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Family Dynamics

No, Parent-Child Estrangement Isn't Just a Fad

A long-standing cultural secret, finally out of the closet.

Key points

  • The issue of familial estrangement, once kept off the cultural radar, is now out in plain sight.
  • It's unclear precisely how prevalent estrangement is but, even using the lowest estimates, it's significant.
  • Estrangement is never a "solution" in the conventional sense; it is a stop-gap measure at best.
  • There are numerous reasons for estrangement, and most involve parental mistreatment.
Photograph by name_gravity. Copyright free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by name_gravity. Copyright free. Unsplash

The title of this post is actually an answer to a question posed to me by a reader: “Is adult child/parental estrangement a fad or something? I don’t remember people ever talking about it and now it seems every other person I know knows someone who is estranged.”

Well, it’s not as prevalent as that, but the reality is that it’s not uncommon, either. As someone who has been writing about dysfunctional families for 15 years, I can say that there has been a sea-change of sorts. When my book Mean Mothers was getting ready to be published—this would have been in 2009—I actually attended a marketing meeting where putting the book in a brown paper wrapper, the way pornography was delivered by mail, was seriously considered so that the title would be hidden. There were highly paid and very experienced people in that room, by the way. It was ultimately decided not to go that route.

While certainly not the first memoir to discuss a dysfunctional parent or family—I am thinking of Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club or Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle—the incredible in-your-face title of Jennette McCurdy’s memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died would not have been a huge bestseller more than a decade ago. Just as the #MeToo movement encouraged women to come forward with their stories of sexual abuse, new research on familial abuse, dysfunction, and adult child/parent estrangement has prompted new discussions and forced open the musty cupboard in which cultural secrets are kept. That’s part of why we’re hearing about it more.

I am not saying that there is no cultural shame attached to parental estrangement or that the commandment that tells us to honor our parents has no power or that the myths of motherhood—that all women are nurturing, that mothering is instinctual, and that maternal love is always unconditional—are no longer in play. They are, but things have changed a bit.

What We Know About Patterns and Frequency of Estrangement

While cultural tropes suggest that adult children estrange in a fit of pique, that doesn’t actually appear to be the case for the preponderance of adults estranged from parents and, most usually, their extended families as well; the decision is usually decades in the making. My own anecdotal research for my books makes it clear that it’s rare to be estranged from just one person since relatives are either co-opted to take sides or choose sides on their own, so the loss of ties can be enormous and staggering.

Numerous studies point to the fact that estrangement is often cyclical in nature, with adult children going through periods of estrangement and reconciliation for extended periods of time; I did it for about 20 years, in fact. I do have a horse in this race and so will say categorically that no one estranges from their parents or family of origin as an option of first choice; it is usually a last-ditch effort to put an end to an emotionally untenable situation.

Because studies use differently-sized samples and participants are of different ages, there’s no real consensus on how prevalent estrangement is; it’s also worth saying that sociologists and psychologists approach the subject differently. Richard Conti, in a 2015 study of undergraduate and graduate students (who were mainly female), found a very high percentage of estrangement: 26.6 percent reported extended periods of no-contact while 43.5 percent reported being estranged at some point, which would make it as common as divorce. Mind you, the people in the survey were young adults, a time at which, even in healthy mother-daughter relationships, tensions can run high. In the United Kingdom, Lucy Blake found an even higher level of estrangement—50 percent—with 77 percent of adult children attributing it to emotional abuse. In his book, Fault Lines, sociologist Karl Pillemer opened up the question to include estrangement from other relatives besides parents, and from a nationally representative sample of 1,340 people, came up with 27 percent. According to another study, while mothers initiate roughly 12 percent of estrangements, adult children are the primary movers.

A recent study by Rin Reezek and others (2023) took a sociological approach, using data from large national samples and asking about both the depth of contact with parents as well as estrangement; they also focused on gender (sons/daughters, mothers/fathers) as well as other issues that could conceivably affect the trajectory of adult child/parent relationships. The percentages they found were significantly lower than in other studies but certainly contained more detail: 6 percent reported estrangement from mothers while 26 percent—more than 1 in 4—reported estrangement from fathers. Sons were more likely to estrange from mothers than daughters, too.

Do the Percentage and Prevalence of Estrangement Matter?

As a science writer who’s neither a psychologist nor a therapist, my answer would be “yes” and “no.” The research matters a lot to those who have gone no-contact and who have believed they are outliers, weird, or worse. The research tells us that this is not a rare family issue and one that needs to be addressed, along with strategies developed by therapists to be able to manage estrangement whether you are the instigator of the action or not. Finally, prevalence is for the experts, not the people embroiled in estrangement.

The “no” has to do with the actual percentages: They attest to the problem. Let the experts fret about how widespread it is but, more importantly, focus on its causes. That said, seeing that estrangement isn’t uncommon shouldn’t lead us to normalize it. Estrangement is not a “solution” in the conventional sense of the word; it does not heal the pain of those who have suffered emotional mistreatment or verbal abuse. It’s a last-ditch effort to create enough space so as to be able to start the process of healing. But prevalence should not make us think it’s “normal"; it’s a response to situations that are anything but.

The Drivers Behind Estrangement

In my own research, I’ve found that the reasons for estrangement are most usually historical; while I am certain that political divides and other disagreements can be drivers of adult child/parental estrangement, I’d say that nearly all of the adults I’ve interviewed who are estranged are dealing with parental treatment—whether that’s marginalizing, ignoring, hypercriticizing, scapegoating, or anything else—that has been going on consistently since childhood and with which the adult child has struggled ever since. As I discuss in my books Daughter Detox and Verbal Abuse, recognition is a slow process, impeded by both denial and the hope that the mistreatment will magically end, and both recognition (and subsequent low contact or estrangement) are often set in motion by a third party’s comments and observations (a spouse, partner, friend, or therapist) or by the adult child’s recognition that the mistreatment is being extended to his or her own children. The latter comes up all the time.

Finally, though, I’d venture another guess. Studies show that parents are far more involved in their adult children’s lives (and their grandchildren’s) than in previous generations. While that is good news in terms of intimacy for generational families who are mindful of boundaries and extend mutual respect, it also increases the possibility of tension and misunderstanding, especially if old behaviors persist. (For more, see this post.)

So, no, estrangement is not a fad. But it is also never anyone’s first choice. No adult child self-orphans with glee.

This post does not address estrangement that has its roots in the unaddressed mental illness of one or both parties, issues pertaining to addiction, or criminal behavior. Those are different.

The observations in this post are drawn from research for my books, Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, Reacting, and Recovering, and Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.

Copyright © 2023 by Peg Streep.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


Conti, Richard P. “Family Estrangements: Establishing a Prevalence Rate,” Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science (2015), vol.3(2), 28-35.

Blake, Lucy. Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood. University of Cambridge Centre for Family Research/Stand Alone.

Pillemer, Carl. Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, New York: Avery, 2020.

Reczek, Rin, Lawrence Stacey, and Micke Beth Thomeer,” Parent-adult estrangement in the United States by gender, race/enthnicity, and sexuality,” Journal of Marriage and Family (2023), Vol. 85, pp. 494-517.

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