Estrangement Distress: The Unwelcome Holiday Present

Research sheds light on painful parent-adult child estrangement.

Posted Dec 24, 2017

Kane Lynch, used with permission.
Source: Kane Lynch, used with permission.

Holidays are about family, or so we’re told, but for many parents who are estranged from their adult children, the holidays come with a bitter, painful reminder of love and loss.

My husband’s oldest son and his wife suddenly erased us from their lives (and the lives of their young children) a few years ago. I know I am not alone. I have several dear friends and relatives who are estranged from their adult children, and not by choice.

Due to lack of clarity and closure, and occasional morsels of contact, we experience feelings of ambiguous loss. We cycle through feelings of hurt and confusion, hopeful efforts to maintain some contact, frustration and anger and acceptance. Many times, I’ve heard estranged parents say they are “done” with caring about it, but I have never known anyone who could maintain this indifference for long.

In the last decade, research on estrangement between parents and their adult children has grown, as family scholars recognize that not all family bonds are unconditionally loving and close. Professor and researcher Lucy Blake of Edgehill University in England recently conducted a review of the 51 studies examining parents and adult children with “distant or inactive relationships with each other due to the voluntary or intentional decision of one member to initiate and maintain distance.” Blake concludes that the factors contributing to estrangement “are diverse and include feeling a lack of support, acceptance, and/or love from the estranged family member(s); feeling like their parent or child's behavior has been unacceptable or toxic in the past and/or present; a family member choosing one relationship over another; and having different values from one another.”

The research suggests that stressful experiences and circumstances in the family are often contributors to estrangement. For example, sexual, physical, and/or psychological abuse, neglect, poor parenting, and drug abuse, are all associated with estrangement. Blake also notes the role of parental divorce in estrangement, citing research finding that adult children of divorce were more likely to be estranged from their parents when their divorced parents had uncooperative relationships with one another during and after the divorce.

According to Blake, research on the consequences of parent-child estrangement finds that parents feel sadness, shock, anger, and disappointment, and that some also experience feelings of self-blame, remorse, and bitterness. Loss, anxiety, and uncertainty are also common feelings for both parents and adult children who are estranged. When the parent identity is central to the estranged parent’s self-concept, feelings of loss are especially profound.

Blake acknowledges that estrangement can be “a healthy response to an unhealthy situation,” and “an adaptive response that reduces conflict and increases psychological well-being.” Having been estranged from my family in the past, and thinking about others I know that chose estrangement, I agree that the person who chooses estrangement typically chooses it as an emotional survival strategy (despite it coming with its own emotional distress).

Some takeaways from this research are disheartening to estranged parents. It seems that adult children sometimes have long memories when it comes to our parenting mistakes and hold us accountable years later. And they may not forgive us, even if we have changed or regret our mistakes. If we are divorced parents and the divorce (and post-divorce) was contentious, our ugly behavior can permanently sully our children’s feelings about us, especially if ongoing conflict with our ex still poses challenges for them.  

Estrangement research is a relatively new area of study, and much is unknown, including strategies for coping with the ambiguous loss of estrangement and when (and how) reconciliation is possible.

If you still hope to reconcile, I recommend occasional low-key olive branches, such as a card, text, or birthday present, even if they're not reciprocated. If past parenting mistakes or other parent misbehavior (e.g., being critical or controlling; refusing to accept your adult child’s relationship partner, sexual orientation, gender identity, politics, or religion; creating drama with your child’s other parent; and so on) is at the heart of the estrangement, apologizing, taking responsibility, and changing can help build trust and forgiveness and promote reconciliation.

But your child may prefer the emotional safety of estrangement despite your desire for reconciliation. In such cases, I suggest seeking the support of others who understand your estrangement distress, treasuring the close relationships you do have, and talking with a therapist if your estrangement distress becomes unmanageable, or you need advice on steps towards reconciliation.

References

Blake, L. (2017). Parents and Children Who Are Estranged in Adulthood: A Review and Discussion of the Literature. Journal of Family Theory & Review.