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Child Development

How Chaotic, Abusive Childhoods Lead to Estrangement

Disconnection, scapegoating, and the risk of addiction.

Key points

  • Abuse, neglect, and a lack of early attachment experiences in childhood can be a precursor to estrangement in adulthood.
  • Many parents don’t know how to express feelings and negotiate differences; poor communication skills can be at the root of estrangement.
  • Research shows that addictive behavior is tied to isolation and estrangement, resulting from insufficient emotional connections in childhood.
Mikhail-Nilov/Pexels
Source: Mikhail-Nilov/Pexels

Children raised in chaotic, abusive, or neglectful families run the greatest risk of estrangement in adulthood.

“When siblings are raised in environments where there’s conflict, chaos, rejection, or a lack of protection,” explains Marcia Sirota, a Toronto-based psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of trauma and addiction, “it has an enormous impact on how they end up relating to each other in adult life.”

Those who experience trauma, abuse, and turmoil in the home react with one of two behaviors. They may form a close bond with their sibling(s) based on their shared traumas. More often, though, they isolate themselves from the family, including siblings, in order to take care of themselves. In addition, children who experience or witness trauma early in life may numb themselves to their emotions, which limits all of their relationships moving forward.

“A sense of long‐term disconnection in childhood has been described as a precursor to estrangement in adulthood,” explains Kylie Agllias, an expert on estrangement and the author of Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective. “This disconnection may be characterized by a lack of early attachment experiences, a feeling of not ‘belonging’ to family, and a distinct lack of attention or actual presence by the parent or parents.”

How Parents Mistreat Children

Many children in dysfunctional homes live with parents who have an authoritarian parenting style. These parents can be demanding, highly critical, and shaming. They often use various damaging strategies in their parenting, including:

  • Scapegoating. Parents shame or blame a child for issues that arise in the family.
  • Favoritism and jealousy. Parents may favor one child; siblings from troubled homes perceive, often mistakenly, that the other child(ren) got “more” of the love, attention, and nurturing than they themselves did.
  • Name‐calling. Authoritarian parents sometimes use insults or demeaning labels to reject or condemn a child.
  • Pitting children against each other. In these homes, siblings compete for parental attention, setting up a destructive pattern that sticks for decades.

“Parents are supposed to model loving, caring relationships to their children,” explains Sirotta, “so if they’re mean to each other or hurtful or neglectful toward their kids, the children can adopt these ways of interacting.”

Parents in these challenging homes typically don’t know how to effectively express feelings and negotiate differences. Therefore, they don’t model the necessary skills—listening, apologizing, cooling off—to resolve conflicts. This array of poor communication skills can lie at the root of estrangements.

As a result, small disagreements can fester over time, eventually escalating to explosions and, possibly, ruptures. Family members having poor communication skills may handle stress or strife—whether within the family or with others—by simply shutting down and cutting off.

Raging Toward Siblings for Parents’ Shortcomings

Children who grew up in traumatized families often feel hurt, rage, and frustration toward their parents, but they don’t feel safe expressing those negative feelings toward their mother or father. Instead, they re-direct their hurt and anger toward their siblings, with whom the stakes aren’t as high: It’s easier to tolerate being rebuffed by a sibling than being rejected by a parent.

The traumatized often cope with their hurt and anger by simply avoiding anything that reminds them of painful experiences. These “triggers” may include people, places, thoughts, activities, and even objects. Adults who encounter these triggers are not reacting to what’s happening in the moment; rather, they are responding to the injuries they haven’t processed or grieved.

Julianna Turner, a 54‐year‐old woman who describes herself as a white, Scottish Latina from a white‐collar, upper‐middle‐class family, says she hasn’t spoken to her sister in five years, and one of her two brothers has curtailed their relationship because he can’t bear to remember their traumatic childhood. She understands her brother’s distance:

"My brother holds a lot of resentment and anger toward our parents, as we had a very turbulent upbringing. Even though I’ve always been close to my brother, I’ve noticed we’ve drifted apart over the past year. I know in my heart he loves me, but unfortunately, I am part of a past that he just wants to forget."

Emotional Trauma May Lead to Addiction

Current research identifies unexpected influences that may be at the root of addictive behavior, including emotional trauma, a hostile environment, and a lack of sufficient emotional connections. Consequently, isolation and estrangement may be closely tied to eventual addictive behavior.

Human beings have a natural and innate need to bond with others and belong to a social circle. When trauma disturbs the ability to attach and connect, a victim often seeks relief from pain via drugs, gambling, self-destructive behavior, or any of many other vices.

“When you don’t have love and connection in your life when you are very, very young,” says Gabor Maté, author of In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts and an expert in childhood development and trauma, “then those important brain circuits just don’t develop properly. And under conditions of abuse… [traumatized] brains then are susceptible when [people] do the drugs.”

He explains that drugs make people with dysregulated brain waves feel normal, and even loved. “As one patient said to me,” he says, “when she did heroin for the first time, ‘It felt like a warm soft hug, just like a mother hugging a baby.’”

Sadly, these dysfunctional patterns in family relations, as well as consequent addiction or other self-destructive behavior, are often handed down—in effect, replicated—for generations. The number of cutoffs seems to multiply exponentially when repeated, long‐standing estrangements become an acceptable model. In these families, when adult children have stressful disagreements, cutting off a brother or sister looks less like a problem and more like a solution.

LinkedIn image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Agllias, K. (2017). Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective, Routledge, London and New York.

Maté, Dr. Gabor (2010) In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, North Atlantic Books

Sirota, Dr. Marcia (2015) https://marciasirota.medium.com/the-real-reason-for-troubled-sibling-re…

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