It can be hard to understand why adult children cut ties with a parent. This is usually because we assume that parent-child relationships are not only important but functional.
Family is forever. Blood is thicker than water. These sayings reflect our assumptions that family relationships are close and long-lasting. Parent-child relationships, in particular, are expected to be unwavering and unconditional. But this isn’t always the case—some adults cut ties with or distance themselves from their parents or other family members.
Adults are increasingly recognizing that they can opt-out of dysfunctional family relationships. This article will explore the reasons for parent-child estrangement from the adult child’s perspective. The purpose is to help destigmatize parent-child estrangement and examine whether estrangement can be a psychologically healthy choice.
What is parent-child estrangement?
In this article, I will use the terms estrangement, cutting ties, and distancing interchangeably. They refer to the adult child’s active decision and actions to reduce contact, communication, and emotional connection with a parent. Estrangement is not necessarily a complete or continuous cutoff. Therefore, I include no contact, low contact, and grey rock approaches in my definition of estrangement. The defining feature of estrangement, in this context, is that the adult child intentionally limits, reduces, or eliminates physical or emotional contact with a parent (biological, step, adoptive, or surrogate).
Some adult children are estranged from just one parent. However, it’s not uncommon for estranged adults to cut ties with multiple family members. This may be due to other family members siding with the parent they are estranged from or engaging in hurtful gossip, lies, scapegoating, or shaming them. They may also cut ties with family members who incessantly pressure them or try to manipulate them into reconciling with the estranged parent (Scharp, 2016).
Reasons adult children cut ties with a parent
Research indicates that adult children most often cite abuse, betrayal, indifference, or lack of acceptance from their parents as the reasons for their estrangement (Agllias, 2016; Carr et al., 2015; Conti 2015; Scharp et al., 2015). For example, in a study conducted by Carr et al. (2015), adult children attributed estrangement to parent “toxicity” (defined as cruel, hurtful, or disrespectful treatment from a parent), feeling unsupported and unaccepted, or abuse perpetrated by the parent or a lack of support when the child was abused by someone else.
Similarly, Agllias (2016) found that adult children cut ties with their parents due to abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, or failure to protect), poor parenting (an authoritarian parenting style, parentification, or a lack of support), and betrayal (lying, embarrassing the adult child, or sabotaging or undermining their other relationships).
In contrast, parents don’t typically see their behavior as contributing to the estrangement. They often believe another person (such as the adult child’s partner or other parent) turned their child against them (Carr et al., 2015; Schoppe-Sullivan et al., 2021). In one recent study, mothers also frequently said their adult child’s mental health problems or substance use contributed to their estrangement (Schoppe-Sullivan et al., 2021).
Estrangement may also be related to parents and adult children having differing values (Agllias, 2015; Gilligan et al., 2015). This makes sense as we are experiencing greater ideological extremes and political divides. For some, family relationships become untenable when their values and beliefs are attacked, or family members are unwilling to respect their boundaries (such as a request not to discuss certain topics or not to disparage the other person for having differing beliefs).
Cutting ties is not an easy decision
People and relationships are complex. There is rarely a single reason or event that causes parent-child estrangement. For most adult children, estrangement is the “final straw”. It is a painful decision that comes after years of mistreatment and attempts to repair the relationship (Agllias, 2016, 2018; Scharp, 2016; Scharp et al., 2015).
Estrangement can be a form of self-protection
For adult children who have experienced abuse, maltreatment, or rejection by a parent, cutting ties or going no contact is often viewed as self-protection and the only way for them to heal and move forward (Agllias, 2018). Adult children don’t want to cut ties, but they believe it is the only way to protect themselves from further harm.
Most people assume that parents love their children unconditionally and treat them with respect and dignity. When this happens, parent-child relationships are typically close and enduring and the parent and child both benefit. However, this isn’t always the case. Some parents fail to see their adult child as a separate, capable, and worthwhile person. They belittle them, make unreasonable demands, criticize their choices, reject their identity, or disregard their boundaries. When this happens continuously and the parent fails to accept responsibility for their behavior and is unwilling or unable to change, estrangement can result.
Conflict is normal in relationships and even healthy family relationships are occasionally fraught and painful. However, your relationship with your parents should not constantly have a negative impact on your mental health. If you have an abusive or “toxic” parent, distancing yourself may be the only way to safeguard your wellbeing.
The purpose of this article is not to promote estrangement as the solution to all family discord. Rather, this article acknowledges that estrangement is not necessarily wrong or selfish. Recent research and my experience as a psychotherapist for 25 years indicate that estrangement can be a healthy response to an unhealthy relationship—and cutting ties (permanently or temporarily) may be instrumental in healing from a painful or difficult relationship with a parent (Agllias, 2018; Allen & Moore, 2017; Scharp & Dorrance Hall, 2017).
If you are estranged from a parent, please know that it is a valid choice. Even if others don’t understand, you can frame it as a healthy choice for yourself—and the beginning of your journey to health and healing.
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©2022 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.
Carr, K., Holman, A., Abetz, J., Kellas, J. K., & Vagnoni, E. (2015). Giving voice to the silence of family estrangement: Comparing reasons of estranged parents and adult children in a nonmatched sample. Journal of Family Communication, 15(2), 130–140.
Conti, R. P. (2015). Family estrangement: Establishing a prevalence rate. Journal of Psychology and Behavioural Science, 3(2), 28–35.
Gilligan, M., Suitor, J. J., & Pillemer, K. (2015). Estrangement between mothers and adult children: The role of norms and values. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77(4), 908-920.
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., & Dorrance Hall, E. (2017). Family marginalization, alienation, and estrangement: Questioning the nonvoluntary status of family relationships. Annals of the International Communication Association, 41(1), 28-45.
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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