Family estrangements occur when at least one family member begins distancing themselves from another because of longstanding negativity in their relationship. While parents say they love their children unconditionally, this may not always be the case, and it makes sense for an adult child to cease contact with one or both parents. While the experiences that drive individuals to distance themselves are painful, the estrangement process in and of itself is also very unpleasant. Estrangement between two family members often happens over a long period, sometimes even blindsiding certain parties.
The causes of estrangement can include abuse, neglect, betrayal, bullying, unaddressed mental illness, not being supportive, destructive behavior, substance abuse. Oftentimes, parents do not square with a child’s sexual orientation, choice of spouse, gender identity, religion, and or political views. In a survey of young adults, some 17 percent experienced estrangement, more commonly with their fathers.
There are perhaps two personality types who appear particularly prone to being estranged by siblings, notes psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, those who are extremely hostile and those who are grievance collectors. The latter are disgruntled individuals who greedily nurse festering wounds that are decades old.
Many people are able to shrug off childhood injustices such as feeling less favored. People who enjoy flourishing careers and fulfilling relationships are less likely to fixate on the past—and might even derive some satisfaction from proving childhood detractors wrong. These people are less likely to hold onto estrangement.
About 12 percent of older adults are estranged from their adult children. And while some 5 to 6 percent of these parents initiate the break, estrangement is normally set in motion by their adult children. Although more daughters may institute a parting of ways, the estrangement between parents and sons is sometimes longer lasting. Adult children mostly cut off parents because of abuse or neglect, destructive behavior, or feeling uncared for.
If you have exhausted all avenues of civil communication, and you feel hopeless about a better way forward, a break may be needed. That does not mean the break must be permanent. Less contact may mean better contact in the future.
Surprisingly, sibling estrangement is not wildly common. The number of Americans who are completely estranged from a sibling is relatively small—less than 5 percent, according to Karl Pillemer at Cornell University. The rest of us report mostly positive or neutral feelings about our siblings. Siblings cite various causes including bullying, physical or verbal of emotional abuse, having no common interests, competing for their parents' attention, or competition in general.
Only 26 percent of 18- to-65-year-olds responding to an Oakland University survey reported having a highly supportive sibling relationship with frequent contact and low competitiveness, while 19 percent had an apathetic relationship, and 16 percent a hostile one. The rest said their siblings were friendly and supportive, which could still mean limited contact or high competitiveness.
University of Illinois psychologist Laurie Kramer has studied 3-to-9-year-old sibling pairs and found that these children experience an extended conflict 2.5 times per 45-minute play session—once every 18 minutes. However, in healthy sibling relationships, there is also a lot of positive interaction, which makes the conflict easier to bear. The siblings who never learn to manage these conflicts are most at risk for adult estrangement.
When family members do not talk, you may feel like the arbiter and go-between. The position of referee is not enviable. However, it is okay to step aside and remain neutral. Besides, a family member cannot force you to choose between them and the other person.
An estrangement is exacerbated by the natural event of siblings drifting apart and going their separate ways, with proximity adding to the division. Siblings will also hold onto their grievances and grudges as if the conflict happened yesterday. Yet holding onto past injuries will only deepen wounds, not heal them. Accept the sibling as they are, not how you think think they should be. And, of course, put your jealousies and guilt aside.
Estrangement need not last an eternity. On average, estrangement lasts about nine years. For mothers, more than five years; for fathers, more than seven years. And more mothers are cut off by adult kids than are fathers. These stats and timelines have appeared in various research studies on estrangement between parents and adult children. However, nothing is definitive. How long an estrangement lasts will depend on you, your alienated family member, external pressure, and the passage of time.
And, remember, adult children are adults, not children.
It is normal for a formerly abusive family member to deny wrongdoing. And reconciliation is a faint hope. Without this acknowledgement of their past actions, a reconciliation is nearly impossible.
As a child, if you watched your mother cut off her mother, you may well feel estrangement is a viable choice as well. You have a hurtful parent you’d like to excommunicate; your mom did it, why can’t you? History does sometimes repeat itself.
Money, too little or too much, can create lifelong friction between family. Just knowing this fact is useful. Running a family business is rife with problems, such as the pressure to hire a ne'er-do-well son, for example. Inheritance disputes can likewise set estrangement into motion, or solidify it further.
Some 79 percent of estranged family members think there will never be reconciliation. The good news is that, while it may take time, most ruptures are reconciled. About 29 percent of children who cut off their parents remained estranged.
Often a parent feels they were cut off by a child without fully understanding the cause of the conflict. While communication is key in resolving discord, it’s hard when your child has blocked all your calls and disappeared into oblivion. On average, estrangements do not last forever. If you are hoping to end estrangement, don't pile anger on anger. This is unproductive. Keep your emotions in check.
- Reach out to your child, let them know you are there to support them
- A handwritten letter or brief voicemail is best
- If communication opens, listen without defending yourself
- Don't beg or plead
- Listen with compassion
- Acknowledge your contribution to the problem, apologize
- If you are cut off by your child, seek therapy and support