Reasons for parent-child estrangement

Why Adult Children Cut Ties with their Parents

It can be hard to understand why an adult child would 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).

Why do adult children cut ties with their parents?

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.

If you’re estranged from a parent, take our brief survey.

©2022 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.

Read more

Join our mailing list

References

Agllias, K. (2015). Difference, choice, and punishment: Parental beliefs and understandings about adult child estrangement. Australian Social Work68(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 Practice32(1), 59-72.  

Allen, J., & Moore, J. (2017). Troubling the functional/dysfunctional family binary through the articulation of functional family estrangement. Western Journal of Communication81(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 Family77(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.

This site is for informational purposes only. It provides general information and is not intended to nor should it be used to diagnose or treat any mental health or medical issues or advise you on your particular issues, questions, or decisions. You are solely responsible for how you use the information provided on this website and the consequences of your actions.

Sharon Martin is a psychotherapist, writer, speaker, and media contributor on emotional health and relationships. She specializes in helping people uncover their inherent worth and learn to accept themselves -- imperfections and all! Sharon writes a popular blog called Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

22 thoughts on “Why Adult Children Cut Ties with their Parents”

  1. As a person that has been on both sides of this terrible decision, this article is extremely biased in one direction. As a reader you need to be conscious, these therapists are encouraging this horrible idea, that estrangement could set you free. No, estrangement is only needed in cases of extreme abuses. Estrangement is a weapon. It is a nuclear weapon to any family. Think of the kid that owns the football, doesn’t get there way, takes the football and ends the game.
    The only winner is this decision is the therapist. They want you to explode, seek help so they can reap the rewards. Their stake in this game is very high.
    I made this stupid decision many years ago. I went an entire decade of no contact with my entire birth family. My children also backed me, causing much more collateral damage. I ended up missing (16) nieces and nephews grow up and become great people. None of them know me, nor have anything to do with me. I abandoned them. Any forgiveness would be their decision, I gave that right away when I left.
    Thankfully my siblings waited and took me back without questions. I missed them without knowing I missed them. My children do not know their cousins all due to my stupidity. A terrible idea, that will haunt me until I die.
    Several years later, I received an email that paid me back. My family has not heard from my son for over 8 years. I doubt we will ever hear from him. I taught him well. Running and hiding from issues is much easier. Until it all catches up to you.
    If I do hear from my son, it may surprise you, I will reject him. I will not take him back for any reason. You may think this as cruel and hypocritical. However, as in the last paragraph, the decision is not my sons to make. It is mine and I have determined the way and reasons he estranged himself combined with the cruelty my family endured, too much to ever forgive.

    Call your family or take a short break, estrangement is a fantasy you do not understand until you have endured it.

    1. You clearly don’t understand what it is like to be an adult child of years of abuse. This article is not for you, your manipulative opinions are not required.

    2. Estrangement is not an easy decision. I do not know you or your story, or why you cut off certain members for an entire decade, but I highly recommend you do get counseling, even if it is just to talk about how you feel “stupid” for it. There is a lot to unpack, and it doesn’t sound like you really processed it yet. I am someone who is estranged from both of my parents but have been able to maintain strong relationships with some of my siblings. I’m not a therapist, I’m just real happy and really confident that estrangement was 100% the right decision for me. And anyone who has done this definitely needs and deserves to process it.

  2. I also agree with what Mike B says. Estrangement is complicated. It is so easy to use the No Contact idea today. I remember being parent with a chronically/terminal husband. The illness came suddenly and lasted a number of years. At that time, family dynamics were not as understood the are now. I failed more than a few times to be a good healthy parent for my kids because I also had a number of other things to attend to. My mental health was rocky at times but I tried to get the help to make it through. Still, they suffered as I can see today. I have little to do with one son and the other prefers no contact except to dodge in and out of my life for his convenience. I am not in control of these situations as they control any engagement with me. When I ask to be a part of their life, I am declined. I would rather be a thousand miles away than in the situation I am in because it feels like pseudo estrangement. I know I did my best with what I had when they were children, but this is the second article that I have read about this topic this week and I do not think it is getting in depth coverage. Yes, I hurt my kids when I was tired and exhausted from doing way too much that needed to really be done in our family. That is the part I just can’t seem to get my kids to understand. Parenting is not an exact science. Our situation was not the norm. Kids have to do their part, too. My kids knew how to manipulate to get what they wanted. That can be taken into adulthood, too and the parents are the ones who are at fault. Parenting is a two-way street. What I am hearing to day in what is being written about is that the parents didn’t give kids what they wanted/needed. All or nothing. Therefore the parents are to blame. It’s not that simple but I’d be wary if this attitude of estrangement takes hold people will be hurt because blaming someone seems to catching on real fast. I was a part of the dysfunction in my situation, but my kids were, too. I wasn’t superwoman. I had deficits in my upbringing so there were deficits for them too. My mother was toxic at times and it affected me. I had to have boundaries to manage. She had to have boundaries for me. I just fear people will jump to estrangement without consideration of the complete picture. Some parents are like demons but not everyone is.

    1. The research is actually quite clear that most adult children don’t jump to estrangement without considering the consequences. Most report suffering for years and trying and trying and trying to create a functional relationship without success and estrangement was the last resort. Your situation may be different, but that’s what the research tells us is most common.

      1. Present the research. There is very little research available. Your article is heavily biased, using terms such as “most” to frame your assumptions, that is NOT science based thinking.

          1. I am aware, your interpretation however is not what the cited papers suggest. Most is a vague meaningless term, also not accurate. Your understanding of the pathways to estrangement are selective. You misrepresent the Wisconsin study results, making assumptions that parents failed to hear their kids complaints, that is NOT what the survey says.

          2. My article is about the adult child’s perspective–why adult children say they cut ties. Parents tend to have a different perspective on what causes estrangement and that is not the focus of this article. I don’t believe I cited or inferred that a Wisconsin study said that parents failed to hear their children’s complaints.
            I stand by what I’ve written. So, I think at this point we will have to agree to disagree. Thank you for your contribution to the discussion.

            Sharon

        1. Not only is there a ton of research out there showing that most people who went NC with their parents had stated severe abuse as their primary reason, and persons with dysfunctional relationships with their parents are more likely to benefit at least from setting boundaries, but I have never met a person who went NC from their parents who did not do it for their own personal healing, protection, and wellbeing. Therapists are not trying to profit off of creating false narratives. We (survivors of toxic parents) almost always end up seeking therapy either at the point that we cannot handle the abuse we suffer from our parents anymore or well past the point we have already set boundaries or went NC and now need help dealing with all of the emotions our parents refused to help us through. I have seriously never in my life met someone who cut contact because they were being callous or thoughtless. I HAVE met a LOT of people who I wished would go NC with their parents because they literally continue to suffer because of it.

      2. I came off a abruptly and I am sorry. Your article referenced “research” and I was relating to my own experience.
        So often, people will jump to immediate conclusions that are considered in depth. Social media has allowed that to happen and people immediately decide, for example, to say someone is a narcissist. In depth investigation would eventually show the person was actually a narcissist abuse survivor. I believe it happened to me, and I was given “no contact or limited contact”. Poor communication from within the family and family of origin, led to this. I was judged but left out of the process. I then decided to go “no contact” to allow myself to focus on me and it has been beneficial. So do agree with you. I still don’t know if I want to return to my family of origin or to remove the grey rockI have with my family. Maybe they won’t want to return to what was either. A lot of consequences to consider.
        Sometimes new information of a topic, like narcissism, can cause a blame game. I know when I first learned about narcissism or codependency or any topic that enlightened a problem, it is easy to slap a label on it and empathy and compassion goes out the window. I was given a label once that quite popular at the time. I now believe I was experiencing accumulated grief, codependency and CPTSD something other family members didn’t/don’t know because there was limited contact. Our core values are also different. It wasn’t a good situation.
        Yes, I was relating from a personal perspective and you from a research perspective. I just want people to know it is also important not to jump to conclusions and put a person in a box where they don’t belong just to make sense of something. It is an easy thing to do especially when there are extremely painful issues that are being addressed.

        1. Peggy, you bring up a valid and important aspect of family estrangement which is that generational trauma is often at play. It’s certainly complex and very emotionally charged for all involved.

    2. Both my parents were alcoholics. When I married I had a baby boy. I couldn’t sleep and developed anxiety
      So I drank wine. I became dependent on it. My husband left me. I continued to drink. My son saw me drunk but I worked and gave him everything. Well fast forward he is now 33 and his own trouble with anxiety and sleep, went into therapy and has never been very close to me. I’m 64 and have asked for his help as I have health issues. He responded he cannot help me and now we are estranged. I love him but can’t say I blame him.

  3. Thank you for this article. As a therapist, and woman , whom also, had to leave her father for feelings of hurt and abuse, I commend you for sharing this article. Also, to clarify , therapists should never encourage estrangement; however, we should lead our patients ( clients ) to make their own decisions by setting boundaries and doing what is best for them. Estrangement is a topic that is not discussed much outside of therapy because few understand. Thanks for helping others understand the reasons behind this hard decision.

  4. Cutting ties with my family of origin was the BEST DECISION I’ve ever made in my life! It did nothing but improve my life exponentially in every way possible.

    (Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, but Mike B’s toxic comment above truly proves the point.)

    Estrangement is a poor term, IMO, because it indicates that stepping away is temporary. There should be a term that leaving permanently was the ONLY possible path forward to healing and thriving as a result.

    Thank you, Sharon, for all your great work – and it’s terribly ironic because my NPD “mother” is named that as well. 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comments, Kelly. I’m so glad your life has improved! Everything you wrote aligns with what the research says and what I’ve seen in my clinical practice. People can thrive after estrangement and no one deserves to be mistreated or feel obligated to stay in a harmful relationship.
      All my best,
      Sharon

  5. One more: It’s utterly grotesque to me that others are not accepting responsibility for the damage they did and would continue to do were they still allowed to do so, and that they are against cutting ties when it would benefit the one that truly needs it.

    Ending their relationship by choice is literally is a lifesaver for many people, and I have to ask: WHY should you have to stay in an abusive relationship simply because you share DNA with that person or people? Makes me question their motives.

    1. I could not agree with you more!
      Child sexual abuse survivor here. I’ve had people question my motives for limiting contact with my abuser and my enabler (both kin) and, later, for going no contact for a (terribly challenging and anguishing but also healing) 10-year period. Those who question such decisions often have no frame of reference: they’ve been fortunate to have grown up in healthy and intact families of origin and maintain healthy, meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships with kin (including their parents) and simply cannot fathom how and why an adult child could get to a point where they choose to detach from family member(s), particularly parents. (These folks, though perhaps well meaning, often have their own agendas and are over stepping boundaries by critiquing someone’s handling of their own life.)
      I personally do not agree with Mike or with Peggy that adult children act callously, thoughtlessly, even 8b a petty or vengeful manner when they step away from family member(s). I know other child abuse survivors and I know of no one, myself included, who made the decision to go no or low contact or grey rock lightly – no one.
      My very personal decisions to, at one point in my adult life, limit contact with my abuser and my enabler and, at another point, to have no contact whatsoever with the both of them certainly weighed heavily on me. Those decisions were some of the most painful and difficult yet also most impactful of my life! Those decisions were not taken lightly. They came with costs – to everyone involved. But those decisions felt necessary, and right; they were self preserving decisions. And I had every right to step away from people who had hurt me deeply, who had betrayed my trust early and often and shown no remorse and taken no accountability. No one can dare tell me that as an adult I didn’t and don’t have the freedom, the right, to choose who to keep in my life, who to engage with and give my time and energy to!

      1. Thanks for sharing your story, Sara. It aligns completely with what I’ve heard from other estranged adult children and read in the research. I’ve never known anyone to chose estrangement lightly. It’s sad that society has so many misperceptions of estranged adult children. I hope that will change!

        Sharon

  6. Thank you SO MUCH for this article. After years of abuse and manipulation, I decided to cut off my narc mother. Although it is good for my mental health now to not be around her, the guilt takes a toll on me. She does nothing to deserve my love and kindness, but I hate that children are biologically wired to seek acceptance from their parents. This article was very validating to read, I almost cried.
    I am also seeing comments from parents who were incompetent in raising their children, and now are upset to read this article. Maybe if you guys knew how to parent then your children wouldn’t have cut you off. And if you didn’t, then there was no reason for you all to be parents. Children should not suffer because of the incompetence of parents.
    Any parent that has been cut off from their adult child deserves it.

  7. Thank you for this article. The last paragraph had me emotionally. I had made space from my parents for possibly more than ten years now. I am 30 now. I always felt guilty for doing this to them, but when you said it is valid. I swear that’s all I needed to hear. I am undiagnosed autistic. It’s been a journey for me when I found out two to three years ago. There was a lot of miscommunication between my parents and I. Miscommunication- I was not understanding why… Now everything makes sense. My mother is also autistic that was not common knowledge to me as a child. I thought it was normal. I grew up thinking I was normal until I found out that it was not considered normal. That had me messed up. Oh, I definitely need therapy if you ask me. I will do it when I have the funds, but I don’t at the moment. Anyways, just spilled my guts on this comment section; thank you.

  8. As a therapist and a person also estranged from relatives, thank you for this article. It took me time to decide about commenting because certain people who commented made me want to respond in a not-so-nice way, to put it extremely nicely. But others, especially those who’ve suffered at the hands of their parents, have commented and made great points instead. Wishing those who suffered, continued healing & thriving.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Shopping Cart