve experienced a family estrangement—regardless of its form or who initiated it—you know it can be a difficult and painful experience.
The effects of family estrangement
Roberta Wasserman, LCSW-C, a therapist specializing in family estrangement, told me via email that estrangement can be a “devastating and traumatic experience.” It’s common for estranged individuals to feel profound sadness, as well as anger, anxiety, guilt, and shame.
The ambiguous nature of the loss makes grieving difficult and closure unlikely for most. Unlike when a loved one dies, people don’t typically receive an outpouring of love and support to help them cope with estrangement.
Estrangement goes against societal expectations that family ties will endure forever. As a result, the emotional pain of estrangement is often misunderstood and minimized. Wasserman notes that even close friends and family members can be judgmental, contributing to feelings of shame and leaving estranged individuals to suffer in silence.
Grief and loss
Grief goes beyond the loss of an important person or relationship. There are other related or intangible losses that result from estrangement. For example, an adult child might long for the stability and support that families usually provide (Agllias, 2018). And even though they might not miss their particular family, they might miss having a family to spend the holidays with. Sometimes, estranged adult children are grieving the love and support they never got. Estrangement can mark the end of hoping that your family will accept and love you unconditionally or that your parents will change.
For parents, estrangement from an adult child often includes estrangement from grandchildren, as well. Whether a close relationship with a grandchild is now gone or you’ve never met your grandchildren (or don’t know if you have grandchildren), it’s a deep loss.
Parents can also experience a loss of identity, especially if being a mother, father, or grandparent was central to their identity. They, too, may grieve having the entire family together for special events and passing down family traditions.
Given that estrangement is such a painful experience, you may be wondering why it’s so prevalent.
Why do parents and adult children become estranged?
The reasons for parent-child estrangement are varied. Adult children typically say that they cut ties due to cruel or hurtful treatment, including abuse, rejection, betrayal, or lack of warmth or affection (Agllias, 2016; Carr et al., 2015; Conti 2015; Scharp et al., 2015). Parents are more likely to believe the estrangement is due to the influence of a third party, such as the adult child’s spouse or partner (Carr et al., 2015; Schoppe-Sullivan et al., 2021). Differing values can also contribute to family estrangement (Agllias, 2015; Gilligan et al., 2015).
You can read about the causes of parent-child estrangement in this article: Why Adult Children Cut Ties with their Parents.
Sometimes, the person being cut off feels confused or shocked by the estrangement. If communication has broken down, it may seem like the estrangement has come out of the blue or it’s the result of a single argument or misunderstanding. However, research indicates that this is rarely the case. Most adult children who cut ties with a parent say it was a decision of last resort that came after years of hurt and efforts to set boundaries (Agllias, 2016, 2018; Scharp, 2016; Scharp et al., 2015).
In my experience, no one truly wants to be estranged from their family. Cutting ties is a decision that’s agonized over. People feel guilty and ashamed of it and most only choose estrangement because they can no longer tolerate the pain that’s associated with continuing the relationship.
Is estrangement ever helpful?
Estrangement can be liberating for those who’ve experienced abuse (physical, sexual, verbal, emotional manipulation, gaslighting, etc.), rejection, or controlling parents.
Although estrangement is emotionally painful, some adult children benefit from gaining a sense of control over their lives (Linden & Sillence, 2021; Melvin & Hickey, 2021; Mynard, 2020). Post-estrangement, they feel free to make decisions that are in their own best interest rather than limiting their options, hiding their authentic selves, or otherwise living their lives to please their parents.
Estrangement also has the potential to promote healing, especially for adult children who have been mistreated or rejected by their parents (Agllias, 2018; Allen & Moore, 2017; Linden & Sillence, 2021, Scharp & Thomas, 2016). Distance from an abusive or domineering parent can provide an adult child the time and space needed to heal. It’s very hard to heal the emotional wounds of abuse or trauma when one is in a relationship that continues to cause harm.
So, while estrangement can provide relief and independence to adult children, there doesn’t seem to be a comparable “upside” for parents who are cut off.
Distance can, however, allow tensions between family members to cool off, which may be helpful for those hoping to reconcile. Wasserman encourages parents experiencing an unwanted estrangement to use the time to focus on their own healing and to work toward acceptance and letting go of what they can’t control. She notes that “the separation can actually be beneficial to change the relationship dynamics to an adult-adult relationship versus parent-child.”
Support can help
Supportive people are instrumental in helping you cope with and work through the grief and challenges that come with estrangement. I know this isn’t easy given the social stigma that accompanies family estrangement. It’s wise to be cautious, but also persistent in seeking support. This may include a therapist or coach who is experienced in working with family estrangement, a support group for people experiencing estrangement, existing friends, and slowly building a new community of people who understand what you’re going through.
If you’re estranged from a parent, take our brief survey.
©2023 Dr. Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.
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Agllias, K. (2015). Difference, choice, and punishment: Parental beliefs and understandings about adult child estrangement. Australian Social Work, 68(1), 115-129.
Agllias, K. (2016). Disconnection and decision-making: Adult children explain their reasons for estranging from parents. Australian Social Work, 69(1), 92–104.
Agllias, K. (2018). Missing family: The adult child’s experience of parental estrangement. Journal of Social Work Practice, 32(1), 59-72.
Allen, J., & Moore, J. (2017). Troubling the functional/dysfunctional family binary through the articulation of functional family estrangement. Western Journal of Communication, 81(3), 281-299.
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Linden, A. H., & Sillence, E. (2021). “I’m finally allowed to be me”: Parent-child estrangement and psychological wellbeing. Families, Relationships and Societies, 10(2), 325-341.
Melvin, K., & Hickey, J. (2021). The changing impact and challenges of familial estrangement. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 1-9.
Mynard, S. (2020). Experiences of counselling and therapy post estrangement from abusive parents [Master’s thesis, The University of Northampton]. ResearchGate.
Scharp, K. M. (2016). Parent-child estrangement: Conditions for disclosure and perceived social network member reactions. Family Relations, 65(5), 688–700.
Scharp, K. M., & Thomas, L. J. (2016). Family “bonds”: Making meaning of parent–child relationships in estrangement narratives. Journal of Family Communication, 74, 31–50.
Scharp, K. M., Thomas, L. J., & Paxman, C. G. (2015). “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back”: Exploring the distancing communicatively constructed in parent-child estrangement backstories. Journal of Family Communication, 15(4), 330–348.
Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J., Coleman, J., Wang, J., & Yan, J. J. (2021). Mothers’ attributions for estrangement from their adult children. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice.
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